At the end of the Winter Meetings, the Pirates made a move that signaled several other future moves. They dealt Charlie Morton for David Whitehead, which was a deal that looked to be a salary dump. It’s not that Whitehead had zero value as a prospect, but he’s a prospect who doesn’t stand out in the Pirates’ system, and has much less value than Morton.
That said, the trade did make sense if it meant the Pirates could use Morton’s salary on other upgrades. And the early indication was that the Morton trade would lead to a series of other moves in the future. But so far, we’ve yet to see those moves.
Last week the Pirates traded Keon Broxton and Trey Supak for Jason Rogers. The move added another first base option, but didn’t add a first base option that you could be confident in. That leaves you wondering which approach the Pirates are going to take at the position. Are they going for more of a sure bet until Josh Bell arrives (such as a trade for a Mitch Moreland type, or signing a free agent)? Or will they throw a few interesting options against the wall and see what sticks? They’ve currently got the interesting options in Rogers, Jake Goebbert, and Michael Morse. None of them are guaranteed for success, but you can see a scenario with each player where the Pirates would be fine until Josh Bell arrived.
Maybe that’s the plan at first base, or maybe there’s more to come and those guys will just make up a strong bench. For now, we can say the Morton money didn’t go to that position, since Rogers will make the league minimum, and it’s a guarantee that the Pirates would have spent at least that much on his roster spot.
The Pirates made another move that same day, with the signing of Sean Rodriguez. I’m going to skip over this signing for the purposes of this article, because I don’t think the Morton move led to the addition of an extra bench player. I think Rodriguez would have been added either way.
The final big move that was made over the weekend was the addition of Ryan Vogelsong. The addition of Morton left a hole in the rotation, and left the feeling that there was another shoe about to drop. Signing Ryan Vogelsong to a $2 M guaranteed deal is uninspiring for both of those purposes, to say the least. This, of course, assumes that Vogelsong is the replacement for Morton.
If Vogelsong is the replacement for Morton, then the rotation is set. It would include Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Vogelsong. This would basically be banking on the top prospects (Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon) to arrive by mid-season and provide an impact. That’s similar to the theory at first base, where if the Pirates are done with upgrades, they’d basically be waiting on Josh Bell to arrive.
I believe this could be the approach at first base, and I don’t think it’s a bad plan there. But I have a hard time believing the Pirates are set with their current rotation.
First of all, the Pirates never go into a season with just five starting options at the beginning of the year. Granted, they do see Juan Nicasio as an option. I think he’s guaranteed for a bullpen spot, with the chance for a spot start if needed. I could also see them adding a veteran guy for the Triple-A rotation (which is where I’d classify the Bronson Arroyo rumor). But even with a Triple-A veteran, and Nicasio as a starter, this all seems light.
Last year when heading into Spring Training, the Pirates had a rotation of Cole, Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Morton, and Locke. They had Vance Worley in the mix, Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler in Triple-A for early season depth (both went down with Tommy John, although Sadler made a start), Radhames Liz as the “he’s guaranteed for the bullpen, but they’ve said they liked him as a rotation option” guy, and Clayton Richard as a veteran starter in Triple-A. They also had prospects that they were expecting by mid-season. Even without the prospects, you had ten starting pitching options who could help on Opening Day.
At the moment, the Pirates have six rotation options for the start of the season, counting Nicasio. Anyone who thinks they’re done adding to the rotation hasn’t been paying attention to how the Pirates have built previous teams.
After the signing, Neal Huntington made a comment about how Vogelsong would be in the rotation as of today, but that the rotation isn’t exactly set.
#Pirates Neal Huntington: "As we sit here today, we plan on [Ryan Vogelsong] being in our rotation."
— Stephen J. Nesbitt (@stephenjnesbitt) December 18, 2015
Is the Pirates' Opening Day rotation set? Huntington: "We will always look for opportunities to improve the club."
— Travis Sawchik (@Travis_Sawchik) December 18, 2015
It makes sense that Vogelsong is in the rotation as of right now. If you look at the current roster, he would be one of the five best rotation options. But assuming he would be in the Opening Day rotation going forward also assumes the Pirates won’t add any better options.
That’s where we get back to the Morton deal. He was making $8 M in 2016, and Vogelsong is guaranteed $2 M, with $3 M more in performance bonuses. So the Pirates still have $6 M to spend from losing Morton, and maybe $3 M of that actually goes to Vogelsong if he does remain in the rotation. But I would be surprised if that happened.
Vogelsong looks like this year’s version of Vance Worley. He’s a guy who will make the majors, but seems better as a number six option in the rotation. He’s a year removed from a 4.00 ERA/3.96 xFIP season, and that wouldn’t be bad until Glasnow and Taillon arrive. But his age and his slump in 2015 raise questions about whether he can repeat that success, even when you consider the Ray Searage magic at work.
I don’t believe the Pirates are done here, and I still think they could add a guy to their rotation who would be an upgrade over Vogelsong and Morton. It doesn’t make any sense that they would dump Charlie Morton, then downgrade from Morton. It does make sense if you believe in the theory that they’re only concerned with cost cutting, and not concerned with the 2016 team. I just don’t buy into that theory, as it doesn’t line up with that they’ve done in the past, and the current roster doesn’t match what they’ve had in previous years.
I still think that other shoe from the Morton deal is waiting to drop. I just think they’ve added to their depth before adding the big rotation upgrade they need.