I’ve equated the upcoming offseason for the Pirates to the 2012-2013 offseason for several reasons. One big reason is that the Pirates don’t seem to have a lot of money in their budget, and might have to get creative in order to add to the team.
I put their payroll at just under $100 M earlier this week. There have been calls for the Pirates to spend more. Some believe that Bob Nutting is holding the payroll down, and has the capability to spend more. Some believe that MLB’s structure prevents the team from spending more. I’m not going to get into that.
What I will do is look at the reality. The Pirates have gotten up around the $100 M mark, and their cap seems to be a bit over that figure. Their highest payroll was in 2016, when they ended the season with a $109 M payroll. That included some in-season spending, so I wouldn’t expect them to start a year with a $109 M payroll, especially following a season where attendance was the lowest since 2010.
Realistically, you shouldn’t expect the payroll budget to be much higher than $100 M. And since it is already near that mark, they will need to figure out a way to get creative to add to this team.
That’s where the 2012-13 comparisons come into play.
The Pirates had a limited budget that offseason. They still managed to upgrade the team, making three key moves when they added Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, and Mark Melancon. They added Martin and didn’t have to dump much salary, only opting to non-tender Jeff Karstens. But when it came time to add Liriano, they traded Joel Hanrahan to dump his salary, getting Melancon in return.
They will have to make similar deals this offseason in order to contend next year. Those moves aren’t easy. The Pirates traded an expensive reliever away and got a better, younger, and cheaper reliever, while using the savings on a guy who was one of the best starters in baseball for a few years. That’s not a process that is easily replicated. However, it’s the most likely path they need to take in order to contend in 2018.
Fortunately, they have some options if they want to shed salary in an area. I’m going to go over the offensive options today, and I’ll take a look at the pitching staff later, since that has some different challenges.
Francisco Cervelli is set to make $10.5 M in 2018. He has seen his normal injuries creep up the last two years, and has been worth about1-1.6 fWAR. The Pirates could keep Cervelli as their starter and get fair value for him, as the cost of one win on the open market is about $8-9 M, and he could probably be counted on for at least one win, even with the injuries.
The problem is that they need to find a lot of value with their payroll. The combination of Elias Diaz and Chris Stewart is not a strong option to start behind the plate. You’re talking about two backup catchers right now who will probably yield replacement level production. It’s probably the same situation with any catcher you could add on the open market or via trade, since that is a tough position to fill.
Since it is a tough position to fill, Cervelli could have enough trade value to at least dump his salary with a small return. And while the Pirates would be worse off behind the plate, they might be better off overall. They’d lose at least 1.0 WAR of production, but might be able to regain that and more by using the $10.5 M elsewhere.
Of course, they could also gamble that Cervelli stays healthy and puts up a season similar to 2015, while getting small savings by cutting Chris Stewart. And with Elias Diaz as a backup, they might be able to reduce Cervelli’s playing time a bit, in an attempt to keep him healthy the entire year.
Josh Harrison will be making $10 M in 2018, while Sean Rodriguez will be making $5 M. Last offseason, the Pirates tried to sign Rodriguez, with the rumor that they would then flip Harrison and use Rodriguez as a starter. Instead, Rodriguez signed with Atlanta.
At the least, Harrison is worth his contract. He was worth 1.2 fWAR in 2015 and 1.4 in 2016. And he also has a strong chance to provide some surplus value. He was worth 2.6 fWAR this year, and while he’s probably never going to come close to those numbers again, he had a 5.0 fWAR in 2014. So he’s shown the floor of a guy who can put up over a 1.0 WAR — valued at $8-9 M a year — with some upside to go more than a win beyond that.
Rodriguez had his big breakout season in 2016, with a 1.8 fWAR. He’s been a mix of replacement level and productive in the past. I don’t put much stock in his numbers in 2017. He was expected to miss the entire season, but returned after limited rehab work and struggled at the end of the year. The struggles make sense if you assume he wasn’t ready to come back, and was still finding his timing upon his return. I think he’ll be better next year.
I don’t think Rodriguez can match Harrison’s upside, but I do think his ceiling can match Harrison’s floor of a 1.0 WAR player. Just like Cervelli, the Pirates might be better off going with the lesser option here, and using the savings elsewhere for a bigger return. Also like the catching situation, Harrison provides the most upside, so there could be a benefit to keeping him around, and hoping for another big season.
One key difference here is that the Pirates have a prospect who could show potential as a starter. Max Moroff shows strong defense at second base, and had an .816 OPS in 69 plate appearances from the middle of August through the end of the season. I wouldn’t trust him as the starter on Opening Day, but I think he’d provide a nice gamble as a backup splitting time with Rodriguez, and with the chance to take the starting job completely if he stays productive.
I’m including Jordy Mercer here because I have him projected at $6 M and that would make him the seventh highest paid player on the team. I don’t think it would make sense to deal Mercer, since shortstops are extremely difficult to come by. Unless the Pirates could get a young shortstop in a trade, they’re not going to find a guy who is as productive or better than Mercer, and for the same or less money.
David Freese signed an extension last year, and part of that deal front-loaded his contract. As a result, he will make $4.25 M this year, which isn’t bad. The problem is that he isn’t an everyday option at third base. The Pirates also don’t have an internal young option who can split time with him.
They do have Josh Harrison capable of playing third, and Sean Rodriguez could split time with Freese. But I can’t see them keeping all three players. They could opt to deal Freese, move Harrison to third, and have Rodriguez and Moroff play second base. Or, third base could be an area they target for an upgrade with savings from another position. That could allow them to keep Freese as a bench player and occasional starter.
Andrew McCutchen is going to be the key to this offseason. If the Pirates keep him for his final year, they will almost certainly have to beef up the 2018 team, as it would signal they are going for it. If they trade McCutchen, then things could go one of two ways. Either they will rebuild, leading to a lot of other trades (and removing the idea that they’ll dump salary in one area to add in another area), or they will try to do the quick reload and use McCutchen’s money to contend.
If they trade McCutchen, then I don’t think the second option would be a good one. They have been stuck in No-Man’s Land for the last two years, trying to toe the line between being contenders and reloading when they have a player close to free agency.
They could trade McCutchen and use his money to reload the team elsewhere. I just don’t think that is as easy as it sounds with other positions and players on this list. It’s one thing to discuss trading a $10 M player who is worth 1 WAR. It’s another thing to discuss a $14.75 M player who can put up a 3.7 WAR after struggling for several months. They’re less likely to replace McCutchen’s production with his money than they are to replace Harrison or Cervelli’s production with the money saved by trading those two.
As for the other outfielders, I feel the same argument can be made for Starling Marte, as I expect him to bounce back next year to something closer to his normal production. I also think Gregory Polanco’s $3.5 M is worth keeping him around as a gamble. Let’s not forget that he’s a year removed from a 2.4 WAR, and just turned 26 years old. He might not end up with the star upside that was predicted, but he could put up numbers that would be well worth the $3.5 M.