A lot of talk has gone around about the comments by Neal Huntington that the Pittsburgh Pirates will be active in free agency this off-season, even going after some of the guys they’ve traded away. This has led to speculation by the Post-Gazette of Rick Ankiel and John Grabow serving as potential targets, along with countless speculation and ideas around the internet.
The first thing anyone should say is “we’ve heard this before”. Many will point to last year when Neal Huntington said “we’re going after a right handed power bat, a starting pitcher, and a bullpen arm”. He came away with Eric Hinske, Virgil Vasquez, and Chris Bootcheck, although it should be noted that Daniel Cabrera, Rocco Baldelli, and Derrick Turnbow all turned down more money to play elsewhere (although that’s not really a bad thing for the Pirates).
The first thing people think when the Pirates say they will be active in free agency is “Let’s go after Matt Holliday”. Let’s be real here. Rick Ankiel is exactly the type of player the Pirates will go after. With Holliday, Jason Bay, Bobby Abreu, Vladimir Guerrero, and potentially Jermaine Dye, Carl Crawford, and Manny Ramirez on the market, Ankiel will come at a value. He’s not guaranteed production, but that’s not saying he’s the next Jeromy Burnitz. He also has the ability to be a huge value, especially if he replicates his 2008 season.
Of course there will be the people who will throw their tin foil hats on and say that Bob Nutting will lock his check book away, and will never let this happen. I’m not going to say that the Pirates WILL spend in free agency, but I’m also not going to say that they WON’T spend. I will say this: they CAN spend in free agency.
After the trade deadline I did an early preview of the 2010 payroll, coming up with an estimated $29,496,250 for the entire 40-man roster. Those numbers could change, especially if the Pirates non-tender Matt Capps (which I think would be foolish, even with his struggles, but that’s another story), and the numbers might be lower, with the struggles from Capps likely hurting his arbitration value a bit.
The Pirates are currently projected to spend a little over $48 M on the 2009 payroll. If we assume they spend to the same level next year, that leaves about $19 M for the Pirates to spend going in to the 2010 season. By comparison, the Pirates were set to spend an estimated $47-48 M going in to the 2009 season, before adding anyone via free agency. The reason I’m not doubting the Pirates is because this is the first time we’ve seen them with money to spend.
The next question becomes: where do you spend it?
The catching position is fine. Ryan Doumit has regained his stroke, hitting for a .300/.375/.420 line so far in September. The Pirates aren’t going to replace Andrew McCutchen in center field, or Lastings Milledge in left field. Garrett Jones will also get a shot, either at first base, or in right field.
At third base, Andy LaRoche or Neil Walker will get a shot, with Pedro Alvarez ready to take over as early as June 2010. Ronny Cedeno has looked good so far at shortstop, and deserves a shot at the starting job in 2010.
That leaves second base, and first base/right field (whatever Jones doesn’t play) as the big question marks. Delwyn Young has struggled at the plate lately, and could be relegated to a utility player off the bench, where he had success earlier in the year. Jones could play first base, with Jose Tabata possibly taking over in right field by mid-season, but that’s a very optimistic approach, both in the sense of Jones continuing this success, and Tabata being ready by June.
On the pitching side, the Pirates have some good depth, but lack a top of the rotation starter. The market is pretty crowded, and the Pirates might be able to find a value there. There’s also the issue of a lack of left handed relief in the bullpen. I’m not a fan of adding Grabow, unless he isn’t offered arbitration by the Cubs. If the Cubs offer him arbitration, we lose our 2010 second round draft pick, something I’m not willing to give up for Grabow, or any relief pitcher.
I’d set the needs as: second base, right field, starting pitcher, and bullpen. This is why the “Matt Holliday” or “Jason Bay” talk doesn’t work. The Pirates could afford one of those guys, and still stay under the amount they’re spending right now. However, that would take up the bulk of the spending, and truthfully, those guys aren’t coming to Pittsburgh, even if we drastically overpay (SEE: Mark Teixeira and the Washington Nationals/Baltimore Orioles). The Pirates would be better off going for value players like Ankiel, and filling holes at second, right field, the rotation, and the bullpen, all for about the same price as one year of Bay or Holliday.
Fortunately the market next year could be down, and our positions of need have plenty of available talent, which could leave the Pirates in a good position to add some talent to the team at a reasonable price. As it gets closer to free agency, I’ll look at who I like at each position. Until then I’m not going to say whether the Pirates will or will not spend this off-season, but I will say one thing: they most certainly can spend this off-season.