It has been an underwhelming Pirates offseason so far as the Winter Meetings in Orlando wrap up with the Rule 5 draft on Thursday morning. The Pirates did finally make some headlines on Wednesday signing starter Charlie Morton to a three-year, $21 million contract extension, buying out his free agency years of 2015 and 2016 and securing a team-friendly option for 2017, and announcing the signing of 30-year old right-hander Edinson Volquez to a one-year, $5 million deal.
Here are some questions (and answers?) two months after the end of the most successful Pirates season in 21 years with little on the MLB calendar from here until the opening of spring training.
Bob, where's the checkbook?
Over the past five years, I don't think, at any time, I have criticized the Pirates' unwillingness to spend. The long-term plan was in place, funds were being allocated to rebuild an organizational infrastructure that had been sorely mismanaged and the major-league club wasn't competitive enough to justify spending in the free agent market in a cost-effective manner. The plan made sense, the question was whether it would prove successful.
It took a bit longer than hoped, but the Pirates and their fans got the payoff last season and now look to have the nucleus in place to be competitive at least for the near term. Now spending and payroll should be front and center.
I'm not advocating spending just to spend, but the Pirates' public stance and actions so far this offseason have been disappointing, starting the with the GM's unexpected comments about not being able to afford players at market value. From Bob Nutting on down, the party-line the past four to five years has been that when the Pirates are competitive, the organization will spend to supplement in-house talent, a la the Milwaukee Brewers, who went from spending $40 million in 2005 when Mark Attanasio bought the club to $90 million in 2010 as they became competitive in the NL Central.
Yes the Pirates' payroll has increased from roughly $50 million in 2009 to an opening day payroll of $67 million last year, but that includes a three-year stretch from 2010 to 2012 where their average opening day payroll was $44 million. Everyone knows the club has invested heavily in their Latin American operations and in the amateur draft, before rule-changes effectively capped that ability, but their approach thus far this offseason has to be a major disappointment to the fan-base. Seemingly affordable free agents like Josh Johnson, Scott Kazmir and Corey Hart have signed elsewhere. A.J. Burnett was not extended a qualifying offer and the Pirates have added Edinson Volquez to the fold. Coming off a hugely successful 2013 with record attendance and additional playoff revenue, and with new national television contracts kicking-in approximately $26 million in annual revenue to each team starting in 2014, seeing the Pirates sit out free agency cannot sit well. And that's all on Bob Nutting, not Neal Huntington.
A note on the additional television revenue: The exact number has not been announced by MLB but the overwhelming consensus is that each team will get $25-27 million on an annual basis, some of which will be held back for MLB's central fund. The Colorado Rockies, in an unusual move, opened up their books to the Denver Post. They are budgeting $27 million in additional revenue, of which they expect $19 million will be distributed this season. Owners fought hard last year to keep MLB from holding back funds and were somewhat successful. If MLB baseball does withhold $8 million from every team this year, that amounts to $240 million. It's hard to envision any scenario where that would be more than a unique one-off situation. I would expect virtually the entire $25-27 million to be distributed in future years.
Is it alright in right?
The Pirates appear likely to open the 2014 season with the same right-field mix of Jose Tabata and Travis Snider they opened with in 2013. And it's probably worth a shot. Gregory Polanco is waiting in the wings, and although Neal Huntington insists the Pirates aren't counting on Polanco at any point in 2013, it makes little sense to spend money and potentially block Polanco if he proves to be ready at any point this season.
Injuries have been and are a major concern for both Tabata and Snider. Tabata has had leg and hip problems throughout his career. He has never appeared in more than 106 games in a season. He's still only 25 (insert age joke), however, and he's coming off the most successful run of his career. After returning from injury in the second half, he posted a .286/.344/.436 line in 251 PAs. He doesn't profile as a power-hitting corner outfielder, but his potentially team-friendly long-term contract makes him worth looking at one more time. Snider is coming off a toe injury that apparently impacted his swing mechanics last season. He's entering his age 26 season, shouldn't cost more than $1 million and will get a last look because of his pedigree and minor league success. Throw in Jaff Decker and Andrew Lambo as other candidates for playing time and the Pirates should be able to cobble together something slightly above replacement level in right while all eyes focus on the top prospect in Indy.
How's this for starters?
Not bad for 2015 and beyond. With the Morton signing, which I fully endorse, the Pirates can look to an Opening Day 2015 rotation of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Charlie Morton and some combination of Jeff Locke, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin with stud Tyler Glasnow playing the next Ace-In-Waiting-Call-Me-Up-In-June role. What's even better about that group? They'll cost about $12 million with Morton making two-thirds of it.
But what about 2014? Edinson Volquez is just a guy. Sure he's a bounce-back candidate and In Ray We Trust has worked well enough in the past, but the Pirates are lacking in rotation depth. The odds that Wandy Rodriguez will be healthy and pitch effectively in 2014 are close to zero, in my mind. With his $13 million option it made all the cents in the world for Wandy to opt for rehab over surgery to see if he could get back and earn a new deal next offseason. Surgery is by far the most likely outcome, with pitching 150 innings being the outlier scenario. Jeff Locke deserves his shot at the 4/5 role in tandem with Volquez, but that leaves huge question marks for a team that went 14-deep into the organizational depth chart for starters last year. Get to June and Taillon to the rescue.
Who's on first?
Neal-speak has been on full display this offseason. In Orlando he suggested the team is fine going into the season with Gaby Sanchez as the everyday first baseman. But the Pirates are also pursuing an everyday first baseman who would move Gaby to the bench or, alternatively, a platoon partner to play alongside Gaby. Bases covered. With the market taking shape yesterday, the Pirates, Brewers and Rays are still looking for dance partners. Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison are gone. James Loney, Ike Davis, Justin Smoak and a few others are still in the mix. While I'm sanguine about the Pirates entering the season as is in right, first is another story. This team desperately needs an upgrade.
**Let's start a rumor, give me a name.
The Diamondbacks have two comparable shortstops in Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings. They only need one. The Pirates have a need. After this season Neil Walker is going to get expensive. While everyone is looking to first base, the Pirates should put together a package to get one of these two from Arizona. I love both Justin Wilson and Tony Watson, but they have enormous value. Pick up the phone.