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Pittsburgh Pirates Rumors
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball have announced a one-year deal with first baseman Gaby Sanchez, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). Sanchez will earn approximately $2.5MM and can achieve more through incentives, per the report.
Sanchez, 31, swings from the right side of the plate. He has been with the Pirates since a mid-season deal back in 2012. Serving in a platoon capacity in Pittsburgh, Sanchez had a solid 2013 but took a step back last year with a .229/.293/.385 slash over 290 plate appearances while enjoying the platoon advantage in over half of his trips to bat.
That recent performance did not meet the expectations set earlier in Sanchez’s career with the Marlins, when he became a steady regular at the first base position. Sanchez hit .269/.346/.437 with 38 total home runs while playing every day in 2010-11 with the Fish. After an All-Star appearance in 2011, however, Sanchez struggled in the second half and never regained his footing in Miami.
The University of Miami product was designated and non-tendered by the Pirates back in December. With just over $5MM in career earnings at the big league level, and a likely lack of an opportunity to land a significant guarantee in the big leagues, it is easy to see the appeal in the contract that Sanchez accepted. And, of course, the path back from Japan to MLB has been taken by many players who have performed in the NPB.
The Pirates won the bidding for Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang last week for a little over $5MM and now are in the midst of a 30-day exclusive negotiating window. Kang is an unusual case due to his excellent numbers, the extremely hitter-friendly environment in which he produced those numbers, and the lack of precedent for a position player coming from the Korean Baseball Organization to the big leagues.
Kang was the best overall player in the KBO this season, hitting a ridiculous .356/.459/.739 while manning shortstop for Nexen. That marked a leap forward from his previous season, but at 27, he would likely be able to maintain a very high level of performance if he remained in Korea. Kang finished second in the KBO in homers and third in the league in doubles. He also finished eighth in walks. Even in an extremely offense-heavy league, Kang stood out — his 1.198 OPS was easily better than that of his Nexen teammate Byung-ho Park, who finished second in that category at 1.119.
An international scouting director told MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes this fall, perhaps unsurprisingly, that he feels Kang has above-average raw power. The scouting director added that Kang was an intelligent player with good instincts, suggesting he should be able to make the most of his tools. Ryan Sadowski of Global Sporting Integration told Jeff Todd on the latest edition of the MLBTR Podcast that Kang could hit 20 home runs per season in the Majors.
While it’s unclear whether Kang can stick in the middle infield (more on that below), he played shortstop, indicating that he has at least some positional value. If he were to play middle infield in the big leagues while hitting for even a fraction of the power he demonstrated in Korea, he would be a useful player indeed.
So why didn’t Kang attract a bid significantly above $5MM? First, it’s difficult to put his offensive numbers in context. KBO teams averaged 5.62 runs per game in 2014, and Nexen averaged 6.57, compared to 4.18 in the AL and 3.95 in the NL. The KBO contains a number of marginal former MLB players, such as Eric Thames, Felix Pie and Jorge Cantu, who have posted what appear on the surface to be star-caliber offensive numbers, strongly suggesting that the league isn’t even at the level of Triple-A baseball in the US. Dan Szymborski, who created the ZiPS projection system, tweets that the KBO plays as a hitter-friendly Double-A league, and C.J. Nitkowski of FOX Sports notes that he himself was a Game 1 starter in Korea at age 36, near the end of a career spent bouncing around Triple-A, the big leagues, and Japan. It’s possible Kang’s power won’t be enough in the big-leagues, especially in PNC Park, which suppresses homers and is particularly tough on right-handed batters. Sadowski says that Kang is a “mistake hitter,” comparing him to a No. 7 hitter in the big leagues (although Sadowski still seems to feel Kang is a likely MLB regular overall).
The international scouting director to whom Dierkes spoke said that Kang does not possess plus tools, noting that his raw power is not likely to translate well to the Majors. The director compared Kang to Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who signed a two-year deal with the Athletics prior to the 2013 season but never reached the big leagues. Kang is the better player, the scouting director said, but the two players are similar.
There are also questions about whether Kang can stick at shortstop. He wins praise for his arm and hands, but he isn’t fast and has a relatively thick build, so perhaps third base might make more sense for him. He’ll also have to transition from playing on turf in Korea and will need to work on charging in on grounders, as Sadowski noted.
Kang is an extremely difficult player to evaluate because he’s the first Korean position player to transition from a league that plays very differently from the Majors, or even from NPB in Japan, which has had a relatively large number of players make the leap to the US. Hyun-jin Ryu was the first KBO player to be posted, and Kang, if he signs, will be the first Korean position player to arrive via the posting system.
There have been Korean position players in the big leagues, of course, like Shin-Soo Choo, but Choo signed with the Mariners at 18 and honed his craft in the U.S. minor leagues, not in the KBO. There’s also Ryu, who did play in the KBO, but Ryu is an unusual player who dominated the KBO while playing a completely different position, so his MLB success might not suggest that Kang can follow a similar path. The very different posting fees for each — $25.7MM for Ryu, a bit over $5MM for Kang — suggest teams don’t believe Kang is the talent Ryu was.
Still, Kang’s dominant offensive numbers, positional value and relative youth look awfully tempting. While there’s reason to question Kang’s power numbers in the KBO, there’s also surely something to be said for the fact that he was the best player in the league this year. If he can stick in the middle infield (or maybe even if he can provide solid defense at third base), it’s possible to see him providing enough offensive value to be an asset.
Kang reportedly would like a deal for $5MM-$6MM per season, perhaps for up to four years. The Pirates have until late January to negotiate with him, and their $5MM would be returned if they’re unable to reach a deal.
The Pirates already appear fairly set in their infield, with Pedro Alvarez and Corey Hart at first base, Neil Walker at second, Jordy Mercer at shortstop and Josh Harrison at third. Still, it’s easy to see how the Pirates might be able to find at-bats for Kang if he proves he deserves them, and as Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs noted, Kang would certainly improve the Pirates’ depth. Alvarez and Hart are both coming off poor seasons, and Alvarez is playing a new position. Walker is two years from free agency and has had nagging injuries. Mercer just posted 2.0 fWAR in a good age-27 season, but he’s never been a star. And while Harrison’s playing time looks secure after a spectacular 2014 season, the Pirates could move the former super-utility player elsewhere on the diamond if they needed to clear space for Kang at third.
The Pirates haven’t even signed Kang yet and thus haven’t revealed their plans for him, but assuming he signs, they could have him begin in Triple-A, or he could start the season on the big-league bench, filling in around the infield. That the Pirates won the bidding for Kang came as a surprise, not only because they aren’t usually top bidders for big-name players from Asia, but because Kang’s potential role in Pittsburgh wasn’t immediately obvious. If he turns out to be able to help, though, they can clearly find space for him.
The Mariners have unfinished business heading into the new year, Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune writes. They’ll need to find a platoon partner for righty Justin Ruggiano in right field, with Seth Smith of the Padres as one possibility. They could also move Brad Miller to the outfield if he loses the shortstop job to Chris Taylor. The M’s could also find a catcher in the Humberto Quintero mold to provide depth at Triple-A Tacoma. Here are more notes from around the big leagues.
- Signing Robinson Cano to a $240MM contract last offseason helped the Mariners press the reset button, Dutton writes. Led by Cano and their pitching staff, the Mariners improved by 16 games in 2014, although they just missed the last AL Wild Card berth.
- The remainder of the offseason could feature plenty of trades for outfielders, Jon Morosi of FOX Sports writes. The Phillies, Reds, Rays, Padres, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Indians and Angels could all have outfielders available, with about the same number of teams looming as potential buyers. Still, it might take time for the market to resolve itself — the key to the outfield market could be the rumors about the Padres trading a package centered around Wil Myers to the Phillies for Cole Hamels, and that might not be resolved until Max Scherzer and James Shields sign.
- Pirates reliever John Holdzkom has been released “five or six” times, he tells MLB.com’s Tom Singer. Some of those releases were no doubt even more depressing than such transactions usually might be. “I got released without the team even calling me. I looked on the Internet and saw my name next to ‘Transactions’ — five days before I was supposed to report,” says Holdzkom. “Yeah, that was bad.” And that team wasn’t even a Major League organization, but the independent Laredo Lemurs. Holdzkom emerged seemingly from out of nowhere to become a key part of the Pittsburgh bullpen down the stretch in 2014.
- The Indians‘ signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn haven’t worked out so far, at least not from a baseball perspective. But they were still the right moves, Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer writes. The signings prevented a big drop in the Indians’ season-ticket sales and helped them increase revenues while also helping make them more relevant. Bourn’s presence also allowed Michael Brantley to move to left field.
- Infielder Rafael Furcal has a torn hamstring and will miss Winter League playoffs in the Dominican, Dionisio Soldevila of ESPNDeportes.com tweets. Furcal had hamstring issues in the 2014 regular seasona and only made 37 plate appearances with the Marlins, so this latest injury could affect his attempt to come back next season.
The Blue Jays announced that they have claimed left-hander Scott Barnes off waivers from the Rangers and right-hander Preston Guilmet from the Pirates. SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo first tweeted that Guilmet had been claimed by Toronto earlier this afternoon.
Barnes, 27, joins his fourth organization of the offseason with this move. Originally with Cleveland, he’s been acquired by the Orioles and claimed off waivers by the Rangers as well, making him perhaps the most well-traveled player of the offseason. Barnes has a 5.20 ERA in a small sample size of 27 2/3 big league innings, but he has a nice track record and Triple-A and pitched well there in 2014. Last season, he notched a 3.69 ERA with 10.2 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9 while holding opposing lefties to a .191/.296/.255 batting line.
Guilmet, also 27, pitched 10 1/3 innings out of the Orioles’ bullpen in 2014, allowing six runs on eight hits with 12 strikeouts against two walks. The former ninth-round pick has a nice track record at Triple-A and notched a 3.91 ERA there in 2014 with an impressive 10.1 K/9 against just 1.9 BB/9.
The Dodgers‘ $32MM payment to the Padres in the Matt Kemp deal will include $18MM spread over 2015, the Associated Press reports (via the Boston Herald). After getting most of its salary relief up front, San Diego will receive $3.5MM annually for the rest of the deal. As Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune explains, that means that the Padres currently project to open the year with less than $90MM on the books. That could mean the team has more capacity to add, and indeed chairman Ron Fowler has indicated that there are more moves in the works while not committing to a payroll target.
Here’s more from the National League:
- MLB.com’s Tracy Ringolsby takes a look at the Rockies‘ inaction to this point. “I am constantly reminding myself and other people are reminding me that when we had health last year, we had a good team,” said GM Jeff Bridich. “It is not our intention from the get-go to give the roster a radical facelift. We are going to stick to our plan.” Injuries, of course, are not the only reason that the club was unable to stay in contention into the summer last year. But Colorado certainly has more talent than its record last year would indicate, and holding pat is an intriguingly bold strategy in its own right.
- Another team that has been quiet in terms of addition is the Reds, though of course Cincinnati was proactive in dealing away two starters. MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon breaks down the remaining options for the club in left field, noting that Nori Aoki is still available and positing that the Padres could be a good match for a trade.
- Reds ace Johnny Cueto will give the team until the start of the season to discuss an extension, agent Bryce Dixon tells Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. Dixon also told Heyman that he views Jon Lester and, especially, Max Scherzer as viable comps for what Cueto will be able to land in free agency. The 28-year-old certainly has posted true-ace numbers, when healthy, dating back to 2011, though ERA estimators are not quite as enamored with his work. The Reds started a conversation with Cueto’s camp at the Winter Meetings, but have expressed a lack of confidence in getting something done.
- Alan Nero, the agent for Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang, said yesterday that his client is excited that the Pirates won the rights to negotiate with him — even if the club does not have a direct route to a starting shortstop job. (Via Jon Morosi of FOX Sports, in a series of tweets.) Of course, Kang has little choice in the matter, since the high bidder gets exclusive bargaining. While he may have hoped that a team would add him with intentions of installing him directly into its regular lineup, Kang will certainly have at least some chance to unseat Jordy Mercer and should have other avenues to playing time for an adaptable Pittsburgh organization.
DEC. 22: Heyman tweets the exact breakdown of Hart’s incentives. He will earn $250K for reaching 350, 375, 400 and 425 plate appearances. Reaching 450, 475, 500, 525 and 550 will each net Hart $300K.
DEC. 19, 12:59pm: Hart will earn $2.5MM in base salary and can double it with another $2.5MM in incentives, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (via Twitter).
12:55pm: The Pirates announced that they have signed free agent Corey Hart.
Hart could serve as a platoon partner with Pedro Alvarez to help make up for his shortcomings against lefties. After missing the entire 2013 season due to knee surgery, Hart was signed by the Mariners around this time last year. The veteran made 55 starts as a designated hitter while also making seven appearances in right field, two at first base and one in left field. All in all, he posted a .203/.271/.319 slash line in 255 plate appearances. Prior to his lost 2013 season, Hart owned a career .276/.334/.491 slash line.
To make room on the 40-man roster for Hart, the Pirates have designated right-handed pitcher Preston Guilmet for assignment. To keep up with his status and everyone else in DFA limbo, check out MLBTR’s DFA Tracker.
12:16pm: The winning bid on Kang was said to be $5,002,015 over the weekend, according to a report from Yonhap. Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review has confirmed with a source that the bid was indeed $5MM (Twitter link).
The Pirates, of course, will get the $5MM back if they are unable to work out a contract with Kang in their exclusive 30-day negotiation window.
11:39am: The Pirates have won the bidding for Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang, tweets Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Kang’s former club, the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization, will reportedly accept the bid.
Kang, 28 in April, put together an exceptional season in Korea in 2014, .356/.459/.739 with 40 home runs in 117 games between the regular season and the playoffs. Kang’s Heroes reached the Korean Series (KBO’s Championship series) but fell to the Samsung Lions four games to two.
While his numbers are undeniably incredible, it should be noted that KBO is an extremely hitter-friendly environment, somewhat diminishing the impact of those eye-popping numbers. Major League scouts appear genuinely split on whether or not Kang can be an everyday player in the Majors. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Kang 15th among free agents this offseason, noting that he feels Kang should be given a chance to play shortstop everyday initially, as he could show enough power to handle the position and make up for less-than-stellar defensive tools at the position. However, he did note that some scouts see Kang as an “unathletic corner guy” whose power won’t translate to the Majors.
Recently, Ryan Sadowski of Global Sporting Integration appeared with Jeff Todd on the MLBTR Podcast and discussed Kang in detail. Sadowski, a former MLB and KBO pitcher, has seen Kang play extensively.
Kang is reportedly seeking $5-6MM annually on a multi-year deal, which isn’t an exorbitant price but also would be a costly miss for a payroll-conscious club like the Pirates in the event that Kang cannot be a productive player in the bigs.
The Pirates have plenty of infield depth as is, with Neil Walker entrenched at second base and Josh Harrison set to man third base in 2015 and beyond. Jordy Mercer played a solid shortstop in 2014, but he seems the most likely to be displaced if Kang is signed and the looks the part of an everyday shortstop. Then again, the Bucs may simply prefer to rotate Kang between three infield spots or shift Mercer to a utility role. There’s certainly room for all four infielders to remain on the roster.
MLB and its umpires have reached a five-year labor agreement to follow their current deal, which was set to expire at the end of the year, Ben Walker of the Associated Press reports. The new pact continues more than a decade of labor peace within the game and will be the last labor agreement under outgoing commissioner Bud Selig. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and its players expires in December 2016. Here are more notes from throughout the big leagues.
- MLB has more parity than any of the other three major pro US sports, Jon Morosi of FOX Sports writes. The only teams that haven’t made the playoffs in the last ten years, Morosi notes, are the Blue Jays, Mariners and Marlins, and all have spent heavily at some point in the past few seasons in efforts to turn themselves around. Meanwhile, two of this offseason’s biggest spenders, the White Sox and Padres, were in the bottom third of team payroll in 2014.
- The Yankees have quietly added youth this offseason, MLB.com’s Richard Justice writes. Their recent trade of Martin Prado and David Phelps to the Marlins for Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Jones and Domingo German was a case in point — not only did the Yankees add two youngsters in Eovaldi and German, they created an opening for Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder to compete for the team’s starting second base job. The Yankees also replaced the retiring Derek Jeter with 24-year-old Didi Gregorius. Of course, that doesn’t mean the Yankees are in the midst of a rebuild, exactly. They have three projected regulars over 31 (Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira), which might not be a lot for them, but it’s a lot for most teams. Four other regulars (Brian McCann, Chase Headley, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury) are entering their age-31 seasons.
- The Pirates want to improve their pitchers’ hitting, manager Clint Hurdle tells Fangraphs’ David Laurila. Other teams have had “a very big competitive advantage” due to Bucs pitchers’ poor hitting in recent years, Hurdle says, and that’s mostly due to pitchers acquired from other organizations. Homegrown starter Gerrit Cole (.447 OPS in 2014) hits well for a pitcher, but past outside acquisitions Jeff Locke (.260), Vance Worley (.185), Edinson Volquez (.127) and Charlie Morton (.123) all struggled last year, and free agent signing Francisco Liriano (.260) approached hitting with the outward enthusiasm of a six-year-old doing math homework.
- The Tigers have plenty of right-handed relief depth, Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press writes. The Tigers’ bullpen struggled last season, but in 2015 they’ll have Joakim Soria as a backup plan for Joe Nathan at closer for the whole year, to go along with Bruce Rondon, Al Alburquerque, Joel Hanrahan (who’s returning from Tommy John surgery) and Alex Wilson (who was acquired in the Rick Porcello deal). The Tigers also like 24-year-old Angel Nesbitt, who only reached Double-A last year but throws in the high 90s.
Here are today’s minor moves from around the league.
- The Pirates have released pitcher Josh Lindblom, per the MLB.com transactions page. The Bucs claimed Lindblom earlier this month, then designated him days later. He’ll reportedly head to the Lotte Giants in Korea. Lindblom posted a 5.79 ERA with 6.4 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 in the rotation of the Athletics’ Triple-A Sacramento affiliate in 2014.
- The Rangers have released pitcher Ben Rowen after designating him for assignment last week, according to the MLB.com transactions page. The 26-year-old Rowen posted a 3.45 ERA with 5.9 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 in 47 innings of relief for Triple-A Round Rock in 2014, also appearing in eight big-league games. The Dallas Morning News’ Gerry Fraley explains that the Rangers were forced to place Rowen on release waivers, rather than outright waivers, due to an obscure rule that came into play due to an injury Rowen suffered early in the season and his time in the big leagues later on. The Rangers could re-sign him if he clears release waivers.
- The Nationals have signed 1B/OF Mark Minicozzi to a minor-league deal, tweets CSN Bay Area’s Andrew Baggarly, noting that Minicozzi announced the news on his Facebook page. The 31-year-old independent league veteran posted an impressive .298/.400/.470 line at Triple-A Fresno in the Giants’ system in 2014, but he’s never played in the Majors.
MONDAY: Liriano will receive a $2MM signing bonus, $11MM in 2015 and $13MM in 2016-17, reports Jon Heyman of CBS Sports (on Twitter). His contract also calls for award bonuses, including as much as $325K per season based on Cy Young voting.
FRIDAY: The Pirates may have lost Russell Martin to free agency, but they were able to retain their other top free agent, as they announced on Friday the signing of Francisco Liriano to a three-year contract. Liriano, a client of the Legacy Agency’s Greg Genske, reportedly receives a $39MM guarantee.
As Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes on Twitter, this deal would become the largest free agent contract in club history. For an organization that has seen its fortunes change over the last two years, the investment in a major free agent represents both a continuation and departure.
That contract lands just $1MM shy of the prediction of MLBTR’s Steve Adams before the offseason. As Steve wrote, there is a lot to like about Liriano, starting with the 323 1/3 frames of 3.20 ERA ball over the last two seasons. He achieved those results with numbers to support them: 9.4 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, and a 52.4% groundball rate. Liriano’s fastball velocity has achieved new life in Pittsburgh, and the club will look for that to continue.
Of course, there are downsides to any player, and Liriano is no exception. For one, he has never been one to rack up huge innings totals, though perhaps there is a bit of a silver lining there. Then there’s his less-than-inspiring history of injuries and inconsistency.
On the whole, however, three and $39MM seems quite a reasonable price for a pitcher with Liriano’s ability to dominate. Pittsburgh will give up the ability to add draft pick compensation, which it was in line to receive if Liriano had found a new home after declining a qualifying offer.
Robert Murray was first to report the agreement and the terms (via Twitter).
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.