The Pirates just came off a season where they won 98 games, but lost the Wild Card game to the Cubs, ending their playoff run early. This was the second year in a row where they went up against one of the hottest pitchers in baseball in the Wild Card game, and likewise, it was the second year in a row that they lost that game. As a result, the goal for 2016 should be to win the division and avoid this situation entirely.
It’s going to be difficult to do much better than the team did in 2015. A bar of 98 wins is hard to top, and in most years it would be enough to win the division. This year it would have been enough to win any division other than the NL Central, which makes this situation even more frustrating. And that same frustrating situation will exist unless MLB adds a rule change to the way the playoffs are seeded.
The Pirates will also have a challenge of their own when trying to upgrade. They aren’t a team that has a lot of holes like previous years. They’re a team that won 98 games and will be returning almost all of their roster. That doesn’t mean the same team will win 98 games again next year, but it does mean the Pirates will be returning a good team that is set for the 2016 season. So in order to upgrade the team, the Pirates are going to have to find a way to upgrade established positions rather than filling holes, which can be easy in some cases, and difficult in other cases. Below I broke down some of the difficulties the Pirates face this off-season at a few key positions, along with some of the other storylines they face with prospects and other off-season plans.
The Departing Players
The Pirates will have a lot of potential turnover on their roster, but fortunately they will keep most of their core in place for the 2016 season. They’ll have the option of trying to upgrade over a few of those guys, but outside of the upgrades, they’ll have most of their team set going into the off-season.
The Pirates will be losing J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria, Antonio Bastardo, Corey Hart, Sean Rodriguez, and Joe Blanton to free agency. They will also lose Aramis Ramirez and A.J. Burnett to retirement. These losses will create a few needs around the team which will need to be addressed in the off-season.
The biggest need would be in the rotation. The Pirates have Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon set to arrive in 2016, but neither will be ready on Opening Day. As a result, they will need at least one more starting pitcher at the beginning of the season. The loss of Ramirez and Rodriguez also brings the need for more bench help, especially with current uncertainty about when Jung-ho Kang could return next season. They’ll lose Soria, Blanton, and Bastardo from the bullpen, and at the least will need to add a left-handed reliever. They will probably add some right-handed options, but those tend to be minor moves geared towards value, such as last year’s pickup of Arquimedes Caminero for cash considerations.
The next holes that could be created would come through potential non-tenders or trades. In the 2016 payroll projection, I listed Vance Worley, Travis Snider, and Travis Ishikawa as non-tender candidates. Losing Snider and Ishikawa, combined with the losses of Rodriguez and Ramirez, would further the need for bench help. The Pirates could try to bring any of these guys back (outside of Ramirez), but they could probably do so at a cheaper price in each case. In Snider’s case, they could use a fourth outfielder, but he’s projected for $2.4 M in arbitration, and we’re only two months removed from every team passing on him at a pro-rated portion of his $2.1 M salary. He didn’t do anything in September to warrant the 2016 projection, and will once again be a cheaper option on the open market.
There are three other arbitration eligible players who are questionable to remain on the team due to their prices and production. Those players are Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Mark Melancon. I talked about each of them in yesterday’s payroll article, and will discuss their situations further below. That would create a need at first base, second base, and closer, although the Pirates have an internal solution for first base and closer.
The Pirates will enter the off-season looking for the following:
**At least one Starting Pitcher
**Bullpen Help, with a focus on a left-handed reliever
**Potentially a first baseman
**Potentially a second baseman
**A new closer, or an additional left-handed reliever if Tony Watson becomes the new closer
I’m not going to go into detail on the bullpen or bench, since there are so many options and so many ways a team can fill those spots. Instead, I’ll focus on the key areas above.
Shuffling the Infield
The Pirates didn’t have a problem offensively on the right side of their infield. The problem they had was with the defense. As I noted yesterday, Pedro Alvarez had the same offense as his 2012 season, but the defense was so horrible that he became a replacement level player. Neil Walker ranked 17th out of 18 qualified second basemen in UZR/150, despite having strong offense.
The Pirates have the challenge of trying to upgrade their defense at these two spots, while not losing a lot offensively. I think they can do that by going with Michael Morse over Alvarez at first. It’s not that Morse is a good defender. But you don’t have to be a good defender to be a big upgrade over Alvarez. There’s also the possibility that Morse could return to his pre-2015 offense, which would be an overall upgrade over Alvarez at first base.
Second base would be the harder spot to upgrade. Walker’s defense is bad, but his offense is good for the position. None of the free agent options available are big upgrades over what he can provide overall, and the guys who provide the same production would cost the same amount. The only possibility here would be a trade.
This is almost like the Russell Martin situation last year. Martin looked to be the best free agent option, but would cost a lot of money. The Pirates could afford him, but at the same time, it would severely impact who they could sign in the future. They ended up adding Francisco Cervelli via trade, and Cervelli ended up being just as good as Martin this year, at a fraction of the cost. At this time last year, no one was even thinking about Cervelli as an option, and when he was added, no one was thinking he could put up a similar value as Martin. And you could argue that by going with Cervelli, the Pirates were able to spend in other areas during the off-season, like signing A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Jung-ho Kang, among others.
The Pirates could use the same type of situation with Walker this year. They can afford to pay his projected $10.7 M salary, but they’d be better off finding a cheaper option to do the same thing, and using that money elsewhere on other upgrades.
Adding to the Rotation
The Pirates need at least one starter to replace A.J. Burnett. The best option right now appears to be J.A. Happ, although that could just be because he did so well with the Pirates this year. The truth is that the Pirates have earned some leeway with their pitching choices, since they keep finding gem after gem. Happ is the most recent example of that. He turned into one of the best pitchers in the final two months of the season, and would be a great fit who would also be affordable under my estimated two-year, $20 M price for him. But I also trust that any starter the Pirates bring in would work, since that’s generally how it’s gone in the past.
The big question here is whether they’d want to upgrade beyond that number three starter and try to replace Jeff Locke or Charlie Morton. Morton is making $8 M this year, which is what a guy with a 1.3 WAR would make on the open market at $6 M per WAR. Morton didn’t reach that this year, with an 0.9 WAR, but did reach those numbers the previous two years, putting up a 1.5 and 1.6 WAR. His big issue is his struggle against left-handed pitching. That might be solved by trying to add another pitch this off-season, which could allow him to get back to those numbers from the previous two years.
Locke put up a 1.6 WAR last year, and his $3.5 M projected salary means that he would only need a third of his 2015 production to justify his contract. Every year he’s had issues in the second half, and while “he’s great in the first half” isn’t the type of trend that you can bank on, this trend does make him a good choice to start until the prospects arrive.
The Pirates could definitely try to upgrade over Locke and/or Morton. I would place the need for this upgrade behind the need for an upgrade at first base, the number three starting spot, and then second base. It’s more of a luxury than a need, as Locke and Morton would be fine for half a season. The Pirates could try to find another option in the Vance Worley/Clayton Richard mold, by finding a depth starter for Triple-A at the start of the year. They could also try to find a starter and use one of Locke/Morton as a long-reliever/depth option. That might be expensive in Morton’s case, although they could afford this if they shed some salary by parting with Alvarez, Walker, and the next guy I’ll discuss.
Overall, the Pirates need one starting pitcher, and if all other needs are filled, they could look into upgrading one of the remaining spots. However, Morton and Locke are capable starters, and the Pirates have combined for one of the best starting groups the last three years with those two playing a big role. They’ve got top prospects slated to arrive by mid-season, which is another reason you might not want a long-term option at those spots.
Sell High on Melancon?
In the 2012-13 off-season, the Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan, who was slated to make $7 M, and coming off two solid seasons as a closer. They traded him to create payroll space, which they used to sign Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin. In return, they got Mark Melancon, who has quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball, if not the best reliever. Out of 169 qualified relievers in this span, Melancon ranks third in WAR, first in WPA (10.21), first in shutdowns (123), and he has only 17 meltdowns during that span.
This isn’t the same situation that the Pirates were in with Hanrahan. They had a good reliever in Hanrahan, but definitely a guy who could be replaced or upgraded over for a lot less money. In Melancon’s case, they’ve got one of the best relievers in baseball. They could move on from him, but it would be hard to upgrade over him.
They do have a built-in upgrade in Tony Watson, who has ranked second to Melancon in WPA and shutdowns over the last three years. But if they traded Melancon and went with Watson, they’d be downgrading over Watson in the eighth inning.
The decision they’d have to make here is whether that downgrade from Melancon/Watson to Watson/replacement is worth the extra $10 M and what kind of upgrades the Pirates could get with that money. It’s basically the same decision the Pirates had with Hanrahan (which was ultimately Hanrahan/Grilli vs Grilli/Melancon), only they’ve got a much better reliever combo to upgrade over this time around.
The Pirates don’t have any prospects who could fill needs at the start of the season. However, they have a group of top guys who could come up and make an impact by mid-season. Part of that is for Super Two purposes, but the players all have legitimate reasons to stay in the minors at the start of the season.
Josh Bell is the eventual first baseman in Pittsburgh, but still needs to work on his defense at first base. His offense saw improvements once he got to Indianapolis, and if those improvements prove to be lasting changes, then the defense will be the only thing that needs upgrading.
Tyler Glasnow still needs to work on his command and throwing his curveball for strikes. He’s good enough to get away with his mistakes in the minors, but MLB hitters will currently sit on his fastball and pass up the curve and the changeup until he can throw them for strikes.
Jameson Taillon pitched this year, but not in any official games. He threw sim games during instructs, getting more innings after his hernia surgery. His mechanics looked the best they have ever looked when he was pitching, and he doesn’t look like a guy that will need a ton of work in Triple-A. He’ll need to get readjusted to the level of competition, and get all of his pitches back on track.
Both Glasnow and Taillon should be ready for mid-season, with the ability to step up as upgrades over Morton and Locke. Until then, if they need short-term depth, they’d have Casey Sadler, depending on his health at the start of the year.
Alen Hanson could be an option at second base at some point. He needs to become more consistent with his hitting, but his defense has been much better at second. Hanson could be up before mid-season, since he has less to work on than the other prospects.
Elias Diaz is another prospect who could be up sooner than later, but would only be needed if there was an injury to Francisco Cervelli or Chris Stewart.
The Pirates will further complicate their off-season plans with the status of the prospects. They can’t add multi-year options at these spots, in fear of spending money and blocking a much cheaper option who can contribute for the long-term. But they need upgrades at a few spots, which means they’ll need to find short-term options who can help, while also stepping aside when the prospects arrive.
Rule 5 Draft
Back in July I wrote about the Rule 5 draft and how the Pirates have a lot of options to protect. Since that article was written, the Pirates have traded away Adrian Sampson and Yhonathan Barrios, and called up Keon Broxton. The locks to be protected look to be Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Max Moroff, and Harold Ramirez. Clay Holmes and Barrett Barnes also look like strong options.
This gives six players to protect, but the Pirates may find it difficult to protect that many players. After the retirements and the free agents, they will have five open spots on the 40-man roster. They can create more spots with non-tenders, but they’ll need spots for free agents and trades.
They’ll also have guys on the 40-man roster who won’t be ready for the majors at the start of the season, like Hanson, Diaz, Taillon, Willy Garcia, and Nick Kingham. As a result, they’ll have about 11 spots on the 40-man roster taken up by guys who won’t be ready at the start of the year, which doesn’t give them a lot of depth.
It could be possible that they use this prospect depth to make trades to upgrade other spots on the roster. This is exactly what they did at the deadline, dealing Barrios for Aramis Ramirez and dealing Adrian Sampson for J.A. Happ. That continued approach could give them the upgrades they need this off-season, while trading guys who wouldn’t be missed in the short-term or long-term.