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The Pirates' perplexing offseason

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As a Pirates fan, I'm resigned to certain immutable truths. Among these is the dispiriting nature of the hot stove season. Rooting for the Pirates during this period is sort of like being the kid who, while every other red-blooded American eight-year-old exercised their God-given right to achieve Snickers-fueled nirvana on Halloween, ended up munching on carrots and celery. There's probably a long-run payoff there, but it doesn't make the present any easier to stomach (literally or figuratively).

Every offseason follows this pattern. The Pirates aren't a high-revenue team, and nobody realistically expected Huntington & Co. to bid on a marquee free agent like Zack Greinke or David Price. The acquisition of mid-career players universally acknowledged as premium talents is something that just doesn't happen for the Pirates. That isn't a horrible thing--long-term, high-money contracts to established stars often end poorly. But in the past, they've acquired a well-deserved reputation for making shrewd buy-low moves to fill existing holes without sacrificing much value.

Think back to last offseason. Faced with holes in the rotation and a void at catcher following the departure of Russell Martin, the Pirates fortified the rotation by signing both A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano to below-market deals, traded for Francisco Cervelli to replace Russell Martin, signed Jung-Ho Kang and traded for Sean Rodriguez to bolster the infield, acquired Antonio Bastardo in exchange for the eminently forgettable Joely Rodriguez, signed Radhames Liz, and picked up Arquimedes Caminero. All of these moves adhered to a coherent internal logic--they bought low on players with upside rather than pay for established talent. Even the Corey Hart signing made sense from a pure process standpoint--Hart was, once upon a time, a pretty solid major league hitter, and it was worth betting $2M to find out if he could credibly fill a bench role. I would argue that most fans and analysts (myself included) liked the Pirates 2014 offseason quite a bit, despite the loss of Russell Martin.

This leads me, however, to an uncomfortable confession: I don't understand the moves they've made recently. Not all of them--I liked the signings of Cole Figueroa, Jake Goebbert, and Juan Nicasio, for example, and I think the Jason Rogers trade will be a long-term win--but where in the past I've generally followed the reasoning behind their moves I'm having trouble identifying a sustainable strategy these days.

This might say more about me than the front office. Unquestionably, the Pirates' brass is composed of very intelligent people, who (unlike the present author) are both paid to make high-stakes decisions about baseball and have access to a wealth of scouting and performance information presently unavailable to the public. I am sure, for instance, that they have good reasons for acquiring Ryan Vogelsong, and it's impossible to deny that they've had plenty of success in the past with pitchers the rest of the league had discarded. But these reasons, whatever they may be, are opaque to me. The sections that follow outline my specific points of confusion regarding the Pirates' offseason plan.

Before the storm

The Pirates currently appear to be both (a) among the better teams in baseball, and (b) the third-best team in their own division. Consider the Steamer projections below, shamelessly cribbed from Jeff Sullivan's excellent article on the Cubs' status as baseball's presumptive 2016 front-runner.


Maybe you see this as a positive--the Pirates appear to be quite a good team heading into 2016. Maybe you're more pessimistic--they're way behind the Cubs. Maybe you're just thankful the Pirates haven't been rejected by both Jason Heyward and David Price in the same offseason.

Personally, what bothers me is how they got to this point.

The Cubs project well because they added three good players--Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey--to an already-scintillating core. They have no major weaknesses, and they could even deal from their minor league depth to add additional pitching.

The Pirates, on the other hand, went into the offseason with two pretty obvious holes in an otherwise excellent roster:

  • First base (or, at the very least, a left-handed platoon partner for Michael Morse)
  • Starting rotation behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano

Thus far, they've swapped Pedro Alvarez for Jason Rogers at first base. I like Rogers quite a bit, but he projects as a middling hitter and isn't an ideal Plan A. Michael Morse is probably something better than replacement-level, but not by a huge margin. Meanwhile, Adam Lind and Mike Napoli have both been acquired by other teams for very modest returns.

For the second hole, they've made a lateral move from Charlie Morton to Jon Niese (more on that later), and added Ryan Vogelsong. They've also subtracted Neil Walker, who projected as a pretty decent second baseman, and signed Sean Rodriguez to alleviate the resultant infield depth problem. Walker would also immediately be their best short-term option at first base.

Projection systems like Steamer and ZiPS unfortunately don't give the Pirates bonus points for amassing a greater number of replacement-level players (Morse, Rodriguez, Vogelsong) and consequently see the NL Central arms race as having been decidedly one-sided in the Cubs' favor. The especially irksome thing is that the Pirates would easily project as a better team had they simply retained Walker and Morton and passed on trading for Niese, signing Rodriguez, and signing Vogelsong. That sequence of transactions appear to have both made the team worse off and poorly allocated resources to unnecessary players (Rodriguez, Vogelsong).

All quiet on the first base front

I like Michael Morse. Other people like Michael Morse. He seems like the human analogue of a giant Saint Bernard whose reaction to every single experience is holymotherofgodthisisthesinglegreatestmomentofmylifeoranylife. I wish I had such a positive attitude about everything, but unfortunately I'm much more similar to an anthropomorphized Grumpy Cat.

Nor are my pro-Morse sentiments strictly of the subjective, character-based sort--I've also previously been complimentary of Morse's prodigious power (he's in the 97th percentile of MLB hitters for FB/LD exit velocity). Morse has a reputation as a horrible defender, but he's actually been a perfectly fine first baseman over the course of his career--it's the corner outfield positions where he struggles, and the Pirates wisely don't seem to view him as a viable outfielder.

Which is why it pains me a bit to say that he really, really shouldn't be their Opening Day first baseman. Charlie and the poster impliedi addressed this recently:

I mean, it seems the general feeling is that the Pirates look for a platoon or upgrade, but it seems to me that even if 2011 Michael Morse is pretty much a pipe dream, but if you get 2014 Michael Morse, that seems to be a pretty productive player" - impliedi

Sure, but what are their chances of getting that player? Morse has had two very poor seasons in the last three, and he'll turn 34 before the start of the season. His ability to hit for average seems to be diminishing, which makes sense given his age. He turned out to be more useful than I thought he would be for the Pirates down the stretch, but I don't think the Pirates can count on him to be a regular at this point. For what it's worth, Steamer has him at .248/.308/.404 next season; ZiPS has him at .243/.301/.406. Those lines are okay for a bench player, but not for someone who's supposed to be an everyday first baseman.

The projections pretty much speak for themselves. Morse is an injury-prone, aging first baseman who's been awful two out of the last three years. ZiPS and Steamer both think he'll rebound, projecting a league-average hitting line, but when combined with Morse's lack of defensive or baserunning value that doesn't add up to an acceptable starting first baseman. He's a reasonable bench bat, and could provide value in that role (or even as the short end of a platoon), but giving him 600 plate appearances is not an adequate plan for a putative contender.

There's also cause for a bit of skepticism about how well Morse's raw power (his best tool) will actually play moving forward. Consider the graphs below--Morse tends to be a pronounced ground ball hitter, and barring some sort of revolutionary discovery in the field of physics it's very difficult to hit ground balls over the fence.

If there's a silver lining, it's that Morse also isn't a particularly pull-heavy hitter (see below).

This means that as far as right-handed power hitters go he:

(a) Probably won't be as affected by playing in PNC, and

(b) Isn't really a shift candidate

I'm not entirely sure how best to interpret Morse's unique batted-ball tendencies. He may never fully tap into his raw power, but his ability to make hard contact to all fields seems like a pretty strong indicator that he has something left in the tank.

It now appears, however,  that Jason Rogers may be the Bucs' 2016 first baseman. I like Rogers quite a bit--he controls the zone well, and corner guys with an above-average hit tool and no other plus tools tend to be overlooked. He was also acquired for a very reasonable cost--Keon Broxton is a fun player, but ultimately he's unlikely to hit enough to be a major-league asset.

My concern with Rogers is that 'undervalued' isn't synonymous with 'good.' Rogers might be a slightly better hitter than Morse, but he also has pretty limited power and no real defensive or baserunning value, which means that while his chances of providing basic competence are good, his upside is limited. Ideally, they would've either acquired a higher-ceiling player or a left-handed hitting who could platoon with Rogers/Morse. And, well . . .

  • The Mariners acquired Adam Lind from the Brewers for a very reasonable price. None of the prospects the Mariners surrendered are particularly interesting.
  • Mike Napoli signed a cheap, zero-risk one-year deal with the Indians, mercifully ending my string of Napoli-related BD articles.
  • Hyeon-Soo Kim signed a two-year, $7M deal with the Orioles, causing the Right Honorable Mr. Cartwright indescribable anguish.
  • Byung-Ho Park signed with the Twins for a fraction of his projected contract value.

Acquiring any of these guys (with the possible exception of Park, who has serious contact issues) would've been more inspiring than what the Pirates have done thus far. Take a look below:

Kim and Park don't have Steamer projections, but ZiPS projects Kim for a .267/.334/.407 line (Park's projection hasn't been released). If you're interested, Steamer projects Josh Bell for a .274/.330/.396 line, while ZiPS gives him a nearly-identical .266/.331/.397 projection--it's encouraging Bell could probably hold his own in the majors from Day One, but anyone expecting an immediate savior is likely to be disappointed.

There are reasons not to totally trust the WAR projections here--we probably have to subtract some defensive value from Neil Walker, for example, as they're projecting him at second base, but they get the point across: the Pirates' first base situation still looks ugly, and they passed on plenty of opportunities to improve it.

Perhaps most frustratingly, Neil Walker would've been a solid first baseman. One poster made the point, in this month's Ask BD thread, that the Pirates basically traded the more expensive of their two 2.5 WAR second basemen for an upgrade elsewhere. That's true, to a point, but it also ignores some other important context.

It ignores that Jung-Ho Kang may miss the start of the season, and in that case it will effectively be Sean Rodriguez, not Josh Harrison, replacing Neil Walker. It ignores that Walker could've shifted to first base (and has gone on record as being willing to do so) and thus filled their greatest hole. It ignores that any infield injury will now push Rodriguez (instead of Harrison) into the starting lineup. It ignores that Alen Hanson,  while an interesting prospect, isn't necessarily ready to hit major-league pitching. All of these are reasons that Walker wasn't, in fact, a redundant player on the Pirates' roster.

There seem to be two camps of Pirates fans--one who views Walker's departure as a huge loss by which the front office evinced either their stupidity, their mercenary nature, or their unwillingness to pay players their market value; and another who isn't concerned about Walker's loss because they believe Josh Harrison is just as good a player. I probably fall somewhat closer to the second camp, but I think it's important to make the distinction that comparing Harrison and Walker in a vacuum understates the importance of having both of them.

The Walker-Niese-Morton sequence

As I outlined above, Neil Walker would be a relatively valuable player to the 2016 Pirates. This doesn't, of course, mean he should've been untouchable, but does mean that one would hope that the Pirates received a compelling return in order to move him.

I wasn't thrilled about the Walker-Niese trade, but I could see the things the front office liked about Niese. He's a left-handed ground ball pitcher with a heavy sinker and multiple years of control. Despite his poor 2015 he's an interesting bounceback candidate. He contributes quite a bit of value with his bat and glove. The Pirates pretty clearly value a certain type of pitcher with whom they've had considerable success in the past, and Niese fits that profile.

The less-understandable move came when Charlie Morton (a comparable pitcher to Niese) was dealt to Philadelphia in order to clear salary. Morton doesn't actually make all that much for a starting pitcher and he had a reasonable 2017 option. See the charts below for an overview of the similarities between Morton and Niese.

The resemblance is uncanny.

Analysis of individual pitches is similarly inconclusive--Morton throws his sinker harder and gets better movement, and he also has more movement on his curve. Morton's weakness is the underwhelming nature of his supporting pitches--he's mostly a two-pitch guy, and his lack of an effective changeup limits his ability to neutralize left-handed hitters. I wrote last August about how Morton had tried to use his curveball more against lefties, but this isn't really an ideal solution. Morton's limited arsenal and fantastic stuff could, I believe, make him an excellent reliever one day.

Niese's arsenal is more multifaceted (he throws both a cutter and a changeup), so while his sinker and curve are both less impressive in isolation than Morton's he has a higher 'floor.' It's difficult to say how the Pirates interpret this information--to me their respective pitches look like a classic case of quantity (Niese's five-pitch arsenal) vs. quality (Morton's sinker and curve).

All of this would seem to beg the question--is Niese actually better than Morton? Is he substantially better than the feasible free agent alternatives on whom the Pirates passed? Was the upgrade from Morton to Niese really worth dealing Walker away? The front office has earned quite a bit of latitude when evaluating pitchers, and I'm perfectly willing to cede the former two points to them. But the third bothers me, because you have to think that Niese is quite a bit better than Morton for this to be a good use of assets, and there isn't much to suggest that's the case.

In other words, if Niese is such a valuable player that the Pirates were willing to create a hole by dealing Neil Walker for him, why is Charlie Morton such a valueless player that the Bucs willing to deal him for nothing?

Of course, Morton is three years older, has a scarier injury history, and doesn't throw left-handed. Niese also contributes a few runs each year through defense and hitting, while Morton is a horrible hitter. Even if Morton's an equivalently talented pitcher to Niese, then, Niese is the more valuable player. And I don't begrudge the front office that opinion. I do, however, have trouble squaring the tremendous gulf they seem to perceive in the value between the two players with what the data tell me.

I'm not a huge fan of using projection systems for pitchers, but for the sake of completeness take a look at the chart below:

Steamer really likes the Pirates' young pitchers, and ZiPS is only slightly less enthused (much less enthused, in the case of Jameson Taillon--and I tend to side with them over Steamer). The Pirates appear to have a wealth of young, controllable pitching talent. Maybe you think that Morton was redundant. But in that case, why deal Walker for Niese, who projects (for good reason) almost identically to Morton?

Upon acquiring Niese, Huntington said: "He’ll continue to put up numbers similar to guys who are getting sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety million dollars in free agency." He isn't wrong to compare Niese to guys like Mike Leake, but that's more of an indictment of other teams' player evaluation than a strong argument for dealing an asset at your position of greatest need in order to make a lateral move.

The Pirates plainly consider Niese a significant upgrade upon Morton, and their track record suggests that they have good reasons for that belief. I can't, however, follow their reasoning.

The return of Serpico

Sean Rodriguez is not a valueless player. He's a very good defender at multiple positions, and it isn't his fault that Pedro Alvarez's various catastrophes tethered him to first base last year.

In his prime, Rodriguez's versatility and decent bat made him a tremendously valuable bench piece for Andrew Friedman's Rays--his ability to play virtually anywhere, defend well, and hit non-terribly insured the team against ever needing to allocate playing time to the Michael Martinez stratum of players with which we're all overly familiar. Neal Huntington's comments on the value of a super-utility player perfectly describe this type of value.

"In a perfect world, if we were to bring someone like Sean back, they would be able to play multiple positions defensively and be a threat with the bat." - Neal Huntington

Unfortunately, Huntington's quote after Rodriguez's signing seems to contemplate the prime-aged Rodriguez who was such an asset for the Rays, rather than the current iteration of Rodriguez (whose strategy at the plate closely resembles a poker player who really, really has to pee). Because Rodriguez's offensive profile is, at this point, pretty much a catastrophe. A patient hitter in his prime, Rodriguez now swings at everything. He strikes out a ton and virtually never walks. He has only middling power and hits a ton of popups. There's just not much to like. Projection systems feel similarly--Steamer and ZiPS see him producing woeful .234/.280/.371 and .236/.280/.376 lines, respectively.

Rodriguez isn't making a huge amount of money, and for a big-budget team like the Dodgers or Yankees this signing could potentially make sense--Rodriguez, warts and all, is probably slightly better than replacement-level. But as with the Walker-Niese-Morton sequence of moves, I have trouble seeing the internal logic behind this signing.

If the Pirates are so profoundly cash-strapped that they can't afford to bid even on mid-tier free agents, so cash-strapped that they jettisoned an average starting pitcher on a reasonable deal for nothing, why are they investing their meager resources in a player who doesn't appear to be substantially better than Alan Hanson, Cole Figueroa, or Adam Frazier?

I'm about the biggest believe in chemistry you'll find among stat nerds. Once upon a time I invested a truly embarrassing number of hours researching the possible positive externalities related to having Brandon Inge on your team. For this deal to make sense, Rodriguez must be a chemistry superstar, because I'm not seeing a particularly compelling on-field rationale.

Alternatively, perhaps they've discovered a market inefficiency related to water cooler violence.

Vogelsong's swan song

When I first read that the Pirates had signed Ryan Vogelsong, I assumed it was on a minor-league deal and that he might compete as a long reliever. That would make sense--plenty of starters see their stuff play up a notch in relief (see Blanton, Joe).

Upon learning that Vogelsong had received a major league deal to be a member of the rotation (replacing Charlie Morton), I was (to put it mildly) a bit confused. Vogelsong is older than both Cliff Lee and Mark Buehrle, he was terrible last year, and most of us had expected (hoped) that the Pirates were still in the hunt to sign a credible #3 starter.

The Pirates have certainly turned seemingly-useless starters into useful back-end guys in the past--Vance Worley comes to mind. The thing is, I don't see how Vogelsong possesses any of the compelling attributes that seem to have led the Pirates to other successful reclamation project starters. He doesn't throw particularly hard. His sinker doesn't sink. He doesn't get ground balls. For a quick, albeit depressing, overview, see Brooks Baseball's excellent synopsis:

His fourseam fastball has essentially average velo. His sinker has less armside run than typical and has little sinking action compared to a true sinker. His curve has primarily 12-6 movement and has little depth. His cutter generates fewer whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' cutters, has good "rise", has little cutting action and results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers' cutters. His change is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' changeups, has a lot of backspin and has slight armside fade.

I don't see the attraction of Vogelsong, especially when more-interesting pitchers like Rich Hill, Trevor Cahill, Bartolo Colon, and Henderson Alvarez have all signed one-year contracts. Huntington seems to think that Vogelsong will perform similarly to Morton. That wouldn't surprise me all that much, but it's more because Morton doesn't sound like a strong fit with Philadelphia's shaky infield defense, not because I think Vogelsong will be good.

What lies ahead

Look, I'm not someone who's naturally inclined to be critical of the front office. I think the Pirates' front office has, generally speaking, been fantastic at identifying and developing talent over the last several seasons. They're one of the very few teams to successfully implement a comprehensive run-prevention philosophy that (a) departs from baseball orthodoxy, and (b) actually works. They seem to have broken pitching estimators like FIP. They signed Jung-Ho Kang.

Meanwhile, I'm wrong about plenty of things. I gave Neil Walker a 95% chance of remaining a Pirate in 2016 (in fairness, I was mostly considering the possibility of a non-tender). I liked the Corey Hart signing. I didn't like the J.A. Happ acquisition. I thought Mark Melancon might be done last April. So, hey, my word might not be gospel.

In order to be a credible, independent, analyst, however, you have to be willing to make judgments based on the information available. And publicly available data doesn't provide ready explanations for the Pirates moves.

With any luck, I'll be eating my words next spring after Ryan Vogelsong throws back-to-back no-hitters. Until then, I look forward to the Pirates using all of the payroll flexibility they've accrued to acquire players whose value is easier to see.