Led by outstanding seasons from Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin and Josh Harrison, the Pirates made the playoffs for the second straight year in 2014, but the possible departures of Martin and Francisco Liriano cloud their immediate future.
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Gaby Sanchez, 1B (5.025): $2.7MM
- John Axford, RP (4.170): $5.2MM*
- Neil Walker, 2B (4.166): $8.6MM
- Ike Davis, 1B (4.155): $4.4MM
- Mark Melancon, RP (4.098): $7.6MM**
- Travis Snider, OF (4.091): $2MM
- Chris Stewart, C (4.091): $1.3MM
- Pedro Alvarez, 3B (4.085): $5.5MM
- Tony Watson, RP (3.101): $2MM
- Jeanmar Gomez, RP (3.063): $800K*
- Josh Harrison, 3B (3.033): $2.2MM
- Jared Hughes, RP (2.162): $1.1MM
- Vance Worley, SP (2.139): $2.9MM
- Non-tender candidates: Sanchez, Axford, Davis, Gomez
*Axford and Gomez were designated for assignment Saturday.
**Melancon had 33 saves and 14 holds last season, a rare combination that caused Swartz’s model to project Melancon would receive a raise of $5MM to $7.6MM. We think such a large increase is unlikely.
Despite an unceremonious end to their season with an 8-0 loss to the Giants in the NL Wild Card game, the Pirates have a strong core of players, along with a well regarded farm system. They appear poised to be competitive for years to come. This year’s offseason, however, will likely revolve around their decision regarding Martin, who’s set to depart as a free agent.
Martin’s expiring two-year, $17MM contract was a fantastic deal by any standard, and was easily the best free agent signing of GM Neal Huntington’s career. Martin contributed 9.4 fWAR over the course of the contract and arguably produced even more value than that thanks to his framing and his work with pitchers. The Pirates have gotten unexpectedly strong work from pitchers like Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Mark Melancon in the last two years, and Martin was by all accounts a big reason why.
Now, the Pirates will either have to let Martin go or make the sort of expensive, multi-year commitment he’ll surely receive on the free agent market. The Bucs have indicated they’re willing to “stretch” to keep Martin, but re-signing him would represent a dramatic departure from their usual offseason patterns. And as important as Martin has been to the Pirates, signing him for, say, four years might put them in dangerous territory, given their tight budget and the brutal aging patterns of catchers in their thirties.
There are, however, no comparable options on the free agent market, and the Pirates’ internal replacements to replace Martin, Tony Sanchez and Chris Stewart, represent big downgrades that the Pirates will have to make up elsewhere (even though Stewart is another good framer who had a surprisingly palatable offensive season in 2014). The Pirates have already indicated they will extend Martin a qualifying offer, earning them a draft pick in the likely event that he signs elsewhere.
The Bucs could also lose Liriano and Edinson Volquez, who were key contributors to the team’s 2014 rotation. (They have not indicated they plan to extend a qualifying offer to Liriano, and perhaps they won’t — they didn’t extend one to A.J. Burnett last offseason and likely don’t feel Liriano is as crucial a player as Martin.) The Pirates might feel it makes more sense to replace Liriano and Volquez with buy-low reclamation projects (Justin Masterson or Brett Anderson might make sense, given the Pirates’ love of ground-ball pitchers) rather than paying top dollar for pitchers they’ve already helped improve. Of course, the Bucs’ talents with reclamation pitchers could decrease if Martin leaves.
In any case, the Pirates will need to do something to acquire starting pitching this winter — Charlie Morton and top prospect Jameson Taillon will both be returning from significant injuries, leaving the Pirates with only Gerrit Cole, Vance Worley and the erratic Jeff Locke as sure bets to make their rotation out of spring training.
The Bucs’ corner infield positions will also need tweaking, thanks mostly to Pedro Alvarez’s throwing issues at third base last year. Harrison, who before this season had looked like little more than a spare infielder, had a shocking borderline-MVP-caliber campaign in 2014. He replaced Alvarez at third base down the stretch and will probably continue as the Pirates’ third baseman next year. The lefty-hitting Alvarez is a likely a first baseman going forward, with the Bucs either trading or non-tendering lefty Ike Davis. The Pirates could also consider trading Alvarez, but he’s not eligible for free agency until after 2016, so they could again gamble on his raw power, even though he produced -0.2 fWAR last season. The Bucs will also have to decide whether to keep righty Gaby Sanchez, who is arbitration eligible for the third time and who hit just .229/.293/.385 in 2014. If Sanchez returns, he will presumably continue in a platoon role.
Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer are set to man the middle infield, but the Bucs will need a utility infielder, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they re-signed Clint Barmes to a one-year deal, like they did last offseason. Barmes doesn’t hit well, but his strong defense makes him a good fit for the Pirates’ grounder-heavy pitching staff. The newly acquired Justin Sellers, who is out of options, could also fill that role, but given his weak bat, the Pirates seem likely to try to sneak him through waivers at some point.
In the outfield, the Pirates have superstar Andrew McCutchen in center and emerging star Starling Marte in left, both of them signed long-term to team-friendly extensions. Gregory Polanco, who will likely supplant Travis Snider as the starter in right field in 2015, also has superstar upside, although he struggled in his rookie season. Snider quietly had a strong 2014, hitting .264/.338/.438, and he’ll probably continue on as the Pirates’ fourth outfielder and top pinch-hitting option.
The Pirates’ bullpen wasn’t a strength in 2014, but the Bucs control most of their relief talent and aren’t likely to make a big addition. Melancon and Tony Watson should return as closer and set-up man, respectively, and huge righty John Holdzkom improbably emerged from independent baseball to become another late-inning option. Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson and Stolmy Pimentel are also set to return.
Fans have long criticized the Pirates for failing to spend, and though the Bucs’ Opening Day payrolls have increased in each of the past four seasons, they’re still way behind the rest of the league. Heavy spending made little sense when the Pirates were perennial doormats, but now that they’re contenders, judicious spending can make a big difference. To cherry-pick one example, the Pirates lost the NL Wild Card game this year; if they had signed Jose Abreu last offseason, they might have won the NL Central and bypassed that game altogether.
This offseason, many fans will treat the team’s decision with Martin as a bellwether of its willingness to spend to keep their team competitive. On one hand, that’s not entirely fair — there are legitimate worries about Martin’s age, and a bad, expensive contract can be a serious problem for even a mid-market team.
On the other hand, replacing Martin’s production will be very difficult if he leaves. The Pirates’ key needs are at catcher and in the starting rotation. If they believe in their ability to fix broken pitchers, it hardly makes sense for them to pay heavily for pitchers who are already at the tops of their games, particularly given how risky multi-year deals for aging pitchers tend to be. Many of the best hitters in a very weak hitting class are either third basemen or outfielders, and the Pirates already have excellent or potentially excellent options at all four of those positions. Meanwhile, there’s no obvious way for the Pirates to replace Martin at catcher with anyone remotely comparable, even in a trade. The top names after Martin on the free agent market are players like Geovany Soto and A.J. Pierzynski.
Another way for the Pirates to upgrade this offseason might be to deal from their deep pool of outfield talent to acquire a younger, cost-controlled starting pitcher. The Mets, who have plenty of promising starting pitching and can use outfield help, might be a good trade partner. The Bucs could also try to deal prospects to a rebuilding team for a pitcher (a ground-ball pitcher like Dallas Keuchel might make sense), but such a trade might be easier in July — teams often aren’t willing to wave the white flag on their seasons before they’ve even begun.
The Pirates’ only significant moves last offseason were to sign Volquez and re-sign Barmes, even though they were coming off their first winning season in two decades and were set to lose a top starting pitcher in Burnett. (They also traded for Davis early in the season.) This winter might not be much different. The Pirates’ acquisitions to address catcher and their rotation will probably be relatively quiet ones. Or, in the case of the catcher position, they might not acquire anyone at all. Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently made the case for Stewart as a stopgap starting catcher — Stewart isn’t anywhere near Martin’s equal offensively, but he’s good enough at framing and defense to be a passable starter, particularly given the weak catching market. Tony Sanchez could then serve as Stewart’s backup, with prospect Elias Diaz (who is quickly developing a strong defensive reputation of his own) possibly taking over for Stewart in 2016.
With Stewart at catcher, the Pirates would then likely focus their offseason spending on their large group of arbitration-eligible players. They could also continue to try to negotiate a long-term deal with Polanco, who despite a somewhat disappointing rookie season is a prime extension candidate, given his outstanding tools and control of the strike zone. Harrison and Walker might also be extension candidates, albeit less likely ones.
Pirates fans won’t be happy about losing Martin. At this point, though, it’s unwise to ever bet on the Bucs being serious players in free agency. They’ve now had two straight winning seasons, and they set a PNC Park attendance record in 2014, but they’ve shown no indication of the willingness (or perhaps ability) to raise their payroll out of the lowest third of MLB teams, even for a season or two.
There are ways for the Pirates to make significant additions this offseason even without a huge payroll increase. One might be to non-tender or trade Davis, Gaby Sanchez and Alvarez, and go with rookie Andrew Lambo at first base. The Pirates could then use the savings (along with the $7.5MM they’ll have coming off the books now that they’re out from under their portion of Wandy Rodriguez‘s salary) to make a splash elsewhere. But that possibility seems remote, given that it’s unclear which big names the Bucs might pursue, other than Martin. It’s more likely that they’ll have another relatively quiet winter.