It is a question that many Pirates fans want answered. When, exactly, will the front office sink some significant resources into the major league product? The Pirates entered the season with a total payroll of just under $35 million, lowest in baseball. As I discussed in my last article, the Pirates’ best players in 2010 are mostly in their pre-arbitration years. This naturally keeps the payroll low, and it will probably stay that way until these young guys reach arbitration (which will occur once they accrue three years of major league service time). If things go as planned, they will perform well and start getting expensive around 2013. But until then, the team is likely to enjoy a bit of financial flexibility. We witnessed a benefit of that flexibility at the trade deadline, as the Pirates were able to absorb a minor increase in salary to add veteran catcher Chris Snyder. As we move into 2011, are the Pirates at the point in which adding a few legitimate free agents to the developing core of young players would be worth the investment?
Let’s start by looking at what the team will have to work with next season. Here is my best guess at the Pirates 2011 lineup, using only internal options. I am also including rough (and optimistic) Wins Above Replacement (WAR) estimates for a full season.
These are not scientific projections by any means, just a guess at how each player will perform next season based on this year’s performance, the player’s age, etc. As a reminder, a league average player is generally worth about two wins over a full season. I put Chris Snyer and/or Ryan Doumit down for two wins, which is not all that impressive for a catcher. Most of that value simply comes from the ability to don a chest protector and show some signs of competency with the glove and bat. The same goes for Ronny Cedeno. Cedeno is a pretty terrible hitter, but his above average defense at a demanding position makes him a useful player. Garrett Jones is the exact opposite. A league average bat from an ordinary fielding first baseman is just not that valuable. If you consider the fact that Jones is approaching the age of 30, we probably should not expect much from him moving forward. A platoon with Steve Pearce may increase the first base production a bit. In the end, I went with a slightly below average 1.5 wins. There is a host of marginal options for right field. I went with some combination of Lastings Milledge and John Bowker, although Brandon Moss and Jeff Clement could also battle for playing time between first and right. Milledge has been a very mediocre hitter and average-ish fielder at the relatively easy position. Bowker is probably a better hitter, but his lack of big league production and so-so defense make him a large question mark. Considering all of that, I also assigned the right field position a below average 1.5 wins.
In the cases of Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, I went with optimistic projections. McCutchen has produced about 3 wins per 600 plate appearances over the course of his career. With his young age and relative inexperience, I bumped him up to four wins for next season. His value is also hurt by poor defensive ratings, which I expect to improve over time. Alvarez has played at about a 4-win pace since the beginning of July, which seems reasonable for the near future to me. Similarly, Tabata has played at a 3-win pace since arriving in Pittsburgh. The defensive metrics are unkind to Neil Walker at second base, keeping him a 1.5-win pace in 2010. I think that is mostly due to his inexperience at the position and a small sample size, so I bumped him up to 2 wins in 2011.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, how can the Pirates improve the lineup through free agency? The weakest spots appear to be right field and first base, with shortstop also being an issue. Not surprisingly, when looking at the list of possible free agents, those are the positions with potential for upgrading. Here are the best options for first base and corner outfield.
|First Base||Corner Outfield|
|Lance Berkman||Carl Crawford|
|Adam Dunn||Jayson Werth|
|Aubrey Huff||Johnny Damon|
|Adam LaRoche||David DeJesus|
|Paul Konerko||Manny Ramirez|
Let’s just run through each option, with my approximate expectation for 2011 value.
Lance Berkman – 2.5 WAR
Berkman will be 35 next season, and his bat has declined in each of the past three seasons. He has the potential for a decent season, but he is more of a solid player at this point than a good one.
Adam Dunn – 3.5 WAR
Dunn is a much better fit defensively at first base than he was in the outfield, and his bat is still very good. That being said, his walk rate is way down this season, which makes me nervous about his future. He would be a definite upgrade for the Pirates, but he would probably be difficult to sign.
Aubrey Huff – 2.5 WAR
Huff is producing way above his career numbers this season, at age 33. He would probably be a small improvement at either first base or in right field, but some team will likely offer him much more than he is worth. Pass.
Adam LaRoche – 2.5 WAR
LaRoche, irrationally despised by many Pirates fans, is posting a wOBA of exactly .357 for the third consecutive season. Even with all of his in-season performance fluctuations, he has been a consistently average player in his career. I wouldn’t mind bringing him back on a one-year deal if the price was right.
Paul Konerko – 2.0 WAR
Like Huff, Konerko is playing way above of his career numbers. Like Huff, he will probably be overpaid by someone in the offseason. As with Huff, I’ll pass.
Derrek Lee – 1.5 WAR
I am generally wary of a 34-year-old first baseman whose numbers suddenly take a nosedive. Lee has been a league average hitter this season, which is not impressive for his position. His Gold Glove defense would be an upgrade over Jones/Pearce, but that’s about it. Pass.
Carlos Pena – 2.0 WAR
Pena’s numbers have taken a small hit this year, making him just an average player. I’m not that interested in him, but he could be worth a flyer if he came cheap.
None of these guys interest me all that much. For the sake of the argument, let’s say the Pirates bring in Dunn for two years at $20 million. Now, let’s look at whichever corner outfield spot is not occupied by Tabata.
Carl Crawford – 5.0 WAR
Crawford is a star player having an excellent season. He is going to receive a huge deal from someone this offseason. The Pirates have no chance. Next.
Jayson Werth – 4.5 WAR
Werth is in the same situation as Crawford. He may be slightly more realistic for the Pirates, meaning it’s about a 1% chance. Let’s move on.
Johnny Damon – 2.0 WAR
Damon is a somewhat interesting option, but I’m not sure how well his defense would play at PNC Park. I would maybe consider him for something like a one year, $5 million deal. I doubt he would come that cheaply, though, even with his less impressive offensive numbers outside of Yankee Stadium.
David DeJesus – 3.0 WAR
DeJesus was an underrated player for several years, but it seemed as if people took notice in 2010. He could be a nice addition at the right cost, but I honestly have no idea what he will command on the open market. (EDIT: As geo points out in the comments, DeJesus has a team option for next season and probably won’t be available.)
Manny Ramirez – 2.5 WAR
I can’t see this happening in Pittsburgh. Manny can still hit like a star, but he has accumulated only 651 plate appearances the past two seasons. For the price and drama that he would bring, it does not seem worth pursuing.
Again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the Pirates sign DeJesus to a three-year, $25 million deal. (Yes, I simply pulled that contract out of thin air.) That covers right field and first base. The only player on the free agent list that is a clear improvement over Cedeno looks like Derek Jeter, and adding him is not going to happen. This is the extent of possible upgrades the Bucs can make to the starting lineup.
If the Pirates added Dunn and DeJesus for 2011, it would likely improve the team’s record by about three or four wins. Going by my completely made-up salaries, the signings would add about $18 million to the 2011 payroll. The team would also commit an additional $18 million to the 2012 payroll and $9 million to the 2013 payroll. The lineup would look something like this.
|RF||David DeJesus Damon|
That is a pretty respectable lineup. The question is, would the pitching be competent enough to make these free agency additions worthwhile? Find out in Part Two.
EDIT: As I mentioned above, DeJesus probably won’t be an option. Because of that, the best the Bucs can probably do is Damon. He’s an upgrade over the team’s internal options, so let’s say he is signed for one year at $6 million.