Neal Huntington met with the media today at PirateFest, including our own Sean McCool, and discussed a lot of off-season topics, including today’s trade of Charlie Morton. The Pirates traded Morton for David Whitehead, who Huntington described as a big, physical right-hander who puts the ball on the ground and has the makings of a curveball and a changeup.
“Sounds a lot like the guy we just traded,” Huntington said. “Should be in our Double-A rotation this year, and we like the potential that he brings. A big part of the motivation was to free some dollars, to deepen the club, to reestablish our depth, assuming we are able to do that via trade or free agency.”
I don’t know if I’d make the comparison to Morton, because Whitehead’s curveball doesn’t sound as good from the reports I’ve received. It was pretty clear that this was about clearing money off the payroll for other moves, and Huntington didn’t deny this, saying that they’re hoping to move “sooner than later” and that the plan was for this to lead to several upcoming moves. He said that they’re looking at both free agents and trade options at first base.
As for the rotation, Huntington said they still liked Morton and thought he could be a solid MLB starter. They’ll have to replace him now, but it seems this was part of the plan.
“We wouldn’t have done this blindly,” Huntington said. “At the same time, you can’t line everything up perfectly. Some of our best laid plans have gone haywire. Some of our best laid plans have come together. We hope to add some depth to the club over the coming days and weeks.”
Huntington mentioned Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, and Chad Kuhl out of Triple-A as depth this year, while also adding Trevor Williams and Steven Brault as potential guys (the use of potentially before Williams and Brault may not have meant much, but I found it interesting). That said, none of those guys are ready to go out of Spring Training, which Huntington confirmed.
As for whether the new starter would be a left-hander or a right-hander, Huntington said they will go for the best pitcher, even if a lefty means they’ve got four of them in the rotation.
“I don’t know if we would love to have four left-handers in the rotation, but if the next pitcher that we add is the best pitcher, and he happens to be left-handed, then we go forward with that,” Huntington said.
The Mark Melancon Trade Market
Things were a bit awkward in the Q&A sessions at PirateFest, with a lot of people acting as if Mark Melancon will inevitably be traded. It seems like this is true, although Huntington’s public comments leaned towards them keeping Melancon.
“We’ve never had to trade Mark,” Huntington said. “It’s all been if we’re better with him with us, or if we think it’s a better move for the organization to move him elsewhere. That still applies.”
Huntington said Morton’s trade had no impact on their plans for Melancon. As for his further comments, it had the feel of public negotiating for other teams.
“We like the thought of Mark Melancon and Watson anchoring the back end of that bullpen,” Huntington said. “At the same time, if somebody steps up and gives us a return that’s sufficient enough to motivate us to get a little bit uncomfortable, then we’ll get a little uncomfortable.”
If I had to make a prediction, I’d say Melancon will be traded this off-season.
The Neil Walker Trade and Alen Hanson at Second Base
Huntington talked a bit about the Neil Walker trade, and mentioned many times that they really liked the option years in Jon Niese’s contract.
“We have three essentially one-year contracts with Jon Niese, at essentially the same money as Neil,” Huntington said. “We move a player that we like, that was hard to move for a number of reasons, and we add a starting pitcher that [would have been] very hard to add [the equivalent] on the starting pitching market.”
The move could potentially lead to the Pirates having a hole at second base at the start of the year, especially if Jung-ho Kang isn’t ready on Opening Day. Huntington said that Kang is making great progress, and that an April return is more likely than May, barring any setbacks. He said that it would be easier to fill that short-term hole than to add a guy like Niese for the price they got him at.
As for the replacements, Huntington mentioned Alen Hanson as a guy who could start the season in Pittsburgh, moving Josh Harrison over to third base. He also mentioned Pedro Florimon as a defensive option, and minor league free agent Cole Figueroa as an option who commands the strike zone, uses the whole field with his bat, and hasn’t gotten much of an MLB opportunity.
In regards to Hanson, they still like his long-term potential.
“Long-term, we’ve still got some work to do with Alen, but we love the dynamic offensive threat that he can be,” Huntington said. “We’ll still bounce him around, because it’s much easier to make a club when you can play more than one position. We see him as an option for us down the road.”
Hanson was playing third base last year, and has played shortstop in the past. There have also been some discussions about trying him out in left field. I think he’s the long-term option at second, but he will probably have an easier time breaking into the majors as a utility player, and it would be wise for the Pirates to take that approach with him since he starts slow at every level.
Jameson Taillon’s 2016 Expectations
Jameson Taillon missed the entire 2014 and 2015 seasons after Tommy John surgery, and then a hernia in late 2015. He pitched briefly in extended Spring Training, and threw a few innings during instructs at the end of the year. Huntington said that Taillon would be ready for Spring Training.
“Jameson is working out this off-season as a pitcher getting ready to come and compete for Spring Training,” Huntington said. “That’s one of the best things we’ve had to say for a while about Jameson Taillon.”
Even more encouraging was that Huntington thinks Taillon will have a shot at the majors this year, despite the two years of limited action. That won’t happen on Opening Day though.
“Completely unfair to ask him to go from essentially two years not pitching against upper level competition, to make our club out of Spring Training,” Huntington said. “That’s why we’re almost closing the door on that. But he’s a very smart, very hard-working, very driven young man. It would not shock me if he’s in position to help us at some point this season, earlier than later.”
As for whether there will be an innings limit, Huntington mentioned that sending Taillon to Triple-A would allow them to reduce innings early in the season, making it possible for him to pitch late in the year, if needed.
“We’ll be aware of it,” Huntington said on the innings. “That’s another reason why we send him to Triple-A, is we can very easily protect the innings in Triple-A to have him finish strong if all goes as expected, and we’re playing deep into the post-season, and we’ve got a good spot for him, we’ve got a need for him. At the same time, you don’t want to save too many innings, and now impact 2017. So it’s that delicate balance.”
Juan Nicasio’s Upside
One of the interesting moves the Pirates made this week was the addition of Juan Nicasio as a free agent. Nicasio is a hard throwing right-hander who had a good season in the Dodgers’ bullpen last year, has struggled in the Colorado rotation in previous years, and still has a lot of upside to either start or be a late inning relief option. Huntington mentioned that Nicasio could contend for either a rotation spot or a middle relief role with the Pirates.
“We’re talking about a guy that’s not too far removed from having Colorado skewed numbers that aren’t bad as a starter,” Huntington said. “As you talk about that 4-5 spot in your rotation, with the defense that we feel we put out there. With some adjustments that Ray [Searage] and [Euclides Rojas] and our staff have been able to make with some guys. With the outstanding work that our catchers do. We do think that we can get a little more out of him. We think there are things that we can help him with.”
I’d bank on Nicasio being a reliever with the Pirates, since they might not have enough time to work on improving him as a starter. They do have him under control for the 2017 season, so if he does well, that could be an option in the future. They already have some changes in mind for him to fix his control, which could be the biggest roadblock standing in his way of being a late inning guy or a starter.
“We do see some things that we can help from a mechanics and pitch selection standpoint that should allow the strikes to play a bit better.”
Jake Goebbert as Depth
The Pirates also signed Jake Goebbert to a major league deal earlier this off-season. Goebbert can play first base and all three outfield spots, but sounds like a depth option more than a guy who is a solution at first base.
“He’s going to battle, he’s going to work his tail off to give us a good quality at-bat,” Huntington said. “He’s going to use the whole field. He’s going to get on base. He’s going to drive the ball gap-to-gap. We essentially thought he was an upgrade over Jaff Decker, but also optionable in case he doesn’t make our club.”
I like Goebbert a lot better as a bench option and depth out of Triple-A than I do as someone who could play a big role at first base.
Competing With the Cubs and Cardinals
Huntington was asked a few times about how the team could contend with all of the moves the Cubs are making. One thing he pointed out was that they needed to find a way to perform better against Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Huntington said. “We remind ourselves the best teams on paper rarely win the World Series. The Kansas City Royals weren’t the best team on paper. We certainly weren’t the second best team in baseball on paper, and that’s why we show up.”
There has been a lot of talk lately that the 2016 season could be a bridge year to 2017, which is a though that Huntington said the Pirates don’t have.
“I may have even set the tone for that by accident, by talking about we’ve got a very good core in place, we have a really good young core coming, and we’ve got to do what we can in trades and free agency to bridge that,” Huntington said. “My intent was bridge that to still put us in position to win the division. It wasn’t that we intend to take a step back. It was that we intend to add players that put us in a position to win this division.”
I don’t think you can expect the Pirates to punt one year at this point, with a future year in sight.
“Our goal isn’t just to be good for three years. Our goal is to be good for ’16, ideally ’17, ’18, and ’19.”