- The Pirates are set to name Joey Cora as their new third base coach, reports Cory Giger of the Altoona Mirror (Twitter link). Cora managed Pittsburgh’s Double-A affiliate in Altoona this season and has several years of experience as a Major League bench coach and third base coach. He’ll replace Rick Sofield, who served as Pittsburgh’s third base coach from 2013-16 but was fired over the weekend, according to a club announcement. Cora, like his younger brother Alex, enjoyed a lengthy Major League career as an infielder and has previously been considered for managerial vacancies at the Major League level.
The Pirates have fired third base coach Rick Sofield and reassigned first base coach Nick Leyva, per a team announcement. Leyva will take over as a senior advisor for baseball operations.
“It was a difficult decision, but we felt it was the right time to make this change on our Major League staff,” said general manager Neal Huntington (Twitter link via Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
It was only a year ago that Sofield was in serious contention for the Padres’ managerial job, for which he was reportedly the favorite at one point. That position ultimately went to Andy Green, leaving Sofield to return to the Pirates for what proved to be his fourth and final year on manager Clint Hurdle’s staff. The 59-year-old Sofield, who previously managed the Pirates’ Low-A affiliate in 2012, was also Pittsburgh’s baserunning and outfield coach. Under Sofield’s watch this season, Pirates baserunners made the second-most outs in the league at third base and ranked last in taking extra bases on singles and doubles, according to Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review.
Sofield’s dismissal “blindsided” him, he told Biertempfel. “I’m heartbroken … but you’ve got to respect people doing that they think is best,” he added (Twitter link).
Sofield was the Pirates’ first base coach before switching roles with Leyva in advance of the 2015 season. Leyva had been part of Hurdle’s coaching staff since he took the helm as Pittsburgh’s skipper in 2010. Along with serving as the Pirates’ first base coach, Leyva was the club’s infield coach. In his new role, the 63-year-old will work as a minor league advisor, per Biertempfel.
- While much has been made of Josh Bell’s bat, defense will be the primary focus for the promising young Pirates slugger this offseason, writes MLB.com’s Adam Berry. GM Neal Huntington spoke to Bell at season’s end about his desire for Bell to become proficient both at his natural position of right field and his more recently adopted position of first base. “That’s going to be my main focus, making sure I’m more versatile next year,” Bell told Berry. “You have a few guys in every lineup that can play all over the field. Those guys are your most valuable players. I hope to be one of those guys next year.” While Bell obviously won’t be lining up in the middle of the diamond anytime soon, there’s an obvious benefit to freely being able to move him between the corner outfield and first base without fretting much over defensive issues. As Berry points out, a crowded outfield and the presence of first baseman John Jaso on the roster as well could lead to an offseason trade but could also make for some nice depth in the 2017 season if everyone is retained.
- The Pirates re-signed righty Casey Sadler to a minor league deal. Sadler, 26, made a nice spot start in 2016 but spent most of the year working at Triple-A. He wasn’t able to repeat his quality earned run numbers from the prior two seasons in the upper minors, pitching to a 4.22 ERA with 5.3 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 over 81 frames in 13 starts.
We’re just a few months away from this winter’s Rule 5 draft, so it makes sense to take a look back and see how things shook out from the 2015 selections. Several organizations found useful players, even if the most recent class didn’t include an Odubel Herrera-esque breakout sensation. Some of the most recent draftees have probably locked up MLB jobs again for 2017, though others who stuck on a major league roster all year may head back to the minors for further development. (Once a player’s permanent control rights have been secured, his new organization is free to utilize optional assignments as usual for future years.)
Here’s a roundup of the 2015 draft class with the 2016 season in the books:
- Tyler Goeddel, OF, kept by Phillies from Rays: The 23-year-old struggled with the aggressive move to the big leagues, carrying a .192/.258/.291 batting line in 234 trips to the plate, but showed enough for the rebuilding Phillies to hold onto him all year long.
- Luis Perdomo, RHP, kept by Padres (via Rockies) from Cardinals: It didn’t look good early for Perdomo, but he showed better after moving to the rotation and ended with a rather promising 4.85 ERA over twenty starts. Though he struggled to contain the long ball, and only struck out 6.4 per nine, Perdomo sported a nifty 59.0% groundball rate on the year.
- Joey Rickard, OF, kept by Orioles from Rays: After opening the year with a bang, Rickard faded to a .268/.319/.377 batting line on the year but held his roster spot in Baltimore. He ended the season on the DL with a thumb injury, though, and may end up at Triple-A for some added seasoning.
- Joe Biagini, RHP, kept by Blue Jays from Giants: The only Rule 5 pick to appear in the postseason, Biagini was a great find for Toronto. He ended with 67 2/3 innings of 3.06 ERA pitching, with 8.2 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9, and now looks like a potential fixture in the Jays’ relief corps.
- Matthew Bowman, RHP, kept by Cardinals from Mets: Bowman rounds out a trio of impressive relievers. He contributed 67 2/3 innings with a 3.46 ERA and 6.9 BB/9 against 2.7 BB/9 to go with a monster 61.7% groundball rate.
Retained By Other Means
- Deolis Guerra, RHP, re-signed by Angels (who selected him from Pirates) after being outrighted: Guerra was in an unusual spot since he had previously been outrighted off of the Bucs’ 40-man roster when he was selected, meaning he didn’t need to be offered back. Los Angeles removed him from the major league roster and then brought him back on a minor league deal, ultimately selecting his contract. Though he was later designated and outrighted by the Halos, Guerra again returned and largely thrived at the major league level, contributing 53 1/3 much-needed pen frames with a 3.21 ERA on the back of 6.1 K/9 against just 1.2 BB/9.
- Jabari Blash, OF, acquired by Padres (who acquired Rule 5 rights from Athletics) from Mariners: Blash’s intriguing tools weren’t quite ready for the majors, but San Diego struck a deal to hold onto him and was surely impressed with his showing at Triple-A. In his 229 plate appearances there, Blash swatted 11 home runs but — more importantly — carried a .415 OBP with a much-improved 66:41 K/BB ratio.
- Ji-Man Choi, 1B, outrighted by Angels after Orioles declined return: The 25-year-old scuffled in the bigs but was rather impressive at the highest level of the minors, where he walked nearly as often as he struck out and put up a .346/.434/.527 slash with five home runs in 227 plate appearances.
- Jake Cave, OF, returned from Reds to Yankees: After failing to crack Cinci’s roster out of camp, Cave impressed at Double-A but slowed at the highest level of the minors (.261/.323/.401 in 354 plate appearances) upon his return to the New York organization.
- Evan Rutckyj, LHP, returned from Braves to Yankees: Sent back late in camp, the 24-year-old struggled in limited action on the Yanks’ farm after missing most of the season with elbow issues.
- Josh Martin, RHP, returned from Padres to Indians: In his first attempt at Triple-A, Martin posted 66 frames of 3.55 ERA pitching with 8.2 K/9 against 3.1 BB/9.
- Daniel Stumpf, LHP, returned from Phillies to Royals: Slowed by a PED suspension, Stumpf was bombed in a brief MLB stint with the Phils but dominated at Double-A upon his return to K.C., posting a 2.11 ERA with 11.0 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 in 21 1/3 innings.
- Chris O’Grady, LHP, returned from Reds to Angels: Sent back in late March, O’Grady compiled a 3.48 ERA over 95 2/3 innings in the upper minors, though he performed much better as a Double-A starter than he did as a Triple-A reliever.
- Zack Jones, RHP, returned from Brewers to Twins: The 25-year-old was out with a shoulder injury for most of the year, and ended up being sent back to Minnesota in late June, but has shown swing-and-miss stuff when healthy.
- Blake Smith, RHP, returned from Padres to White Sox: Smith ended up making a brief MLB debut upon his return to Chicago, but spend most of the year pitching well at Triple-A Charlotte, where he ran up a 3.53 ERA in 71 1/3 innings with 9.5 K/9 against 3.0 BB/9.
- Colin Walsh, INF, returned from Brewers to Athletics: After struggling badly in his major league stint with the Brewers, Walsh went to Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate and put up a .259/.384/.388 bating line over 245 plate appearances.
Fresh off their first non-playoff season since 2012, the Pirates will prioritize improving their run prevention over the winter, reports Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. In 2015, when the Pirates won 98 games, they finished third in the majors in runs surrendered (596). That figure skyrocketed during a 78-win 2016 campaign for the Bucs, who allowed opposing teams to cross home plate 758 times (22nd in the league).
The better your pitching, the better your chances of stopping rivals from scoring, but general manager Neal Huntington isn’t optimistic about ameliorating the team’s staff via free agency. As Sawchik notes, the average starting pitcher deal during free agency last offseason was worth $10.02MM. Now, with so few appealing options set to hit the market, “it will be worse this year,” Huntington told Sawchik. “It is a reminder of how important it is for us to develop our own starting pitching,” the GM added.
The Pirates have one of the league’s top soon-to-be free agent rotation pieces in right-hander Ivan Nova, whom they acquired from the Yankees at this year’s trade deadline. Nova was a revelation in Pittsburgh and now looks primed to land a richer deal than anyone would have expected before he joined the Pirates. The club is trying to re-sign him, but the likelihood is he’ll hit the market, according to Sawchik.
With Nova perhaps on the brink of departing, Huntington opened up about the difficulties of working with a low payroll, saying that “every significant contract is a risk. When you look at Francisco Liriano at $13 million, when he performed well it is an affordable contract. But it’s the equivalent of $30-$40 million (per year) for the Dodgers. Percent of payroll is real. It’s not an excuse. When a contract is 13 percent of your payroll versus 4 percent, the level of risk tolerance is so very different …. How far do you stretch? It is a case-by-case situation.”
Huntington’s spending limitations played into the Pirates’ inability to re-sign left-hander J.A. Happ and add fellow southpaw Rich Hill last year. The Pirates lost out by $500K on Hill, whom the Athletics signed for $6MM.
As for Liriano, the Pirates traded him to the Blue Jays at the Aug. 1 non-waiver deadline. Liriano was outstanding with Pittsburgh in 2015, the first of a three-year, $39MM deal, but that wasn’t the case this season. As a result, the payroll-challenged Bucs dealt two prospects along with Liriano in exchange for $18MM in savings and right-hander Drew Hutchison.
With none of Happ, Liriano or Hill in the picture, the Pirates unsurprisingly have rotation questions going forward. Righties Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are sure to fill two rotation spots for the club. Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams and Hutchison are among their other potential in-house rotation candidates. They’re not the most confidence-inspiring choices, which Huntington addressed.
“Some will continue to progress. The real world shows us some will regress,” he said.
If Huntington decides he’s not content with that group, he revealed that dealing position pitchers to “strengthen” his team’s rotation is a possibility. It’s unclear which players Huntington could part with, though center fielder Andrew McCutchen’s name has come up of late. While the longtime face of the franchise is a five-time All-Star and one-time NL MVP, his all-around performance drastically fell off last season and he especially hindered the Pirates’ ability to prevent runs. McCutchen’s minus-27 Defensive Runs Saved “catches your attention,” said Huntington, who attributes some of the 30-year-old’s fielding woes to the shallower alignment the team deployed this season. The Pirates are now evaluating how they’ll align their fielders in the future, per Sawchik. One thing that will remain is an emphasis on inducing ground balls.
“(The ground ball) is something that we’re going to keep as one of our cornerstones,” manager Clint Hurdle told Sawchik. “We’ve had a recipe for success and we want to follow it.”
Pittsburgh’s ground-ball percentage fell from 50.4 in 2015 to 46.9 this year, but the team still ranked third in the majors in that department. However, only nine clubs were worse at turning grounders into outs, StatCorner indicates . The Pirates ranked a far superior 12th at killing grounders the previous year, when they were a much better defensive team in general. Now, Huntington is trying to figure out how to restore the Pirates to their 2015 ways.
The Pirates want John Jaso to work out at third base and in the outfield this winter, MLB.com’s Adam Berry reports. Jaso was a catcher prior to the 2016 season, but moved to first base this year and had immediate success defensively, so it’s wouldn’t be that surprising if he were capable of handling third as well. The idea that Jaso could be used in a multi-positional role in 2017, though, suggests that the Pirates could have Josh Bell (a far worse defender than Jaso, but a younger player and a slightly better hitter, at least by 2016 statistics) take the bulk of the playing time at first base. The team already has David Freese available to back up Bell at first and Jung Ho Kang at third, so finding time for Jaso as a third baseman might be difficult. There might be a bit more space for Jaso in the outfield, with backups Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez eligible for free agency. Still, with another year remaining on his contract, Jaso could potentially be a trade candidate this winter or in Spring Training. Here’s more from around the league.
The Pirates are unlikely to sign right-hander Gerrit Cole to a contract extension during the offseason, sources told Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Cole and agent Scott Boras could be amenable to a three-year pact that would take him through arbitration, but the Pirates aren’t interested in that, according to Biertempfel. An agreement that would buy out some of Cole’s free agent years is also improbable, Biertempfel reports. With no deal coming, Cole will make his first trip through arbitration over the winter and could hit free agency after the 2019 campaign.
Cole, whom the Pirates chose first overall in the 2011 draft, has been mostly excellent in the major leagues since debuting in 2013. However, Pittsburgh is wary of his injury history, per Biertempfel. Cole was on the disabled list twice in 2014 thanks to shoulder fatigue and lat tightness, and the 26-year-old tossed just 116 innings this season while dealing with multiple injuries. Cole had a rib issue that bothered him in spring training, and he then went on the DL three different times during the season. Two of those stints were the result of right elbow inflammation, with the second forcing the Bucs to shut him down for the year in mid-September.
Before the season began, Cole squabbled with the Pirates over financial compensation. The team renewed Cole’s salary for $541K, a $10K raise over what he collected in 2014, but only after threatening to slash his pay to the $507K league minimum when he asked for a raise.
“When you perform at a level that draws the praise of management, teammates, coaches and fans, you expect appropriate compensation. I understand the business of this game, but it is hard to accept that a year of performance success does not warrant an increase in pay,” Cole said at the time.
Cole was superb in 2015, his first All-Star season, as he established career highs in innings (208), ERA (2.60), BB/9 (1.9) and swinging strike rate (10.2 percent). Those numbers dipped this year, though, with Cole posting personal worsts in each category. All told, he recorded a 3.88 ERA, 2.79 BB/9 and 8.5 percent swinging strike rate. Cole also set a career low in K/9 (7.6), down significantly from the 8.74 figure he registered in 2015.
While Cole’s output wasn’t great this season, his numbers across 579 career major league frames are stellar. He’ll benefit from his overall performance in arbitration, where ERA (3.23) and wins (47) are important factors. MLBTR projects a $4.2MM arbitration award for Cole.
After a down season in 2016, the Pirates will face a number of challenges as they try to regroup.
- Gregory Polanco, OF: $32MM through 2021 (plus 2022 and 2023 club options)
- Francisco Cervelli, C: $31MM through 2019
- Starling Marte, OF: $24.5MM through 2019 (plus 2020 and 2021 club options)
- Josh Harrison, 2B: $18.5MM through 2018 (plus 2019 and 2020 club options)
- Andrew McCutchen, CF: $15MM through 2017 (plus 2018 club option)
- David Freese, 1B/3B: $11MM through 2018 (plus 2019 club option)
- Antonio Bastardo, RP: $6.5MM through 2017 (partially paid by the Mets)
- Jung Ho Kang, 3B: $6MM through 2018 (plus 2019 club option)
- John Jaso, 1B: $4MM through 2017
- Chris Stewart, C: $1.65MM through 2017 (plus 2018 club option)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Tony Watson (5.101) — $5.9MM
- Juan Nicasio (5.084) — $4.6MM
- Jared Hughes (4.162) — $2.5MM
- Jordy Mercer (4.095) — $4MM
- Jeff Locke (4.020) — $4.2MM
- Drew Hutchison (3.165) — $2.2MM
- Wade LeBlanc (3.131) — $1.6MM
- Gerrit Cole (3.111) — $4.2MM
- Non-tender candidates: Locke, Hughes, LeBlanc
Before the season, Pirates GM Neal Huntington controversially described 2016 as a “bridge year,” which he later clarified meant the club was transitioning from a core of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, A.J. Burnett, Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin to one led by McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Mark Melancon and Gregory Polanco, as well as newcomers Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow. The Pirates stumbled across that bridge, winning just 78 games in 2016 after three straight playoff berths, and now they’re trying to figure out what’s on the other side.
Much went wrong for the Pirates in 2016, beginning with McCutchen’s abrupt, and huge, step backwards. Cole had arm trouble and wasn’t as effective as he’d been in 2015, and Melancon, who was about to become a free agent anyway, ended up traded to Washington for fellow reliever Felipe Rivero and a prospect.
Not much went right for other members of Huntington’s new core, either. Catcher Francisco Cervelli, whom the Pirates extended in July, struggled with a broken hand and only hit one home run all season (although he did have a .377 OBP). Second baseman Josh Harrison, who’d signed an extension in 2015, had an underwhelming year, batting .283/.311/.388, and he ended the season on the DL. And lefty Francisco Liriano, whom the Pirates had signed through 2017, struggled and then was shipped to Toronto in a baffling salary dump that also cost the Bucs two good prospects.
The Pirates announced that they’ve acquired right-hander Brady Dragmire from the Blue Jays in exchange for cash. In order to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, lefty Phil Coke has been designated for assignment. Toronto designated Dragmire for assignment last week to add to its roster in the wake of Joaquin Benoit’s injury.
The 23-year-old Dragmire logged a 4.38 ERA with 5.1 K/9 against 3.5 BB/9 in 72 innings at Double-A New Hampshire this season. While those numbers don’t exactly stand out, the Bucs have a history of targeting ground-ball pitchers, and Dragmire excelled in that aspect, recording a stellar 63.6 percent ground-ball rate in the minors this year. That factor, as well as his relative youth, likely made him an appealing target for Pittsburgh.
As for Coke, the veteran 34-year-old found himself in Pittsburgh following a late September trade. Pittsburgh sent cash to the Yankees in exchange for Coke, who tossed four innings scoreless innings for the Pirates. Coke could’ve been a free agent at season’s end anyhow, so the DFA is largely a formality.