Looking at the free agent market

The past two years the Pittsburgh Pirates have done very little to make any changes in the off-season through the free agent market.

Last year we saw them unsuccessfully try to sign Daniel Cabrera, Rocco Baldelli, and Derrick Turnbow, although in hindsight, none of those deals looked to be any good (actually, they didn’t look astounding at the time either). Cabrera had a 6.00 ERA and a 1.98 WHIP on the season, thanks to a 7.4 BB/9 ratio. Turnbow didn’t even play in the majors in 2009. Baldelli hit for a .253/.311/.433 line with seven homers in 150 at-bats for the Red Sox.
The Pirates didn’t do much better with the players they signed. Eric Hinske and Craig Monroe failed to bring the power the team was looking for off the bench. Ramon Vazquez had a nice on-base percentage, but a low average, and also lacked power. Chris Bootcheck got a late season call-up, and didn’t look good. The only success was Garrett Jones, who was signed as a minor league free agent.
Despite the inaction over the past two years, there’s some optimism heading in to this free agent signing period. Maybe that’s because the Pirates have already made a move, adding Akinori Iwamura in a trade with the Devil Rays. It could also be due to the fact that the Pirates have been reported to have interest in several free agents, including Rick Ankiel and Japanese reliever Ryota Igarashi.
I broke down each position at the end of the 2009 season, and decided that the Pirates could use upgrades in 2009 at second base (which has already been filled), shortstop, the bullpen, and either first base or right field, thanks to the flexibility of Garrett Jones (although I prefer him at first base). With those positions in mind, here is what I’d like to see happen in the free agent period.
First Base/Right Field
Internal Options: Jeff Clement and Steve Pearce at first base, Steve Pearce, Brandon Moss, and Delwyn Young in right field. Garrett Jones playing whatever position doesn’t get filled.
Prospects on the Rise: Jose Tabata could be a mid-season callup, but I don’t think that’s a guarantee.
Free Agent Options: Rick Ankiel has been mentioned. I think that would be a good risk to take, in hopes that Ankiel can return to his 2007/08 numbers, in which he combined for a .270/.334/.515 line with 36 homers in 585 at-bats. Ankiel could be a 25 homer/.850 OPS hitter if he stays healthy all season. That’s a big IF, but then again if it was a guarantee, he probably wouldn’t be a possibility for the Pirates.
Xavier Nady is another possibility, similar to Ankiel in that his value is low due to his injuries. I was in favor of trading Nady in 2008 because I didn’t think his value could get higher. I wouldn’t mind adding him now that Nady’s value has dropped. I don’t think Nady can put up his 2008 numbers, but I do think the 2007 numbers are possible.
I’ve seen Hank Blalock’s name thrown around, although there’s only so much risk I’d be willing to take as far as injuries go, and Blalock is where I draw the line. Aside from the fact that he’s a .245/.300/.414 hitter away from Arlington, he also is pretty much a guarantee to get hurt every year. I’d rather just see what we had in Clement, than go a partial season with Blalock.
Ideal Scenario: Sign Ankiel or Nady to a one year deal with an option year, which gives the Pirates flexibility incase Tabata isn’t ready by June.
Worst Case Scenario: Try out Clement, Pearce, Moss, and Young until Tabata is ready.
Internal Options: Ronny Cedeno will be the starter if they don’t add anyone.
Prospects on the Rise: There’s no one at the upper levels, and I don’t think any help will arrive until mid-season 2011. The one exception would be Argenis Diaz, but that would assume he makes a major turnaround with his hitting in 2010.
Free Agent Options: I actually don’t like anyone enough to upgrade over Cedeno. I feel that defensive guys like Adam Everett are either a downgrade, or on par with Cedeno as a total package. I don’t like Khalil Greene or Bobby Crosby, as I don’t think they’ve done anything beyond their rookie seasons to warrant a shot over Cedeno.
The guys I like are Miguel Tejada, Orlando Cabrera, and Marco Scutaro, but I don’t think the Pirates have a shot at any of these guys. Although I like Tejada and Scutaro, I’d never want the Pirates to sign either, as both are Type A free agents, which would cost the 2010 second round draft pick.
Ideal Scenario: They’ve already tried trading for J.J. Hardy. A similar trade would be ideal, as I don’t think they’re getting that type of talent on the open market.
Worst Case Scenario: See what they’ve got with Cedeno.
The Bullpen
Internal Options: I think three of the seven spots are pretty much locked up, with Matt Capps, Evan Meek, and Joel Hanrahan. I think Steven Jackson has the inside track, due to his late season performance in 2009. Jeff Karstens also could have an inside track, as he is out of options, and it doesn’t look like the Pirates will non-tender him. That leaves two spots open, with the need for guys who can get left handers out, especially with the loss of Jesse Chavez.
Prospects on the Rise: Jeff Sues, Kyle Bloom, and Daniel Moskos are all options at the AA/AAA level, although none of these players seem like they’re knocking down the doors. I also think a spot could be taken with a Rule 5 selection.
Free Agent Options: The Pirates have shown interest in Japanese reliever Ryota Igarashi, and the addition of Akinori Iwamura, who is Igarashi’s former teammate, could give the Pirates an advantage. Igarashi has been clocked at 98 MPH, and is a solid veteran reliever in the Japanese league.
The Pirates could try to go for a pair of Japanese arms, as left hander Hisanori Takahashi recently declared free agency. Takahashi is 34 years old, and had a 2.94 ERA in 25 games last year in the NPB, with 126 strikeouts in 144 innings. Takahashi wasn’t teammates with Igarashi or Iwamura, but the idea of three Japanese players on the same team could be appealing enough to lure both Japanese relievers to the Pirates.
Outside of this avenue, Neal Huntington has said he won’t be spending $2-4 M a year on relievers, which is a theory I agree with. Let’s not forget how we acquired our most successful relievers last year: Jesse Chavez came out of nowhere from the farm system, and Evan Meek was a former Rule 5 pick. It didn’t take a huge contract to get either player. Some guys I’d take a look at:
Will Ohman (L)
Chad Cordero
Luis Vizcaino
Kelvim Escobar (would also add starter depth)
Joaquin Benoit
Just a few options there, mostly limited to guys who have low values going in to 2010, but could be capable of bouncing back. The Pirates were interested in Ohman last year, and he could be even more accessible coming off an injury in the 2009 season.
Ideal Scenario: Sign Igarashi and Takahashi, along with Will Ohman and Kelvim Escobar, pairing those four with Meek, Hanrahan, and Capps (Jackson could be minor league depth, and Karstens wouldn’t be needed wi

th Escobar).

Worst Case Scenario: Go with a few minor league free agents, and hope someone like Jeff Sues emerges out of Spring Training.
The Rotation
Internal Options: The Pirates look pretty good as far as options go for the rotation. They’ve got Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and Ross Ohlendorf as locks for the rotation. Charlie Morton probably has the inside track for the number four spot. Kevin Hart and Daniel McCutchen will battle it out for the number five spot, with Jeff Karstens as a worse case scenario.
Prospects on the Rise: Brad Lincoln should be up by mid-season. Tim Alderson is another possibility, although I think it’s more likely that he makes it up by 2010. The Pirates have a wave of starters coming through the AA level next year, including Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, and Ronald Uviedo, which is something to consider when thinking about a long term deal for any free agent.
Free Agent Options: I don’t think the Pirates have a need for a starter, unless they can get a top of the rotation guy. They’re loaded with 3-5 talent, but don’t have much in the way of 1-2 pitchers. Of course, they probably have no chance of signing that type of talent, unless they take a risk on an injury prone guy like Justin Duchscherer or Rich Harden.
I think Harden is the best pitcher on the market when healthy, but it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll get injured at some point in 2010. Erik Bedard is another good buy low option, but he won’t come cheap, and neither will Harden. The same could be said for Duchscherer and Ben Sheets. Luckily there’s a lot of options coming off injuries, which means the Pirates could sit back and see if one flies under the radar, then make an aggressive offer.
The Pirates are actually in a good position to execute this strategy. Plenty of teams are looking to cut costs this off-season, based on all of the non-tender and salary-shedding trade rumors we’ve seen so far. Meanwhile, the Pirates are sitting at about $30 M in payroll, and we’ve seen over the last two years that they can spend more than that. For once, the Pirates could be one of the rare teams with money to spend, which puts them in good position if a guy like Bedard is still unsigned around the middle of January.
Some sleepers I like, for depth purposes, are:
Eric Milton
Chris Capuano
Rich Hill
Brett Tomko
Shawn Hill
I like Rich Hill the best from that list, as he’s only two years removed from a 195 inning, 3.92 ERA season in 2007. He had some struggles and injury issues in 2008/09, but could be a good sleeper to see if he can bounce back to his former top prospect status (although he’s not a prospect, but you get what I mean).
Ideal Scenario: See if an injury prone ace can be acquired on the cheap late in the off-season. Add some depth with minor league contracts to guys like Rich Hill and Chris Capuano.
Worst Case Scenario: Stick with the players in the system, and let Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart, and Daniel McCutchen battle for the last two rotation spots, with Brad Lincoln getting the call in June.
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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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