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Cardinals starter John Lackey remains interested in re-working his contract for this season, reports Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Lackey, of course, is set to make the league minimum salary this season due to an unusual clause in the contract he signed with the Red Sox several years ago. Lackey says he would “love to hear something from the Cardinals. I’d listen to any offers. The ball is in their court.” Last month, however, GM John Mozeliak explained why any new arrangement is unlikely. The Cardinals have no reason to restructure Lackey’s contract without adding a year or more of additional control, and the 36-year-old Lackey will likely want to explore free agency after the season. Here’s more from the Central divisions.
- The Pirates appreciate outfielder Travis Snider‘s work with them in the past several seasons, Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes. The Bucs faced Snider’s new team, the Orioles, in Spring Training action earlier this week. “The last three months of the season, this guy performed very, very well for us at a time it was critically needed,” says Bucs manager Clint Hurdle. “Just well-liked, well-appreciated.” The Pirates traded Snider this offseason partly to clear space in right field for the younger Gregory Polanco (and also partly because going with Andrew Lambo or someone else on their bench gives them more flexibility than did Snider, who was out of options). “I didn’t take it personally,” says Snider. “I understand the potential of Gregory Polanco.”
- Outfielder Shane Robinson has an April 2 opt-out clause in his minor-league deal with the Twins, Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press writes. He would be paid $550K at the big-league level this season. The longtime Cardinal hit .304/.380/.398 in 216 plate appearances with Triple-A Memphis last season and has had a good track record of getting on base at the Triple-A level in the past several years. He can also play all three outfield positions. Robinson has never really caught on in the big leagues, though, hitting .231/.303/.308 in parts of five seasons.
The Pirates have recently been amongst the game’s most aggressive teams in pursuing early-career extensions. Since taking the GM seat in Pittsburgh back in the fall of 2007, Neal Huntington has locked up deals with ten players for a total of 37 years and $182.9MM. Only two of those contracts went to players with four or more years of service.
Among the team’s most recent efforts were successful pacts with star outfielders Andrew McCutchen (six years, $51.5MM) and Starling Marte (six years, $31MM), with the former inking with 2.123 years of service and the latter signing with just 1.070 years to his credit. While those deals haven’t all been successful — neither Jose Tabata nor Nate McLouth, for instance, delivered value on their deals, though neither did they hamstring the club — the aggregate benefit to the organization is undeniable.
Pittsburgh, riding high on two straight postseason appearances, spent a relatively large amount through free agency this last offseason and seems in good position to stay competitive for years to come. The team has continued to explore ways to add value to its player assets through extensions: in particular, it made a long-term offer to then-untested outfielder Gregory Polanco last year, though those negotiations seemingly stalled. In spite of their relatively meager spending capacity, the Pirates appear to have plenty of future flexibility, with less than $12MM on the books for 2018 and even less thereafter.
While another run at Polanco obviously remains possible, it is fair to wonder whether the team might turn its sights elsewhere this spring. Josh Harrison remains an intriguing possibility, as MLBTR’s Steve Adams discussed last fall. Beyond that, there is one obvious potential candidate who brings immense upside — and, given the nature of his craft, risk: young ace Gerrit Cole.
Cole, 24, has done exactly what the Bucs hoped when they made him the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, reaching the bigs in 2013 and establishing himself as a quality starter off the bat. To date, he has thrown 255 1/3 big league innings with a 3.45 ERA and 8.4 K/9 against 2.4 BB/9. Advanced metrics suggest he’s been even better, as he owns a career 3.09 FIP, 3.20 xFIP, and 3.28 SIERA. Cole consistently works in the mid-90s with his fastball and has averaged a strong 49.1% groundball rate thus far. Needless to say, the outlook is positive.
If there is one red flag on Cole, it is health. First and foremost, he is a pitcher; as we are constantly reminded, any arm is at risk of injury at any time. But there is some additional cause for concern in his case, as Cole missed significant time last year owing to shoulder issues. He returned and posted good results late in the season, and does not have any significant history of problems prior to 2014. And he has reportedly worked to smooth out his mechanics and incorporated exercises to maintain his shoulder health.
With just 1.111 years of service to his name entering the 2015 season, Cole will not qualify as a Super Two and is set to hit arbitration eligibility in 2017. That means he will not reach free agency until 2020. Despite his rapid ascent to the bigs, Cole will reach the open market at age 29 — still relatively young, but not as early as some quick-to-the-bigs phenoms. Those factors, along with the risk of injury and performance, generally transfer significant leverage to a team, of course.
In this case, though, there are some significant offsetting considerations. For one, Cole was signed to an $8MM deal out of college, meaning he has already secured life-changing money. For another, he is represented by agent Scott Boras. Contrary to popular opinion, Boras has overseen pre-free agent deals for his clients, many of those contracts have not sacrificed free agent seasons. And, on balance, he certainly carries a deserved reputation for bringing his players onto the open market in search of huge paydays.
To be sure, it is far from a sure thing that Cole would be receptive to contract talks at this stage. If he is, however, both sides will have plenty of precedent to work from. Looking in at recent extensions for starters with between one and two years of service, one finds a host of comparables. First on the list has to be Madison Bumgarner, who got five years and $35MM from the Giants while giving up two option years back in 2012. More recently, Julio Teheran and the Braves linked up on a six-year, $32.4MM deal that conveyed one option year to Atlanta.
The Bumgarner comp, in particular, appears to be a good one; indeed, he was perhaps slightly more accomplished — and significantly younger — at a similar point in his service timeline, and had already put up a fully healthy season of over 200 frames. Teheran signed before his age-23 season, coming off of a 185 2/3 inning season of the sort that Cole has yet to accomplish. Cole’s representatives would no doubt point to the $200MM+ contracts that have been given to free agent starters in recent years as evidence of salary growth, though Cole’s shoulder concerns and additional age would serve as counterpoints. While it is, perhaps, possible to argue that Cole possesses greater upside than Teheran, or at least more than he did at the time his deal was struck, projection systems seem to hold the two righties in approximately the same regard heading into 2015.
What is most interesting about Cole’s situation, perhaps, is what it could theoretically tell us about where pre-arb extensions are headed. Somewhat unlike other areas of the market, early-career pitching extensions have not exhibited much growth. In addition to the Bumgarner and Teheran examples, which came two years apart, extensions for pitchers with between two and three years of service have largely followed a script for some time: Gio Gonzalez (five years, $42MM, two options) holds the record in that class, but Chris Sale‘s 2013 deal (five years, $32.5MM, two options) was not substantially different from, say, the 2011 Trevor Cahill contract (five years, $30.5MM, two options).
As I explained in breaking down last year’s notable Freddie Freeman extension, and as the Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton extensions further demonstrate, the position player extension market has seemingly broken out of any molds. On the pitching side, the most significant recent deals have gone to players on the verge of free agency (Clayton Kershaw and Homer Bailey, for instance). Locking up Cole could require a market-resetting deal; it remains to be seen, of course, whether either team or player are willing to make that happen.
Spring Training will always involve unfortunate news of injuries, but it also represents an opportunity for players making a comeback — whether from injury or otherwise — to reestablish themselves. In addition to restoring their own career trajectories (Scott Kazmir, anyone?), such players can deliver immense value to the teams that give them another chance.
Let’s take a look at a few situations from around the league, focusing on pitchers:
- When lefty Clayton Richard signed a minor league deal with the Pirates, everyone’s first thoughts went to the hurlers whose careers have recently been revived in Pittsburgh. (A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez being the prime examples.) As Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports, that is essentially what Richard was thinking about, too. “I was able to talk to [Volquez] a little bit and see what he thought of the organization,” said Richard. “It was positive. Just in talking with [GM] Neal [Huntington], [manager] Clint [Hurdle], and [pitching coach] Ray [Searage], I got a good feel of what they are all about. it made sense for me that this was the place.” The non-roster invitee is said to be hitting the gun in the low-nineties, where he previously has worked, and says he is “loosening up my entire body through my delivery” after having seen his motion limited in the past by shoulder troubles.
- After good vibes at the opening of Red Sox camp, Justin Masterson had a less-than-promising outing yesterday, as Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe writes. A scout called Masterson’s work “awful,” while manager John Farrell said the righty “started to flash some better stuff into the fourth inning” but lacked “late action” on his pitches from “inconsistencies and when the velocity drops.” That group of issues — i.e., mechanical struggles and waning fastball velocity — were perhaps the two most-cited underlying difficulties that led Masterson to fall from his early perch near the top of this year’s free agent class to a one-year, $9.5MM deal with Boston. Of course, there is still plenty of time for Masterson to rebound this season.
- Brandon Morrow of the Padres also signed a make-good, one-year deal but was guaranteed much less than Masterson. But he is off to a strong opening to his year, having posted nine innings with one earned run and seven strikeouts against two free passes thus far. In post-game comments today to his counterpart, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon said that Morrow showed “real stuff” in his four scoreless frames, as MLB.com’s Alyson Footer tweets. It seems at this point that the fifth starter’s role is Morrow’s to lose.
- Royals reliever Luke Hochevar made his way back to competitive action today, throwing a clean inning, as Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star reports (Twitter links). Working his way back from Tommy John surgery, Hochevar nevertheless landed a $10MM guarantee (over two years) to return to Kansas City. He was throwing in the 92 to 93 mph range in his work today, but despite that successful first appearance still seems likely to start the regular season on the DL.
Right-handed power hitters carried the day in 2014, writes Joel Sherman of the New York Post. By the numbers, 12 of the top 16 power hitters batted right-handed. Several clubs including the Padres, Astros, Diamondbacks, and Blue Jays have committed to a mostly right-handed lineup in a search for more power. Unfortunately, right-handed power extends to the mound, where an influx of relievers are throwing over 95 mph with nasty secondary pitches.
Here’s more from around the game:
- Indians utility fielder Zach Walters has injured his oblique and will miss the next three to four weeks, reports Chuck Crow of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Walters was acquired last season in exchange for Asdrubal Cabrera. The switch-hitter is a career .193/.253/.452 batter in 146 plate appearances, most of which came last season. He played five positions for the Nationals and Indians last season. Oblique injuries can be tricky to rehab, so expect the club to proceed slowly.
- Pirates infielder Jung-ho Kang has the work ethic and bat speed to succeed in the majors, writes Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The South Korean star will make his major league debut this season. No former KBO hitter has succeeded in the majors, so Kang will aim to pave the road for future generations. He uses the exaggerated leg kick first popularized by Sadaharu Oh, but he quiets it with two strikes. FanGraphs swing expert Dan Farnsworth analyzed Kang’s swing earlier this winter (FG+ required), concluding “he has all the makings of an absolute monster.”
- Former number one draft pick Brady Aiken is expected to make his season debut with IMG Post Grad on Thursday, tweets Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs. Aiken was selected by the Astros last June, but their agreement fell apart due to concerns about his pitching elbow. Aiken remains among the top prospects in the draft, although the Astros will presumably pass on selecting him with either of their top five picks.
Pirates righty Brandon Cumpton underwent Tommy John surgery today, GM Neal Huntington told reporters including Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (via Twitter). The procedure had seemed a possibility since Cumpton went in to visit Dr. James Andrews last week.
The 26-year-old had been set to function as a useful depth piece for the Bucs after throwing 100 2/3 MLB innings in a swingman capacity over the last two seasons. Cumpton racked up a 4.02 ERA with 6.1 K/9 against 2.1 BB/9 over that run, which included 15 starts and seven relief appearances, but has been even better at Triple-A.
Shortstop Trea Turner, the reported player to be named later in the Wil Myers deal, will be headed to the Nationals organization in June, but for right now, he’s enjoying his time in Padres big-league camp, MLB.com’s Corey Brock writes. “It’s been great. It’s been everything I’ve hoped for and more,” says Turner, who adds that he’s liked working with Padres third base coach Glenn Hoffman. Turner’s situation is unusual, though it sounds like he and the Padres are making the best of it. The team can’t simply trade the 2014 first-rounder now because they’re not allowed to deal him until a year after he signed his first pro contract. At the same time, it’s widely known that he’s in the trade and will be with the Nationals in June. Here’s more from the National League.
- Free-agent-to-be Jason Heyward doesn’t know what his future holds, but he’s happy to have a new start with the Cardinals, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes. “I spent five years at this level with one organization and I still don’t know if I’ve seen the best of myself,” Heyward says. “I do feel that this is the best thing that could have happened to me as far as playing this game, getting a new start somewhere else. Absolutely.” Heyward adds that money will be part of the equation in his search for a new team, but that it will be secondary. “Who is going to provide that environment on a daily basis that says you have a great opportunity to be great for as long as you can play? That’s the biggest thing for me,” he says.
- The Pirates signed reliever John Holdzkom out of independent ball last season with the idea that he would be an extra arm for Double-A who might turn out to be something more, Bucs special assistant Jim Benedict tells ESPN 970’s David Todd in an interview Todd transcribed for Bucs Dugout (a website for which I also write, in the interest of full disclosure). Benedict saw Holdzkom pitch last summer at Triple-A Indianapolis. “I remember telling Clint (Hurdle) like a lot of other guys, ‘There’s a guy down there that can help us. He’s downhill, he’s 98 and it cuts. And I know that’s hard to hit, so let’s keep our eyes on this one,‘” Benedict says. “And all of a sudden he’s on the Pirates pitching meaningful games.” Holdzkom, who began the season pitching for independent teams in San Angelo and Amarillo, wound up striking out 14 batters in nine innings down the stretch with the Pirates.
- Giants outfielder Hunter Pence is out six to eight weeks with a fractured forearm, but assistant GM Bobby Evans says that injury is short-term enough that the Giants will simply replace him internally, MLB Network Radio tweets.
Here are the highlights of Pirates GM Neal Huntington’s long conversation today with Ken Laird and Guy Junker of TribLIVE Radio (podcast link):
- The Pirates traded Travis Snider to the Orioles in part because they didn’t envision a likely role for him beyond 2015, Huntington says. Also, because Snider was out of options, removing him from their roster gives them more flexibility.
- In the past, the Bucs had gotten great results with down-on-their-luck pitchers like Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez, but they found those types of pitchers difficult to acquire this offseason, because they now require “$10MM to $12MM to $14MM annually” to sign. Huntington is presumably referring to pitchers like Brett Anderson and Justin Masterson, who looked, heading into the offseason, like they might be good fits for the Pirates. Instead, the Bucs went way under the radar to sign Radhames Liz (who’s pitched in the minors, in Korea, and in the Dominican Winter League in recent years) to a one-year, $1MM big-league deal.
- The development of the free-agent pitching market this winter demonstrates another reason the Pirates traded Snider, Huntington says — they acquired two pitchers in that deal, Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault, who could one day be big-league starters.
- Huntington speaks of the challenges of making decisions based on input from various voices within his front office and scouting staff. “I’m the first to realize that I don’t have the best evaluation skills within our organization,” he says. “I don’t necessarily always have to see it with my own eyes. It helps when I see what they’re seeing, and if I don’t see what they’re seeing, I can ask questions.”
The Dodgers are reportedly willing to pay half of Andre Ethier‘s salary in a trade, but it’s still hard to figure out where he might be able to find regular playing time, Eno Sarris of Fangraphs writes. Ethier is nearly 33 and profiles as a below-average player, and half of the $56MM remaining on his contract is still more than he would likely get on the open market. The Braves are one team who could conceivably use him. The Phillies might work if Ethier weren’t left-handed, and the Rangers could make sense if they didn’t already have so many corner outfield options. Overall, though, there shouldn’t be much of a market. Here’s more from the National League.
- Top Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon is scheduled to face live batters next week for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery in April, Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes. Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, only has six career starts at Triple-A, and the Pirates tend to be cautious about promoting their prospects. Health permitting, though, he could make his big-league debut at some point in the second half of the season.
- The signing of Jon Lester helped change the Cubs‘ reputation, Paul Sullivan of the Boston Herald writes. The Cubs will lean heavily on young players this season, but Lester says there’s no reason not to expect those players to win right out of the gate. “Time to grow up sometime,” says Lester. “When I played in Boston we didn’t have time to grow up. You just had to show up and play, and each year you’re expected to win.”
Big league spring matchups started today, which means that the sights and sounds of game action are officially back. It also provided a first look at Jung-ho Kang of the Pirates, who showed that his raw power is real in swatting a home run to center field. He still has a ways to go in earning playing time and proving his value, of course, but it was a nice start for the Korean ballplayer. Earlier today, MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth broke down the Bucs’ winter in the first installment of this year’s Offseason in Review series.
- Though the Brewers are still in the process of finalizing their deal with Francisco Rodriguez, the team found now a good opportunity to outright righty Brooks Hall, as MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy reports. “This was strategically calculated,” explained assistant GM Gord Ash, “because [Hall] has not pitched that much, he’s been injured on and off. We hoped we could sneak him through, and that’s exactly what was able to happen.”
- Mets GM Sandy Alderson indicated to reporters today that trade talks regarding the team’s starting pitching have been very quiet of late, as Anthony DiComo of MLB.com tweets. New York has an oft-discussed glut of rotation candidates, but seems content waiting for a good offer to come in or for an internal need to arise before deciding upon a course of action.
- The Braves seem to be angling towards using recently-acquired youngster Manny Banuelos as a reliever to start the year before shifting him to the rotation, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman reports (Twitter links). Whether or not that action comes at Triple-A or with the big league club remains to be seen, but Atlanta is hoping to mix and match his roles in order to build his innings in a manageable way while allowing him to compete all season. Once considered one of the game’s best prospects, Banuelos will look to turn things around in Atlanta, which gave up reliever David Carpenter to acquire him.
The Pirates spent much of the winter trying to insulate themselves against the potential departures of players who had been keys to their successful 2013 and 2014 seasons. In the end, they spent surprisingly heavily, given their usual thriftiness, signing two familiar starting pitchers and adding a high-profile but largely untested Korean infielder.
Major League Signings
- Francisco Liriano, SP: Three years, $39MM
- Jung-ho Kang, SS: Four years plus club option for 2019, $11MM guaranteed (plus $5,002,015 posting fee)
- A.J. Burnett, SP: One year, $8.5MM
- Corey Hart, 1B/OF: One year, $2.5MM
- Radhames Liz, P: One year, $1MM
- Total spend: ~$67MM
Notable Minor League Signings
Trades And Claims
- Acquired C Francisco Cervelli from Yankees for RP Justin Wilson
- Acquired P Stephen Tarpley and P Steven Brault from Orioles for OF Travis Snider
- Acquired RP Antonio Bastardo from Phillies for Joely Rodriguez
- Acquired UT Sean Rodriguez from Rays for P Buddy Borden and cash
- Acquired the rights to international bonus spending from Athletics for 1B Ike Davis
- Acquired RP Rob Scahill from Rockies for P Shane Carle
- Acquired SS Justin Sellers from Indians for cash
- Acquired RP Arquimedes Caminero from Marlins for cash
- Claimed SS Pedro Florimon from Nationals
The Pirates lost catcher Russell Martin, a key to their franchise-changing 2013 and 2014 campaigns and a bargain to the franchise when he signed following the 2012 season for two years and $17MM. Martin headed to Toronto at a dramatic markup, with the Pirates receiving only a draft pick in return. In Martin’s place, the Bucs acquired former Yankees backstop Francisco Cervelli, who has struggled to stay healthy and isn’t likely to hit nearly as well as Martin did, since Cervelli’s strong offensive performance in a small sample last year was largely BABIP-fueled. Via StatCorner, however, Cervelli and backup Chris Stewart have both ranked as above-average pitch framers in each of the last four seasons, potentially giving the Pirates an edge that won’t be reflected in their catchers’ offensive numbers. Cervelli and Stewart aren’t likely to replace Martin’s .290/.402/.430 2014 season at the plate, but they could approximate Martin’s value behind it at a fraction of the cost.
The Bucs also faced uncertainties in their rotation, given that Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez were eligible for free agency. The Bucs re-signed Liriano for $39MM, more than doubling Martin’s record for the organization’s largest ever free agent contract. To some extent, the Pirates paid heavily for their own handiwork, as their combination of framing, defensive shifts and strong coaching had helped Liriano rebuild his value after he posted consecutive seasons with five-plus ERAs in 2011 and 2012. But the Bucs needed pitching, and there were few better bets on the market, with Brandon McCarthy the only pitcher in the Pirates’ presumed price range who might have been as good a fit for their ground-ball-heavy approach. Liriano’s price was reasonable, too, given that McCarthy and Ervin Santana, pitchers in a similar tier, each got four years and more money (although it should be noted that McCarthy, unlike Liriano and Santana, did not require the loss of a draft pick).
The Pirates’ replacement for Volquez (another pitcher whose value skyrocketed thanks in part to the Bucs’ planning and coaching) fell into their laps in November, when A.J. Burnett told his agent he was only interested in playing in Pittsburgh. Burnett had rejected a $12.75MM player option to remain in Philadelphia, and he took a significant discount to return to the Pirates. Burnett’s peripherals declined with the Phillies, and at 38, he’ll be hard-pressed to repeat his excellent performances with Pittsburgh 2012 and 2013. Like Liriano and Volquez, though, he’s a good fit for the Pirates given his ground ball tendencies and the Bucs’ defense and ballpark, so some rebound from his disappointing, hernia-plagued 2014 season is likely.
The Pirates also allowed Clint Barmes, a light-hitting shortstop whose good glove was often a crucial part of the Bucs’ swarming infield defense, to leave for the Padres via free agency. With Jordy Mercer remaining as the Pirates’ starter, the Bucs first aimed to replace Barmes’ glove by collecting low-cost infielders, including Sean Rodriguez, Justin Sellers, Pedro Florimon and Jake Elmore (who is already out of the organization). Rodriguez, who can also play the outfield, still looks like a fit for the Pirates’ bench, but the Bucs’ plans for the others likely changed in December, when they unexpectedly won the bidding for Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang. The Bucs then signed Kang to a four-year deal with an option for 2019.
It’s hard to tell what to expect of Kang, the first position player from the KBO to arrive in US baseball via the posting system. The 27-year-old posted a ridiculous .356/.459/.739 line with Nexen in 2014, although the KBO is an extremely hitter-friendly league with a competition level significantly lower than that of the Majors, and there are questions about Kang’s ability to handle shortstop in the big leagues. He’ll likely start the season as a bench option for the Pirates. If he proves he can handle big-league pitching, however, he might not stay there. Mercer has never been a star, first baseman Pedro Alvarez is strikeout-prone and erratic, second baseman Neil Walker has struggled to stay healthy, and third baseman Josh Harrison is versatile and can be moved back into his previous super-utility role, so there could be opportunities for Kang to start at some point in the future.
Kang wasn’t the only player from the KBO the Pirates added, also signing Dominican pitcher Radhames Liz, who pitched for the LG Twins from 2011-2013, to a cheap one-year deal. Liz started in Korea, but the Pirates have already suggested they’re likely to use him in relief — not a surprise, given the 31-year-old’s live arm and history of control issues.
To make up for the departure of lefty Justin Wilson in the Cervelli deal, the Bucs traded lefty prospect Joely Rodriguez to the Phillies for Antonio Bastardo, who they’d also reportedly pursued at the 2014 trade deadline. As a fly ball pitcher, Bastardo doesn’t match the Pirates’ usual pitcher type, but he whiffed 11.4 batters per nine innings last season and should give the Bucs an effective second lefty to pair with Tony Watson.
Finally, the Pirates signed Corey Hart to a cheap deal to provide a right-handed bat at first base and in the outfield. Hart effectively replaces Gaby Sanchez, who struggled while serving as the right-handed side of an underwhelming platoon with Ike Davis in 2014. Hart himself missed the entire 2013 season due to injury and had a terrible 2014 in Seattle, but he was well above average in three straight seasons before that, so he might have some upside that Sanchez doesn’t. At $2.5MM (plus some incentives for plate appearance thresholds he isn’t likely to reach), Hart poses little risk.
The Bucs have few obvious holes, but it’s unclear whether they have the talent necessary to topple the Cardinals and hold off the Cubs in the NL Central. (And while the Brewers and Reds aren’t as likely to contend, they won’t be complete pushovers either.) With the departure of Travis Snider in a deal with the Orioles, the Bucs will lean heavily on Gregory Polanco in right field. Polanco, who has stratospheric upside, should certainly start, but he struggled in his rookie season in 2014. He has more than enough talent to make the necessary adjustments, but if he doesn’t, the Pirates’ outfield picture could get interesting, particularly if Kang proves he’s good enough to start somewhere in the infield — in that case, Kang could take over at third with Harrison moving to right.
The Pirates’ new first base platoon of Alvarez and Hart might or might not pan out. Alvarez, who had to be moved off third after a series of throwing misadventures last season, has barely played his new position. And then there’s his offense — he’s only two years removed from a 36-homer 2013 campaign, but he has strikeout issues that dramatically limit his ability to hit for average. He improved his plate discipline in 2014, but his new approach perhaps cost him power, as he went from one home run every 17 plate appearances to one every 25. He’s set to make $5.75MM in his penultimate season before free agency eligibility, and this year could be his last in a Pirates uniform, since the arbitration process threatens to pay him more than he’s worth.
The Pirates will also have to determine who belongs in their rotation. Liriano, Burnett and Gerrit Cole are easy choices, along with Charlie Morton, as long as Morton remains on track after having hip surgery late last season. After that, there’s Vance Worley and Jeff Locke, both of whom are out of options. Worley was the better of the two last season, posting a 2.85 ERA with 6.4 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9, so he could take over the fifth spot. Locke is too valuable to designate for assignment and probably isn’t ideally suited to relief work, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Pirates trade him near the end of Spring Training if all their big-league starters are healthy. If they did, it would make sense to get a starting pitcher who has options. The Bucs’ rotation depth took a hit in early March when it was revealed that Brandon Cumpton, a starter on the 40-man roster who figured to begin the year at Triple-A Indianapolis, needed to visit Dr. James Andrews.
The Pirates’ biggest problem, though, is that they’ll have to make up for some individual performances they probably won’t get again. Cervelli is capable, but he’s not Martin. Harrison produced an out-of-nowhere 4.9-WAR season that he’s unlikely to repeat, given his previous performance record, although his breakout was fueled in part by an increase in his line-drive rate that’s probably sustainable to some degree. Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Neil Walker had terrific seasons as well. Breakouts from Polanco or Cole would help offset likely declines at other positions. If flame-throwing rookie reliever John Holdzkom can pitch as well over a full season as he did for the Pirates in September, that would help, too.
Deal of Note
The Pirates spent most of the offseason accumulating veteran talent where they could, but they went in the opposite direction when they traded Travis Snider to the Orioles for pitching prospects Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault. They had traded two young pitching prospects, Joely Rodriguez and Buddy Borden, in previous offseason deals, so their return in the Snider deal allowed them to replenish their farm system. But it still seemed like an odd trade — even with the left-handed Polanco projected to take over for the Snider in right field, Snider had a clear role on the team as the Bucs’ only projected lefty bench option. Snider hit a solid .268/.338/.438 and produced 1.7 fWAR in just 359 plate appearances last season, so his loss is a significant one, at least on the surface.
Many projection systems think Snider and minor-leaguer Andrew Lambo will produce at about the same rate next year, though, and Snider had never previously had a big-league season like the one he had in 2014. So perhaps the Pirates thought they sold high on Snider while clearing a space for Lambo, who clobbered Triple-A pitching for the second consecutive season last year. And while trading Snider for prospects seems like the behavior of a rebuilding team, not a contending one, GMs increasingly seem to be pursuing multiple goals at once — not just trying to win now or just trying to win later, but trying to do both at the same time.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington, his front office, and the Bucs’ coaching staff have now produced two straight teams that were better than they appeared to be on paper. The Pirates target pitchers who induce buckets of ground balls, then get the most out of what seem to be average infield defenses with expert positioning. Add in a pitcher-friendly ballpark and the NL’s lack of the DH, and many Pirates pitchers during the last two years — Burnett, Liriano, Volquez, Charlie Morton, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes — were probably as likely to succeed with the Pirates as with any other team in baseball. The way the Bucs help pitchers, chronicled in detail in Travis Sawchik’s forthcoming book Big Data Baseball, is specific and sophisticated enough that certain types of pitchers — ground-ballers who can pitch into the Bucs’ shifts — give the Pirates a significant edge on their competition. The number of pitchers it even makes sense for them to pursue in any given offseason is thus fairly small.
Because of their pitcher support system, the Pirates have a good chance at continued success in the future despite payrolls that most of their fans still find frustratingly low. They have a collection of relatively cheap pitching that they are ideally suited to nurture. They have a franchise player, Andrew McCutchen, who’s under control for four more years thanks to one of the most team-friendly contracts in the game, and an emerging star in Starling Marte who’s signed to a team-friendly deal of his own. The Bucs also have one of baseball’s better farm systems, with Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon set to join their rotation by 2016 and Josh Bell perhaps set to take over for Alvarez and Hart at first base around then. By 2018, after which McCutchen is eligible to depart via free agency, maybe those players will be part of a Pirates core headed by Marte, Polanco and Cole.
2014-2015 was about as flashy as Pirates offseasons get, and yet, by the standards of most other teams, they did very little. In fact, with Martin gone, they probably even downgraded. But the Pirates’ plans don’t center on flashy offseason moves. Or, as Huntington puts it, “We’ll never win the offseason.” They probably won’t head into any season in the near future as a favorite to win the World Series, or perhaps even as a runaway favorite to win their division. But they do look like they could continue to contend for the next several seasons, 2015 included.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.