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Examining position player bargains

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Recently, Craig Edwards published an interesting piece analyzing each team's payroll situation prior to free agency. In it, he compared projected 2016 salary commitments to 2015 Opening Day payrolls and observed that the Pirates had the least available budget room of any team in the National League.

Despite some unavoidable imprecision in his numbers (the article was published prior to qualifying offer decisions and we still don't have arbitration information), Edwards' conclusions are compelling: barring an unforeseen increase in payroll, the Pirates are unlikely to be significant players in free agency.

There's a larger, normative argument to be made here about how much the budget should be. The Pirates' recent success, combined with league-wide revenue increases, has undoubtedly enhanced the Nuttings' capacity to spend. Should the Pirates fail to make any meaningful acquisitions this winter, I'm sure there will be plenty of people willing to participate in said argument--this article treats the reality of necessarily constrained resources as immutable fact.

With the departures of A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ (honestly, I never noticed the initials thing before, but now I can't un-see it), and Vance Worley, the rotation would seem to be the most obvious destination for any available free agent dollars. I wrote a long, meandering, borderline-unreadable manifesto on rotation free agency candidates earlier this month--I could recap it in its tedious entirety, but I think it's simpler to say that shopping for free agent pitching this winter is sort of like being a kid in a candy store. A magical candy store in which one could choose to purchase an only-slightly-used Trevor Cahill (or several bajillion gummy bears--no judgment) for just a few million dollars. Or a souped-up David Price for the GDP of a small country.

In other words, it's an ideal time to be shopping for pitching, and whatever meager sum Neal Huntington and company have to spend after arbitration awards will likely go toward the next Ray Searage special.

Contemplating free agency pitching options, however, invites a parallel investigation of the free agent possibilities on the position player side of the diamond. Fortunately, the Pirates' position player needs pale in comparison to their pitching needs. Consider, for instance, the current (notional) Opening Day depth chart:

C: Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart

1B: Pedro Alvarez, Michael Morse

2B: Neil Walker

3B: Josh Harrison

SS: Jordy Mercer, Pedro Florimon

LF: Starling Marte

CF: Andrew McCutchen, Keon Broxton

RF: Gregory Polanco, Jaff Decker

Obviously, this is subject to change, as the Pirates (for better or worse) tend not to make roster decisions based on my mid-November speculation. I've assumed that the Pirates will offer arbitration to both Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, for instance, though Alvarez's days in Pittsburgh may be numbered. And I've penciled in Pedro Florimon, Jaff Decker, and Keon Broxton as the team's utility infielder and reserve outfielders, respectively.

One could easily argue that Florimon will be waived at some point and replaced by South African defensive savant Gift Ngoepe. Ngoepe's cultural significance as the first African major leaguer aside, he doesn't project as a substantively different player than Florimon (Steamer projects a .216/.272/.309 line from Florimon and .213/.273/.302 line from Ngoepe--somewhere, Clint Barmes is smiling). Meanwhile, neither Decker nor Broxton represent a sure bet to make the roster out of Spring Training, especially after the recent signing of Jake Goebbert.

In observing the quality of the starting lineup even without Jung-Ho Kang, it seems unlikely the Pirates will attempt to sign a long-term starter at any position at the moment. Which is great, because long-term starters (particularly those whose names rhyme with 'Miss Famous') tend to end up swimming in bathtubs filled with hundred-dollar bills shortly after free agency begins. The roster, as currently constructed, could use a utility infielder with a non-disastrous bat and another reserve outfielder. More interesting to consider, however, is how to fill the hole created by the theoretical trading/non-tendering of  Pedro Alvarez. Moving Alvarez would both free significant salary space and open a hole in the starting lineup for which the Pirates lack an adequate internal replacement.

Fortunately, the hot stove season isn't completely bereft of interesting candidates for Pirate-hood. Read on to find out who could (should?) be wearing the black and gold next March.

*Format is (Projected contract, Steamer projected AVG/OBP/SLG, Steamer projected WAR/600).

Mike Napoli (2/$18M, .231/.333/.417, 1.6)

My man-crush on Napoli's game is embarrassingly well-documented. Last June, I advocated trading for him. Here's what I wrote at the time:

Napoli's poor performance (.199/.295/.381) this year is, as with Pearce, largely the result of bad BABIP luck--he's only hitting .232 on balls in play. Unlike Pearce, however, Napoli's peripherals have shown no signs of decline. His walk rate and strikeout rate are around his career norms, and his raw power is still quite strong, with an average FB/LD velocity of 94 MPH. There's a reason ZiPS is optimistic about him returning to form.

Napoli has relatively large platoon splits, yet the Red Sox have never aggressively platooned him--if he ended up facing a disproportionate number of lefties in Pittsburgh, we should expect his production to be even better. He's a strong defensive first baseman, as well.

During the first half of 2015, Napoli hit .193/.294/.353 with a .232 BABIP. During the second half of 2015, Napoli hit .283/.381/.522 with a .341 BABIP. This is why batting average in small sample sizes is a really, really bad way to judge hitters' skill. The Rangers benefitted from Napoli's turnaround en route to a surprise playoff berth, but as a midseason acquisition Napoli was ineligible to receive a qualifying offer, and consequently will not cost a draft pick to sign.

As a righty, Napoli isn't an ideal fit with Michael Morse, and given his age (he's 34) it's fair to wonder how much is left in the tank. But we've yet to see any slippage in his command of the strike zone, he still hits for solid power (94.6 MPH average exit velocity on LD/FB), and his defense at first base has remained strong (+4.4 UZR/+3 DRS last year). If skill-related decline is going to set in, it hasn't happened yet. You never want to place too much faith in aging first basemen, and consequently I'd be leery of giving Napoli a multi-year offer. Should Pedro Alvarez find himself wearing another uniform midway through the winter, however, we could do much worse than giving Napoli a call.

Steve Pearce (2/$12M, .252/.324/.446, 2.0)

As with Napoli, I've advocated acquiring Pearce since the middle of last season. Unlike with Napoli, Pearce's second half didn't vindicate my belief in him. After a .228/.293/.398 first half fueled speculation that whatever pixie dust fueled Pearce's magical 2014 had run out, Pearce didn't help his cause by hitting .203/.285/.455 during the season's second act.

Pearce's peripherals declined slightly in 2015, but the real culprit for his poor performance was a ridiculous .232 BABIP. Consequently, your opinion of Pearce's value moving forward will probably hinge on whether you think his true-talent BABIP is closer to 2014's .322 mark or 2015's nadir.

It's worth noting that not all of Pearce's poor BABIP performance is necessarily luck--he's simultaneously one of the most extreme pull hitters in the game (over half of all Pearce's contact last year was to the pull side) and one of the most extreme flyball hitters in the game. Neither of these things is a recipe for a high batting average--as you can see below, Pearce's batted ball distribution is . . . unique.

He also doesn't have Napoli's raw power--his 91.9 MPH average exit velocity on LD/FB is above average, but not slugger-level. The thing is, though, Pearce's doesn't really have to run a high BABIP to be a useful player--Steamer sees him putting up a subpar .284 BABIP next year and still delivering an equivalent offensive performance to guys like Albert Pujols, Yoenis Cespedes, and Adam Jones. Pearce also has value as an excellent defensive first baseman and an above average defender in both corner outfield positions. Such is his defensive skill that the Orioles chose to have him play second base last year and he fared quite well. Pearce's versatility means that he could serve simultaneously as Pedro's replacement at first base and an upgrade over Decker/Broxton in the outfield.

Dave Cameron recently listed Pearce as one of his bargains of the offseason, suggesting that he would bid up to 3/$24M. I think that's a bit aggressive--there's a lot of risk in Pearce's extreme batted-ball profile, and while he's a good defender we know that defense peaks early--but I share Cameron's overall sentiments.

Juan Uribe (2/$16M, .260/.312/.396, 2.4)

While third base isn't exactly a pressing need for the Pirates, both Jung-Ho Kang and Josh Harrison (who comprise, at the moment, the entirety of the major league depth) are multi-positional players. Should Neil Walker be traded or moved to first base, Harrison's services will likely be needed in the middle infield. And while Brian Cartwright's defensive metrics love Jordy Mercer's glove, his anemic bat poses a potential risk heading into 2016.

Enter Uribe, who's been one of the trickier players to value for the last several seasons. He's compiled 10.5 fWAR over the last three years by combining average offense with excellent defense at third base. Uribe posted the best walk rate of his career last year, along with his highest isolated power in five years. Steamer thinks he'll see minor regression on offense but continue to be an asset due to his defense.

Why, then, doesn't the market seem to value a seemingly-valuable player? I was surprised last summer when the Dodgers dealt Uribe for an unimpressive return--even though Uribe appeared to request the trade. I understand being wary of the potential for age-related decline (Uribe is 36), but Uribe is also likely to demand a shorter contract than a younger player of comparable skill.

One possibility is that Uribe's elite defense may be diminishing. It's always dangerous to conclude too much from single-season defensive data, but Uribe's 2015 DRS (+1) and UZR (+1.4) ratings at third base were significantly less impressive than his stratospheric 2013 and 2014. Inside Edge's defensive metrics also see Uribe losing some of his range--as shown below, Uribe's ability to make plays categorized as 'Likely' and 'Even' has eroded over the last few seasons.

Uribe's potential defensive decline would make me hesitant to offer a multiyear deal, but it wouldn't prevent me from kicking the tires on a one-year contract for 2016. The current market sees average players routinely receive $12-15 a year--Uribe could provide value if other teams are scared off by his age.

Other dudes

Of course, the list above isn't remotely exhaustive. It's only three guys. It's possible (probable, if we're being honest) that I'm missing something, and none of them are realistic targets. The market is, fortunately, awash with credible alternatives to the Napoli-Pearce-Uribe triumvirate, especially if one is willing to look past some pretty serious warts.

Chase Utley, for example, could be an interesting replacement for Neil Walker at second base--he's coming off a BABIP-driven disaster (I promise this the last time I use an acronym longer than three letters) yet still projects as something approaching an average second baseman. John Jaso is a productive left-handed bat whose utility to the Pirates would depend almost entirely on whether they believe he can play first base (he can't be worse than Pedro).

Matt "Hit Collector" Hague is a familiar face to Pirates fans, and he had a solid 2015 in the Blue Jays' system. Steamer projects the 30-year-old Hague for a .276/.338/.410 line. Were it not for the minor fact that re-acquiring him could potentially open a tear in the fabric of the universe, he'd be an interesting option.

If Neil Huntington chooses to add a position player via the Rule V draft, sluggers Jabari Blash, Zach Borenstein, and Balbino Fuenmayor are all available. None of them appear to be significantly superior options to the recently-signed Jake Goebbert, but Fuenmayor's name alone should be worth a few brownie points.

Of course, all this speculation could be for naught--perhaps we're days away from reassigning Pedro Alvarez to the Pirates' Siberian 'quadruple-B' affiliate, signing Bartolo Colon as the starting shortstop, and re-animating Honus Wagner as a roving utility infielder. Who knows? As Albert Einstein once said, "I never think of the future--it comes soon enough."