SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates are facing perhaps their most challenging offseason of the Neal Huntington Era – rivaled only by the 2012-13 offseason when jobs might have been at stake.
There are eight Pirates players entering free agency, a high under Huntington. There are three (maybe four) key arbitration-eligible players whom the club must make decisions on, and these decisions come while living in a neighborhood that includes the rising, already arrived Cubs and the New England Patriots of baseball.
Pirates officials huddled in Bradenton, Fla. and Pittsburgh offices several times in October to discuss their options going forward, and ostensibly to lay out a plan for 2016. They have better information than we, they have smarter baseball minds, etc. (Hard to believe, right?). But we can still take a guess at their thought process, and consider what they ought to do this offseason in a choose-your-own-offseason-agenda thought exercise.
Jose Abreu is proof the second big bat out of a new market can still be a bargain. The Pirates would have done well to bid on Abreu, the good news is Park should be cheaper than Abreu’s 6y$68M contract.
So where to begin? …
AGENDA ITEM NO. 1: INTERNATIONAL FREE AGENTS (THE BYUNG-HO PARK DECISION)
This is the first order of business is in Korea as Byung-Ho Park was posted Monday by the Nexen Heroes. Teams have until Friday to make a blind bid on Park. The winning team will be revealed Monday.
The Pirates have scouted Park – as have 20 other teams – and he has to be tempting. The Pirates have had a first base void for years. Park has more power than Kang, having posted back-to-back, 50-homer seasons. Former MLB scout and KBO analyst Daniel Kim told me he’s the best hitter in KBO history. Even though Kang’s success will drive his price up, he’ll still likely be undervalued if he succeeds. And if a team does win the bid, it has all the leverage. It will be negotiating against no other team with Park’s only option to sign a contract or remain in Korea. And he’s not getting any younger at 29.
Moreover, he’s the only potential impact bat that would likely be within the Pirates’ budget this offseason.
Kim says Nexen is expecting at least a $10 million posting free. Jim Duquette told me he could see bidding go to $20 million. There is no $20 million posting limit like in Japan. (Also to consider is that PNC Park saps right-handed power more than any other NL ballpark, according to the 2016 Bill James handbook).
What to do? It might come down to what projections a club believes in:
The deadly-accurate Davenport Translations called for Kang’s 2014 KBO line to translate to an .856 MLB OPS. Kang posted a .816 mark as a rookie. Davenport Translations call for Park to most a .770 MLB OPS and 24 HRs in 470 at bats. If Park is a .730 OPS first baseman, he’s going to be a negative value player.
Brian Cartwright’s system – he has worked with some MLB teams on the Korean market – was less optimist on Kang ( 340 wOBA 255/331/460, 30 doubles, 22 homer, 55 walks, 158 K’s per 600 PA) but is more optimist regarding Park:
We know Park’s raw power is real.
The projections average out to suggest Park will be a 30-homer, .800 OPS first baseman in the majors over 600 at bats. What should the Pirates do? They should probably have a long talk with Kang who thinks Park will succeed in the majors.
Modest Proposal: BID AGGRESSIVELY (Say, $12-15 million posting fee)
Power is really hard to find in today’s game – unless you believe in the sport’s late-season power surge – and the Pirates lack power. The club ranked 23rd in home runs last year, part of a three-year decline. If you read Sunday’s story, we noted power often equates to wins in the postseason.
Some will point to the Royals and note you don’t have to have power to be an elite team. True. But the Royals also have an elite bullpen and defense – and the Pirates are far from being a contact team like the Royals.
Consider from Sunday’s story:
“The Royals posted the lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 15.9 percent (the Pirates ranked 20th at 21.0 percent), the Royals ranked first in making contact with pitches in the strike zone at 90.7 percent (the Pirates ranked 21st at 86.4 percent), and the Royals posted the fourth-lowest swinging strike rate at 8.1 percent (the Pirates ranked 19th at 10.2 percent). “….
While Park’s price will be up, the KBO is still a new market and has uncertainty priced into it. Park has real power and he is also a smart hitter like Jung Ho Kang. He could be the cleanup hitter the Pirates have been looking for and there’s a good chance he will still be a bargain.
Keep this in mind: He’s the only potential impact bat on the market the Pirates can afford this offseason.
(Another KBO star, an Nori Aoki clone, Ah-Seop Son, will also be posted and will be cheaper thank Park, but it depends on Pirates’ interest in adding a fourth outfielder that includes posting free.)
AGENDA ITEM NO. 2: ARBITRATION PLAYERS
MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections on the nine eligible Pirates:
Name – Service time – Projected salary for 2016
- Neil Walker (5.166) – $10.7MM
- Francisco Cervelli (5.146) – $2.5MM
- Mark Melancon (5.098) – $10.0MM
- Chris Stewart (5.091) – $1.6MM
- Pedro Alvarez (5.085) – $8.1MM
- Tony Watson (4.101) – $4.6MM
- Jared Hughes (3.162) – $2.2MM
- Jordy Mercer (3.095) – $1.8MM
- Jeff Locke (3.020) – $3.5MM
The nine players are in line to make significantly more than they did in 2015 as some jump from pre-arb years, and others are in line for substantial raises.
The Pirates are expected to tender contracts to Cervelli, Stewart, Watson, Hughes and Mercer. Locke is a trickier case, but I suspect he will be tendered as well. Starting pitching, even poor starting pitching, is expensive.
We have known the key decisions are really Walker, Melancon and Alvarez, who are projected to earn $28.8 million in arbitration.
Who do the Pirates keep, who do they attempt to trade? They each present a difficult decision in their own way. Let’s take a look at them individually.
>>Yes, Melancon has been great for three years culminating with a club record saves total last season. The bullpen has been a strength. The Pirates ranked first in bullpen ERA last season. The Pirates could again be playing a lot of close games. But you know what? Arbitrators like traditional stats. Melancon is going to be very expensive, and he’s also quietly lost a little velocity, a little bit of his ability to miss bats, and his FIP and ERAs have increased slightly over the last three seasons. He could soak up a 10th of payroll and throw just 70 innings.
Modest Proposal: TRADE
The Pirates can use 10 percent of payroll earmarked for Melancon elsewhere
This is what Huntington told 93.7 The Fan last month:
“It’s something you have to think about when you have one as good as Melancon. We can afford (the arbitration) players the challenge is how do we afford a championship caliber club.”
>>With Alvarez we know the game: he is a liability defensively, but has the most raw power on the club. The Pirates’ power has been in decline and Alvarez has hit 111 home runs over the last four seasons, 17.7 percent of the club’s home run total. He’s likely the only one of the arbitration trio that will earn less than $10 million in 2016. So he has a chance to provide value in 2016 if, IF, his historically bad defense becomes merely bad. Alvarez has quietly cut his strikeout rate and his 32.5 HR/FB rate was elite last season.
Modest Proposal: TRADE (Or consider non-tender)
He gains more value in the AL as his glove becomes a non factor so a trade makes sense. In the NL, he became a platoon player that often only played six innings when he did start last season.
One of the first offseason decision points? What to do with Neil Walker (Chris Horner photo)
For a while I thought Walker was playing his last season in Pittsburgh. I think Walker might have thought so, too, as he lingered before his locker after the wild-card loss seemingly aware he might have played his last game for his home-town team.
He’s projected to earn $10.7 million in arbitration. The Pirates don’t often venture to eight-figures with players.
However, he’s averaged 2.8 WAR the last two seasons and is projected to be a 2.5 WAR player in 2016, which would be worth $15+ million on the open market. While he will play next season at 30, he stayed on the field last season putting some injury to questions to rest.
Modest Proposal: KEEP
Walker has best chance of the three to provide surplus value in 2016, which is what the Pirates prize. Moreover, Kang’s injury should incentive the Pirates to create infield depth, and the Pirates have been in a three-year power decline. Walker has led NL second baseman in HRs the last two seasons (39). Also consider Daniel Murphy is in line to receive a four-year, $48 million deal according to Fangraphs.com. Walker has a similar skill set and would be a relative bargain on a one-year deal.
AGENDA ITEM NO. 3: FREE AGENT PRIORITIES
For your enjoyment and perusal here are Fangraphs.com’s top 82 free agent crowd-sourced contract predictions. They have been fairly accurate in the past, and we will use them as a guide here ….
Free agent priority No 1. Spurge on a second-tier starting pitcher ….With a preference list that looks something like this: Scott Kazmir (3y/$42M) , Ian Kennedy (3y, $36M), J.A. Happ (3y, $33 million) and Brett Anderson (3y/$33 million).
It’s a rich free agent pitching class. While the Pirates will not be in play for elite arms, the second and third tiers are interesting and fairly deep. If both are in line for three-year deals, I’d put Kazmir at the top of the starting pitcher preference list and over Happ for several reasons. Since rebuilding his delivery three years ago, Kazmir has produced 8.3 WAR over the last three seasons. Happ? 5.3 Kazmir simply has a longer track record of pitching in the middle to top of the rotation. The projected contract different between them $3 million per year and Kazmir’s projected production advantage (2.7 WAR vs. 1.6 for Happ) suggests Kazmir is one of the better starting pitching bargains this offseason ….
For most of his career Happ has performed like a back-of-the-rotation arm. I’d be leery of extending him a three-year deal. Maybe Happ is the new Cliff Lee, and consolidates the gains he made last season: the increased fastball usage, better command, and less reliance on soft stuff with the Pirates (you know more Ray Searage magic). Or maybe, the league adjusts to his new pitch mix. He has less ability to miss bats (8.1% last season) compared to Kazmir (10.3 %). He’s 1.5 years older than Kazmir. What I like about both is that they are left-handed….
Why is Mike Leake not on the list? He’s expected to get four years. I don’t see Pirates going beyond three. Anderson you ask? He had an insane 66% groundball rate last season, which fits with the Pirates shifts. Doug Fister is another interesting name, but he had a troubling velocity dip last season.
With A.J. Burnett and Happ both free agents, the Pirates need to sign at least one quality free agent arm.
We’ve liked Kazmir for a while in this space and suggested signing him over Volquez, two offseasons ago
2. Rebuild the bullpen relatively cheaply (with familiar free agents) …
While I think many would be hesitant to commit 10 percent of team payroll to a closer (See: Melancon) for 65-70 cents on the dollars you can sign Joakim Soria to an affording deal (2y, $14M), according to Fangraphs.com. That seems like a decent value for an eight-inning man or closer. Soria has a long track record and his velocity was up last season …. Antonio Bastardo at 2y/$8M seems like a bargain (career 10.1 K rate) despite his occasional hiccips, ditto for Joe Blanton at 1y/$4M. The Pirates led baseball in bullpen ERA last season. Yes, bullpen performance fluctuates, but a group comprising Tony Watson, Arquimedes Caminero, Rob Scahill, Soria, Bastardo and Blanton should be solid ….
The Pirates have of course become masters of the reclamation project and have shown little interest in buying expensive relief pitchers. I’m sure the Pirates will also look at external lottery tickets and there might not be a better one that Neftali Feliz, who was finally healthy last year and is unlikely to be tendered a $3.3 million offer from the Tigers. Once regarded as one of the top young arms in the game, Feliz was sidetracked by injury an inconsistency. But last season his velocity, which the Pirates prize, was back, as he averaged 94.6 mph with his fastball. And his FIP (4.05) was much better than his ERA (6.38). A key metric, or something similar to it, that guides the Pirates in decision making.
3. Sign IB/2B/3B/OF Steve Pearce
Don’t worry, McCutchen’s offseason workout buddy is a different player than when he was with the Pirates.
Pearce’s new loft-generating swing has made him an extreme fly-ball hitter coupled with an above-average HR/FB ratios. After his breakout 2014 (.556 SLG, .930 OPS), injury and inconsistency in 2015 lowers his price tag. But his peripheral skills remain intact (0.72 GB/FB, 14.3 HR/FB pct in 2015). Pearce started to look more like his 2014 self in the second half when he posted a .215 isolated power. There aren’t a lot of great comps for Pearce, but Fangraphs.com has Pearce in line for a 2y, $12 million deal. Even if PNC Park eats some of his RHH power, it could still be a bargain. The plus? Pearce is versatile. He’d be a 1B upgrade over Alvarez and a bench upgrade if the Pirates somehow signed Park.
While the Pirates have starting pitching and bullpen voids to fill, they also need to upgrade their power and overall run-scoring capabilities. I like rolling the dice on Pearce, if Park is unavailable.
AGENDA ITEM No. 4: EXTENSIONS
While Gregory Polanco rejected the club’s seven-year deal back in 2014 before he arrived, if you still believe in his talent, now would be the time to make a similar offer when some doubt might have creeped in after a sluggish start to his career … Francisco Cervelli is just one year from free agency so he might be hard to lock up, but a three-year deal, a bridge to Reese McGuire, makes a lot of sense for the club. Cervelli’s pitching framing and competitive at bats are rare at the catcher position.
As always let the Warren Buffett mantra guide your financial decisions: Be fearful when people are greedy, and greedy when people are fearful.
What is your offseason Pirates agenda?