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Pittsburgh Pirates Rumors
3:50pm: Ishikawa has elected free agency, reports MLBTR’s Zach Links (on Twitter).
10:38am: First baseman Travis Ishikawa has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A Indianapolis by the Pirates, reports MLB Daily Dish’s Chris Cotillo (Twitter link). Because Ishikawa has been previously outrighted, he has the option of rejecting the assignment in favor of free agency, which he is likely to do.
Ishikawa, 30, hit .206/.263/.382 with a homer, a triple and a double in 38 plate appearances for the Bucs this season. He was initially part of a platoon with lefty masher Gaby Sanchez until the Pirates, in search of an upgrade, swung a deal for Ike Davis (Pittsburgh sent Zack Thornton and a PTBNL to the Mets).
Ishikawa is a lifetime .257/.321/.397 hitter, and his splits are indicative that he is best suited to be part of a first-base platoon (as he was in Pittsburgh). Both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating feel that Ishikawa’s glove at first base is above average — an attribute that he and agent Jim McDowell can use as a selling point should he ultimately elect to become a free agent.
The Pirates and the Brewers found themselves in the midst of controversy over the weekend as the result of a benches-clearing brawl started by a verbal exchange between Gerrit Cole and Carlos Gomez. However, Martin Maldonado was also involved in the scuffle, landing a punch on Travis Snider, and ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that Maldonado will be suspended for five games and fined $2,500 (Twitter links). Maldonado, who is earning $502K this season, will end up losing a little more than $16K as a result of the suspension and fine, which translates to roughly three percent of his salary. The official announcement of all suspensions resulting from the brawl is expected today, tweets Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Here’s more from the NL Central…
- MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince examines Edinson Volquez‘s strong start with the Pirates and wonders if he is the next successful reclamation project for pitching coach Ray Searage and special assistant to the GM Jim Benedict. Castrovince runs down many of the techniques that Searage and the Pirates have gone through with Volquez to improve his command and mechanics. He also writes that Francisco Liriano played a large role in Volquez signing with Pittsburgh, as Liriano heavily recruited his fellow Dominican to join the Bucs, telling him it was a perfect place to rebuild his career. (In addition to Liriano, both A.J. Burnett and Mark Melancon have experienced tremendous turnarounds upon arrival in Pittsburgh.)
- Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review breaks down Neil Walker‘s continually improving approach at the plate, noting his increased contact rates and decreased chase rates over the past few years. Sawchik wonders if Walker’s approach has him on the cusp of emerging as a star-caliber second baseman.
- Former Cubs coach Dave McKay spoke with Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times and said that both he and former manager Dale Sveum were surprised by their dismissals after two years, as president Theo Epstein had said from the beginning that the coaching staff wouldn’t be evaluated based on performance. Still, McKay praised the organization and Epstein’s rebuild, stating that he had no hard feelings toward the club and praising them for retaining pitching coach Chris Bosio and catching coach Mike Borzello. McKay, a Phoenix-area resident, caught on as a coach with the Diamondbacks this offseason.
The seven-year, $140MM offer that the Yankees offered Shin-Soo Choo was only on the table for less than a day. As MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince notes, New York offered Choo the contract and then pulled it back almost as quickly in order to instead sign Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45MM deal. "In my opinion, it takes some time to make a decision, maybe at least a couple days," Choo said. "You want to learn a city and a team. They gave me 21 hours." The Yankees' withdrawal could've been due to Beltran simply accepting his offer first, or perhaps because Scott Boras (Choo's agent), reportedly asked the Yankees to match the $153MM the Bombers gave to Jacoby Ellsbury. Choo didn't end up doing too badly for himself at any rate, signing a seven-year, $130MM deal with the Rangers.
Here's some news from around the baseball world…
- CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman lists 14 players who could traded during Spring Training. Most of these names have popped up on the pages of MLBTR over the last few weeks, though one new name is Marlins right-hander Jacob Turner. Heyman says there's "not a great chance" Miami would deal Turner but since the Marlins have a lot of good young pitchers, "folks on other teams speculate this could be the one arm the Marlins might move in that right deal" for offensive help.
- Ike Davis' calf injury has not only set back the Mets' first base competition, but it has also ruined any possible chance of a trade showcase for Davis during Spring Training, Andy Martino of the New York Daily News writes. The Brewers, Pirates and Orioles have all been connected to Davis in trade rumors during the offseason but obviously no move will be made any time soon, as Davis is currently in a walking boot and recently had an MRI on his right calf.
- Speaking of the Pirates' first base search, the team could end up finding its left-handed platoon partner for Gaby Sanchez already on the roster in the form of Andrew Lambo, Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes. While maturity issues and a 50-game suspension reportedly relating to marijuana use have set back Lambo's career, he is still only 25 and has posted some strong power numbers in the minors.
- "I just don't see what we have to lose," Indians manager Terry Francona says about Carlos Santana's attempted conversion to third base. FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal recaps the reasons behind Santana's surprising decision to try the hot corner and how it could be a boon for the Tribe if Santana could handle the position.
- Nate Schierholtz wants to remain with the Cubs but is cognizant of the fact that could be traded, MLB.com's Carrie Muskat reports. The veteran outfielder said he hasn't spoken to Cubs management about staying beyond his current one-year contract. Recent rumors put Schierholtz on the trading block thanks to Ryan Kalish's progress, not to mention the fact that Kalish is playing on a minor league deal while Schierholtz is owed $5MM this season.
One of the keys to success for last year's Pirates ballclub was its ability both to generate ground balls and convert them into outs. It all started with a pitching staff that had far and away the highest ground-ball rate (52.5%) in the big leagues. Featuring prominently in the repertoire of several Bucs hurlers, of course, was the sinker. As Tim Williams of PiratesProspects.com found when he investigated, those sinkers come in many different varieties. He provides a fascinating breakdown of the pitch from the perspective of Pirates players and coaches (including many staff members and catcher Russell Martin). Here's more from the National League:
- With just two weeks left in camp and top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras still working his way back, there is now little chance that he'll come north with the Cardinals for Opening Day, writes Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Of course, that was the likely outcome from the get-go, as St. Louis has a keen interest in delaying his service clock to gain another season of control and minimize the likelihood of a Super Two qualification.
- The Phillies outrighted righty Michael Stutes off of the club's 40-man roster to begin making room for non-roster invites, reports Todd Zolecki of MLB.com. Struggling to regain velocity after a series of shoulder issues, Stutes had to clear waivers to be stashed in the minors.
- Though it may yet be a longshot, the Mets have begun working out Wilmer Flores at short, reports Anthony DiComo of MLB.com. With continuing uncertainty as to whether Ruben Tejada can be relied on as an everyday option, DiComo says the team is "overturning every stone on their 40-man roster" to find a solution. Of course, that does not mean that Flores is a serious possibility to man the job for the coming season, but he could be a more attractive big league piece if he could spend some time at short.
- As I recently noted in the club's offseason review, the Diamondbacks have not conclusively addressed their backup catching situation. They are among the teams taking a hard look at Francisco Cervelli of the Yankees, reports George A. King III of the New York Post.
After an inspiring playoff run in 2013, the Pirates accomplished little this winter, either on the trade market or through free agency, and instead will depend on their 2013 core to contend again in 2014.
Major League Signings
Notable Minor League Signings
- Travis Ishikawa, Chris Dickerson, Michael Martinez, Robert Andino, Yao-Hsun Yang, Jay Jackson, Josh Kinney, Adam Wilk
Trades and Claims
- Acquired C Chris Stewart from the Yankees for P Kyle Haynes.
- Acquired OF Jaff Decker and RP Miles Mikolas from the Padres for OF Alex Dickerson.
- Acquired 1B Chris McGuiness from the Rangers for RP Miles Mikolas.
- Acquired RP Duke Welker from the Twins for SP Kris Johnson.
- Acquired 3B Brent Morel off waivers from Blue Jays.
- Charlie Morton, SP: three years, $21MM
It's hard to address many needs with a $7MM offseason. The Pirates replaced Burnett in their rotation with Volquez, who has struggled since a strong season with the Reds all the way back in 2008. Volquez has good stuff and his recent peripherals have been better than his ERAs, however, and the Pirates have recently done well with previous reclamation projects like Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon, so they may feel they can catch lightning in a bottle again with Volquez. The possibility that Volquez could become another Liriano likely made Volquez more attractive to the Pirates than a more reliable but lower-upside pitcher like Chris Capuano. The Pirates also re-signed Barmes, a poor hitter but a stellar defensive player, to back up Jordy Mercer at shortstop.
The Pirates also made a seemingly minor deal for Chris Stewart, a good defensive catcher with a solid pitch-framing track record. Stewart will back up Russell Martin at catcher, with the Pirates likely hoping that 2012-Yankees tandem will put their pitchers in the best possible postion to succeed. The Bucs also struck even-more-minor deals for depth pieces and semi-prospects like outfielder Jaff Decker and first baseman Chris McGuiness.
Beyond that, the Pirates will likely hope that their current core is strong enough to make another run, and that the potential midseason additions of top outfield prospect Gregory Polanco and pitcher Jameson Taillon can help augment it. Taillon (and Jeff Locke, who's currently suffering from an oblique injury and who could begin the season in the minors if both he and Wandy Rodriguez are ready by Opening Day) should provide the Pirates with other options if Volquez falters.
The Pirates have not yet found a left-handed platoon partner for Gaby Sanchez at first base. McGuiness and Travis Ishikawa probably aren't answers there. Going into the 2014 season with rookie Andrew Lambo, who hit for great power in the minors last year but had a sketchy track record before that, might not be the right move either, at least not without a better backup plan. It still wouldn't be surprising if the Pirates added another first baseman via trade, perhaps Ike Davis of the Mets or Mike Carp of the Red Sox.
Deal of Note
The Pirates signed Charlie Morton to an extension that bought out the ground-ball specialist's last year of arbitration and his first two years of free-agency eligibility. The Pirates also received a reasonable option on Morton for 2017 ($9.5MM, or a $1MM buyout). The deal creates a bridge between the Pirates' recent veteran-led rotations and a 2017 rotation that will likely feature Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, perhaps along with fellow youngsters like Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham.
The Pirates' remarkably quiet offseason following their first winning season since 1992 raises significant questions about the Bucs' willingness, or perhaps their ability, to spend. The Bucs did not extend A.J. Burnett a $14.1MM qualifying offer in the fall, even though Fangraphs pegs Burnett's 2013 value at around $20MM and a one-year deal for a pitcher of his caliber could potentially have been a boon for the Pirates. Burnett had previously said that he intended to play for the Bucs or retire, so if the Pirates took him at his word, there would have been no point in extending a qualifying offer anyway, particularly if they thought they could sign him more cheaply than the qualifying offer price. Then, however, GM Neal Huntington straightforwardly said that the Pirates were unwilling to pay market value for Burnett.
After declining to extend the qualifying offer and while waiting several months for Burnett to decide whether or not to retire, the Pirates tried a variety of other moves, most of which didn't work out. Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review describes the timeline. The Bucs tried to sign Josh Johnson to replace Burnett, but Johnson ended up heading to San Diego for one year and $8MM instead. They also tried to sign James Loney to platoon with Sanchez at first base, but Loney instead re-signed with the Rays at $7MM per year.
The Pirates reportedly made competitive bids for both players. Sawchik suggests that if the Pirates were willing to commit around $8MM for Johnson and $7MM for Loney, plus $2MM for Barmes, their offseason budget may have been around $17MM-$19MM. Within this context, the logic for not extending the qualifying offer to Burnett becomes clear: $14.1MM for Burnett would have been too great a percentage of the Pirates' offseason budget, given that they also needed to address the first base and utility infielder positions.
"From a value you standpoint you can argue that $14 million should have been a no-brainer and we understand that," Huntington said. "But the reality is in ten to fifteen markets a qualifying offer, if accepted, becomes a large chunk of payroll and something – right or wrong -we were not comfortable in doing at that time."
The Bucs' plan of saving money on Burnett to upgrade at first base may have been a difficult one to pull off. The first-base market was thin, especially if the Pirates weren't willing to sign a big-ticket player like Jose Dariel Abreu or Mike Napoli (who are, of course, both righties, but project well enough offensively that the Pirates could have non-tendered Sanchez). The Bucs were also never seriously connected to Corey Hart, who ended up with the Mariners. When Loney re-signed with Tampa, the Pirates were left without serious first-base options to pursue. And so it looks like the Bucs' plan at first base may have amounted to Loney or a trade, which, of course, hasn't happened yet.
Homegrown players like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Cole did, of course, play key roles in the Pirates' surprising 94-win season in 2013. But Huntington's excellent acquisitions of veteran players were also crucial. Those acquisitions began in February 2012, when Huntington acquired Burnett from the Yankees for pennies on the dollar. The following offseason, Huntington got Francisco Liriano on a bargain contract and Russell Martin on another modest deal, then acquired one of their best 2013 bullpen arms, Mark Melancon, for Joel Hanrahan.
Faced with the task of building a team on a tiny budget, Huntington pulled a rabbit out of a hat. This offseason, his task was the same, only the magic trick didn't work. The plan may have depended too heavily on signing Loney, whose incentive to remain in Tampa, where he could play every day, likely was fairly strong.
After the Bucs missed on Johnson, they signed Volquez as a backup plan while they waited for Burnett to decide whether or not to retire, then reportedly increased their offer to Burnett to $12MM once it became clear that he was willing to sign elsewhere. ($12MM for Burnett plus $5MM for Volquez plus $2MM for Barmes is consistent with Sawchik's suggestion that the Bucs had about $17-19MM available to spend this offseason.) When Burnett signed with the Phillies, the Pirates were left mostly empty-handed. Signing a free agent who had declined a qualifying offer, like Kendrys Morales or Ervin Santana, to fill one of their first base or starting pitching vacancies didn't make much sense for them, either, since the Pirates surely preferred to keep the No. 24 overall pick in the draft this year.
The Pirates' future remains bright, and with a good big-league core and a very strong farm system, they likely will have more chances to augment a contending core in later seasons. They could also attempt to add in-season if the first few months of 2014 go well. The key question, though, is why Huntington only had $17-19MM to work with, despite Burnett, Barmes and Garrett Jones' contracts coming off the books.
The Pirates are finally a contending team. They've enjoyed healthy bumps in attendance in all of the last three seasons. They should have money from MLB's national TV contract coming to them. And they still chose not to spend, even on a one-year deal for Burnett that would in no way have reduced their long-term chances of contending. Burnett was one of the best pitchers in the National League last season, leading the senior circuit in K/9 and ground-ball percentage. $14.1MM for a one-year deal would have been a very reasonable price to pay.
The Pirates will likely remain one of baseball's lower-payroll teams this year, despite advantages that some other low-payroll teams like the Rays don't have, such as a beautiful stadium and a passionate fan base. If any offseason would have provided an opportunity for them to break the cycle and move into a payroll range more comparable to fellow NL Central small-market teams in Milwaukee and Cincinnati, this would have been it. But so far, they haven't taken it.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Red Sox will pay a small MLB-mandated fine after the team fielded a lineup of minor leaguers for a game against the Marlins earlier this week, Alex Speier of WEEI.com reports, citing Major League sources. As we noted earlier tonight, the incident appears to have fostered some amount of bad blood between the two clubs. Under MLB rules, teams must feature four players who either served as regulars during the preceding season or who have a legitimate chance at doing so during the upcoming season. More Saturday night MLB links:
- Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino, tradtionally a switch-hitter, may abandon swinging from the left side altogether after finding success in the second half last season as a predominantly right-handed batter (via Maureen Mullen of MLB.com).
- The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Travis Sawchik examined the Pirates' strategy in recent drafts, noting the team's heavy focus on prep arms. From 2009-11, 17 of the club's first 30 selections were high school pitchers. Assistant GM Greg Smith, who headed the Pirates' drafts in those seasons, said the club aims to find pitchers in the Stephen Strasburg mold before they blossom into top draft picks.
- Billy Beane's latest strategy for building a winner involves targeting players with flexible skillsets, Peter Gammons writes for his Gammons Daily website. Gammons notes that the Athletics' targeting of players such as outfielder Billy Burns, who has one homer in three minor league seasons, appears perplexing. However, Burns' speed, ability to switch-hit and career .420 minor league OBP make him a fit for the A's.
While Jeff Samardzija has been a chief subject of trade rumors this offseason, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer told Jim Bowden and Casey Stern of MLB Network Radio on SiriuxXM (via Bowden's Twitter feed) that his preference would be to sign the right-hander to a long-term extension. Samardzija said the same during an appearance on the broadcast (audio link here), as "I've always stated this is where I wanna be…this organization stuck by me and has given me the opportunity to be a starter." Despite the rumors, there has "obviously been a mutual interest between the two parties, for sure…[which] kinda makes everything else just talking, which is what you want it to be."
Here's some more news from around the game…
- Johan Santana never considered retirement in the wake of his latest shoulder surgery, as the veteran southpaw told reporters (including MLB.com's Brittany Ghiroli) that he didn't want to let his health dictate the end of his career. "I don't want to go out in the game like that. I want to go out of the game on my own terms, knowing this is going to be my last game, knowing this is going to be my last year," Santana said. The two-time Cy Young Award winner said he has "nothing to lose, [and] a lot to gain" from his incentive-heavy minor league deal with the Orioles.
- Jon Lester's cancer diagnosis in 2006 played a big part in his acceptance of his original multiyear deal with the Red Sox, WEEI.com's Rob Bradford reports. That contract will expire this offseason, and while Lester has no new news on the status of extension talks, he is hopeful a new deal will be settled soon.
- The Dodgers' surplus of pitching could force the team to make a tough cut in the form of right-hander Seth Rosin, ESPN Los Angeles' Mark Saxon writes. Rosin has pitched well thus far in Spring Training but L.A. might not have space for him on the roster, a situation that Saxon says could backfire like the team's cut of Kevin Gregg last spring. Rosin was selected off the Phillies' roster by the Mets in last December's Rule 5 draft and was then traded to the Dodgers, who now must keep Rosin on their Major League roster all season or else offer him back to Philadelphia for $25K.
- In a subscription-only piece for Baseball America, Matt Eddy and J.J. Cooper look at some of the offseason's key minor league free agent signings and some of the overall trends of this winter's minor league deals.
- Jim Leyland is happy in his position as special assistant to Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski and has no interest in returning to the Pirates organization, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. “I really don't want to come back to the organization,” Leyland said. “Not because I don't love it, but (because) they've set their tempo now and they have their own people in place. They don't need somebody like me hanging around and, really, I don't need to do that….I'll retire a Tiger.”
In case you missed it over the weekend, the Braves inked Cuban backstop Yenier Bello to a minor league deal and invited him to Spring Training. Bello is likely ticketed to begin his career here in the minors, but he adds some critical catcher depth to the Braves, who of course lost Brian McCann to the Yankees this offseason. More from the NL East to kick off your Monday morning…
- Mets manager Terry Collins told reporters, including Newsday's Marc Carig (Twitter link) that Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lannan are the favorites to win the fifth spot in his rotation. MLB.com's Marty Noble writes that Collins is still considering Jenrry Mejia, though the youngster is more likely to be used in a long relief role out of Spring Training. Noble writes that the Mets feel that role would allow Mejia to continue to build arm strength and can also serve as a developmental tool.
- ESPNNewYork.com's Adam Rubin writes that Mike Piazza is in Mets camp to serve as a special instructor but says he's not looking to get into coaching on a full-time basis anytime soon. Piazza says he has a seven-month old son, so his focus appears to be on his family. Travis d'Arnaud calls Piazza's tutelage "a dream," as the Long Beach, Calif. native grew up idolizing Piazza as a Dodgers fan.
- New Phillies hurler A.J. Burnett made his Spring Training debut over the weekend, and it came against his former club, the Pirates, writes Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and Burnett himself both told Biertempfel that there was nothing weird about Burnett pitching against the Bucs instead of for them, and neither hinted at any ill will. Hurdle simply called the change "part of the game," and Burnett offered nothing but respect for his former club.
- ESPN's Jayson Stark writes that although the Braves lost Tim Hudson to the Giants via free agency, talk that the club lacks an ace is overblown, as Kris Medlen has developed into that type of pitcher for the team. Assistant GM John Coppolella said of Medlen: "Look, the fact that he’s not 6 feet tall and that fact that he doesn't throw 95 [mph] makes it seem like he’s not a power guy, but he’s very good with what he does. … He’s a huge part of our staff. And we hope he will be for a long time."
The Brewers and Pirates have scouts watching the Red Sox, with a specific focus on Mike Carp, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe writes in his weekly Sunday column. While it's still unknown whether Carp can handle an everyday job, he wouldn't have to fill that role in Pittsburgh, as the Bucs have been looking for a left-handed hitting platoon partner for first baseman Gaby Sanchez. Carp has received a lot of trade buzz this offseason though Boston was known to be asking for a lot in return.
Here's some more from Cafardo's latest piece…
- Sam and Seth Levinson of the ACES agency "are gaining the reputation of persuading clients to take under-market-value contracts if they’re happy where they are," which is why there is a feeling amongst general managers that Jon Lester, an ACES client, will sign an extension with the Red Sox. “If you’re a team with a big-ticket guy out there, they are the agents you want to be dealing with right now,” said one National League GM. “The teams love it. You can get something done with them." This past summer, ACES client Dustin Pedroia signed an eight-year, $110MM extension with the Red Sox that was perceived as a team-friendly deal (especially given what Robinson Cano was able to find on the open market this offseason), though it's worth noting that the Levinsons kept Pedroia fully informed of his market value and the second baseman just really wanted to stay in Boston. Lester, for his part, has also said he'd be willing to take a discount to remain with the Sox.
- Cafardo speaks to Orioles manager Buck Showalter about the team's recent signings of Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez and how the club weighed the value of the draft picks they'd have to surrender to sign the qualifying offer-rejecting free agents. Also, Showalter doesn't think money will be an obstacle in retaining key players over the long term. “I feel confident with Peter [Angelos] that when we come to him and say this is someone we want to hold on to, he’s going to find a way to do it,” said Showalter. “I don’t think our guys want to go anywhere."
- Baltimore's hiring of Dave Wallace as pitching coach "may be the best acquisition we’ve made this offseason," Showalter said. “He’s really simplified things for us. Sometimes we’re so mechanics-driven in this business.”
- "Don't believe" the Blue Jays when they say they aren't interested in Ervin Santana, Cafardo writes. He also thinks the Orioles could still have an eye on Santana even after the Jimenez signing.
- Oliver Perez seemed to be close to a new contract two weeks ago when he was weighing offers from four teams, but "nothing has transpired" since then, Cafardo writes. He opines that the Nationals and Yankees are teams who could use Perez's lefty presence in their bullpens.