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.

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, 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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