Wilbur posted last night about the Pirates' somewhat surprising signing of David Freese to a one-year, $3 million deal. Here are my thoughts.
In the short term, Freese will help replace Jung Ho Kang. According to Neal Huntington (via Rob Biertempfel), Kang won't return until a few weeks into the season.
"He wants to start the season active," Huntington said. "We've talked for a long time that that wasn't going to happen. We've been talking about mid- to late-April (return date). Nothing's changed in his (rehab) time frame. This is just a chance to add a very good major player to our club."
Huntington also emphasized that Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer and Kang would continue to start once everyone got healthy, so it sounds like Freese won't have a starting job by May. After that, though, Freese -- who has played bits of first base in the majors and has a career .296/.367/.459 line against lefties -- will be used as a bench guy who plays the corner infield spots. That might mean the Pirates eventually trade fellow right-handed Michael Morse, since the Bucs will have more than they need (Freese, Morse and Jason Rogers) to create a good platoon with John Jaso at first. (It's unclear what this might mean for Josh Bell, although Freese's ability to play third as well as first gives the Pirates options if Bell hits well at Indianapolis to start the year and needs to be promoted. Here's hoping Bell forces the issue.)
I doubt signing Freese was part of the Pirates' plan all along. They probably just saw an opportunity to get a two-win player very cheaply, and they pounced. As bench players go, Freese is much better than most, and he'll help compensate for the infield depth the Bucs lost when they traded Neil Walker.
In fact, Freese is two years older than Walker and is a right-handed hitter, but otherwise compares favorably to him. Walker is the better player, and certainly the better bet to produce a well-above-average season in 2016, but the difference between them isn't as great as I imagined when I first heard about the signing. Freese hit .257/.323/.420 last year and produced 2.2 fWAR; Walker hit .269/.328/.427 and produced 2.4 fWAR. Walker plays the more difficult defensive position, but he's below average at it; Freese is average at third.
Steamer and ZiPS think Walker will hit for better power than Freese this coming season, and Freese perhaps has greater risk of collapse due to his age, so this isn't a one-for-one replacement. But in many ways, the plan of using Freese as a sort of platoon player at first base is pretty similar to what a lot of Pirates fans, including myself, wanted the Bucs to do with Walker this year (although Walker, of course, would have occupied the other end of the platoon).
In other words, Freese helps restore the depth the Pirates lost when they traded Walker. If he can replace, say, 85 percent of Walker's production, and if Jon Niese performs well under Ray Searage, suddenly the Walker trade will look a lot better. It's unlikely the Pirates were banking on Freese being available this cheaply and this late in the offseason, but kudos to them for being opportunistic. Freese has never really been a star, 2011 postseason heroics notwithstanding. But he's a good player, and at $3 million, he's a bargain. He should help.