Is This the 2002-2003 Off-Season All Over Again?

The Pittsburgh Pirates had one of their best off-seasons in 2002-2003 from a free agency standpoint. I feel that disclaimer is necessary because while the Pirates made some strong free agent signings that off-season, they also lost Chris Young and Bronson Arroyo for nothing during the same off-season. The Pirates did have success on the free agent market, signing Matt Stairs, Jeff Suppan, Reggie Sanders, and Kenny Lofton to deals.

Stairs was the first to sign, inking a one year, $900,000 deal in mid-December. He put up a strong season, hitting for a .292/.389/.561 line in 305 at-bats, mostly working off the bench. The 35 year old parlayed that in to a three year, $3.55 M deal with the Kansas City Royals the following off-season.

The Pirates were quiet after that. They had traded for Randall Simon earlier in the off-season, but after signing Stairs they only made minor moves. Some of those minor moves ended up working out very well, such as the January signings of Jeff D’Amico and Nelson Figueroa. D’Amico put up a 4.77 ERA in 29 starts, while costing $750 K. Figueroa had a 3.31 ERA in 35.1 innings, making three starts. The next big move came on January 31st when the Pirates signed Jeff Suppan.

Suppan arguably had the biggest impact on the team in the long term. He had a 3.57 ERA in 141 innings with the Pirates, then was dealt to the Boston Red Sox for Freddy Sanchez. The deal was primarily made to reverse an earlier trade between the two teams. The Pirates sent Mike Gonzalez and Scott Sauerbeck to Boston in exchange for Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez. It was found out that Lyon was injured and the Red Sox knew about it. To make up for the deal, Boston sent back Gonzalez, got back Lyno and Martinez, and swapped Suppan for Sanchez.

One of the biggest splashes that off-season came on March 10th, when the Pirates signed Reggie Sanders. The 35 year old went on to hit for a .285/.345/.567 line in 453 at-bats, and remained with the team through the end of the season. That was somewhat of a surprise, since the Pirates made a lot of trades that year, such as Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, Suppan, Randall Simon, and the last free agent, Kenny Lofton.

The Pirates made their final move a few days later, adding Kenny Lofton to be their starting center fielder. Lofton was 36 years old, but still had something in the tank, hitting for a .277/.333/.437 line with nine homers in 339 at-bats before being traded in the horrible Aramis Ramirez deal on July 23rd.

A big part of what made the 2003 off-season possible was the collusion that took place with the owners. That collusion held prices down, which made it possible for deals like Kenny Lofton for $1.025 M and Reggie Sanders for $1 M in mid-March. Regardless of how or why it happened, the Pirates added a good starting pitcher, two good outfielders to pair with Brian Giles, a strong bat off the bench, and a few role players.

The 2011-2012 off-season looks to be shaping up like the 2002-2003 off-season. The Pirates made some early moves in the Matt Stairs form by adding Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas. Neither player is a flashy signing, but they could have a supporting impact to the rest of the team. Stairs was a 2.1 WAR player in 2003. Barmes is coming off a year where he was a 3.1 WAR player, while Barajas is coming off a year where he was a 1.3 WAR player.

The big reason why this off-season looks like the 2002-2003 version is because of the players who are still available in late January. This time around it seems that there aren’t a lot of teams with money to spend, rather than another case of collusion like 2003. The market still includes Prince Fielder, Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, Derrek Lee, and other talented players like Francisco Cordero and Vladimir Guerrero.

What we know about the market is pieced together from various rumors and assumptions. There have been big spenders like the Yankees who have said they only have $1-2 M to spend. There has been talk that the asking price for some players, like Edwin Jackson, was too high. There’s also been talk that those asking prices have fallen significantly.

This off-season looks like the 2002-2003 off-season because of the opportunities that are available to the Pirates this late in the process. I don’t think the Pirates have any sort of shot at Prince Fielder. Roy Oswalt seems to be at the point in his career where he cares more about winning than about money, so I wouldn’t think he’d be an option. Derrek Lee is looking for the right deal, and there’s been talk about him retiring. The guy I’ve thought would be a good fit for the team is Edwin Jackson.

The rumors on Jackson are as clouded as any free agent. Buster Olney reported that the asking price was in the John Lackey/A.J. Burnett range at the start of the off-season. That would put him at five years and $82.5 M. There were reports that Scott Boras was seeking five years. ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews had him asking for $60 M, while Jon Heyman reported the asking price was $15-17 M a year. A few weeks after those rumors came out, it was reported by Buster Olney that the asking price for Jackson had dropped, although no word on where the price ended up. The same report had Hiroki Kuroda dropping his price to $10-11 M. Shortly after those rumors he signed with the New York Yankees for $10 M. The Yankees were also looking at Jackson, but decided he was too expensive.

Edwin Jackson is still available on the free agent market at the end of January.

So what do we know about Jackson? Not much really. There were reports that his asking price was high, and that his price has come down. We don’t know what that discounted price is. There’s reports that he was looking for a five year deal, but a recent report by Ken Rosenthal suggests that Jackson could accept a one year deal, similar to what Ryan Madson took.

The Pirates have some payroll room leftover. They’re currently projected at $46 M. There’s been the talk that they could expand that to the $55 M range. That could allow them to sign Jackson if the price was right. It’s not exactly the same situation as 2002-2003, when the Pirates got two-thirds of their outfield for a little over $2 M. However, it’s a situation where the Pirates are in a rare position to get a talented free agent. I believe they’ve already done this by adding Erik Bedard, but they could use another pitcher, and one who is more of a guarantee to pitch the entire season. The Pirates have money to spend at a time when a lot of teams are saying they just can’t afford the asking prices for guys like Jackson or Oswalt.

I don’t think Jackson is worth anything close to the $15-17 M a year asking price from the start of the off-season. I think that the only shot the Pirates have is going for the five year deal he wants. If he’s willing to go for a one year deal, I think he’d be more likely to sign with a contender. When you’re talking about a five year deal, you have to look beyond the 2012 payroll. Maybe Jackson could fit in to the payroll this year, but the Pirates have a lot of talented arbitration eligible players the next few years, with Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker kicking things off with their eligibility next year. That’s definitely something to consider when talking about the possibility of Jackson signing.

I think that if the price came to five years and $50 M, that would be a good deal for the Pirates. That amount would be something they could afford in the short term, and the long term. I’ve written in the past on how I think Jackson is worth the risk. He’d immediately be the best pitcher on the staff. A rotation of Jackson, Bedard, James McDonald, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens would look nice. It would also give the Pirates depth, with Kevin Correia and Brad Lincoln as immediate replacement options. In the long term Jackson would fit in well with a rotation that could include Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole as early as June 2013. And if the Pirates ran in to a situation where they wanted to unload Jackson, I don’t think it would be too hard to do, considering his age and his recent history on the mound.

Starting pitchers are far from a guarantee, even when they have a history of success. There haven’t been many recent long term pitching deals that have worked in favor of the signing team. John Lackey fell apart almost immediately after signing his deal, combining for a 5.26 ERA the last two years with the Boston Red sox, after a 3.81 ERA in his career leading in to the deal. A.J. Burnett has combined for a 5.20 ERA the last two years with the Yankees, and they’re having trouble unloading his contract. Derek Lowe has a 4.57 ERA in three years with Atlanta, which isn’t what you’d expect for $15 M a year.

There’s definitely an argument to be made about the risk side of this equation. If Jackson immediately falls off the table like Burnett, Lackey, or Lowe, then the Pirates are in a horrible position. They can’t afford to compete with an albatross contract on the books, unlike New York, Boston, and Atlanta. One major difference is that Jackson turns 28 next year. Derek Lowe was 36 in the first year of his deal. Burnett was 32 and Lackey was 31. A five year deal puts Jackson at the age of 32 in the final year of his deal, which is right around the time Burnett and Lackey started to decline. So I don’t think there’s as big of a risk with Jackson seeing an immediate drop off like these other pitchers.

This is not a decision that can be taken lightly, and it’s not as easy as “the Pirates have money to spend, and there’s player available for them to spend that money on”. My opinion is that Jackson is worth the risk, but I can definitely see the argument for the other side, especially if Jackson’s reliance on his slider — one of the most injury-causing pitches — bothers you. The Pirates do have a rare opportunity. Going back to that simple statement: they have money to spend and there are talented players available to spend that money on. They’ve been very quiet since the Winter Meetings, and that has led to speculation that they’re done for the off-season. But as the season gets closer, it seemingly becomes possible for them to run in to that rare situation where they could get a player simply because they’re one of the few teams with money to spend.

Tim Williams

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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  • Anonymous

    Could stand Jackson at 10 mill but for no more than 3 years. Then if Seattle signs Fielder, trade Tabata and Lincoln to the Mariners for Justin Smoak. Move Presley to left and Jones to RF. In one year Marte will be here and put him in LF, move Presley back to RF.

    • Anonymous

      I too like Jackson at $10m for 3-4 years, but I would not give up Tabata and Lincoln for Smoak. That’s way too much to give up for a guy, who while still young, has never hit for average in the bigs and 15 HR last year with Seattle in 123 games is not exactly awesome. I certainly think a platoon this year of Jones and McGehee can do the same if not more than Smoak can for this year and maybe next.

      It is a sad state too for Derek Lee (who I would not want either) that he would rather retire than play for the Pirates. Ouch!

  • http://twitter.com/sdimmick3 Chicken McD

    Tabata’s team friendly deal will have something to say about that….

  • Anonymous

    I would be a little surprised and disappointed if they dont make any more moves. Whether its E jax for multi years or Oswalt on 1(i think hes still hurt though) or Cespedes I think they should shoot for 1 if not 2 of those. I wouldnt do Tabata for Smoak straight up. Lincoln Gorkys and maybe a younger guy maybe

  • john.alcorn

    I’m pretty disappointed that we are in offseason #6 for NH and company and his total yield of players acquired that have a potential role with a Pirate contender is 1, Evan Meek who is no sure thing. He refuses to learn from the stopgap failures and has not been able to turn a single offseason deal in our favor. Meanwhile other teams get longterm answers at 1B, SS, and SP.  

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Are you talking about just the off-season additions, or total additions in the 5-6 year time frame? If we’re talking long term, off-season additions are no more important than in-season additions.

      • john.alcorn

        Come on Tim, its OK with you that this front office has done nothing productive in 6 offseasons. You’d think that one trade or signing might have worked out. I know they don’t count more in the winter, but they count just as much as in season and NH’s track record is awful.

        Look at this year, the Sox have dealt 2 SS better than Barmes in the last two months for minimal returns. Two NL teams have acquired cost controlled long term 1B. Many teams have dealt for SP. We have done nothing (except hoping that Bedard stays healthy and we can trade him in July).

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_46YTB5OO4O7UM2OVB44UZSTXNA Nate

          Totally agree with the 2nd paragraph.  It has been terribly frustrating watching the young 1B talent out there to be had go to other teams.  I also feel like there is young SS talent to be had as well.  
          I would love to see the team come out of no where and sign Cespedes, then turn Grossman and Presley into SS upgrades. 

          Was wondering what the true upsides of Chase and Jordy really are?

          • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

            You don’t see many teams dealing young SS talent. I think the only way the Pirates get that is if they deal McCutchen. The Pirates aren’t the only team looking for young shortstops. And by young shortstops, I assume you mean someone who is a two way player. That’s probably the most sought after commodity in baseball.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          All I’m saying is that the off-season shouldn’t be the only focus if you’re making an argument for the long term. What if the McLouth trade was made in the off-season, rather than mid-season? It wouldn’t change the current team. It would just make it so that the Pirates added Morton in the off-season, rather than in-season.

          If you’re making an argument about the following season, then only citing the off-season seems valid. But if you’re looking long term, then there’s no need to narrow the scope and focus on one area.

          Personally I don’t care about the off-season moves as much as I do the in-season moves. I think that where the Pirates have been the past five years, the in-season moves can have a bigger impact. In the past four years they haven’t been at a point where a big free agent will make them contenders in the off-season. They have, however, been sellers for most of that time period. So I’d expect the big moves to happen mid-season in that situation. And most of the big moves did happen mid-season. Some of the trades didn’t work out, and some have worked out very well.

    • F Lang

      NH took over after the 2007 season so he will have been with the Bucs five years this Sept.

    • Anonymous

      I understand fans being impatient I have my days too where I get frustrated but this regime didn’t create the mess. If the previous regimes would have just taken better care of the farm system  NH could have started with some prospects throughout the system and there would now be a steady stream of players coming to the big club.

      Adding expensive free agents would have made a lot of people like you happy but they wouldn’t have made the team competitive, a guy named Littlefield tried that.

      It is going to take 4 to 6 more drafts for the farm to be where it needs to be. That doesn’t mean that the Pirates can’t have decent teams in the meantime but to put this franchise in the position to compete for the playoffs on a regular basis is still years away.

      Like it or not that is the way it is.

      • john.alcorn

        Mike, its been 5 years, the free pass from DL has expired. NH has made this mess too banking on guys like LaRoche, Alvarez, Milledge and others. It has been NH’s choice to annually throw $10 million away on under performing veteran FA’s.

        BTW, NH inherited his best two players (Cutch, Walker) and Marte, plus a roster full of valuable MLB trade chips. NH’s system has yet to produce a good MLB regular or a quality SP.

        I firmly believe his approach has been correct, but I am also convinced his failures in talent evaluation make him the wrong guy for the job. Right idea, wrong execution.

        • Anonymous

          The question I ask is who was willing to take the GM job after DL?

          They would have been taking over a team with no pitching on the big team no pitching in the minors.

          One of the lowest payrolls in baseball so they couldn’t spend their way out.

          A minor league system with one top prospect and maybe a promising prospect who was maybe 5 yrs away (Marte).

          I don’t think the best and the brightest were lining up outside the Pirate offices begging for an interview.

          I know that NH has made alot of mistakes and he is going to make alot more but he is here and not going anywhere.

          I wish I knew answers to some questions like how much money do the Pirates really have? But they arn’t going to tell me or you.

          I don’t get paid to defend NH but I understand the problems he or anyone else had to face in taking that job so in that regard I tend to give him a break.

        • Anonymous

          The question I ask is who was willing to take the GM job after DL?

          They would have been taking over a team with no pitching on the big team no pitching in the minors.

          One of the lowest payrolls in baseball so they couldn’t spend their way out.

          A minor league system with one top prospect and maybe a promising prospect who was maybe 5 yrs away (Marte).

          I don’t think the best and the brightest were lining up outside the Pirate offices begging for an interview.

          I know that NH has made alot of mistakes and he is going to make alot more but he is here and not going anywhere.

          I wish I knew answers to some questions like how much money do the Pirates really have? But they arn’t going to tell me or you.

          I don’t get paid to defend NH but I understand the problems he or anyone else had to face in taking that job so in that regard I tend to give him a break.

    • Anonymous

      Tabata , McDonald, if not Hanrahan then the potential players acquired for him? I think all these guys could be big parts of a winner. I look around at what some teams got for Johan Santana and CC Sabathia who are better players than any Pirate since bonds and its laughable. Look what Fla got for Miguel Cabrera. Obviously Bay trade was terrible but I would say with the limited talent that was here he has done pretty well as far as trades.

      • john.alcorn

        I mean acquired in the offseason, this makes 6 offseasons for NH this year.

  • Anonymous

    Collusion in 2002?   Just because the players complained, doesn’t make it so.  Author makes it sound as fact.  

    • Anonymous

      This is from Wikipedia, which uses an AP article from Ronald Blum as the source:

      Players alleged that owners engaged in collusion in the 2002 and 2003 seasons. As part of the 2006 CBA, owners agreed to pay the players $12 million from “luxury tax” revenue sharing funds. The agreement was made with no admission of guilt.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baseball_collusion#Collusion:_2002.E2.80.932003

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      As Kevin points out, it went beyond the players complaining. The owners paid a settlement three years later.

      • Anonymous

        “it went beyond the players complaining”

        No it didn’t!

        Because there was a ‘settlement’, sure, you can conclude there was collusion.  Considering the massive payouts the owners had to fork over for past (and genuine) collusions, I see this comparatively paltry sum ($12M), which was earmarked for the players anyway, was just to get the players to shaddap.

  • F Lang

    I believe Presley has already moved to left and Tabata to right.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3G6S3MLR7RKSHPBY62TA5KKR4A michael

    EJacks is intriguing & I’d love to see him pitching for the Pirates for the right price.  But it’s concerning that he keeps moving from team to team, given his ability.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      His numbers suggest he’s a talented pitcher, but how often he’s moved around doesn’t say that teams feel the same way. I think that’s also why he’s still available. It doesn’t seem like teams believe in him or believe in the numbers he’s putting up.

      • Matthew Spicer

        I wonder if that has to do with his reliance on the slider. Maybe teams are afraid that he will break down.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AGRPLJJRC5GNBYXDY6LHF2U6DU white angus

        Jackson’s WHIP is pretty high for a guy seeking Ace like money, and I’m not a believer in WAR, but his isn’t exactly stellar.  Also, just like his WHIP, his BAA isnt ace level.

        pluses?  he is pretty much average against both LH and RH hitters, and those numbers also translate to home and road splits as well.

        maybe he perks everyones interest because LH hitters dont light him up, until those same people see that he doesnt dominate RH hitters either.

        • Anonymous

          I like him here because he has what they lack in strikeout potential. But didnt he walk 9 in his no-hitter game? Id say huge upgrade over Correia Karstens and probably morton. Maybe signing him could quiet down the spend $ crowd for at least a day. Help my nerves

      • http://twitter.com/mvela06 Michael Vela

        A long term contract is probably something he’ll be more than happy to accept. A team that finally believes in him and he’ll stop getting to be a journeyman. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Ludwig/14208582 Mark Ludwig

    It would be great if the Pirates could finish this offseason strong. Jackson would be a great start and I wouldn’t hate 4 years $40M with a mutual option for a 5th at $10-$12M. Secondly, try to sign Soler. He would fit in the organization’s philosophy of building from the minors up. Finally try to swing a deal for Brandon Allen. I know you (Tim) weren’t a fan of Allen as a target but he seems like he could be just as productive as GFJ. Bill James, who I know isn’t infallible, pegs Allen for 22 HRs and a .334 wOBA next year and that’s playing in Oakland. That would get me pretty pumped for opening day…

    • Anonymous

      Agreed on everything but Allen unless they deal GFJ I think they enough guys in that mold to take a shot on. If they dealt him for either a super young guy or youngish backend bullpen type, I could see going for Allen

  • Justin Gray

    you could use the fact that Jackson has been to several teams as a positive attribute just as much as you can use it as a negative one.

    means that he’s a valuable trade piece just as much as it could mean that teams ‘gave up on him’ or something.

  • Anonymous

    With pujuols and fielder now out of the division and the cubs and Astros still a mess, why on earth would you not give it a shot this year. Impact prospects are two years away. If all it costs now is money, make a big move and show your EXTREMELY patient fans you are at least willing to try. Signing a big contract now doesn’t mean you can’t move it later. Let’s go, Neal. Your move.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_46YTB5OO4O7UM2OVB44UZSTXNA Nate

    If only….

    Go out and make DLee forget retirement (1 yr/8.5 mill w/ the promise of trade to playoff bound team if Bucs are out of it in July) –this allows McGhee to be a strong bench/sub option for DLee and PedroGrab EJax (4 yr/44 mill + 5th yr team option)Sign Cespedes AND SolerAhhhh….its fun to fantasize.TabataACutchCespedesPedroDLeeWalker BarmesBarajas  

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Actually, when the Pirates offered Lee arbitration, he was guaranteed at least $8.5 M. That’s what he made in 2011, so he would have seen a raise over that number had he accepted arbitration.

      Considering Lee doesn’t want to play here, I think my preference would be: 1. Cespedes 2. Jackson

  • Anonymous

    jackson for 5yrs 50 million, for this franchise would make papa nutting head explode.

  • Anonymous

    Cespedes comment on MLB TradeRumors:

    The 26-year-old Cespedes went 5-for-35 with no walks and ten strikeouts in winter ball this month, and won’t play again according to Baseball America’s Ben Badler (on Twitter).

    Hmmm…small sample size, but…..

  • James S

    I don’t know why anyone thinks the Pirates have a chance to get Cespedes.
    Give it up! They are never going to get him! This is the Pirates you are talking about! If they ever do get him, it will be in 15 years when his career is just about over.

    And when they trade Andrew McCutchen for a career double A player in May, then I’ll agree that it resembles the 2003 season.
    Even the memory of giving away Aramis Ramirez for nothing makes me sick. I would never put anything past this organization after witnessing that. It made me realize right then that this team will probably leave Pittsburgh before they ever see another championship.