David DeJesus - ZumaPress

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.

Position Player WAR
C Snyder/Doumit 2.0
1B Jones/Pearce 1.5
2B Neil Walker 2.0
SS Ronny Cedeno 2.0
3B Pedro Alvarez 4.0
LF Jose Tabata 3.0
CF Andrew McCutchen 4.0
RF Milledge/Bowker 1.5

 

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
Derrek Lee  
Carlos Pena  

 

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.

CF Andrew McCutchen
RF David DeJesus   Damon
2B Neil Walker
1B Adam Dunn
3B Pedro Alvarez
LF Jose Tabata
C Chris Snyder
SS Ronny Cedeno

 

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.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Lots of good points here. What draft picks woudl the Pirates be giving up for any of these free agents?

    When is Part 2 coming?

  2. Based on Bob Nutting’s profit margin, I highly doubt they will sign anyone other than a mediocre infielder or some garbage setup man!!! They have shown no desire to try to be competive….the young pitchers aren’t going to be ready for at least three or four years by that time McCutcheon, Tabata & Alverez will be traded. I like the idea of adding some talent & some of your ideas sound good….but they’ll never commit to anything but garbage.

    • There are four solid starting pitchers at Double-A right now (Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson). A few of them could easily debut at some point in 2011, or 2012 at the latest. It’s not a hopeless situation, by any means.

  3. I think it would make more sense to sign Jonny Gomes than Johnny Damon. Damon is going to have a ridiculous price just because of his inflated Yankee Stadium numbers, and the last thing the Pirates need is an old, washed up top of the lineup hitter. We have McCutchen, Tabata and Walker for the top of the lineup.

    Gomes would make more sense because of his ability to drive runners in and his ridiculous .354 batting average with RISP. To me he just makes more sense for a 3 year deal at age 30 than Damon for a 1 year deal at age 37.

    • Gomes has been a replacement level player four of the past five years, including this season. He would most likely be a downgrade on what we currently have. Doing well with RISP is valuable, but it has little to no predictive value. It is not a repeatable skill.

  4. You can’t do an analysis like this by guesstimating WAR totals. That doesn’t really tell you anything. You can do a marcel to project the totals yourself or you can use the updated projections by CHONE or ZiPS. My guess is that in most cases, the rigorous projections will rate players worse than your estimations.

  5. Of your list above, you have to realize that free agents must want to come play in Pittsburgh, and since the Pirates will most likely not offer any of the above a signifigant more amount of money, the chances of getting even Damon are slim to none, especially with his declining defense. Hardy might be the only possibility, but with his ability to play defense, I can’t see .500 teams not picking him up.
    As far as the line-up, do not forget to add the fact that next year these young men ( Not counting McCutchen)will be playing a full year and will have to adjust to teams as scouting will be better. Since no one is really destroying the ball right now, how do you think that will work when teams are even more prepared?
    Also WHY would Dunn sign with Pirates over the Nationals? At least washignton has a core group that is pretty special in Stephen S., Zimmerman, Harper, Desmond, Soren, Ramos….
    Also having cedeno as an everyday short-stop is a waste…. Really the dreaming of the line-up above, you should add Manny and Cliff Lee as they have the same chance as the other 2 mentioned!

    • I don’t disagree. I am trying to show how difficult it is to improve through free agency. Even with the additions of Dunn and Damon (which, like you said, may not even be realistic), we’re looking at just a few additional wins.

  6. Pirates need an innings eater such as James Shields( probably can be had in a trade due to salary of 4.25M). I’d try to sign one of the follwing pitchers: Justin Duchsherer ( wants to pitch close to Philly), Chris Young, Rich Harden. All the above are injury risks, but if healthy can help. I like the idea of Hardy @ SS or Justin Bartlett (if TB wants to unload salary). Konerko at 1B would be a nice RH bat in the line up w some pop.

  7. When are the pirates going to figure out that they need to improve pitching first. The current rotation doesn’t even have a 1-2 punch…Every starter is a middle or bottom end of a rotation guy. Look at what the Padres are doing (pitching & defense) and they scrap for runs. If you have a rotation that is lucky to have a team era under 5.0 your not going to win many games…Add a couple veterans to help control the young lineup but the team has to figure out that pitching and defense wins games and titles.

    • I liked Hardy as a bounceback candidate last offseason, but he’s been pretty mediocre. Probably an upgrade over Cedeno, would consider it if he came at a reasonable cost.

      Glaus has been worse than Garrett Jones this year, and hasn’t been good for two years. I wouldn’t go after him.

  8. Matt:

    Nice piece. I agree with your WAR projections although Walker could be a little higher and Alvarez scares me at the hot corner.

    Do you think the $30 million spent in bonuses the past three years precluded them from going out and spending much on free agents. And like you said, will the pitching be enough. I don’t think so (probably part 2).

    I can’t see Pitt investing in any older free agents other than fill-ins because they will be too old when the Pirates youngsters blossom in a few years and hopefully some of the arms will make it up. If anything, I think the Pirates need to spend any free agent money on pitchers, but I’d probably wait a year on that.

    • Management has said publicly that they could have spent more on MLB payroll coming into this season. I doubt, for example, that Allie’s bonus or Heredia’s bonus kept them from signing another bench player or two. I’m sure they could have easily put another $10-15 million into payroll without affecting the draft budget, but just didn’t see someone they liked enough to add to the roster.

      We may see a decrease in draft spending at some point if they decide to sink more significant resources into the major league team, though.

  9. Scratch DeJesus from your list. He has an option for next year and the Royals have already said they will be picking it up.

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