Pittsburgh Pirates Rumors

Pittsburgh Pirates trade and free agent rumors from MLBTradeRumors.com.

Stark’s Latest: Lee, Phillies, Rays

The latest from ESPN’s Jayson Stark…

  • Phillies ace Cliff Lee threw a bullpen session yesterday and is slated to return around the All-Star break, Stark writes for ESPN.com. Lee’s next step is to throw a simulated game this weekend before heading out on a minor league rehab assignment and returning either just before or just after the All-Star break. Rival teams tell Stark that they expect the Phillies to aggressively shop Lee, and they believe that Philadelphia would eat a significant amount of the remaining $50MM guarantee on Lee’s deal in order to net the right pieces.
  • The Tigers, Pirates, Blue Jays and Angels are scouting the Phillies this week, Stark tweets. The Phillies are telling other teams around the league that this week could determine their status as buyer or sellers next month.
  • Stark also tweets that he asked an unnamed club official if any teams other than the Cubs are aggressively selling at this point and was told him that in addition to Chicago, the Rays are “definitely open for business.” Stark’s colleague, Buster Olney, reported yesterday that the Rays would deal David Price “right now” if the right offer came along.

Minor Moves: Whiteside, Texeira, Slowey, Bell, Schlereth

We’ll keep track of today’s minor moves from around the league right here…

  • Cubs backstop Eli Whiteside has cleared outright waivers and been assigned to Triple-A, reports Carrie Muskat of MLB.com (via Twitter). The 34-year-old, who saw only minimal action with the Cubs, was designated for assignment on Sunday.
  • The Braves have inked righty Kanekoa Texeira to a minor league deal, according to the MLB transactions page. The 28-year-old, who last threw in the bigs in 2011 with the Royals, threw effectively over each of the last two seasons at Triple-A with the Reds. He had been pitching for the independent Bridgeport Bluefish in 2014 before joining Atlanta.
  • Righty Kevin Slowey has been released by the Marlins, reports MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro (via Twitter). Slowey owned a 5.30 ERA through 37 1/3 innings this year, most of which came in relief. He had been a starter for much of his prior time as a big leaguer, and owns a 4.62 ERA over 662 career MLB frames.
  • The Yankees have released reliever Heath Bell, reports MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch (via Twitter). Bell, who recently signed a minor league deal, had a 7.50 ERA in five appearances at Triple-A Scranton. In 17 1/3 frames at the major league level with the Rays this year, Bell threw to a 7.27 ERA with 6.2 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9.
  • The Tigers have acquired southpaw Daniel Schlereth from the Pirates, reports John Wagner of the Toledo Blade. James Schmel of MLive.com tweets that the Pirates will receive cash considerations. This will be Schlereth’s second stint with the Tigers, as he spent the 2010-12 seasons in Detroit’s bullpen after coming over in the three-team Max Scherzer/Curtis Granderson/Ian Kennedy/Austin Jackson blockbuster. Schlereth’s long-standing control problems have been very apparent this season at Triple-A; he’s walked 18 batters and surrendered 18 hits in 18 2/3 innings en route to a 7.23 ERA. On the plus side, he’s also fanned 18 hitters in that time.

Pirates Outright Jose Tabata

The Pirates have outrighted Jose Tabata to Triple-A Indianapolis, the team announced via press release. The move clears space for second baseman Neil Walker to be activated from the disabled list.

Clearly, this is a disappointing outcome for both team and player, as Tabata was once viewed as a building block for the Pirates as they were re-tooling in 2011. Tabata inked a six-year, $15MM extension with the Bucs at the time that contains a trio of club options which can boost the deal to a total of $37.5MM. At the time of the extension, he had backed up a .299/.346/.400 rookie campaign with a .264/.351/.362 batting line and was just a nine days removed from his 23rd birthday.

Tabata, also a threat on the basepaths and a solid defensive left fielder, seemed to have quite a bit of upside, but his bat never progressed much after signing the deal. He hit .243/.315/.348 the following season and has batted .267/.328/.377 in 869 plate appearances since the contract was signed. With Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and now Gregory Polanco occupying the regular outfield spots, Tabata doesn’t have a route to everyday at-bats, though it’s somewhat surprising, given his solid glove in left and decent numbers against lefties, that he wasn’t kept on the roster in a reserve capacity.

Tabata is owed roughly $1.59MM over the remainder of the current season, $4MM in 2015 and $4.5MM in 2016. The buyout on his first option is $250K, meaning he’s guaranteed roughly $10.34MM through the end of 2016. As a player with more than three years of Major League service time that was outrighted, Tabata has the option to reject the assignment in favor of free agency, though in doing so he would forfeit the remaining guarantee on his contract, making the option more or less a moot point.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington reportedly shopped Tabata throughout Spring Training this season but was unable to find a taker.



NL Central Notes: Hammel, Wada, Cards, Bucs

Here’s the latest out of the NL Central:

  • If the Cubs trade Jason Hammel as expected, the 31-year-old says that he would be open to returning to Chicago in the winter. “I would assume they are pretty happy with my body of work so far and if a trade happens it happens,” Hammel said, according to Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com. “But I guarantee, say I was to go to another team, I love it here. I guarantee you they wouldn’t be opposed to bringing me back next year.
  • The Cubs‘ roster moves on Sunday will have long and short-term implications for the club, writes Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald.  The Cubs designated catcher Eli Whiteside for assignment and filled his spot on the roster with Tsuyoshi Wada.  Wada, who had an opt-out clause in his deal, could be a replacement in the rotation when and if they trade Jeff Samardzija and/or Hammel.
  • Don’t look now, but the Cardinals are about to promote another promising young arm in 2013 first-rounder Marco Gonzales. As Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently wrote, the lefty (whose best offering is said to be the change-up) had been following the track of the man whose rotation spot he will occupy. Of course, that also means concern for St. Louis fans, as Michael Wacha will hit the DL (along with fellow starter Jaime Garcia). As Goold reports, Wacha is dealing with a “stress reaction” to his scapula, which GM John Mozeliak says the club will handle carefully since the injury “is not a very common injury to pitchers and one that we don’t have a ton of experience on how to deal with it.”
  • The Pirates may soon be looking at some roster challenges as players filter back from injury, writes Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While the club can wait to settle on its rotation until after Francisco Liriano returns, which is still expected to be a few weeks off, the pending activation of Neil Walker could create a more immediate pinch. With Josh Harrison carrying a 131 wRC+ and offering immense versatility, Cook suggests that veteran Clint Barmes may be expendable for Pittsburgh.

Jeff Todd contributed to this post.


NL Central Notes: McCutchen, Brewers, Cards, Wada

Earlier today, MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk posted divisional roundups for the NL East and AL Central. Now, let’s take a look at the news and notes from the NL Central:


Should The Super Two Designation Be Changed?

USATSI_7949100_154513410_lowresThe Pirates’ decision to wait until June 10 to promote top outfield prospect Gregory Polanco set off a new round of debate, both in Pittsburgh and nationally, about the Super Two designation in particular and top prospect promotion timelines in general. The Pirates have said that their decision to wait to promote Polanco was due to developmental reasons, but whatever their motivations, the current system incentivizes waiting to promote top prospects even if they seem to be ready for the big leagues. That’s unfortunate, and MLB perhaps ought to consider reforming the Super Two designation. It’s probably impossible, however, to completely disincentivize manipulation of players’ promotion dates.

Overview

Teams must consider two thresholds when promoting a top prospect. A player is eligible for an extra arbitration season as a Super Two player if he has between 2.086 and three years of service time and he ranks in the top 22 percent in service time among players with between two and three years. The 22 percent clause means that the Super Two threshold is a moving target, but teams can usually feel safe about promoting a player in early to mid-June with the idea that he won’t be a Super Two player three offseasons later. A Super Two player can be eligible for arbitration four times rather than three, which means that a Super Two star player can make millions more in his arbitration seasons than a similar player who does not have that designation.

Teams must also consider a player’s free agency threshold. A player becomes eligible for free agency after six full years of service time, which means teams must consider a separate date in mid-April before which a player can become a free agent a year early.

We’ll leave aside, for now, the question of whether it’s wise for teams to delay promotion of top prospects in order to avoid Super Two status or free agency, and simply observe that the current system provides them at least some incentive to do so. The Pirates promoted Polanco on June 11, after months of criticism from analysts and fans who watched Polanco post great numbers at Triple-A while Jose Tabata and Travis Snider struggled in right field for the Pirates. (Josh Harrison handled the position for about a month before Polanco arrived and played much better.) Major League Baseball received some criticism, too, for creating the rules that made the Pirates’ decision rational (or arguably rational. Few commentators offered viable alternatives to the Super Two system, however, with Baseball Prospectus’ R.J. Anderson (subscription-only) being among the few to make a strong attempt.

If the Pirates held Polanco in the minors for two months longer than they would have without the Super Two system in place, that’s not nearly the tragedy many fans and commentators made it out to be. ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, the creator of the ZiPS projection system, tells MLBTR that based on information available in mid-April, promoting Polanco on June 10 rather than April 15 projected to cost the Pirates about one win. (And the Pirates might well have waited to promote Polanco even without the Super Two rule, given their longstanding record of allowing players time to develop in Triple-A before promoting them.) That’s unfortunate for the Pirates and their fans, but it’s hardly a travesty. A few cases like Polanco’s each year likely do not justify sweeping changes to the existing system.

Many large-scale rules involve thresholds that can be less than ideal on the micro level while producing good results on the macro level. For example, it isn’t ideal, or fair, for an irresponsible 16-year-old to be legally allowed to drive (if he or she can pass a driving test), while a responsible 15-year-old with excellent hand-eye coordination cannot. But the 15-year-old will soon be 16, and so that unfairness will soon be rectified. Meanwhile, the existence of a threshold that permits small-scale unfairness keeps the rules simple and helps prevent charges of arbitrariness.

Preventing teams from manipulating players’ service time is not a simple matter. As long as arbitration eligibility and/or free agency eligibility are tied to service time, and as long as teams control when their players’ service time clocks begin, teams will be able to use players’ promotion dates to manipulate their salaries and/or years of control.

So, for example, even if MLB were to eliminate the Super Two designation while maintaining current rules regarding free agency eligibility, teams could delay the promotion of top prospects who appeared to be ready in August or September and wait instead to promote them in mid-April. We would see fewer mid-June promotions for top prospects, but we would also see fewer mid-August promotions and more mid-April promotions, and the criticism of MLB’s rules would simply take place in August and September rather than April or May. If the goal is to prevent teams from delaying the promotion of top prospects who appear to be ready, simply changing the thresholds of arbitration or free agency eligibility will not work.

Untethering Free Agency, Arbitration Eligibility From Service Time

One solution to eliminate thresholds that can prevent teams from promoting players when they’re ready might be to untether free agency eligibility and arbitration eligibility from MLB service time. If a team were not worried about the number of years it could control a player, or about his salary during his arbitration seasons, it would be free to promote him whenever it deemed him ready.

This would, however, be a radical change with far-reaching consequences. With enormous payroll disparities between teams, MLB depends heavily on young players’ cost-controlled salaries to maintain competitive balance. Without cost control, it would be nearly impossible for smaller-payroll teams like the Athletics, Rays and Pirates to compete. The current rules regarding free agency and arbitration eligibility are the mechanism that allows player salaries to remain cost controlled. So if MLB and the players’ union were to agree to untether free agency and arbitration eligibility from service time, they would need some other mechanism to allow cost control.

One possibility would be to base free agency and arbitration eligibility not on service time, but on when a player was drafted or signed as an amateur, similar to the way Rule 5 Draft eligibility is determined. A player’s eligibility for the Rule 5 Draft in a given year depends upon his age on the June 5 before he signs and the number of Rule 5 Drafts that have passed since then. A similar system could be devised to determine free agency and arbitration eligibility. For example, a player under 19 by the June 5 before he signs might become eligible for arbitration after nine full years and eligible for free agency after 12 full years. A player who is at least 19 by the June 5 before he signs might become arbitration-eligible after eight full years and eligible for free agency after 11 years. (Players posted from Japan would continue to be exempt from these rules.) This system would enable the Pirates, for example, to promote Polanco whenever they deemed him ready, without concern for arbitration or free agency timelines.

Unfortunately, this rule would produce plenty of unintended consequences, and the cure would likely be worse than the disease. This system would be tremendously unfair to players who move quickly through the minors.

For example, the Expos drafted Chad Cordero in 2003 with the idea that he could make it to the big leagues quickly. He did exactly that and was a successful closer for several years before succumbing to injury. Because he was eligible for arbitration after his third full season, he was able to make over $11MM in his career, a total that seems reasonable, given the quality of his pitching. Under a system that connected arbitration eligibility to signing date rather than service time, he likely would have made only about a third that much, since he would have been close to the MLB minimum for his entire career. Meanwhile, a player who struggled in the minors and arrived in the big leagues after many years in Triple-A might become arbitration eligible after just one or two years. Also, such a system would dramatically limit the long-term earning capabilities of top players like Mike Trout who reach the Majors at young ages.

Allowing Neutral Parties To Determine Readiness

Another possibility might be to maintain the basic outline of the current arbitration and free agency timelines but to allow arbitrators to determine when those timelines might begin. So, for example, an arbitrator might have ruled that Polanco was ready May 1, forcing the Pirates to begin his big-league service clock then even if they did not promote him. Clearly, though, this is perverse and heavy-handed, putting the determination of the player’s readiness in the hands of an outside party who would have had far less information about the player’s development than his team did. Such a system would surely also create even more complaints of unfairness than the current one.

The problem here, of course, is the existence of thresholds. When there are thresholds that determine how long a team controls a player and how much they’ll have to pay him, there will be incentives to manipulate those thresholds. One of those thresholds, the one that determines free agency eligibility, probably isn’t going anywhere, since it helps prevent star players from becoming free agents while seasons are in progress. (That is, there could be a system in which a player who is promoted for the first time in August also could become a free agent in August six years later. But that would be chaotic, and the current threshold of six-plus years before free agency eligibility helps prevent that.)

The free agency threshold is probably here to stay, and as long as there’s a threshold, there will be occasional cases like Polanco’s where teams delay promotions of top prospects even when they’re dominating at Triple-A. It’s unfair on the small scale, but reasonable on the larger scale, and that might be as much as MLB can do.

Eliminating The Super Two, Redistributing Super Two Salaries

There are, however, some more modest reforms that MLB might consider to change the Super Two threshold, leaving teams with only one threshold to consider, rather than two. One possibility might be to eliminate the Super Two completely, as Pirates president Frank Coonelly recently suggested in an interview with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale.

The players’ union would, of course, be reluctant to make such a change, given that the existence of Super Two status means more money for them. But MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes suggests that MLB could, instead, calculate the approximate percentage of overall player income Super Two status typically produces and redistribute it as a modest, across-the-board raise for players making the MLB minimum salary. (Dierkes points out, however, that it’s possible the union would still dislike the idea, given that Super Two arbitration salaries for players like David Price help set arbitration salaries for other players.)

Prorating First Year Arbitration Salaries

MLBTR’s Jeff Todd suggests making all players with between two and three years of service time Super Two players, but prorating their first year of arbitration salary based on their service time. So a player with two years and 50 days of service time would receive an arbitration-year salary prorated for those 50 days of MLB service (combined with an MLB minimum salary prorated for the rest of the year), whereas a player with two years and 100 days would receive an arbitration-year salary prorated for 100 days. Players with three or more years of service time would then go through arbitration as they do now.

Either of the last two proposals would effectively eliminate the Super Two threshold. The free agent threshold probably can’t be eliminated, and its existence should continue to provide teams with incentive to manipulate players’ service time. But at least there would only be one threshold, rather than two. Also, either proposal to change the Super Two would eliminate the uncertainty involved in Super Two status, given that there’s currently no way for teams interested in promoting a player to know where exactly the Super Two threshold will fall two and a half years later.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Minor Moves: Kyle Stroup, Matt Packer, Cody Eppley

We’ll keep track of the day’s minor moves here:

  • WEEI.com’s Alex Speier reports that the Red Sox have released right-hander Kyle Stroup (Twitter links). As Speier explains, the former 50th-round pick was considered a steal as an up-and-coming prospect, but he blew out both ACLs in a span of three seasons and was never able to rediscover the promise he showed prior to his injuries.
  • The Indians announced (on Twitter) that Double-A southpaw Matt Packer has been released. A 32nd-round pick in 2009, Packer reached Triple-A as a 24-year-old in 2012 but struggled to a 5.50 ERA. He went back to Double-A and enjoyed a strong campaign in 2013, pitching to a 3.27 ERA with 7.0 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 154 innings. However, he faltered in his only two appearances of the season earlier this month. Packer has dealt with shoulder injuries throughout his minor league career but has been effective when healthy.
  • The Pirates have released righty Cody Eppley, reports Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (via Twitter). The 28-year-old had been working as a reliever at Triple-A Indianapolis, and carried a 6.43 ERA with 5.1 K/9 and 5.8 BB/9 through 14 innings. Eppley had a strong 2012 season with the Yankees but has not returned to that form since.
  • MLBTR’s DFA Tracker shows three names still in limbo: Evan Reed (Tigers), Josh Outman (Indians), and Josh Stinson (Orioles).

Central Notes: Verlander, Tigers, Cubs, Morris, Pinto, Marmol

Justin Verlander‘s recent struggles are “a giant concern” for the Tigers, writes James Schmel of MLive.com, because Verlander himself admits that he isn’t sure how to fix them. Verlander told reporters that he doesn’t feel he’s at the point in his career where he needs to reinvent himself on the mound, though he acknowledged that he doesn’t have the same velocity he used to have and said he didn’t blame the fans for booing him last night as he left the game. Verlander yielded seven runs on 12 hits last night and has posted a 7.83 ERA with a woeful 26-to-20 K/BB ratio over his last 43 2/3 innings (seven starts). He is averaging a career-worst (though still solid) 92.6 mph on his fastball.

Here’s more on the Tigers and the baseball’s Central divisions…

  • Jon Morosi of FOX Sports hears that the Tigers aren’t planning on making a move to upgrade at shortstop, as they like what they’ve seen from rookie Eugenio Suarez since his promotion to the Majors (Twitter link). It’s tough not to like what they’ve seen from the 22-year-old Suarez, who is hitting .346/.452/.808 with three homers through his first 10 games. Clearly, he’s due for some regression, but the optimism is understandable.
  • An AL scout tells David Kaplan of CSN Chicago that he’s spoken to the Cubs about both Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, but he hasn’t gotten any indication from Chicago that any of their other starters are available (Twitter link). That contrasts recent reports that the team would be willing to listen to offers on Edwin Jackson and Jake Arrieta. Given Jackson’s remaining salary, it seems hard to believe that Chicago wouldn’t be open to moving him.
  • The Pirates weren’t looking to trade right-hander Bryan Morris before trading him to the Marlins, GM Neal Huntington tells Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. However, Miami expressed interest in the deal after being attracted to an increase in Morris’ velocity and the addition of a two-seam/sinking fastball to his repertoire, and the two sides were able to strike a deal. Pittsburgh received Miami’s Competitive Balance Round A pick (No. 39 overall), used to draft (and sign) Connor Joe, while Miami has been rewarded to this point with 9 1/3 innings of scoreless relief from Morris, who has shown greatly improved command.
  • Twins closer Glen Perkins offered some candid comments regarding catcher Josmil Pinto on 1500 ESPN Radio with Phil Mackey and Judd Zulgad (via Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press). While he was highly complimentary of Pinto’s offensive skills, the left-hander was blunt in his description of Pinto’s defense: “He’s a long, long ways away, to be honest with you. …his pitch framing, he’s got some work to do.” Perkins flatly he said Pinto is “surely not at the big-league level as far as catching for me.” Perkins went on to preach the importance of framing and praise veterans Jonathan Lucroy and Jose Molina for their prowess at the skill. Minnesota recently sent Pinto to the minors to get more consistent at-bats and consistent time behind the plate. He’s spent much of the season DHing while Kurt Suzuki, whose offensive contributions have been somewhat surprising, has done the bulk of the catching.
  • After leaving the Reds organization to take a “mental break,” the representative of reliever Carlos Marmol says that the righty may not look to return this season, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. Agent Paul Kinzer told Heyman that Marmol decided to return to the Dominican Republic to deal with unspecified personal issues, and has had no physical problems.

Jeff Todd contributed to this post.


Pirates To Sign Competitive Balance Pick Connor Joe

The Pirates have agreed to sign compensation round A selection Connor Joe, reports MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo (via Twitter). Joe will receive a bonus of $1.25MM. He was taken with the 39th overall pick, which carries a $1,457,600 slot allocation.

The University of San Diego product was rated as the 102nd-best draft-eligible player by Baseball America and was slotted at 110 by Mayo and Jim Callis of MLB.com. According to BA, Joe is a line-drive hitter with a patient approach. He has primarily served at first base during college, but has also seen time in the outfield and, most intriguingly, behind the plate. While Joe is still working to develop his skills as a backstop, BA says that he has the tools to potentially stick at the position.

According to MLB.com’s bonus tracker, the Bucs have now inked each of their selections from the first ten rounds. All said, Pittsburgh is now $130.9K beneath its potential achievable bonus allocation of $5,606,100.


Pirates Sign Connor Joe, Jordan Luplow

10:13am: Luplow receives a $500K bonus, tweets Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish. The Pirates save a bit of money on the signing, as it’s $24,300 under slot.

1:18am: The Pirates have signed Comp Round A pick Connor Joe and third-rounder Jordan Luplow, according to the players themselves (Twitter links, with a hat tip to John Dreker of Pirates Prospects). Financial terms of the deals are unclear at this time, but the pick with which Joe was selected, No. 39 overall, comes with a bonus pool value of $1,457,600, and Luplow’s pick value at No. 100 overall is $524,300. The Pirates have now agreed to terms with all their picks from the first ten rounds except ninth-rounder Kevin Krause, a catcher from Stony Brook.

Joe, a junior outfielder and catcher from the University of San Diego, was rated the No. 102 overall draft prospect by Baseball America and No. 110 overall by MLB.com. Baseball America praises his swing and plate discipline but suggests that his bat might not play well if he ends up at first base, where he frequently played in college.

MLB.com ranked Luplow the No. 94 prospect in the draft, while ESPN’s Keith Law put him at No. 95 Baseball America had him at No. 103. MLB.com notes that the Fresno State outfielder has a solid bat, and while his other tools aren’t exceptional, he could be a “solid all-around performer,” comparable to A.J. Pollock.