A bittersweet day: Nova returns, I depart

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SOUTH HILLS – So the Pirates gave everyone in  Western Pennsylvania an early Christmas gift by agreeing to a three-year, $26 million deal with Ivan Nova today.

This appears to be an excellent contract for the Pirates.

nOvaRain
If Nova is just Nova. It’s not a bad deal. If he’s Happ 2.0 it’s the steal of the offseason (Horner photo)

 

At $8.7 million per annum, the dollars are well less than what many predicted Nova would receive in a weak free agent market for pitching, where Nova was regarded as one of the better arms available.

MLB Trade Rumors predicted a four-year, $52 million deal for Nova earlier this offseason.

The FanGraphs crowd-sourced  prediction averaged three years, $43 million pact.

The Pirates’ deal with Nova, of course, comes in well below that.

With a Win Above Replacement thought to be valued somewhere around $8M on the open market, the Pirates are basically paying Nova to be what he’s been during his a career: a back-of-the rotation starter.

In his six full MLB seasons, Nova has averaged 1.4 WAR per season.

But as we saw in the second half last season, Nova, of course, has  upside. After coming over from the bandboxes of the AL East to pitcher-friendly PNC Park – Nova spent the first six-plus years of his MLB career with the Yankees – Nova was much more aggressive attacking the strike zone and credited the change to his new environment.

You can understand why he was more comfortable …

HR Park Factors last season

1. Yankee Stadium, 1.435

2. Coors Field, 1.321

3. Chase Field, 1.282

22. PNC Park, 0.837

After arriving in Pittsburgh, Nova’s rate of first-pitch strikes and pitches in the strike zone spiked. Nova’s rate of two-seam fastballs was also at a career high in 2016.

If Nova indeed Happed then the Pirates will have just agreed to a tremendous contract. And maybe a switch of environments was that important for Nova. It was pretty important for A.J. Burnett, Mark Melancon and Liriano (Liriano, at first, anyways).

Moreover, this makes the Francisco Liriano trade/salary dump look better as Daniel Hudson and Nova will nearly combine to earn what Liriano will be paid in 2017.

So that financial flexibility appears to have been put to use after all. And while I suspect Liriano to bounce back to a degree in the AL, I think most reasonable people would rather have Hudson and Nova for 2017.

So why did Nova accept what appears to be a club-friendly deal?

Perhaps he was being honest all along. He said he wanted to stay after starting the final game of the season. Maybe Nova just really wanted to pitch in Pittsburgh. His agent claimed to have a three-year, $36 million deal on the table. Or maybe the rest of the industry was skeptical, and remember Nova was essentially a giveaway at the deadline. There is reason to be skeptical. But there’s not a lot of obvious downside to this deal. The Pirates are paying Nova to perform like he’s a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, not like something more. And he could very well be something more.

Whatever the reason, he’s back. And the Pirates might not be done:

Now wouldn’t that be a rotation? Acquiring Quintana would require some sort of combination of at least two of these four names – Josh Bell, Austin Meadows, Mitch Keller and Tyler Glasnow – one would think.

Too rich?

AS FOR THE DAY’S OTHER TRANSACTION …

For me, personally, it is a bittersweet day as I announce I will soon log off here with the Trib.

I am departing next month to begin a full-time writing position with FanGraphs, which has been cited often and heavily here during my four seasons covering the Pirates.

While I am excited about this opportunity to cover all of Major League Baseball and join a team of writers and editors I hold immense respect and regard for, the departure is accompanied by some sadness and nostalgia.

The Trib was a good home.

The last 3 1/2 years – or four seasons of baseball coverage – were the most rewarding and educational period of my professional career. I had the good timing of arriving in the spring of 2013 just as the Pirates awoke from a 20-year competitive slumber. I had the good fortune of the Pirates beginning to do some smart and interesting things, and I was able to document some of them. I wrote as well and worked as hard as I could to inform readers, and reward the opportunity given to me by former Trib editors Frank Craig and Duke Maas, and sports editor Kevin Smith.

Working on Sunday enterprise stories with former Trib assistant sports editor Rob Amen and the design team was a blast. I will miss the daily camaraderie of the beat . My fellow scribes made the press box and road trips a lot of fun.

I will miss writing and reporting for the Trib audience and in particular the audience here, in this blog space. I tried to impart the things I learned along the way. And it was a learning experience, transitioning from covering Clemson athletics in South Carolina. Hopefully I made following the Pirates and MLB a little more fun to read about along the way.

Physically, I will not be leaving. I will still live in South Hills. I will still often be at PNC Park. (I will not be blogging from my unfinished  basement). And I will still be keeping a close eye on – and occasionally writing about – the Pirates.  But I will have a new online address.

Thanks so much for reading and to those that contributed to the blog conversation. Please continue to read and follow!

I plan on making several more posts before my final day, Jan. 2, but if I don’t post again beforehand have a safe and merry Christmas and holiday season.

Best,

TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Is Nova really in play?

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SOUTH HILLS – When the Pirates show interest (an unknown level of interest) in a reclamation project like Derek Holland and he signs elsewhere, when Andrew Cashner is guaranteed an eight-figure salary for 2017 after posting an ERA north of 5.00 last season, you wonder if the Pirates are going to struggle to find a match in this thin market for pitching. Many are skeptical the Pirates will produce anything with the financial flexibility created in the Francisco Liriano traded last summer.

But perhaps the Pirates’ top target all along has been Ivan Nova. He’s the only free agent we know of that the Pirates have extended a multi-year offer to. And Pirates officials continue to say they would like to add an experienced, quality arm.

nOvaRain
Nova pitched the final game of the 2016 season for the Pirates, a game that was called due to rain. Will it be his last game? (Horner photo)

Said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle at the winter meetings:

“We would like to add a so-called experienced starter to the rotation, a guy that’s shown, got a track record, resume of pitching innings, quality innings. 170 innings over five ERA, that’s not what we’re looking for. Somebody that’s done it and if somebody else can show up to help us out, we’ll explore that, as well.

“If there is not a move that we think betters the organization, we’ve got guys that we’re going to look towards internally to give them the ball and the opportunity to improve. We’re going to look at it from both those angles.”

At PirateFest the Pirates said they were still interested in Nova. And this report suggests the Pirates have been the only team to show significant interest to date.

Perhaps the quiet surrounding Nova is an encouraging indicator for the Pirates.

As one of the top starting pitching options on the market, Nova was expected to be priced out of the Pirates plans. But there has been little noise around Nova this offseason. Perhaps the rest of the industry is skeptical of Nova. Perhaps they believe he is more the back-end rotation arm he was with the Yankees than J.A. Happ The Second. Perhaps they believe much of the surge was tied to environment, namely PNC Park. The Pirates should know more than any club about Nova’s 2016 second-half surge.

So perhaps the quiet is to the Pirates advantage. Perhaps they believe more in Nova than the rest of the game. Perhaps after not willing to go the extra year or dollar with Happ a year ago, the club is willing to take a greater risk in Nova.

With Andrew McCutchen still around, he should theoretically make the Pirates a stronger club in 2017. Perhaps with McCutchen still around, the Pirates are more inclined to invest in Nova.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …

*It’s still possible that McCutchen is traded, though unlikely with Washington as the top suitor – with perhaps the top assets available – no longer with a need.

If McCutchen is moved, it seems the Pirates want win-now or win-soon pieces …

*Looking for a reasonable and thoughtful take on the McCutchen from a non-Pittsburgh based media member? Read this post from Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs.com:

I think you can sense some kind of end is coming. McCutchen is getting older, and Austin Meadows is getting better, and the Pirates just don’t spend all that much money. It wouldn’t be like them to pay market price for McCutchen’s decline years, so one way or another, his days in Pittsburgh seem numbered. Realistically, there’s no escaping that.

It’s just not the end of the world. Rays fans got over Price. Brewers fans got over Lucroy. Rockies fans have gotten over Troy Tulowitzki. Players come and players go, and you hope to have positive experiences while certain ones are around. For now, for the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen is still around. And that playoff door is still cracked open.

*What did the Pirates see in Josh Lindblom? The right-handed pitcher posted a 10-12 record and 5.27 ERA with Lotte of the Korea Baseball Organization last season. Lindblom, 29, was a second-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2008 draft. He has a 3.82 ERA in 136 career major league innings. He last pitched in the majors April 2, 2014, for Oakland.

It should be noted the KBO is an extreme offensive environment and Lindblom was much better there in 2015.

*It sounds as if the club likes Wade LeBlanc as a spot starter and multi-inning reliever, though his contract is not guaranteed. LeBlanc could give the the Pirates four left-handed relief arms for the bullpen. Perhaps it increases the chances an Antonio Bastardo or Tony Watson  is moved.

*Hurdle did not commit to any locks for the starting rotation beyond Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon but you have to think Chad Kuhl will get the first shot to slot in after them (and perhaps whatever free agent starter is added if any). Kuhl allowed three or fewer runs on 12 of his 14 starts. He needs to better keep the ball on the ground and improve his changeup to breakout into something more than a back-of-the-rotation arm in 2016.

*We don’t know Trevor Williams can pitch at the MLB level … but we do know he should keep the clubhouse loose

STAT OF THE WEEK: 4.20

Kuhl’s 2016 ERA, and Kuhl’s 2017 ERA as projected by Fangraphs.com

HE SAID IT:

Hurdle on replacing quantitative analyst Mike Fitzgerald, who now leads the analytics department in Arizona. With Arizona investing in analytics there are very few teams that are not heavily invested in this department.

“I don’t know if we’ll replace the personality. We believe that eventually we will get a guy in that will be able to do the things Mike was able to do the best of that man’s ability. We call it next man up. We have had it all across the board, I think, in the last two years. These numbers are going to be close. They might not be exact. We have had over 40 asks externally organizations for our personnel. That’s tangible evidence of an organization doing some things right, establishing a model in player development, in pitching, strength and conditioning. We broke it down the other day in the room, there have been general manager asks, there’s been managerial asks, pretty much every position that goes, an organizational structure model has been asked for by the guys we have.

“And Fitz was that fine line of a very smart man, very creative. Also, enough athleticism that the competition chip he carried with him was fun to watch and be a part of. We brought him into the clubhouse. He was in the coaching room. Our next man will have that same opportunity and it won’t be new for the players, it will be new for the next guy up. I look forward to going into that process. We’re talking to a couple of guys right now. We’re confident we will get a good man in there. Will he as good as Fitz right away? Probably not. Can he grow into it? We believe so.”

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Sights and sounds from a town hall meeting

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SOUTH HILLS – Perhaps the most interesting – and entertaining – event during the Pirates’ Fan Fest is the “Ask Pirates Management” Q & A. The occasion is one the few times during the year the public does not need a middle man (we the media). A chosen few can ask questions directly to Neal Huntington, Frank Coonelly and Clint Hurdle, who were seated perhaps a bit awkwardly and uncomfortably a few feet away from the audience on an elevated stage in the city’s convention center Saturday afternoon.

McCutchenFest
Well, that was awkward (Horner photo)

 

I was particularly interested in this year’s Q & A since Andrew McCutchen was signing autographs a few hours before the session, after having been discussed in trade talks. Had Adam Eaton not been traded to the Nationals, there’s a decent chance McCutchen is a Washington National today. I thought this figured to be an interesting session after the Pirates’ struggles in 2016, after a quiet offseason to date.

At the winter meetings, Huntington thought there was a portion of the fan base that understood what the Pirates were trying to do. He also thought there was a portion that was never going to be happy. Saturday offered a small sampling of public opinion from each perspective. What I took from the Q & A is there likely is a significant portion of fans that understand the limitations of the budget – though that doesn’t mean they like the budget – they understand the value of young talent, and they understand shopping McCutchen. While I suspect the majority of #BucNation has little patience for another bridge season, I do think fan bases across the game are more informed than ever. But, of course, there’s a lot of sentiment and nostalgia out there, too.

To begin the Q & A,  Ray from Ross Township stepped to the microphone stand, which was placed in an aisle in the middle of the audience.  He prefaced his question by saying he had been a fan of the club for 50 years and had seen many great players perform at a high level into their mid 30s. Then he began.

“Ready for this one, Mr. Huntington?” said Ray in a Pirate cap and jersey.

Ray asked – rather, implored – McCutchen be extended

“Sign ‘Cutch, please!” he said in conclusion.

Huntington noted in his response that few players spend their entire careers with one team. (There’s almost a 100 percent chance McCutchen is not extended for a variety of reasons. Sorry, Ray).

The next question was about why runners insist on sliding head first and why doesn’t Hurdle do something about it. (Odd choice for a fan’s one question.). Hurdle responded by noting he often tells his children to do something, though they do not comply. Then a fellow from Charleston, W. Va. wondered why teams are still employing these dastardly pitch counts.

In a moment of comedy, a young girl named Lydia asked Hurdle where  Starling Marte will play in 2017. Hurdle wondered if Lydia was handed question.

“No!” responded Lydia.

(Good question, Lydia)

About six or seven questions in, we arrived at the issues irritating the fan base. Nolan from Plum asked about the Francisco Liriano trade. Nolan was not agitated. He was tactful, noting he supports the general idea of building around young talent and understands the economics of the game. But he could not understand trading prospects to rid the club of a salary. Huntington explained it was a “parallel” trade. Yes, it was in part designed to clear Liriano’s remaining $18 million owed. Huntington said the Pirates felt the league had “figured out” Liriano, which we documented after the deadline. But Huntington also insisted the Pirates like Drew Hutchison. Huntington noted Hutchison was stuck behind a talented Toronto starting rotation. Toronto did lead the AL in starting pitcher ERA.

The public has its doubts.

Perhaps the most interesting response was elicited from one fan asking  about the competitive nature of each man on the stage. The fan noted he always thought THIS, THIS TIME RIGHT NOW, would mark the window of contention: McCutchen still under control with the club’s top pitching prospects joining him.

Coonelly offered the most interesting response:

“I’m so tired of the narrative. As these gentlemen can explain to you, there’s nobody more competitive than the three men on this stage. … We need in the media, and otherwise, to talk about a lot of things. But the narrative that we don’t care about winning is just flat wrong.”

I’m sure other fans would have liked to speak with Bob Nutting, to have heard his answer to that particular question, but he was not on the stage.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …

>>It was logical for the Pirates to explore trading McCutchen, and it is also logical not to trade him just trade him. The Pirates are right to demand what they deem a fair return. Bill James’ forecast has McCutchen (.864 OPS) as the Pirates’ most productive hitter in 2017.

>>So now that Huntington said the club will likely “hold” McCutchen — a trade still possible but much less likely with the apparent the top suitor (Washington) having filled its need — what should the Pirates do?

Instead of selling assets should they look to add?

>>ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield writes that the Pirates are one team that has the assets to acquire White Sox borderline ace Jose Quintana.

Unable to deal Andrew McCutchen, maybe they flip the switch and decide to add a veteran. Even the Pirates can afford Quintana, and they have a highly regarded farm system. The White Sox would want right-hander Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows, ranked eighth and ninth on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, and the Pirates have other interesting prospects, such as first baseman/outfielder Josh Bell and shortstop Kevin Newman.

For me, Tyler Glasnow would not be off-limits in a Quintana deal. Then it gets trickier. While Bell has his defensive issues, if I’m the Pirates I’d hate to deal him after witnessing that blend of plate discipline, bat-to-ball skills and power. Would you move Glasnow and Austin Meadows (or) Kevin Newman in a deal? It’s expensive but that’s what it would likely require.

>>Glasnow recounted a story to reporters Sunday how at a bowling event on the Pirates caravan tour a fan told him it would be nice if he could throw strikes – on a baseball field.

Tough crowd!

Glasnow is a major wild card in 2017. A breakout, or a continued inconsistency, could have a significant impact on how the Pirates perform. Glasnow seemed uncomfortable in dealings with media last season, and as others have suggested, perhaps this is an example of him becoming a little more comfortable in his own skin.

>>Newly married Gerrit Cole said he will begin his offseason throwing program this week. Perhaps one reason behind Cole’s 2016 struggles is he did not have a normal offseason program, sustaining a rib injury in January. Perhaps Cole was always playing catch up in regard to his throwing motion and he never caught up.

>>Tony Watson watched Andrew Miller‘s postseason deployment with great interest but told reporters Saturday he doesn’t think that sort of role is sustainable throughout an entire regular season. Perhaps the workload even caught up with Miller in Game 7. Or was it just one poor performance that now is allowing everyone to revert back to conventional wisdom?

>>Joey Cora said he believes the Pirates have the team speed to be an effective base-running club. It sounds like he will be aggressive, too. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but Rick Sofield made too many errant decisions.

>>John Jaso at third base? It’s going to get a look this spring. It’s a thing. I don’t doubt Jaso will work at it, I do doubt his feet and range for the position.

 ‘CUTCH SAID IT

A throng of reporters gathered around McCutchen on Saturday afternoon. Here’s some of what he had to say …

Is McCutchen motivated to prove the doubters wrong?

“Motivated? (For 2017). I don’t even know there’s quite a word to look for. Something a lot greater.”

‘CUTCH SAID IT II

Was McCutchen injured in 2016?

“I just didn’t have it. I had nagging injuries … There wasn’t anything that hindered me.”

McCutchen has had about 100 opportunities to exercise the injury-related excuse option and he has yet to go there other than saying his thumb was bothering him for a period last season.

‘CUTCH SAID IT III

“I’d be lying if I said none of this (trade talk) bothered me.”

Huntington and McCutchen had a talk before Pirate Fest. McCutchen said it went well. You can understand McCutchen being upset, but you can also understand the Pirates’ logic. I don’t suspect this will affect McCutchen’s 2017 in a negative way. McCutchen needs to play well to get a mega-contract after 2018. And the Pirates need McCutchen to play well to contend.

Each year the Pirates have made the playoffs, McCutchen (and Cole) have been pretty good. They will need to be good, if not great, again in 2017.

-TS

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So Andrew McCutchen is STAYING!?!

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – So remember that time when Andrew McCutchen reported for spring training in Bradenton, Fla. in February of 2017?

Remember when earlier in the week that seemed implausible?

Well, it seems like that’s happening.

It’s at least the most likely scenario as of 12:05 p.m. today.

As he departed the winter meetings Thursday, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said the probability McCutchen remains with the club has increased. He said the intent is to “hold” McCutchen.

While the idea of trading McCutchen was (and remains) a logical path for the Pirates to explore, the Pirates were never going to trade McCutchen just to trade him. They were seeking significant baseball value. This was not a salary dump. This was not Francisco Liriano 2.0.

So when the Washington Nationals and Chicago White Sox agreed on a trade that sent Adam Eaton to Washington on Wednesday evening, the deal effectively eliminated the most obvious team with the need and assets to acquire McCutchen.

Now, it’s a long offseason. There’s still a chance McCutchen is moved.

But Huntington said it was more likely McCutchen would be moved by this point in the offseason, at the end of the meetings, if he was to be traded.

“Our intent coming in here was to have Andrew McCutchen be in our lineup going forward,” Huntington said. “No one changed that. It’s unlikely someone changes that going forward. We’re not going to close the door but we’re not going to be making calls.”

While the Pirates engaged in trade talks with multiple teams regarding McCutchen, no team was willing to meet the Pirates’ price.

“The ask was significant,” Huntington said. “We took calls. We listened. We engaged. Not just with Andrew but with other players on one- and two-year deals. As we will always do, if we find the right move … We’ll move a player.”

At this point I suspect the Pirates’ most likely Opening Day OF is arranged like this: LF Gregory Polanco, CF Starling Marte, RF McCutchen,

McCutchen in right field you ask? Yes, the arm, runners going from first to third would be an issue. But consider this fascinating article from Mike Petreillo on how right field is where McCutchen can maximize his range.

Moreover, Huntington and Clint Hurdle said at the meetings the idea of moving McCutchen to a corner is being discussed. On Wednesday, Hurdle mentioned Torii Hunter’s move from center to right.

Yes, here is some fence mending to do.

Huntington said he did not communicate with McCutchen during trade talks but will reach out to him prior to Pirate Fest this weekend.

McCutchen communicated Wednesday night …

https://twitter.com/TheCUTCH22/status/806680976000774145

Now feelings are real. McCutchen’s pride/ego is likely bruised. But he’s a professional athlete, and the Pirates were simply acting rationally and logically – not emotionally.

If McCutchen indeed opens next season with the club I’m assuming both parties can agree on this common ground: they will want the best McCutchen has to give.

-TS

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Winter meetings day 3

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By Rob Biertempfel

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Good day, and welcome to day 3 …

UPDATE 11:50 am – I’ve heard the Pirates are mulling a cluster of “six or seven” FA starting pitchers. Their interest in Ivan Nova is well-established. I figure the uncertainty over Andrew McCutchen‘s situation — specifically, what kind of pitching the Pirates would get back in a trade and if/how that would immediately impact the rotation — is a clog in the drain. Once that situation is resolved, one way or another, things probably will keep moving slowly.

>>> The annual lunch with reporters and all 30 big league managers gets under way at noon today. Last year, the Neil Walker trade was finalized during that luncheon. In 2013, news of Charlie Morton‘s contract extension broke during that lunch. Will McCutchen be dealt before dessert is served today?

UPDATE 2:37 pm – Dessert was some sort of chocolate thing. Tasty, but I never got coffee, which was a bummer. Still no signs of life from the Pirates’ war rooms at the Gaylord Resort.

>>> During a discussion this morning about the Pirates’ quest for pitching help, it was noted that the Diamondbacks have a stable of young, controllable arms. Some of them are coming off rough seasons, but still have upside — the kind of pitchers that often pings the Pirates’ radar.

However, there could be a couple of roadblocks to the Pirates and D’backs making a deal. Arizona is seeking controllable relief pitching, which is not a great match with the Pirates. Also, there is the Mike Fitzgerald factor.

Fitzgerald was the Pirates’ traveling sabermetrics guy — they’re the first MLB team to have one on the road with them at all times — who last week took a job with the D’backs. Fitz has the poop on all of the Pirates’ top players, which could tip the playing field toward the D’backs in trade talks.

The Pirates have lost several other members of their braintrust  over the past few years: Mark DelPiano, Jim Benedict, Jeff Banister. Is GM Neal Huntington worried that his secrets are being spread throughout MLB with each departure?

“If it were stagnant and a single-level model, yes,” Huntington said. “We’re working to continue to evolve and get better. We have lost some talented people and that’s a part of why we do this. That means we’ve helped them grow.”

Huntington said the Pirates have had “an immense amount” of requests by other clubs to interview their staff members. “Some have chosen to stay with us, some have interviewed and not gotten jobs, some have gotten jobs,” Huntington said. “Part of our challenge is to continue to replenish. We need to be very good in our selection process, not only on the player front, but with our staff as well. We feel every time we lose somebody, it’s an opportunity for us to grow and get better … a different voice, a different mind set, a different thought process.”

>>> The Pirates met on Tuesday with the agent for free-agent LHP Derek Holland. Duritng the confab, the Pirates did not indicate which direction they’re heading, but a source said things could move quickly either way later today.

>>> It doesn’t seem likely the Pirates will pick anyone on Thursday in the big league phase of the Rule 5 draft. However, they could lose a player such as 3B/OF Eric Wood.

Wood was named to the Arizona Fall League top prospects team after batting .330 with five doubles, three homers and 20 RBI in 23 games. At Double-A Altoona last season, he hit .249/.339/.443 and improved his strikeout and walk rates. Was it a mistake to leave Wood off the 40-man roster and expose him to the Rule 5 draft?

“I’ll tell you on Friday,” Huntington said with a laugh. “We certainly recognize that he took a step forward this year. He had a nice Arizona Fall League and he’s continued to do some good things in winter ball. We talked a lot about should we protect him. As we walked through our criteria, we knew it was a risk. We recognize we may not see him again if he gets selected in the Rule 5 draft. We also recognize it’s really hard to carry a guy for a full year, especially if you’re going to try to be a competitive team.”

Players selected in the Rule 5 draft must remain with their new teams for the entire season or be offered back to their original club.

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Winter Meetings Day 2: Will the Sale trade hasten a McCutchen exit?

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – We are all waiting to see if the Washington Nationals missing out on Chris Sale hastens the departure of Andrew McCutchen. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo confirmed Tuesday he has talked to the Pirates about McCutchen, but added he’s talked to a lot of teams about a lot of players.

Stay tuned.  Some notes of interest from Day 2 ….

*Pirates GM Neal Huntington said John Jaso has asked about playing third base and Huntington said ‘We didn’t want to discourage it.’ Huntington added that Jaso will also likely play some right field

*Huntington said the plan with Josh Bell is to have him at first base. Bell played some right field with the Pirates, and Clint Hurdle had said at the end of the season there was a plan in place to have Bell work on his outfield throwing this offseason.

*Huntington would not confirm nor deny the club was continuing to speak with free agent Ivan Nova. The Pirates could really use a veteran arm in the rotation – the club allowed 162 more runs in 2016 than 2015 – but Huntington seems unwilling or unable to over-extend for one in this weak market.

“We’d be comfortable adding one, we’d be comfortable adding nobody if it’s just not there,” Huntington said.

*Huntington said Nick Kingham (Tommy John surgery last year) is a candidate to pitch in the majors by mid summer. He dubbed him a “forgotten” man.

*One big problem with the Pirates’ evaporating competitive advantage on identifying and signing reclamation project pitchers?  From 2014-16, the annual average value of a starting pitcher contract grew 105 percent, the Pirates’ payroll grew 39 percent.

The Pirates’ payroll is not keeping pace with pitching contracts. That’s a problem not only at the top and middle of the market, but at the bottom.

*Huntington acknowledged there was interest in resigning Sean Rodriguez and said it will be tough for one player to replace his defensive versatility. Adam Frazier is probably not that guy and might fit better as an everyday player who can focus on one defensive position. Huntington loves Frazier’s bat and approach.

*Word here is the Pirates’ asks are too great for McCutchen. While many may expect bounce-back from the 30-year-old, I don’t suspect many teams expect McCutchen to return to Peak McCutchen.

*The Pirates will continue to have a traveling quantitative analyst, though Huntington said Mike Fitzgerald will be hard to replace given his unique skill set and rare “intellectual capacity.” The Pirates lost a good one. Fitzgerald might be a unique FO talent similar to the way Jim Benedict was. Huntington the Pirates have received an “immense” amount of requests to interview staff.

-TS

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Winter meetings day 2 thread

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By Rob Biertempfel

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — There were no surprises from GM Neal Huntington this morning when he chatted with Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette on MLB Network Radio on XM. Although talks with the Nationals appear to have cooled, it still seems likely Andrew McCutchen eventually will be traded.

“If we can trade two years of an All-Star player into multiple years of really good players, that’s how we keep this thing moving forward,” Huntington said. “We have to operate differently from the top markets and differently than even some of the middle markets. That’s purely because of revenue stream. Because of our great fan base, our revenues are above what our market would dictate.

“(Playing in the postseason) is how we reward and appease our fan base. It’s not by keeping one great player. We have the ability to keep any one great player we want. It’s (about) how do we put a championship team on the field.”

Although they won the 2013 wild-card game, the Pirates have not won a playoff series since the 1979 World Series.

>>> Next season should be an important one for second baseman Alen Hanson, 24, who is out of minor league options. In 27 games with the Pirates last season, he hit .226 and was 2 for 3 in stolen-base attempts.

An above-average defender with good speed, Hanson needs to get on base more often to win playing time. He could share a utilityman role with Adam Frazier next season; one or both of them would benefit if Josh Harrison is traded.

Hanson hasn’t yet decided whether to attend the Pirates’ voluntary minicamp in January. Those workouts often are a good way for younger players to be noticed by the coaching staff and build traction for the majors. Hanson hopes to train this winter with his pal  Gregory Polanco in the Dominican Republic.

While sliding into home plate during winter ball game in the Dominican, Hanson sustained a minor hand injury. Hanson sat out a few games, but did not require surgery.

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Monday Mop-Up Duty (Updated live from the winter meetings): A no man’s land

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – In the ballroom and lobby of the Gaylord National, everyone remains on #McCutchenWatch.

The Pirates’ outfielder is one of the most compelling players available on the trade market, though Ken Rosenthal reports the Washington Nationals are more interested in Chris Sale (which would make sense given Sale’s age, contract, and performance). The Texas Rangers also, reportedly, have cooled their interested. Jon Heyman reported a ‘mystery team’ is involved, but Neal Huntington scoffed, wanting to know very much who the mystery team was when meeting with reporters Monday afternoon.

If the Pirates were coming off a 90-win season, if McCutchen hadn’t dropped off so dramatically in 2016, if the Cubs hadn’t arrived in such spectacular fashion, we’re probably not hearing/having these conversations. If none of that happens in 2016, McCutchen is probably still on the trajectory we all anticipated a year ago: he’d walk after the 2018 season as a free agent.

(The Pirates were never going to commit significant dollars to a 32-year-old McCutchen in another contract extension, and McCutchen probably wasn’t going to consider another club-friendly deal).

McCutchenHands
McCutchen is waiting around like everyone else. An awkward position for a (former?) superstar. (Horner Photo)

The McCutchen situation underscores the difficult position the Pirates are in: they are in a really tough neighborhood in the NL Central, it’s not clear they can be true contenders in 2017, and if they want to get something of value back for McCutchen (or any significant asset) now might be the time to trade him and take the PR hit.

Now, the Pirates’ don’t have to trade McCutchen. They shouldn’t trade him just to trade him. This isn’t a Francisco Liraino salary-shedding situation. And I understand fans who are frustrated by the idea of a trade, who believed 2017 was supposed to be a prime year for the club to contend, who have a sentimental attachment to the star.  But conditions on the ground have changed. It is logical to trade McCutchen, given this environment, if a team is willing to offer what the Pirates perceive to be fair value.

In most years under Neal Huntington and Co., there has been a clear objective: the Pirates were either in rebuilding more and looking to the future – or they were more focused on winning now (2013-15).

The Pirates described 2016 as a bridge year, but 2017 might again be murky territory. That present-future balance is always tricky for Huntington. Now it seems like a real challenge.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Jung Ho Kang had two previous DUIs in South Korea (in 2009 and 2011), the Yonhap News Service reported Monday. Huntington said Monday the Pirates were not aware of them. (And the two prior instances were not reported there in the press, according to a South Korean contact). Huntington was unsure about what discipline Kang faces from MLB or the club. He noted an “assessment” must first be completed. The David Freese contract is making more and more sense.

>>If, IF, McCutchen stays around in Pittsburgh, it sounds like he’s aware the Pirates are considering moving him to a corner outfield spot. Said Huntington on Monday:

“We have had a lot of internal discussions (on a position move)… He’s not unaware of the entirety of the process …. We’ve not had the ultimate decision, discussion.”

>> Mark Melancon was one of the first big-name free agents to come off the board during the winter meetings Monday, reportedly signing a four-year, $62 million contract for a San Francisco Giants team that blew  32 saves last season. The Melancon trade was not a popular move last summer. But it was the correct move. Melancon would have pitched 20-25 more innings for the Pirates and would have had little effect on the club’s ability to reach or advance in the postseason.

In return for Melancon, the Pirates have Felipe Rivero who can’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season, and left-handed prospect Taylor Hearn. That’s a quality return.

Said Huntington on Monday: “We felt we got a substantial return for Mark this summer versus letting him walk via free agency.”

>>This Ringer article from the fall is worth revisiting. Did the Pirates bet too heavily on the magic of Ray Searage? Was their reclamation-project hubris? The problem is we might never really know as free agent pitching inflation will likely continue to out-pace the Pirates’ budget.

Still, Huntington was asked if the Pirates require more certainty in regard to their rotation.

“I’d ask you guys (the media) to revisit what you wrote about us going into ’13, what you wrote about us going int ’14, what you wrote about us going into ’15. I don’t know that any of you wrote that we have a quality major league established, fun back-of-the-baseball card rotation. That’s the reality. We’ve been able to help guys take huge steps in their careers. We’ve had young guys we’ve relied upon take huge steps. It didn’t work as well last year as it did the prior three years.”

But there is also now more competition for reclamation project type arms.

>>Wade LeBlanc is an interesting, low-risk signing given his encouraging work last season (7.5k/9, 1.9 bb/9 in 62 innings), but he’s a fly-ball pitcher, which again goes against the Pirates’ philosophy. Are the Pirates going to continue to drift away from the ground ball? Perhaps they continue to believe it’s become over-valued. And we know the bottom of the strike zone shrunk last year, which hurts the club’s ability to generate ground balls and steal strikes.

Huntington said LeBlanck will be used as a multi-inning reliever and spot starter.

>>Somewhat lost during #McCutchenWatch in Pittsburgh is that the players and owners agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement last week. While there were no major changes, the 15-day DL is now the 10-day DL, spending on younger international prospects is now capped and the luxury tax inched up – though modestly – as the threshold rose to $195 million.

>>What baffles me is that that union remains so focused on protecting its top earners while ignoring 99 percent if its membership. While owners have a luxury tax years– in part designed to create some measure of competitive balance and in part to protect owners from themselves – there is no payroll floor.

While there is a mechanism to slow spending at the top, there is nothing to promote spending on the bottom.

>>Most interesting new CBA development? The Oakland A’s being stripped of revenue sharing status due to their market size and apparent dragging of feet to find a new stadium. If the majority of owners become frustrated with the spending of owners this seems to set a precedent. The A’s can no longer be takers. Who is next?

>>There’s a some continued talk here that the Pirates are indeed trying to move Josh Harrison. Adam Frazier would presumably take over at second base.

>>The Pirates have suffered a few a few key front offices the last couple of years. Jim Benedict a year ago and now Mike Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, hired as a 23-year-old out of MIT in 2012, made an impact right away for the Pirates as he lead the table-pounding to sign Russell Martin in the 2012-13 offseason. He was also something of a revolutionary figure as he’s believed to be the first quantitative analyst to travel with the team on the road where he was meant to be a bridge between players/coaching staff and the front office. Fitzgerald wasn’t just a ‘stats guy’ he was a former high school football player, holding the receptions record at his high school. When the Pirates clinched their 2014 postseason berth in Atlanta, to show the acceptance and synergy between the traditional and non-traditional camps within the Pirates, Neil Walker soaked Fitzgerald with a beer in the corner of the clubhouse celebration.

The problem with success and innovation? Everyone, every team, wants to copy best practices. Can the Pirates continue to innovate?

Interesting stuff from Brian Cartwright on the Fitzgerald-Melancon discussions …

>>Bud Selig receives too much credit for the game’s revenue growth. That was inevitable with the rise of cable rights fees, new stadium construction, technology (MLBAM), etc., as revenues have grown in every other sport in similar ways. He receives too much credit for creating an expanded playoff as growing playoff fields are another sports-wide trend. He oversaw a work stoppage that wiped out a World Series and the game’s credibility was badly damaged by the steroid era, which he presided over. Little has been done to stem the financial divide between the Have and Have Notes in the game. Hall of Fame?

SHE SAID IT

HE SAID IT

ESPN’s Sam Miller to the Tribune-Review on the prospect of a McCutchen trade:

“‘Never sell low’ is way too simple and assumes a couple things we shouldn’t assume. “One assumption is that ‘low’ can’t get lower. … He’s still got a lot of perceived value. If he has another bad year, then it looks not like a blip but a new career state, and his value would drop much more. …

“It’s not like the other 29 teams are run by the one fantasy-league manager in every league who barely knows baseball and overreacts to every swing in performance.I think that’s probably particularly true with McCutchen, when so much of his perceived collapse last year is tied to his defensive performance in center field. Teams might have different, less catastrophic assessments of his defense.”

STAT OF THE WEEK 3y/$48

The Rich Hill contract. Crazy? No. He’s the only free agent arm that has the potential to profile as a No. 1.  Hill, who was pitching in indy ball two years ago, was emotional at his press conference here today. The Pirates made Hill a one-year, $6 million last winter. What could have been …

 

-TS

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Winter meetings day 1: Let’s talk pitching

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By Rob Biertempfel

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — News, notes and flat-out speculation from the first day of the winter meetings:

UPDATE 3:40 pm – I was told the Nationals balked when Pirates asked for OF Victor Robles and RHP Lucas Giuolito in exchange for Andrew McCutchen. Deal-breaker? Not necessarily. As far as I can tell, though, the two sides remain in touch about a possible swap.

The Nats raised concerns about McCutchen’s declining physical skills — he appears to have lost a step, his offensive stats reached career blows, blah blah blah.

But here’s something new: the Nationals evaluators also wondered about McCutchen’s mood and presence in the clubhouse. McCutchen had a few outbursts about ball-strike calls, one of which led to his first career ejection. He had some out-of-chareacter moments — he slammed the bat down at the plate, interacted with some hecklers in the stands — that have been mentioned by manager Clint Hurdle.

No one actually believes McCutchen is a bad guy. He had a rough season, probably realized early on the Pirates were not going to extend him, and reacted out of frustration. Still, it’s not surprising the Nats would bring up those kind of questions during trade talks; it’s normal business procedure to seek any kind of advantage in negotiations.

>>> GM Neal Huntington is scheduled to meet with reporters at 4 pm today. Look for updates soon about what he says on McCutchen, Jung Ho Kang and other topics.

UPDATE 12:45 pm — Uh oh. John Heyman tweeted there is a “mystery team” in the McCutchen sweepstakes. Could it be the Giants? They have some dandy prospects to dangle, including RHP Tyler Beede and INF Christian Arroyo.

Beede, 23, was a first-round pick in 2014. He made 24 starts at Double-A this past season and went 8-7 with a 2.81 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. Fastball is 91-94 mph and touches 97 mph. Changeup (Pirates front office looooooves it some changeup) is his best secondary pitch, but is inconsistent. Beede also throws a 12-6 curve and a cutter.

Arroyo, 21, was a first-rounder in 2013. He was drafted as a shortstop, but likely will move to third base  due to his power bat and limited range. In 119 games at Double-A, he hit .274 with 29 walks and 72 strikeouts in 474 at-bats.

>>> Let’s talk pitching.

You don’t have to be Bill James to know that finding a veteran starting pitcher is the Pirates’ top priority this offseason. The rotation was their biggest disappointment last season.

It doesn’t have to be a No. 1 guy. It’s about time Gerrit Cole starts to live up to his hype and fills that role. When I talked with Gerrit a few days ago, he was still unwrapping wedding gifts and is getting ready to ramp up his offseason training routine. Cole was injured during the last offseason — no one from the Pirates ever said exactly how that happened — and needs to be smarter with his approach this year.

The Pirates need to be smarter, too. Manager Clint Hurdle wonders if the team didn’t rush Cole back into action last April.

“Cole played catch-up, pretty much it seemed from spring training on,” Hurdle said. “It was hard for him and it was hard for us. You want to honor the kid; he wanted to complete. Did we do the right thing? I think we all learned from it. If that situation arises again, there will probably have to be some harder conversations about making sure that we’re as good to go as we can be before we get back and compete.”

Jameson Taillon did as well as anyone could have expected last season — maybe even a bit better. There was a stretch in the second half when the rookie right-hander was the most reliable guy in the rotation.

Is Taillon ready to be a No. 2? That’s probably a bit much to ask of someone with only 18 big league starts on his resume. Yet, it also seems reasonable to expect Taillon to be ready for that job sooner than later.

Beyond Cole and Taillon, the Pirates have … questions.

Is Chad Kuhl for real? Will Tyler Glasnow tap his enormous potential and learn how to reduce the walks and control the running game? Do Steven Brault and Trevor Williams take paths to the rotation or the bullpen? And who and what, exactly, is Drew Hutchison?

That’s a lot of uncertainty — too much, actually — to cram into 60 percent of the starting rotation.

That’s why general manager Neal Huntington and his lieutenants arrived at the Garylord resort intent on uncovering at least a couple additions to the pitching mix.

There are free-agent options, such as Ivan Nova (who rebuffed the Pirates’ contract offers in late September), Doug Fister, Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa. The Pirates have had varying levels of interest in all of those guys in the past.

Huntington’s best route to finding a reliable pitcher with some measure of team control probably is to make a trade. For openers, he’ll place a call to the Rays, who are motivated to move a starter.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times offers a good breakdown of the Rays’ possible trade pieces. The most attractive candidate is RHP Chris Archer (signed through 2021 for $38.5 million). The most likely candidate is LHP Drew Smyly (third-year arb eligible, projected to make $7 million). The Pirates could split the difference and go hard after RHP Jake Odorizzi (first-year arb, $4 million).

The D’backs, who recently acquired Taijuan Walker, appear to have a surplus of young, controllable pitchers. And, of course, the Nationals could send a pitcher (or two) this way in a package for Andrew McCutchen.

Elsewhere …

>>> Eric Wood was named to the Arizona Fall League top prospects team. Wood played third base for Double-A Altoona, but is listed among the AFL outfielders. He led the AFL with 20 RBI and ranked second in hits, third in at-bats, fourth in total bases, sixth in batting (.330) and eighth in OPS (.876). In 23 AFL games, he hit five doubles and three home runs.

The Pirates did not place Wood on their 40-man roster, so he could be snatched up in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. It’s a bit odd Wood, a sixth-round pick in 2012, wasn’t protected, as he has some of the best raw power in the Pirates’ farm system (although might be faint praise, considering there’s not a lot of thunder there, top to bottom). Last season at Altoona, Wood, 24, hit .249/.339/.443 with 16 homers in 118 games.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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