The MLB Winter Meetings take place this week in Orlando, Florida. Normally this is the time where baseball’s off-season picks up steam, with a lot of transactions taking place. This year saw a ton of transactions take place the week before the meetings. The Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t one of the active teams last week, but they do have needs and could start to fill those needs in the upcoming days. Below is a preview of the team needs, along with thoughts on the type of players the Pirates could pursue at each position.
The big discussion this off-season has surrounded A.J. Burnett. During the World Series, Burnett said that he would take about a week to decide whether he was going to retire. He has said that he is choosing between retiring or returning to the Pirates. Almost two months later, Burnett is still making his decision.
The Pirates didn’t make him a qualifying offer, which would have given him $14.1 M in 2014 if he would have accepted. The lack of a qualifying offer is irrelevant at this point, since Burnett only had a week to accept that and he obviously hasn’t made a decision yet. What is relevant are the comments that the Pirates can’t afford Burnett at that $14.1 M range, and that they can’t afford Burnett for market rate.
Neal Huntington’s comments on Burnett are true. If he hit the open market, he would get much more than $14 M. His salary would eat up most of the Pirates’ budget, making it hard for them to sign a first baseman.
The Huntington comments received a lot of backlash, and a lot of that is due to a lack of trust in the entire situation. If you believe that Burnett will only play for the Pirates, then there’s no fear that he could sign elsewhere. If you believe that he would sign with another team, then the Pirates are taking a big risk to allow him to sign elsewhere. The fact that zero A.J. Burnett rumors have surfaced involving other teams suggests that he is serious about the “retire or return to the Pirates” stance. I also can’t imagine he would demand $14 M instead of something around $10-12 M, especially since he has already made a lot of money in his career.
The off-season has already seen Mike Napoli take less to remain in Boston. It saw Josh Johnson take less because he wanted to play in San Diego. Pirates fans aren’t used to seeing players openly wanting to play in Pittsburgh. In fact, they are used to players passing up more money from the Pirates to go elsewhere. So the idea that anyone would truly say “Pittsburgh or retire” is unfamiliar, and leads to a lack of trust that the player is being sincere. And the idea that the Pirates can sign Burnett for below market rate shouldn’t be that ridiculous. A hometown discount isn’t unheard of when a player wants to play in a specific city. We’ve seen that twice this off-season.
When it comes to Burnett, I really think the Pirates are where they’ve been all along. He’s still deciding between retirement and returning to the Pirates. If he decides to come back, I think they will be able to sign him for below market rate, and possibly even for below the $14.1 M price.
If Burnett doesn’t return, then the Pirates don’t necessarily need a pitcher. They have a good rotation, with Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton leading the way. Wandy Rodriguez and Jeff Locke profile as the back of the rotation starters, with Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, and Phil Irwin all providing alternatives for the back of the rotation. Justin Wilson wouldn’t be a bad option to move to the rotation, although Pimentel might be set up better for that move since he started a full season last year.
The Pirates don’t need a starter if that starter is just going to be more of the same quality of Pimentel, Cumpton, Locke, or Irwin. We heard today that they checked in on Bronson Arroyo. He’s a good pitcher, but he profiles as a strong number four starter who is capable of 200 innings per year. That’s more of a luxury for the Pirates, giving them added depth. We saw how important depth was last year, but the Pirates need to balance short-term and long-term needs here. The short-term need would be depth and reliable starters. The long-term need would be developing guys like Locke and Pimentel. Signing someone like Arroyo and blocking Locke or Pimentel from the rotation would be a move out of Dave Littlefield’s playbook. The Pirates might be contenders now, but they’re always going to be a team that needs to give young guys a chance.
If the Pirates add a starting pitcher who has top of the rotation upside, that would be a different story. The short-term advantage would be much greater in this situation, giving a bigger boost to the rotation that they couldn’t get from guys like Locke and Pimentel. However, the potential top of the rotation guys, or even middle of the rotation guys, are slim at this point. Aside from Burnett, the current list of players who are capable of those numbers include:
The Pirates won’t be players for Garza or Santana. Most of the other players (including several that I didn’t name) are bounce back candidates to various degrees. Bartolo Colon is the most interesting name here. He’s old, but he’s still putting up strong numbers and is the type of ground ball pitcher that the Pirates prefer.
First base is turning into a buyer’s market. The top target for the Pirates looks to be James Loney. However, there are only four other teams who really need a first baseman. Aside from Loney, the free agent market offers Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart as top options. The trade market includes Mark Trumbo, Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland, Logan Morrison, and Adam Lind.
Loney makes the most sense for the Pirates. He wouldn’t cost prospects like the trade options. He matches up well as a platoon partner with Gaby Sanchez. His numbers in his career away from Dodger Stadium are strong. He’s also one of the best defensive first basemen in the league. In the last three years, Loney has ranked fifth overall in UZR/150 among 32 qualified first baseman with 1500+ innings during that span. Because of his defensive boost, Loney was more valuable last year than Allen Craig, Prince Fielder, Adam Lind — all players who had better offensive numbers than Loney.
If the Pirates platoon Loney, they will only boost the numbers from the first base position. While he had a .299 average against both lefties and right-handers last year, his OPS was about 70 points lower against left-handers. Gaby Sanchez crushed lefties last year, and is also strong defensively at first.
Even if the Pirates don’t land Loney (their big competition would probably be Tampa Bay), they should finish the off-season with a good first baseman, since there are plenty to choose from.
It doesn’t seem like the Pirates will be adding a right fielder. They have Jose Tabata under contract. They tendered a contract to Travis Snider. They traded for Jaff Decker. Gregory Polanco could be up in the second half of the season. If they added another right field option, it would mean they wouldn’t have a roster spot for Snider or Tabata.
There might be people who find that idea appealing, but the reality is that the Pirates wouldn’t have tendered Snider a contract and traded for Decker if they had plans to add an external free agent. All of their statements have been in support of Tabata and Snider to get a shot, at least until Polanco arrives.
Backup Middle Infield
The Pirates could use a backup middle infielder who can play shortstop to play behind Jordy Mercer. Last year they had a good rotation with Clint Barmes and Mercer at shortstop, with Mercer getting more playing time. Barmes had some poor offensive numbers in his two years with the Pirates, but he was one of the best defensive shortstops in the majors. He wasn’t worth $5 M per year, but he would be worth $2 M a year as a bench player and a part-time starter (primarily when extreme ground ball pitchers are on the mound).
In most cases, I am against the idea of trading prospects for established major league players. Some might say that’s because I run a prospect site, but they’ve never seen the traffic spike that comes after the Pirates do trade a prospect for an established player. If business was my motivation, then I’d be pulling for trades of prospects all the time.
My reluctance towards trading prospects comes from my beliefs of how a small market team should be run. There is always talk of “windows” when small market teams are competing, with the idea that the team only has a few years to contend before they have to rebuild again. I believe that it’s possible for a small market team to sustain a contending team. I believe that if you make trades because of a “window”, you’re basically creating that window by weakening your farm system. Just take a look at Milwaukee as a prime example of how things can go wrong.
The Pirates could see a huge upgrade this off-season if they wanted to trade from their farm system. They could land anyone on the trade market, including guys who are available like David Price, or guys who aren’t available like Chase Headley or Giancarlo Stanton. The short-term upgrade would be big. The long-term downgrade could be catastrophic.
For a guy like Price, the Pirates would have to start with either Jameson Taillon or Gregory Polanco. I love David Price, but I wouldn’t deal six and a half years of either of those players for two years of Price at a combined estimated $30 M. Even if you could make the deal without those two, it would still be too much. The deal would require Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and others. It would probably take half of the top ten prospects in the system.
There is a reason the Rays are successful year after year, despite an extremely small budget. They are always on the right side of these deals. They’re the ones trading away James Shields, David Price, Matt Garza, and others. Usually they replace those pitchers with guys they acquired the last time they traded a top pitcher. The overall result is that the Rays are the model organization for any small market team. And the worst way to follow that model is to be on the opposite side of the Rays in a prospects for Price deal. The same goes with any other prospects for establish player trade involving any other team. The Pirates don’t have to hoard prospects like the Rays do, but they can’t get into a habit of doing what they did during the regular season when they sent Vic Black and Dilson Herrera away for one month of Marlon Byrd.
It’s possible that the Pirates could add pieces via trade, but their best approach would be going for free agents who only cost money, and keeping their prospects.
Rule 5 Draft
The Rule 5 draft takes place on Thursday. The draft once saw impact talent drafted, but now the best players who come from the draft are middle relievers and bench players. It’s basically the same quality of players that you see on waivers. For a list of players who are available from the Pirates, check out our preview from a few weeks ago. Out of that list, Zack Thornton looks like the most likely to be drafted by another team.
Last year was the first year under Neal Huntington that the Pirates didn’t make a pick in the draft. It’s possible that they could skip the draft this year as well, since they will have limited roster space. They might be able to add a bullpen arm or a backup middle infielder for cheap with the pick. Again, the picks these days are basically waiver claim quality, which should put the value of the drafted players in perspective.