This isn’t the fist time Neal Huntington and the Pirates’ front office have had players entering their final year of arbitration, but it’s the first time so many have at once during the current regime’s stint. We’ve seen a varied approach for players at a similar stage. They’ve traded Joel Hanrahan and extended Charlie Morton. They’ve declined to tender a contract with several, thus parting ways with players, like Gaby Sanchez and Jeff Karstens. Karstens later re-signed only to never pitch again. Others like Garrett Jones and Casey McGahee were non-tendered before their final year. They haven’t elected to keep anyone heading into their final year arbitration either by coming to terms with them or by actually going to arbitration.
I suspect that could change in 2015-16 as the Pirates have a huge crop of five players heading into their final year of control. Five doesn’t sound big until you consider that you have to go back to 2010 to find that many in a recent offseason. They include both catchers, the right side of the infield and a closer. These are important players and the team faces important decisions about what to do with them.
Chris Stewart – Trade
The Pirates got Chris Stewart for an A ball sinker specialist (Kyle Haynes) when they traded for him two years ago and it’s possible his value has appreciated. Stewart’s provided strong defense throughout his career, but not much at the plate. In his time in Pittsburgh, he’s shown a solid line drive stroke that has allowed him to hit for average, but mostly just singles. While empty batting averages don’t fly at some positions, they absolutely can at catcher and short. Power is nice from your back-up catcher, but certainly not necessary. Because of its emphasis on extra base hits, the WAR statistic probably doesn’t do Stewart justice for his value to the team.
While the Pirates could keep Stewart on the cheap, they can afford to move him thanks to what will become the basis of all my suggested trades — he’s expendable. The Pirates have two catchers at the AAA level capable of playing every third or fourth day admirably. If he’s still with the team in 2016, former 2009 1st round selection Tony Sanchez will be out of options following spring training and either needs to make the 25-man roster when they head north or he could walk. Elias Diaz could serve as a backup, backup plan, or the third catcher.
Francisco Cervelli – Extend
While the Pirates have a couple of options who could backup at catcher in the pipes, neither is a clear everyday option and the Pirates should consider retaining Cervelli for the next few years. The Pirates like to share risk on extensions, but won’t get a ton of value given his proximity to free agency. After all, Cervelli’s not risking much by waiting a year. Of course, he hasn’t made more than a million dollars in a season so getting paid now might be an attractive idea for him as well.
I’d propose a 3 year deal worth about $27 million with an option for a fourth season. It would look a little something like this:
Signing Bonus – $1 million
2016 – $4 million
2017, 2018 – $10 million
2019 – $12 million mutual option with a $2 million buy out
That’s life changing money and Cervelli might have a shot at another multi-year deal when it’s completed, as he’ll be 32 when the 2018 season is over. It’s also still a relatively team friendly deal for the Pirates, who would be sitting pretty for the entire deal if they get just one season of similar production to this year, and they might even be able to get him for less. They’d also be able to re-evaluate him after he passes their extension-scary age of 32, while also giving the Yankees plenty of time to develop the Bucs next primary backstop.
Neil Walker – Keep
My outlook for Walker as a Pirate completely changed with a take out slide. Here was my initial approach to Walker:
“I’m not going to suggest that the Pirates can’t afford $10 million for Walker. They can, but it might not be the best use of resources. Jung-ho Kang’s breakout has made Walker expendable. Both he and Josh Harrison have shown a higher ceiling then Walker the last two seasons, with Kang posting a 4 WAR season this year and Harrison coming in at a 5 WAR last year, both better than Walker’s career high of 3.7. The team can also afford to trade offense for defense by keeping Jordy Mercer in the lineup everyday.
One year of Walker should yield a return similar, or slightly better, than the return to what they received for Travis Snider. More importantly, it offers cash flexibility to make other moves to improve the club in the short or long run. Maybe it pays to retain Joe Blanton and for Byung-ho Park’s posting fee. Maybe it’s a signing bonus for Andrew McCutchen’s second contract or maybe the savings from Walker and the savings from AJ are combined to sign a two-year stopgap starting pitcher until Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are hopefully ready to produce at a high level. All of those things to me are more important than middle infield piece of mind.”
Now thanks to Chris Coghlan, they’ll either need to keep Walker or find a stopgap at third or second. For me, it makes sense to hang on to him. He’s productive and in his fourth year of arbitration, which still pays for less than market value. The Pirates lose any potential from a trade, but it could be worth the peace of mind knowing that Kang might not be back or 100% before June.
Mark Melancon – Trade
Just a little background, I’ve been thinking about this piece for a long time. I’d say it took roots in my brain at the end of July or beginning of August. From the time I conceptualized writing it until just before I wrote this section, I had Melancon as ‘trade’. Then I looked at the trade return relievers got at the deadline this year. The best package anyone gave up for another team’s closer was their number ten prospect according to Jon Sickels coming into the season. That team? The Pirates. Going back a little further the returns weren’t much better during the hot stove last winter, so I changed it to keep. Now, the Pirates might be better served to keep Walker and offload the Shark.
It’s worth noting that Melancon’s better than most of the guys moved. It’s also worth noting that I think the Pirates could have a bullpen near the top of the majors even without him and that he’s unlikely to match the productivity of the last two years. The front office could and should move him if they get an an above-market return, but how far above market they stray is likely handicapped by their need to replace the financial flexibility they had in the infield before Kang went down.
If the Pirates do move him, I think they’d want to get a prospect in their trade partner’s top ten plus a reclamation project relief pitcher. They likely won’t get it settling for less just to make a move. They could still keep him, but barring a huge and unlikely green light to really splash the cash from ownership, his salary is likely better used elsewhere.
Pedro Alvarez – Trade (or Non – Tender)
For quite some time, I’ve said the Pirates should keep Pedro Alvarez as a stopgap at the first base position. The Pirates have a couple exciting options that could see time in 2016. The first, Josh Bell, tore up AAA pitching in August and September. The second, Park, would need to be posted by the Nexen Heroes and signed by the Pirates this winter, but they appear to be one of the teams in the hunt. Neither player would likely be ready for full time duty in April and the Pirates would need someone in the meantime. I had penciled in Alvarez, but then Michael Morse happened.
Morse is under contract and could possess a similar feast or famine upside as Alvarez at the plate. If he performs well, the Pirates have an excellent hitting everyday option that will allow them to take their time with either first baseman of the future. If he plays like he did for the Marlins, the Pirates have an easy decision to make when replacing him and an easy, overpaid bat to stash in AAA to resume his 2015 role. Like Alvarez, he provides poor defense for the position, but he doesn’t really need a platoon partner. This makes El Toro all the more expendable.
Of course, I could see the Pirates bringing Alvarez back. They’ve invested a lot of time and money into his development and they could easily pay him for one more just to see if he can put it all together. The poor fielding has overshadowed the fact that Pedro’s producing plenty of runs and having one of his better years at the dish. Ideally, the Pirates would seek a trade, but I doubt there will be any takers given what they’d have to pay, as well as expend resources when they see the writing on the non-tender wall.
The Pirates will need to make decisions that trade peace of mind for the chance to sustain winning. Folks will complain that adding and subtracting from the major league team will prevent them from being contenders again in 2016, as they did when the front office failed to resign Russell Martin and traded Snider. In truth, the Pirates came back stronger than before, thanks mostly to player development and some perceived minor moves like the Kang and AJ Burnett signings along with the Cervelli-Justin Wilson trade paying huge dividends. While the Pirates will lose some talent, it will come from areas of depth while finding ways to add to other areas. The Pirates are built to win now, but the right moves this winter can position them to continue to win just like last year’s offseason did.