The Pirates have some pretty big decisions to make this off-season, as they try to get back to the playoffs again in 2017 after a year off in 2016. The biggest focus this off-season should be on pitching, especially the starting rotation. They could also use a late inning reliever to pair with the lefties Tony Watson and Felipe Rivero, and right-hander Juan Nicasio.
But before all of that happens, they will need to make some roster decisions when it comes to arbitration eligible players, players who are out of options, and non-tender candidates. There are also the Rule 5 eligible players, although most of the top options from that mid-season article have either been added to the 40-man (Steven Brault, Trevor Williams) or traded away (Tito Polo, Stephen Tarpley). So the Rule 5 part of the off-season won’t have as many big decisions as usual.
Here is a rundown of the players who have key roster decisions, along with some analysis on what I think the Pirates will do in each section.
Tony Watson – 3rd Year
Juan Nicasio – 3rd Year
Jared Hughes – 3rd Year*
Jeff Locke – 2nd Year
Jordy Mercer – 2nd Year
Drew Hutchison – 2nd Year*
Gerrit Cole – 1st Year
Wade LeBlanc – 1st Year
*Has four years of arbitration
The Pirates don’t have many high-profile arbitration cases this off-season, at least compared to last year when they had guys like Neil Walker and Mark Melancon set to make around $10 M, and Pedro Alvarez due a raise that would have taken him above $6 M. This time around, the biggest case would be Gerrit Cole’s. I think the lack of work as a closer will keep Tony Watson’s price somewhat low for a late inning reliever, and Jordy Mercer probably sees a bit of a bump, but nothing serious.
I’ll mention the non-tender candidates in more detail below, but right now I see them as Jeff Locke and Jared Hughes. You could put Wade LeBlanc on that list, but I don’t see him making a lot in arbitration ($1 M at most) and I think he did enough in his short time with the Pirates to get a look as a relief option next year. (UPDATE: MLBTR released their arbitration estimates and had LeBlanc at $1.6 M, which is higher than I expected, although still low enough that he could be an option to stick around, especially if he agrees to a pre-arb deal).
Out of Options
The Pirates have a few fringe guys who are out of options, along with two guys who need to make the roster, or be designated for assignment. Jason Rogers and Alen Hanson are the higher profile guys here. I don’t see the Pirates designating them for assignment. I think Hanson will make the team next year as a super utility player, which is the direction the Pirates were heading at the end of the 2016 Indianapolis season. If the NL adds the DH in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, then I could see Rogers making the team. Otherwise, he really doesn’t have a spot on a roster with Josh Bell, John Jaso, and David Freese all serving as first base options. I could see the Pirates trading Rogers if that’s the case.
Guys like Florimon and Phillips are easier to find as minor league free agents, and the Pirates might try to bring both of those guys back under that type of deal if they end up releasing them. Fryer is in the same boat, although the injury to Chris Stewart at the end of the year could lead the Pirates to keep Fryer for depth until Spring Training, when they see how Stewart is performing. If Stewart is healthy, Fryer has no spot on the team.
I just can’t see Locke and Hughes going through arbitration again. Locke would be due a raise over his $3.025 M salary, and the same goes for Hughes and his $2.175 M deal last year. Locke also loses value since he’s no longer a rotation option, while Hughes is easier to replace for his skill set and upside. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pirates tried bringing both guys back under minor league deals, hoping to see the old versions return and add to their depth. But tendering them MLB contracts and paying at least $5 M combined for the two of them, after the seasons they had, would be a mistake.
I mentioned Fryer/Florimon/Phillips above. I could see the Pirates keeping one or a few of these guys beyond the non-tender deadline in December, and removing them from the 40-man roster later in the off-season if they need a spot.
I threw in a few other players in Dragmire, Garcia, and Ngoepe for similar reasons. I don’t think they’ll be non-tendered, but could see one or all of them getting DFAd or traded at some point this off-season. It really doesn’t look good for Garcia, who hasn’t received a call to the majors after two years in Triple-A. There is still talent there, but it’s getting less likely that it will eventually translate to the majors in a meaningful role. Ngoepe has a better shot at the majors with his speed and defense, but those two skills can also be filled by a guy like Pedro Florimon. I can only see the Pirates keeping one of those two on the 40-man. Dragmire is a hard throwing sinkerballer with options, and while he could stick on the roster all off-season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Pirates churn through a lot of options, trying to get a few of these cheaper additions through waivers and onto their Triple-A squad as depth.
**Austin Meadows and Kevin Newman Among Top 20 Prospects in Eastern League. The second list for Newman, and probably the only one for Meadows, since he likely won’t have enough at-bats to qualify for the International League list.
**Instructs Report: Nice Day for Hughston at the Plate; Valerio Plays Second Base. John Dreker has the latest report from instructs, with notes on several players in the lower levels, and a few of this year’s draft picks.