We’re about a month away from the time when Major League Baseball players are first eligible for free agency. We’re about two months away from the time when those players actually start to sign with teams. So it’s early in the process. But it’s not too early to get a feel for how free agency could play out for the Pirates.
I’m not talking about specific players. I’m not talking about specific positions. I’m talking about the Pirates and their chances of being a team that looks attractive to free agents.
In the past, the Pirates haven’t been a popular landing spot. They could only attract players like Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, Erik Bedard, or other players who were on the downside of their careers. They offered big money to people like Edwin Jackson and Jorge de la Rosa, but those offers were turned down for other teams. There might have been other offers out there that went unreported, or even discussions that ended with “Hi, this is Neal Huntington from the Pittsb…(click)”. In short, no one wanted to sign with the Pirates.
Then, the Pirates were able to get players to sign, but only if they paid them top dollar and went after them aggressively early in the process. They over-paid for Clint Barmes, but they did so to get him locked up while Milwaukee was waiting to see what would happen with Prince Fielder. They did the same with Rod Barajas that same off-season when the catching market was thin. So the Pirates were to a point where people would come, but not impact players, and they still had to pay more to look like an attractive destination.
“I think in the past, when people came here, it was more of a rehabilitation center,” Andrew McCutchen said on the subject last week. “I mean it’s true. A lot of guys came here maybe saying this is going to boost them up. Have a good year so they can go somewhere else. And that’s kind of the way it was.”
McCutchen would know. He was the only impact player on the team for a few years. He was the only appeal the Pirates had in 2010 and 2011, apart from a few other players who had inconsistent performances in those years. Fans wanted the Pirates to land help so they didn’t waste McCutchen’s years on the team. Eventually he signed an extension, but the feeling of getting the most out of his years was the same.
Now the feeling has changed, according to McCutchen. It used to be that no one wanted to come to Pittsburgh. After the 2013 season, and after the steady rise of the Pirates the last few years, Pittsburgh has become an attractive landing spot.
“Now it’s people coming here because they want to be here,” McCutchen said. “They want to be part of a team that can change things, and part of a team that can win. That’s the change that I’ve seen in the team. It’s guys being happy to have the opportunity to put on the Pirates uniform.”
We started to see this last off-season. The Pirates signed Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Neither were seen as impact players at the time, although in hindsight they were arguably the top two free agent signings of last off-season.
We saw this during the 2013 season around the waiver trade deadline. Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau were acquired, and immediately fit in with the team. This wasn’t Derrek Lee being upset that he was traded to the Pirates and taking his time showing up, then retiring the following season when the only option was returning to Pittsburgh.
The Pirates are now an attractive landing spot for players. I don’t think this means they can land someone like Robinson Cano. There’s still the financial game to consider, and the Pirates are always going to be out-bid by teams like Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and more for the very best free agents. But the Pirates can continue to get players like Martin and Liriano. If they’re going after someone like Jackson or de la Rosa, they’ll actually get consideration from those players by making fair offers.
As I wrote last night, they shouldn’t be going off-course by giving someone like 31-year-old Shin-Soo Choo a big deal and blocking top prospect Gregory Polanco. But going after 27-year-old first baseman Jose Abreu, potential bounce back starting pitcher Josh Johnson, or a one year, bridge-to-Polanco stopgap like Marlon Byrd wouldn’t be a bad idea. And because the Pirates are now an attractive destination to other players, we can talk about those types of players as options for the Pirates, without discussing the Pirates having to overpay, or discussing whether they are realistic options or whether they would want to sign in Pittsburgh. For once, we can view the Pirates like a normal team when it comes to free agency.
“That’s the way it should be, because this is a proud franchise,” McCutchen said. “I’m happy to be a part of it.”
If the favorite for the NL MVP is happy to be here, then who wouldn’t be happy to be here?