- Though Tyler Glasnow’s rookie season produced disastrous numbers at the MLB level, the Pirates were heartened by improvements he made in Triple-A following a June demotion, writes MLB.com’s Adam Berry. Glasnow overhauled his mechanics last winter in an effort to improve his command, but he ultimately felt the changes adversely impacted his velocity and the overall quality of his secondary offerings. Glasnow went back to his old mechanics in Triple-A and utterly dominated minor league hitters (1.93 ERA, 13.5 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 in 93 1/3 innings). While he didn’t generate positive results in his September return to the bigs, Berry points out that his velocity and spin rate were both much improved. Glasnow should be in the mix for a rotation spot in Pittsburgh again next season, though the Bucs have a number of young MLB-ready options, as MLBTR’s Jeff Todd pointed out in yesterday’s Offseason Outlook for the Pirates.
MLBTR is publishing Offseason Outlooks for all 30 teams. Click here for the other entries in this series.
The Pirates stumbled in 2017, but can bring back much the same core group of talent that was expected to support a contender.
- Gregory Polanco, OF: $32MM through 2021 (includes buyouts on club options for 2022 & 2023)
- Francisco Cervelli, C: $22MM through 2019
- Starling Marte, OF: $20.5MM through 2019 (includes buyouts on club options for 2020 & 2021)
- Ivan Nova, SP: $17MM through 2019
- Josh Harrison, IF: $11.5MM through 2018 (includes buyouts on club options for 2019 & 2020)
- Daniel Hudson, RP: $5.5MM through 2018
- Sean Rodriguez, IF/OF: $5MM through 2018
- David Freese, IF: $4.75MM through 2018 (includes buyout on 2019 club option)
- Jung Ho Kang, IF: $3MM through 2018 (includes buyout on club option for 2019; will not earn salary unless/until reinstated from restricted list)
- Andrew McCutchen, OF: $14.5MM club option ($1MM buyout)
- Chris Stewart, C: $1.5MM club option ($250K buyout)
- Wade LeBlanc, RP: $1.25MM club option ($50K buyout)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR & Matt Swartz)
- Jordy Mercer (5.095) – $6.5MM
- George Kontos (4.171) – $2.7MM
- Gerrit Cole (4.111) – $7.5MM
- Felipe Rivero (2.162) – $3.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Mercer
The spending complaints constantly nagging Pirates owner Bob Nutting are unlikely ever really to go away. They reached new heights in a disappointing 2017 campaign, amidst a few eyebrow raising decisions, and will once again feature over the winter.
That said, the Pittsburgh franchise’s well-established financial approach gives us a pretty clear idea of what it has to work with in the offseason to come. The Bucs have not yet topped $100MM in Opening Day salaries, landing just shy of that figure in each of the past two seasons. In all likelihood, that’ll be the general target for 2018.
If that’s the case, GM Neal Huntington — who was extended along with skipper Clint Hurdle at the end of the season — is going to have to get creative to bring in any significant outside additions. With around $60MM in guaranteed money, $20MM in expected arbitration commitments, and $14.5MM to pick up Andrew McCutchen’s option, the team is already pushing last year’s Opening Day payroll without accounting for the rest of the roster.
Of course, it may be that the Pirates won’t pursue any major changes in their roster composition. And the team surely feels it already made some allotments for 2018 and beyond with the midseason additions of Sean Rodriguez and George Kontos.
But that’s not to say there aren’t any areas in need of improvement, or paths to changing the team’s composition. As ever, the chief question is utterly simple and endlessly complex: will this be the stage when the Pirates finally trade their franchise icon?
Dealing McCutchen would remove a key player and major gate draw. It could well stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy. But it also represents a potential opportunity to open significant payroll space and acquire quality young talent in one fell swoop.
Cutch only just turned 31 years of age. While he’s clearly no longer the mega-star he once was, he also just wrapped up a strong season in which he put to rest some of the worst fears after a tepid 2016. McCutchen slashed .279/.363/.486 and launched 28 long balls while playing in over 150 games for the seventh time in eight seasons. He did not exactly excel defensively after moving back to center field, but did improve in the eyes of Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Most rivals would likely consider him a target to fill a corner spot.
It’s as difficult as ever to guess at McCutchen’s value. He’s a pure rental now, so it can only be so great. But the appeal is obvious, too: he’s not that old, is a highly respected player with a huge established ceiling, and represents a short-term alternative to an always-risky foray into the long-term contracts of the open market. Huntington & Co. will need to ponder whether there’s a particular combination of cost savings and assets received that will improve the team’s long-term outlook without harming the immediate product too badly. A return centered on lower-level prospects might offer the greatest future value, but could be a difficult move to make with the Pirates having some compelling young talent already playing at the major league level.
If the Pirates seriously consider moving McCutchen, that’d open questions about the outfield mix. Austin Meadows has yet to force his way into the MLB mix, though perhaps the club will anticipate a mid-season arrival from him. Jose Osuna will likely continue to factor, though he’ll need to improve, and the presence of versatile players such as Rodriguez and Adam Frazier will help with a hypothetical transition. Still, it stands to reason that the team would look to add another outfield piece, if not in the deal itself then through a value-seeking free-agent signing.
Otherwise, the position-player mix could largely carry forward in its present state. There could be some excess infielders if Jung Ho Kang finds his way back, though there’s no expectation of that as of yet. Even if he doesn’t, there’s loads of upper-level depth, so the club could even entertain a deal involving Josh Harrison, though that would make for a tough sell and an unfortunate loss of versatility. Some fiddling with the bench is always possible, especially if the Pirates see an interesting name lingering on the open market as Spring Training nears. Mostly, though, the Pirates simply need to hope that Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco restore their trajectories; that Josh Bell expands upon a promising season; that Francisco Cervelli gets healthy; and that the variety of other pieces on hand combine to fill in the gaps.
If there’s one obvious way to attempt to improve on the position-player side, though, it’s likely at short. Jordy Mercer is no longer all that cheap and has not really delivered as a regular at the position in recent years. Pittsburgh could conceivably seek to take advantage of a lack of demand at the position to land Zack Cozart, though he comes with a spotty health record and will be more expensive (and over a longer term) than is Mercer. Buy-low trade targets with future control remaining include Jurickson Profar of the Rangers, Jonathan Villar of the Brewers, and Aledmys Diaz of the Cardinals, though the Pirates have their own rising talents in Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker and therefore might focus mostly on 2018. The Bucs could also conceivably serve as a landing spot for Jose Iglesias or Adeiny Hechavarria, though both figure to cost nearly as much as Mercer. Pittsburgh could instead seek greater value in free agency, which features a variety of veterans — J.J. Hardy and Alcides Escobar among them — that will likely end up settling for affordable deals.
Less likely, but also hypothetically plausible, would be a move to reduce costs behind the dish. The catching position is thin enough leaguewide that some other teams might be willing to take on Cervelli’s contract, even though he has been a below-average offensive producer over the past two years and managed only 81 games in an injury-plagued 2017 season. The Bucs would have alternatives, including giving more time to Elias Diaz, picking up the cheap option over Chris Stewart, and signing one of the many veteran free agents that seem likely to settle for relatively marginal guarantees on short-term deals.
Beyond the ever-present Cutch question, though, perhaps the most intriguing trade possibilities surround righty Gerrit Cole. Though the 27-year-old power pitcher stumbled to a career-worst 4.26 ERA, due largely to a big jump in homers (31), he still carries an ace’s arsenal and a history of quality results. Plus, Cole took the ball for 33 starts and 203 innings last year.
Outside interest will be robust, and could even be strong enough to pique the Pirates’ interest, though moving Cole would arguably create an even tougher hole to patch than any such action regarding McCutchen. Pittsburgh’s rotation produced more hand-wringing than its middle-of-the-pack performance might suggest, and there’s plenty of talent in the mix, but there’s also no question that removing Cole would slice away a good bit of the staff’s upside and floor. Unless Huntington can engineer a slam-dunk deal to acquire a quality and controllable position player who’d step into everyday duties, it’s tough to see how such a transaction could make sense for the Pirates (or any hypothetical trade partners).
Otherwise, the rotation seems likely to closely resemble its 2017 form. Ivan Nova continues to look like a strong value. Jameson Taillon will hope to line up his results with his peripherals after putting testicular cancer in the rear-view mirror. Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams were each useful through over 150 frames in 2017; while their outlooks aren’t crystal clear, both at least profile as affordable sources of innings. And there are other interesting arms pressing for longer looks. Tyler Glasnow leads a list that also includes Steven Brault and Nick Kingham. That’s quite a lot of affordable and flexible (i.e., optionable) depth, even if most of the hurlers have yet to establish themselves fully (or at all) in the majors.
If the Pirates are to look for veteran pitching reclamation projects this winter, Tyler Chatwood has the features (velocity, groundball production) that has held appeal to the team in the past. But he will likely also draw attention from other organizations and will perhaps be more costly than the Pirates prefer given their existing slate of options. But there’s no shortage of other notable players that will be looking for an opportunity — ranging from Chris Tillman to hurlers such as Hector Santiago, Tyson Ross, and Ubaldo Jimenez — and will likely be available for quite a bit less. Should the team find an appealing target at a good price, it’s even possible that it could market one of its controllable starters to address another need.
Generally, though, the front office’s focus could land more on finding relief arms than on bolstering the rotation. The Bucs oversaw the full emergence last year of Felipe Rivero, but otherwise face quite a few questions in the relief corps. Daniel Hudson will hope to improve in the second year of his deal. Kontos gives the team another established arm at a reasonable price. A.J. Schugel produced excellent results, though they outstripped his peripherals, while the club also worked in younger pitchers such as Johnny Barbato and Dovydas Neverauskas. Still, with late-inning stalwarts Juan Nicasio and Tony Watson now out of the picture, there’s clearly room for additions. Just how much cash the Pirates have to dole out will no doubt depend upon how the team decides to proceed in the areas discussed above.
Fan scrutiny of the Pirates is plenty understandable. But those faithful to the Jolly Roger shouldn’t lose hope prematurely, as there’s still the makings of a quality core in place in Pittsburgh. While uncertainty still weighs on the club’s 2018 outlook, it’s also not difficult to imagine several paths to fielding a quality outfit once again.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
- This winter holds as much or more uncertainty for the Pirates, though it’s not at all clear there’ll be much roster change. Stephen Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tackles some fan questions in an interesting read. He predicts that, so long as the team doesn’t find trades for significant players, it will likely keep the same essential form as it had this year. (Side note: best wishes to Stephen as he transitions off of the beat into a new role, as he discusses in the link.)
- Andrew McCutchen is the key figure of this Pirates offseason, Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes, as the team faces a big decision about trading the long-time star outfielder. Dealing McCutchen would essentially mark the end of an era for the franchise, though it would free up $14.5MM in payroll for 2018 (Brink rightly figures McCutchen’s club option is sure to be exercised by the Pirates) that could then be used to fill other roster holes. McCutchen turns 31 next week and is coming off a solid 2017 season that revived his value following a very disappointing 2016 campaign.
John Jaso may have played his last big league game, he told reporters (including Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and MLB.com’s Adam Berry) following the Pirates’ season-ender today. “Honestly, this is probably it for me, as far as baseball goes,” the veteran utilityman said, though he stopped short of entirely confirming his retirement. “We’ll see. I mean I can’t say anything for sure. I can’t really tell you what the future holds or whatever. But if I left now, it would be a really good feeling to leave right now, if I did. These last couple of years with the Pirates were good. It’s just taking that step and being brave enough to do it. For most of us, this is all we know. There’s a lot of those ’what ifs’ and ’buts’ and everything like that. That stuff kind of scares you when you have to make a decision like this. There’s a lot of excitement out there that I’m looking forward to. I feel ready to make that step.”
If this is it for Jaso, the 34-year-old will be hanging up the spikes after 2591 career PA over parts of nine seasons with the Rays, Mariners, A’s and (for the last two seasons) Pirates. Injuries and struggles against left-handed pitching limited Jaso’s usage as an everyday player, though he was very productive in various part-time capacities. Jaso posted good career splits against right-handed pitching and was an above-average run producer overall in six of his eight full seasons, finishing with a 115 wRC+ for his career. If this it for Jaso, we wish him congratulations on a fine career and we tip our hats to his most immediate postseason endeavor — helping with relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
- Andrew McCutchen will remain in center field if he’s still on the Pirates next year, general manager Neal Huntington told Adam Berry of MLB.com and other media Sunday. From 2009-16, McCutchen lined up exclusively in center field, but after an especially poor showing in the grass last year, the Pirates shifted him to right in favor of Starling Marte. McCutchen took over again in center after Major League Baseball gave Marte an 80-game suspension in April for using performance-enhancing drugs and never relinquished the position. For the fourth year in a row, advanced metrics gave unfavorable reviews to McCutchen’s work in center (minus-14 Defensive Runs Saved, minus-4.4 Ultimate Zone Rating), but he did have a bounce-back season at the plate after a down 2016. Looking ahead to the offseason, picking up McCutchen’s $14.5MM club option for 2018, his final year of team control, should be a no-brainer for the Pirates. However, it’s possible they’ll shop him again after doing so last winter.
- Right-hander Trevor Williams has somewhat quietly made a strong case for a spot in the Pirates’ 2018 rotation, writes MLB.com’s Adam Berry. The Bucs are banking on Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova to hold down the top three spots in the rotation, and Williams’ quality run over his past 24 outings has perhaps earned him the next spot in the starting five. In that time, he’s worked to a 3.65 ERA with 7.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and a 49.9 percent ground-ball rate. He’s averaged 5 2/3 innings per start in that time, so the Pirates would probably prefer to see him work deeper into games with greater frequency, but Williams certainly looks like a viable rotation piece moving forward.
- Pirates’ infielder Jung Ho Kang has been granted an exemption to play in the Dominican Winter League despite being on the restricted list, Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. Kang has not earned any salary or service time during the 2017 season, because the Department of State denied his application for a visa after a third drunk driving incident in his home country of South Korea. Major League Baseball and the MLBPA reached an agreement to allow Kang to play in winter ball in the offseason in hopes that he can get a visa for 2018.
The Pirates controversially parted with reliever Juan Nicasio in a money-saving move last month, but the now-Cardinal and impending free agent would be open to an offseason return to the Bucs, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. “Yes, I would consider it. I liked it there a lot,” said Nicasio, who joined Pittsburgh prior to the 2016 season. It’s unclear whether the Pirates will pursue Nicasio over the winter, but he has put himself in position to secure a nice deal from them or someone else with his output this year. In 69 innings divided among Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and St. Louis, the 31-year-old has posted a 2.74 ERA with 8.74 K/9, 2.35 BB/9 and a 45.9 percent groundball rate.
More from Pittsburgh and two other NL cities:
- The Nationals plan to activate right fielder Bryce Harper for their series opener against the Phillies on Monday, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post tweets. Harper left the Nats’ game against San Francisco on Aug. 12 after suffering a gruesome-looking knee injury, thus derailing an MVP-caliber campaign, but he’ll have a chance to be a major factor in October for the World Series hopefuls.
- Giants right-hander Matt Cain sounded uncertain on Saturday when discussing whether he plans to continue his career in 2018, Chris Haft of MLB.com writes. What’s clear is that the Giants will buy out the former front-line starter’s $21MM club option in favor of a $7.5MM buyout in the offseason, ending a fruitful tenure in the Bay Area. While the 32-year-old Cain is in the midst of a fourth straight rough season, he has been outstanding for the majority of his career in San Francisco, where he has won three World Series and earned three All-Star nods since debuting in 2005.
- Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang won’t need to come off the restricted list to participate in the Dominic Winter League, general manager Neal Huntington told Adam Berry of MLB.com and other reporters Sunday (Twitter link). Kang is already in the Dominican Republic and working out with his winter ball team, per Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Their season begins Oct. 20, and playing for them will represent his first game action since the 2016 major league season. Kang hasn’t been able to secure a U.S. work visa since earning his third DUI charge in his native South Korea last winter. The Pirates will set an offseason deadline to decide whether they can count on Kang for 2018, according to Huntington. “We’ll get to a point in time where, if we still don’t know, we’ll plan as if he’s not going to be here,” he said. “If he is able to secure a visa to get into the country, we’ll have an extra really good player.”
- In a piece that’s not altogether unrelated to Kang’s situation, Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analyzes the thin margin of error the Pirates front office has to work with in light of the team’s still-limited payroll. GM Neal Huntington notes the need to find “significant value outside of the free-agent market” as well as the imperative to “get more than just a dollar-for-dollar value” in free agency. The piece highlights the challenges facing the just-extended executive as he seeks to position the Bucs for contention once again.
Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang discussed his attempt to return to the majors with Jee-ho Yoo of Yonhap (here and here). Kang derailed his career when he drove under the influence of alcohol in his native Korea — the third time he has been arrested for a DUI — with a subsequent conviction leaving him unable to obtain a visa to work in the United States. Now, as he prepares to play in the Dominican Winter League, Kang says he hopes “to become a better person and a better player.” Whether or not he’ll be able to return to action in the majors — in 2018 or beyond — will ultimately depend upon the U.S. government.