- Two pitchers are headed to the Pirates on minor-league contracts, per a club announcement. The Bucs will give a look to lefty Dan Runzler, who last appeared in the bigs in 2012 and put up a 5.82 ERA in 21 2/3 innings at Triple-A last year with the Twins. Also joining the Pittsburgh organization is righty Jason Stoffel, a 28-year-old who has spent plenty of time in the upper minors in recent years but hasn’t cracked the bigs. He recorded an impressive 2.44 ERA with 11.9 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 over 59 frames in 2016 in the Orioles organization, splitting his time between Double-A and Triple-A.
- The Pirates are looking into the trade market for relief help, per Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (via Twitter). It’s possible that Pittsburgh could consider moving Tony Watson, who is in his final season of team control and comes with a projected $5.9MM salary. The team does have two other solid pen lefties; while Watson currently profiles as the closer, moreover, there are a variety of potential alternatives on the open market.
3:22pm: Pittsburgh is “actively shopping” McCutchen and “pursuing specific teams” it believes match up, per Stephen Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In addition to the Nats and Rangers, the Pirates have spoken with the Mariners about a deal, per the report.
The Bucs “are looking primarily for prospects” in return for their long-time star. In the meantime, the team is also checking in with other teams on possible outfield trade targets, per Nesbitt’s colleague Bill Brink (via Twitter).
1:06pm: Andrew McCutchen’s name has been in the rumor circuit quite a bit this winter, and Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that “of all the big names available in trade, McCutchen might be the most likely to go.” Similarly, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reports that the odds of McCutchen returning to the Pirates in 2017 are “dwindling,” adding that the Bucs don’t have an ownership mandate to move McCutchen but nonetheless appear intent on doing so (Twitter links).
Pittsburgh is continuing to explore trade scenarios involving McCutchen, Rosenthal writes, and the Nationals remain interested after being unable to work out a deal to acquire McCutchen this past July. The Rangers, according to Rosenthal’s column, are another potential landing spot. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News expounds on numerous reasons that the Rangers profile as a poor fit for McCutchen — they’d like better defense in center, can’t part with an MLB asset like Rougned Odor or Nomar Mazara and lack the upper-level pitching talent the Bucs may covet — though the Pirates are also chatting with other clubs, Rosenthal notes.
McCutchen’s 2016 performance fell considerably shy of his sky-high standards on both sides of the ball, as he batted a pedestrian .256/.336/.430 and posted a -28 rating in Defensive Runs Saved and -18.7 in Ultimate Zone Rating. While the Pirates reportedly feel that McCutchen was positioned too shallow in 2016, thus accounting for some of the defensive downturn, Grant points out that both DRS and UZR have been down on the former NL MVP’s glovework for the past three seasons. Complicating matters for the Pirates, Rosenthal continues, is the fact that McCutchen has both publicly and privately expressed that he doesn’t want to move off of his natural position. The 30-year-old told MLB.com’s Adam Berry at season’s end that he “[doesn’t] see [himself] needing to move.”
McCutchen is entering the final guaranteed year of a six-year, $51.5MM contract extension that he signed prior to the 2012 season and is owed a $14MM salary next year. His contract also contains a $14.5MM club option that comes with a reasonable $1MM buyout. From that vantage point, McCutchen is eminently affordable (from a financial perspective) for nearly any team in Major League Baseball. For a player that batted .313/.404/.523 while averaging 25 homers and 19 steals per season from 2013-15, that’s certainly an appealing price tag, even if he’s coming off a down season.
The problem, however, is that it might be difficult to coerce teams into trading top-tier talent in exchange for the right to buy low on a once-MVP-caliber player. If there’s a concern among any interested team that McCutchen’s 2016 season was the beginning of a genuine decline at the plate and they feel he also needs to move to a corner spot, then parting with top-ranked minor league talent is a tall order. And that does seem to be the Pirates’ intent, as Rosenthal reported earlier this month that the Pirates asked the Nationals for outfield prospect Victor Robles — one of the top 25 prospects in all of baseball — in their July talks regarding McCutchen. That’s exactly who Pittsburgh is currently targeting, Rosenthal reports (Twitter links), with the team also seeking additional pieces (possibly including an upper-level pitching prospect) in a package.
If the Pirates do find a trade partner for McCutchen, it’d free them to move Starling Marte to center field, thereby upgrading the team’s defense. That’d create a hole in left field, but the Bucs could of course pursue an affordable stopgap to top prospect Austin Meadows, who could be ready to break into the Majors next summer. There’s no shortage of teams looking for help in the outfield, as the Orioles, Blue Jays, Giants, Dodgers, Phillies and Mariners are among the teams that could theoretically use an upgrade (in addition to the aforementioned Nationals and Rangers). Moving to acquire a player that might not be keen on shifting to a corner spot (where some of those teams would have to play him), though, just adds another layer of complexity in addition to agreeing on a price point for a player on whom the Pirates certainly would like to avoid selling low.
8:26pm: Bonilla received a $575K guarantee on his deal, tweets MLB.com’s Adam Berry. Considering the right-hander’s lack of big league experience, the minimal guarantee isn’t much of a surprise.
5:25pm: The Pirates announced on Tuesday that they’ve designated left-hander Jeff Locke for assignment and signed right-hander Lisalverto Bonilla to a Major League contract. The 29-year-old Locke has long stood out as a non-tender candidate due to his recent struggles and his projected $4.2MM salary for the 2017 season (via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz).
[Related: Updated Pittsburgh Pirates Depth Chart]
Locke functioned as a serviceable back-end starter for the Pirates from 2013-15, pitching to a 3.98 ERA with 6.6 K/9 against 3.6 BB/9 with a ground-ball rate north of 51 percent across 466 innings. However, Locke also averaged fewer than six innings per start in that time, and his numbers declined in 2015 before taking an even more drastic downward turn in 2016. This past year, Locke logged a lackluster 5.44 ERA with a diminished 5.2 K/9 against 3.1 BB/9 and a career-low 47.2 percent grounder rate. Right-handed opponents teed off against Locke this year as well, hitting him at a .299/.368/.508 clip in his 127 1/3 innings.
Presumably, the Pirates marketed Locke to other clubs to gauge interest in him and will continue to do so over the next week, but if no deal materializes then Locke will be released into a dismal market for free-agent starters. If it comes to that, it’s certainly plausible that Locke will end up with a 40-man roster spot and perhaps a smaller base salary than his arbitration projection represented in addition to some incentives based on innings pitched. There will be no shortage of teams on the hunt for cheap rotation arms, and Locke is just one year removed from that previously mentioned solid three-year run. (Speculatively speaking, the Marlins could make sense as a landing spot, as former Pirates special assistant/pitching guru Jim Benedict is now in the Miami front office.)
As for Bonilla, the 26-year-old once rated as one of the better prospects in the Phillies and Rangers organizations — he went from Philadelphia to Texas in the 2012 Michael Young trade — but saw his career stall in the upper levels of the Rangers’ system. He landed with the Dodgers on a minor league deal last winter and enjoyed a nice season pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, where he recorded a 3.97 ERA with a 118-to-40 K/BB ratio in 111 innings (13 starts, 18 relief appearances).
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Pirates have attempted to swing a trade involving infielder Josh Harrison and remain open to doing so, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports. Pittsburgh had hoped to deal Harrison and re-sign Sean Rodriguez, per the report, though was unable to complete such an arrangement before Rodriguez joined the Braves.
Harrison, 29, has seen his production at the plate tail off following a breakout 2014 campaign. He’s guaranteed another $19MM on the extension he signed the following winter, which covers two more seasons as well as buyouts on a pair of successive club options for 2019 and 2020.
The Bucs doubled down on Harrison after he put up 550 plate appearances of .315/.347/.490 hitting, with 13 home runs and 18 steals, in that 2014 season. He followed that up with league-average production in the following year, but fell further in 2016. Over his 522 trips to the plate, Harrison managed only a .283/.311/.388 slash with four homers.
Harrison’s bat is based largely on contact, as he rarely strikes out (14.3% for his career) or walks (3.5%). While his speed continues to allow him to generate a fairly elevated batting average on balls in play, Harrison slumped to 27.7% hard contact and a 19.5% line-drive rate in 2016, both of which fell shy of his output in the prior two years.
There is other value to be found in the infielder. He swiped 19 bags in his most recent season and has continued to rate as a quality overall baserunner. And Harrison’s glove rates well at both second and third. He’s also capable of playing the corner outfield or, in a pinch, shortstop.
The question for teams that might consider a move Harrison is whether they see any possibility that he’ll return to the power output he showed three years back. His .175 isolated slugging mark has dipped to just over .100 in the ensuing years, which rates well below average and leaves him as more of a quality utility infielder than an everyday option. Given Harrison’s inability to spend regular time at short, it’s somewhat unclear whether another organization would be willing to take over the fairly expensive contract.
For Pittsburgh, Harrison remains penciled in at second base as things stand. While David Freese remains available as an option at third after signing an extension in August, Rosenthal says that Jung Ho Kang would not be moved from the hot corner to second in the event that Harrison is dealt. Instead, it seems, the organization would consider youngsters Alen Hanson and Adam Frazier if they find a trade partner. Alternatively, the Pirates could pursue another external addition.
- The Pirates are likely to replace Sean Rodriguez internally after the utilityman’s departure to the Braves, Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes. Rodriguez hit .270/.349/.510 in 2016, and the Bucs will undoubtedly miss him. But they do have Adam Frazier, who posted a .356 OBP while playing second, third and all three outfield positions in an impressive rookie season last year. Also, middle infielder and former top prospect Alen Hanson is out of options and could make the big club as a backup at shortstop and second base.
With the Arizona Fall League wrapping up, the MLB.com Pipeline team broke down the top players at each position. Perhaps no single prospect impressed to the extent of Gleyber Torres, the Yankees shortstop who was acquired in the Aroldis Chapman trade. Live-armed Red Sox righty Michael Kopech and Indians outfielder Bradley Zimmer were among the other high-profile young players who impressed, but a variety of lesser-known names also drew attention.
Here are some more prospect and international notes from around the game:
- Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper broke down the top Rule 5 draft candidates. Teams always have to balance roster needs with their assessments of young players who are eligible for the draft, and every year at least a dozen or so players who aren’t added to a 40-man roster will be plucked by another organization. This time around, as usual, many of the most plausible Rule 5 options are pitchers. But two position players warranted mention from Cooper as well: Pirates third baseman Eric Wood and Mets utility infielder Phillip Evans. Both have posted much better numbers of late, but apparently did not do quite enough to convince their organizations of their value — or, perhaps, of their ability to stick on another team’s active roster for a full season.
- The first player that Cooper notes, Padres righty Yimmi Brasoban, seems an intriguing candidate for the Rule 5 since he possesses a big fastball and quality slider that could make him a useful bullpen piece. But San Diego’s decision to leave him unprotected may well be due to elbow issues, as Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune reports on Twitter. The young reliever is undergoing stem cell and platelet-rich plasma treatments, suggesting he may be trying to stave off a surgical option. We have seen injured players go in the Rule 5 before; if they aren’t able to meet the active-duty requirements in the season following the draft, they can reach it in future campaigns.
- Ben Badler of Baseball America argues that Major League Baseball would be better served to increase its current bonus pool limitations for international players than to institute an international draft. Low-revenue clubs are able to compete for top talent in the current system, he explains, so there’s no compelling reason in that regard to move to a draft. The problem, per Badler, is that the current signing levels are just too low, which has led many teams in baseball to exceed the limitations and accept future bonus limitations. His solution is to significantly boost the overall pool bonus amounts, make them equal for all teams, and increase the penalties for exceeding the pool. That — or some other hypothetical system — would still allow for cost containment while also serving other interests, Badler argues, including competitive balance and equal opportunities for all teams and players.
- There are new details in the human trafficking case against agent Bart Hernandez, as Jose Pagliery of CNN.com reports. Hernandez was allegedly involved in a scheme with a violent smuggler, the government alleges, with tens of millions of dollars flowing to the masterminds after Cuban ballplayers such as Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes landed large bonuses with major league organizations. While the players were treated more humanely than the average citizens who were also being moved in the alleged conspiracy, they were nevertheless treated like prisoners and coerced into signing with Hernandez, per the charges.
The Pirates have not discussed an extension with manager Clint Hurdle, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes. “How long will I go? I don’t know the shelf life,” says Hurdle. “I just know that I’m still engaged. I love what I do, I love who I’m doing it for, and I love who I’m doing it with. I’ll take it one year at a time.” There’s no indication Hurdle’s job is in danger, and he’s signed through 2017 with an option for 2018. Interestingly, though, Biertempfel notes that whenever Hurdle’s tenure with the Pirates does come to an end, there’s a good chance he could be replaced internally, with new bench coach and former Double-A skipper Tom Prince as a possible replacement. “We hope Clint manages the Pirates for a long time,” says Pirates president Frank Coonelly. “But, like with any other key leadership position, we want to be sure we’re developing successors. We have a bias toward promoting from within when possible, but we also have a bias toward hiring the best person for the job. If we develop our people the right way, they’ll be the best people for the job.” The Bucs already recently did develop another top big-league manager — former Bucs bench coach Jeff Banister was the 2015 AL Manager of the Year with the Rangers. Here’s more from the Central divisions.
- The Twins have been in contact with free agent righty Justin Masterson, Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press tweets. That’s not surprising, since new Twins head of baseball operations Derek Falvey previously worked with Masterson in the Indians organization. Masterson, formerly a solid big-league starter, had an underwhelming 2016 in the Bucs organization while fighting his way back from shoulder trouble, posting a 4.85 ERA, 6.1 K/9 and 4.4 BB/9 in 59 1/3 innings covering two minor league stops.
The Mariners asked the Pirates about center fielder Andrew McCutchen earlier this offseason, MLB Network’s Jon Morosi reports (Twitter link), though talks between the two sides “did not advance.” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said after the GM Meetings that he had been receiving calls from multiple teams about McCutchen’s services, and given Seattle’s rather unsettled outfield situation, it isn’t surprising that the Mariners checked in on the former NL MVP. A couple of weeks ago, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Nationals discussed a McCutchen deal with Pittsburgh over the summer.
On most days, the Mariners will use three left-handed hitters (Seth Smith, Leonys Martin and Ben Gamel) as their starting outfield, with right-handed bats Danny Valencia, Guillermo Heredia or regular DH Nelson Cruz spelling Smith against left-handed pitching. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has said that the club intends for Gamel to play every day, though given Gamel’s lack of experience, one would think the M’s would also want some right-handed protection for Gamel against tough southpaws. Then again, with Valencia also likely to see time at first base spelling Dan Vogelbach against lefty pitching, there may not be enough right-handed outfield bats to go around.
Adding another right-handed hitter (like McCutchen) would go a lot way towards stabilizing the many moving parts of this platoon situation. McCutchen would have immediately become the everyday option in left or right field, as given how the former Gold Glover’s defense has heavily declined over the last three years, it would’ve made little sense for him to displace Martin in center.
The big question facing the M’s or any other team interested in McCutchen, of course, is whether his rough 2016 season was the start of a decline or just an aberration. McCutchen hit just .256/.336/.430 over 675 PA for the Bucs last season, easily the worst numbers of his eight-year career. Between his poor hitting, fielding and even a below-average baserunning totals, McCutchen posted just 0.7 fWAR last year, a stunning dropoff for a player who amassed 33.3 fWAR over the previous five seasons.
McCutchen is owed $14MM in 2017 and the Pirates have a $14.5MM club option on the outfielder for 2018 (with a $1MM buyout). McCutchen’s contract has long been seen as one of baseball’s great bargains, though if the Pirates no longer know what kind of production their longtime star will deliver from now on, the deal may now be considered too risky for a small-market team like Pittsburgh. With top prospect Austin Meadows waiting in the wings, one has to wonder if we’ve seen the last of McCutchen in Bucs black-and-gold, as teams with more financial breathing room can afford to see if McCutchen can return to form.
- Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle certainly didn’t sound like he’s convinced center fielder Andrew McCutchen will remain with the organization when the 2017 season begins, as Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. “I’ll take it one day at a time,” said Hurdle when asked about the possibility of a McCutchen trade. “I think any general manager that’s in a market similar to the one we’re in has to explore the possibility of (trading) players who have one or two years left on their contracts. You have to see what value is there to keep or to move.” While McCutchen is hopeful of spending his career in Pittsburgh, Biertempfel writes that the Pirates haven’t approached him about extending his current six-year, $51.5MM contract, which has one more guaranteed year (2017) and an affordable club option (2018).