Does a Big Free Agent Make Sense For the Pirates?

The 2011-2012 off-season has been somewhat amusing. At the start of the off-season, the big focus was on the options of Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder, and Ronny Cedeno. The Pirates declined all four options, much to the dismay of Pirates fans, who didn’t think the team could replace those four players on the free agent market.

The Pirates replaced Cedeno with Clint Barmes, who grades as one of the best defensive shortstops in the league on pretty much every defensive metric. They replaced the injury prone duo of Doumit and Snyder with Rod Barajas, who has much better defense than Doumit, and who has caught more innings than any catcher in the majors the last few years. They replaced Maholm with the high-risk, high-reward Erik Bedard.

The Pirates declined about $33 M in player options, and replaced those four players with $19 M in payroll. For the sake of argument, you could say that the Pirates made lateral movements at each position, while saving $14 M in payroll in the process. The set of moves leaves the Pirates with an estimated payroll of $46 M, with talk that they could afford expand that number to the $55 M range. That’s plenty of room for a big contract.

The reason I find the off-season amusing is because of a trend that exists every off-season. The deeper you get in to the off-season, the more pessimistic Pirates fans get. At the start of the off-season the Pirates couldn’t compete without players like Maholm, Doumit, Snyder, and Cedeno. By the end of the winter meetings they had replaced those players with new additions that you could call lateral movements. Even though they had the same talent level at each position, it was no longer enough. The Pirates needed more in order to compete. At the start of the off-season the Pirates couldn’t compete without Maholm, Doumit, and Cedeno. They added players with similar overall values in Bedard, Barajas, and Barmes, but didn’t seem to escape the “100 loss” predictions that were around during OptionGate.

The team has been quiet since the winter meetings. Since the Casey McGehee trade on December 12th they’ve added nine minor league free agents, none of which really stand to make an impact in the majors. They also still have an estimated $46 M payroll, which leaves room for a big signing. That brings us to one of the most amusing things of all in my book.

It seems like no matter what the Pirates do, the 2012 predictions don’t change. Lose Maholm, Doumit, and Cedeno? They’ll lose 100 games. Replace those three with Bedard, Barajas, and Barmes? That’s fine for a week, but a week later when they haven’t made any additional moves they’re back to losing 100 games. I understand the pessimism. The Pirates have lost a lot of years in a row. They’ve had can’t miss prospects who missed. They’ve been presented with rebuilding plans, but never saw a rebuild. They saw the freak show in 1997, and they saw the 2011 team capture first place in July, only to go on to finish the season with the worst case scenario of a collapse. You can’t even say that Pirates fans need to see proof of something before they’ll believe in it, because at this point they’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The Pirates have room to spend in 2012. They have room to make a big addition to the team and still end up in the $55 M range. What’s amusing is that the Pirates are a 100 loss team if they don’t make such a move, but an addition of someone like Edwin Jackson suddenly makes them a team that can compete. One of those things isn’t right, and I’m guessing the never-changing, pessimistic 100 loss prediction is that thing. Either the Pirates are a team that could have a shot at contending with an addition like Edwin Jackson, or they’re just wasting their money because they’re far from one player away from doing anything.

It’s pretty important to know which side you stand on that debate, because it will influence your answer to this next question: Does a big free agent make sense for the Pirates?

Last week I pointed out that the Pirates were in a rare situation where there were still talented free agents available, and the Pirates were one of the few teams with money to spend. I suggested Edwin Jackson as a possibility. Most of the arguments for a free agent focus on the 2012 payroll. They don’t focus on whether the team can afford a long term deal. So I looked in to it. I completed estimates of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 payrolls, to get an idea of whether the Pirates have room in their future payrolls for a big deal, such as $10 M a year for Edwin Jackson.

If you assume that the Pirates stick in the $50-55 M payroll range during those years, then they could manage such a contract. They’d have to trim some payroll in 2013, something I think will already happen, as I don’t see them keeping Joel Hanrahan for a third year of arbitration. In 2014 and 2015 they’d need top prospects like Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Alex Dickerson, Tony Sanchez, and others to arrive, which would help keep prices down.

The Pirates could afford a big deal, but they’re in a situation where there’s one bullet in the chamber. Do you fire that the first chance you get? Or do you save it for an absolute emergency?

I like Edwin Jackson. He’s a very talented pitcher. He would be the ace of the Pirates staff for at least the next two years. But he’s a 3.8 WAR pitcher. The guy he’d replace would be Kevin Correia, who was a replacement level pitcher last year. So the overall impact would be 3-4 extra wins. If you’re in the 100 loss camp, it wouldn’t make any sense to spend money on Jackson. You’d be tying up the payroll for the next few years, and if you think the team is that bad in 2012, then the addition of Jackson probably won’t do anything in the short term.

But what about if you think the team is close? What if you think the team is a 72-75 win team? You could argue that the Pirates would be better off waiting until they had a winning season before adding a free agent. Maybe the Pirates could use that $10 M per year at another position in the future. You could also make the argument that I’ve made: Jackson would be the best pitcher on the team for the next two years, and would either be a great number three behind Taillon and Cole, or would be someone who could easily be traded if other options emerge.

The Pirates have the payroll space for a big addition, but they only have one shot. If they add someone who gets hurt or regresses, they lose that payroll flexibility in the future. It might be irrelevant to talk about Jackson, since it looks like he’s going for a one year deal with a contender. But when talking about Jackson you have to ask: With one shot to take, is this the guy you want to take that shot on? Or do you wait until the team has a winning season before you make that type of move?

Author: 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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