This Friday is the non-tender deadline in baseball, making it one of the final league-wide transaction deadlines that could impact free agency. Teams must decide who to tender contracts to for the 2017 season by this date. This involves players who are making near the league minimum, along with arbitration eligible players. Teams could decide to non-tender anyone from those two groups, although the focus tends to be on the arbitration eligible players, since they are the most likely to be non-tendered.

The Pirates have eight players who are eligible for arbitration, and not all of them will be tendered contracts. They will try to reach deals with as many of these guys as possible before the non-tender deadline. Some of them will be tendered a contract, even if a deal isn’t reached. The two sides would then work to try and complete a deal before the player officially files for arbitration in mid-January. Once that happens, the Pirates decide to go to the arbitration process, with both sides submitting a salary figure, and an arbiter deciding which salary figure to choose for the 2017 season.

Here are the players who are eligible for arbitration, and their projected figures from MLBTR, along with my analysis of each situation.

Tony Watson, 3rd Year – $5,900,000

Watson will be tendered without question. The only question is whether he will be on the team in 2017, as his name has been speculated in some trade rumors, and it would make sense for the Pirates to deal him with such a big seller’s market for relievers and lefty relievers. He’s coming off a down year, but so was Brett Cecil, and Cecil got a four-year, $30.5 M deal. Watson has a lot of value at one year and a projected $5.9 M, especially with his performance prior to 2016 factored in.

The Pirates don’t need to trade him before the non-tender deadline, and they will definitely tender him a contract, since he’ll be worth keeping around for one more year at this price if they don’t end up trading him.

Juan Nicasio, 3rd Year – $4,600,000

Nicasio shows the other side of what the non-tender deadline means for a team like the Pirates: A chance to add lower cost talent for the 2017 season. Last year, the Dodgers non-tendered Nicasio, which allowed the Pirates to pick him up for $3 M on a one year deal. Since he finished the 2016 season with less than six years of MLB service time, he’s eligible for arbitration one more time at a projected $4.6 M. I’m sure that the Pirates will be going after a few other non-tendered players this year, hoping to get a similar deal.

As for Nicasio being tendered, I don’t think there’s any question about that. He had a 1.3 fWAR last year, and an 0.9 fWAR in 2015. Both numbers would be worth his $4.6 M salary on the open market. The Pirates would have to pay a little over $8 M on a one year deal to get a reliever with his expected performance through free agency. So he’s a bit of a value, even with a higher price tag than what they usually spend on non-closers.

There is the question of whether he could be traded. The idea with Watson being traded is that he could bring a nice return in a seller’s market, while freeing up some money for some lower cost help. Nicasio is also essentially on a one year deal now, so it might make sense to try and deal him for future help in the same way, and use his money to try and find next year’s version of Nicasio. Of course, by trading Nicasio, you’re weakening the argument to trade Watson, since you’re removing one of the few hard throwing late inning relievers already on the team. And Nicasio probably wouldn’t see the same value as Watson, since he’s not a lefty, and doesn’t have the years of success that Watson has seen in the past. So I’d expect the Pirates to keep Nicasio for 2017.

Gerrit Cole, 1st Year – $4,200,000

There is absolutely no question that Cole will be tendered. In most cases, you’d be talking about the possibility of an extension when a player reaches this point in his service time, but I don’t see that happening here, as Cole is a Scott Boras client. He’s also the team rep for the Player’s Union, meaning there is pressure on him to get the best deal possible. We saw that play out last year when he had a grievance with his salary, resulting in the Pirates adjusting his league minimum pay. With no questions about tendering or extensions, the only question would be whether there would be another controversy this year. I’m guessing that’s less likely with him coming off an injury filled 2016 season.

Jeff Locke, 2nd Year – $4,200,000

I’ve got Locke as a non-tender candidate, simply because there is no room for him on the team. You don’t want him in the starting rotation, as he could be a bounce back candidate, but would be one with little upside. He might be better in the bullpen, but the Pirates already have three lefties in Watson, Felipe Rivero, and Antonio Bastardo. Plus, $4.2 M is a lot to pay for a long reliever, when the Pirates have numerous prospects in Triple-A who can do the same job at possibly the same success rate for the league minimum.

If this was 2013-15 Locke, I’d argue that he’d be worth the price tag. He might be worth picking up for a weaker team, hoping to convert him back to that pitcher. He was always under-rated in Pittsburgh, seen as a Quad-A guy, rather than what he was as a back of the rotation starter with the upside of a solid number four. The reason he was under-rated was because of his inconsistent performance. The Pirates tried to add more consistency by overhauling his mechanics in 2016, but that led to him taking a step back, to the point where he actually did look like a Quad-A guy. He’d probably be better off switching back to the old mechanics and settling for being a back of the rotation starter, or trying to go the Zach Duke route as a reliever.

Jordy Mercer, 1st Year – $4,000,000

Mercer will get tendered, as he’s the starting shortstop, and has averaged 1.3 fWAR over the past four seasons. That’s a number that can be improved upon, but the Pirates will wait until Kevin Newman is ready to take over and try to get the upgrade through that method. I could see Newman arriving in 2017, especially if Mercer gets injured in the second half. I think ultimately, Newman would take over at some point in 2018, with Mercer potentially sticking around in a Clint Barmes role as the backup, and as a mentor to the rookie.

Jared Hughes, 3rd Year – $2,500,000

I’ve got Hughes as a non-tender guy, but I don’t think the decision will be that simple. In previous years, he’s been a great situational reliever, with the ability to come on and get a weak double play ball with runners on base. His sinker wasn’t as effective in 2016, leading to a drop in his ground ball rate, along with a rise in his walks. More alarmingly, he had a drop in soft contact by three percentage points from 2015 to 2016, and saw the highest hard contact rate of his career.

The Pirates have sinkerball guys in the minors who could replace Hughes for a fifth of his estimated price. Trevor Williams would be the top guy, although it’s hard to say whether he’d be as effective as Hughes in that role. The same goes with Frank Duncan, who is lower on the prospect lists than Williams. The reason it’s hard to say whether they’d be as effective is because Hughes is one of the best ground ball relievers in baseball when he’s on. He ranked 5th of all qualified relievers from 2014-2015 in ground ball rate, and ranks in the top ten when you include his entire career, with 2016 included.

I could see the Pirates trying for a lower deal before the deadline, hoping to get Hughes back and get him to return to his 2014-2015 self. At the same time, it might be a better gamble to go with Williams or Duncan in that role, and use the extra $1-2 M elsewhere.

Drew Hutchison, 2nd Year – $2,200,000

Hutchison will be tendered a contract, since the Pirates are looking at him as an option for the rotation. He’s almost like a reclamation project, with the hope that they can fix his mechanics and get him to be a productive big league starter. I don’t think he’ll be a top of the rotation guy, but this is a guy who posted a 3.82 xFIP and a 2.3 fWAR in 184.2 innings in 2014. So it’s not like it’s out of the question that he can get back to being a productive starter in the majors.

Wade LeBlanc, 1st Year – $1,600,000

When the Pirates added LeBlanc for basically nothing, I felt he would be a good reliever. He showed that ability in a small sample size, with a 3.65 xFIP in 12 innings, which was actually higher than his 1.98 FIP (he didn’t allow a home run, which leads to the higher xFIP). The Pirates already have three lefty relievers who are better than LeBlanc, and while $1.6 M isn’t a lot for a middle reliever, it’s a lot for a fourth lefty. LeBlanc would make sense if the Pirates did trade Watson. It might also make sense to try and work a deal before the non-tender deadline for a lower price. If they can get him for around $800,000 to $1,000,000, that would essentially buy them an option year, since most teams wouldn’t want to claim him at that price once the season is underway, and he wouldn’t opt for free agency, since he’d forfeit his salary (this is similar to what the Pirates have done with guys like Vin Mazzaro in the past).

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  1. I would definitely keep Hughes. He was hurt early and wasn’t as sharp all year but could bounce back. Some guys in the minors might have good ground ball rates. But can they get a ground ball with the bases loaded and no outs against the Cards or Cubs?

  2. I have a sneaking suspicion that both Jeff Locke and Jared Hughes aren’t going anywhere which really keeps me up at night.

  3. Thanks for answering my question regarding trying Locke in the pen. If we’ve already got enough arms there then let him walk. Maybe in a couple of years he could be a good reliever somewhere else.

    I’m satisfied with what Mercer does for right now. We have to see how Newman develops. Thankfully the organization seems to have a lot of good shortstops coming along even though none appear to be a super prospect.

  4. My opinion is that Locke will be tendered but not Hughes and that Locke will get a chance to make the rotation. Starting pitchers just too expensive to cut bait on $4.5MM. They can DFA him later if not productive.

  5. last year I commented trade cutch and was called crazy
    this years comment I’ll be called a lunatic
    tender locke hughes
    bell to boston for kopech /raudas
    cervelli to atlanta for newccomb/wentz p/n/l
    cutch to wash. robles/severino
    cole/harrison to la for bellinger/deleon/diaz/abdullah
    prediction for next year trade marte time for this one to change

    • Ok Lunatic, that’s what I call taking a stance! Certainly agree w Hughes/Locke. You just don’t cut cheap pitching in this market.

  6. Agree w going the Mazzaro route w leBlanc but 2 BIG issues. Why would a <3$M deal for Hughes even be a thought? He's been total money since he came up out of nowhere. Last year he was at his worst and his ERA was still just about 3. We are so spoiled but noway he doesn't get 3years/$9+M on the open market.

    Locke is worthwhile as a 1 year l/$4M bouncebacker but it matters if the club plans to bring in other projects. A year ago he was Ivan Nova. The juiced ball is back baby.

    • Hughes’ ERA is about as misleading as a statistic can get. In addition to the 20 earned runs (and 4 unearned runs) he allowed, Hughes let another 17 of his inherited runners score. As it is, 37% of his inherited runners scored – a pretty poor number that mercifully dropped from the 50% range after a pretty good September. For comparison, his inherited runners scored rates from 2013-2015 were 17.6%, 19% and 16).

      Look further than the misleading ERA and consider these other stats that paint a more accurate picture of Hughes’ futility:

      FIP: 4.68

      WPA: -0.70

      fWAR: -0.4

      SD:MD: 8:9

      K-BB%: 4.7%

      If Hughes is non-tendered, he’ll find a major league job because as you said, he was money from 2013-2015. But whatever he had in those years, he lost in 2016 and no front office is taking a multi-year gamble at $3M/season that it’s coming back.

      That said, I’d like to see both Hughes and Locke back in the fold, but not at their projected arb prices.

  7. If Watson is the designated closer the arb salary is OK – but if he is the set up guy I am not sure that he is affordable given the $100M budget.

    Locke, Hughes and Mercer are tough calls – pretty sure there are cheaper options for all three who will cost less.

    • Because when they do non-tender someone it will mean they didn’t want to put Wood on the 40-man regardless. It’s about the slot, not the player in this case

    • They most likely have a projection for how many roster spots they will need for off-season additions, and knew how unlikely it would be to lose Wood (either in the draft, or by being protected all year). So the decision for the non-tender candidates wouldn’t have impacted the decision to keep Wood, no matter when it was made.

  8. If the Pirates are so good at fixing pitchers, hopefully they can do that for Hughes. He has been good until this year.

        • Sanchez didn’t buy in.

          This isn’t to say that the guys who buy in will work out. Locke bought in to a change this year that didn’t work. Sometimes the changes don’t work. But if you’re not even going to attempt the changes, then you’re almost not even a reclamation project. You’re more a reclamation attempt, where they attempted to fix you, and you stuck with what obviously wasn’t working.

          Making a change doesn’t always work, but I’d say not making a change in these situations almost always leads to failure.

        • I would/could argue there are more..
          1. Hughes regressed last year
          2. Ditto Watson
          3. Worley
          4. Masterson
          5. Locke was “fixed” in a very bad way
          6. Nicasio failed as a starter
          7. Liriano really sucked all last year in his time with the Bucs

          I WOULD agree they are good at helping certain pitchers under certain circumstances – but the belief the can and have worked magic is just not fact based…

  9. Let Locke walk…..please. We’re stuck with Hutchison. Watson, Mercer, Nicasio, Cole are all no brainers.

  10. I could see Cole going to arbitration every year he is in a Pirates uniform. Honestly, there is no reason for him not to go. I believe he has enough faith in his ability, that no matter what the team says about him, he could take it for what it is, a cost control measure. If he wins his arbitration case, it increases his earning potential for every year after that.
    Locke and Hughes I could see not being tendered, neither one has any trade value, and I am not sure Huntington is willing to pay for expected value.
    On a side note, how fitting would it be if Drew Hutchison wasn’t tendered? If you think about it, this may be his one season to have a shot at the rotation for the Pirates. This year they have Cole, Taillon and Kuhl penciled in, they have Glasnow, Williams, Holmes, and Kingham that could all be ready at some point this season. The following season, Cole will be gone, but Keller, Garcia, Waddel, and Hinsz could be ready in some form. So in essence, by the All Star break this year, if Hutchison hasn’t solidified a spot in the rotation, he may not ever have the chance again. Can you all imagine the Pirates fan meltdown that will happen if he never throws a pitch for the Pirates?

  11. LeBlanc definitely makes Locke a non-tender I think. They are nearly the same guy. Locke is younger but what these two guys give you isn’t worth spending the extra money on locke for.

    • I disagree. Locke has been easy to criticize but let me offer a few numbers – in the past 4 years he has started 100 games for the Pirates and is 34 – 32. Last year after the first 3 months he was 7-5 as our 4/5 SP, with 9 Quality Starts (QS), but the team was only 38-41.

      In June when the Pirates posted a season-crippling 9-19 record, Locke started 5 games and was 3-2 with 3 QS, therefore accounting for 33% of our wins that month. Even though the Pirates won both of his next starts in July, he was selected to go to the BP.

      Only 29, and having the whole off-season to possibly wrap his head around the possibility of being either a SP or a RP, I think he is worth the $4 mil. Many teams will still be looking for LH pitching throughout the off-season and 2017.

      • You are definitely correct: Locke is easy to criticize. There is so much there to knock. You can easily disagree and say Locke is a little better but that’s about it. His ERA+ has dropped 3 straight years and his HR rate rocketed last year. His FIP was almost a horrifying 5.00 and his actual era was worse. Leblanc on the other hand had a great bb:k ratio and appeared headed in the opposite direction of Locke. LeBlanc has similar stuff, maybe not even as good as Locke, but he knows how to use it. LeBlanc is a HR yielding machine too though so we are arguing a bag of balls or a few old bats here.

      • …and I adamantly disagree that Locke is worth 4 mil. WAR the last 3 years -0.6. WAR career 0.0. Time to move on.

        • All the stats tell us he is terrible, but he just keeps winning – how does that happen? 100 starts and a 34-32 record over the last 4 years? Is he just very lucky?

          • The same way all mediocre to poor pitchers with decent records at the bottom of rotations win: Run support, luck, and good bullpens and hitting teams bailing them out when they leave after their 5ip and 3 runs allowed. In 2014 his run support was a run higher than his era, in 2015 his run support was 4.07, and last year it was 4.80+ . So he is getting high 4 runs per game with a good bullpen and getting yanked early a lot before he can do real damage…and when he pitches well he is yanked and Watson and Melancon and the rest are nailing it down. It’s not because he has some innate ability to win. It was a complete miracle he was 9-8 last year. He gave up nearly 14 baserunners per 9 and allowed nearly a HR per start.

  12. I hope they retain LeBlanc, he was very successful when they acquired him in September. He could be a long man in the bullpen just like Blanton was in 2015.

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