The Major League Baseball Playoffs are in full swing, but for the Pittsburgh Pirates and a handful of other ball clubs, the off-season has already begun. Setting lineups, in game decisions and the often revolving door to and from the alternate site in Altoona are all distant memories. Now some true tests of the Pirates Front Office, especially as it pertains to the future of the organization, lay ahead. Foremost in my mind are the decisions concerning arbitration eligible players, mostly due to the sheer volume. My brain also tends to shift towards Rule 5 Draft Protection, which I plan to address in an upcoming article. So for now, let’s just focus on the players that General Manager Ben Cherington and crew have to decide to tender or non-tender, along with how much money they should offer to those they want to keep.
Currently the Pirates have a minimum of 20 players that are arbitration eligible, including many, approximately half, being given their first opportunity to earn more than the standard league minimum yearly salary.
Below is one of the more up to date Arbitration Trackers from Spotrac. However, even this detailed listed is not entirely correct and current as JT Riddle recently elected free agency after being sent on an outright assignment to the AAA Indianapolis Indians and by my calculations, as well as other sites, Luke Maile is scheduled to enter his 2nd year of arbitration in 2021. This would still keep the number of players right around 20 and is sufficiently comprehensive enough for the purpose of this column.
If you are not a little overwhelmed/excited/anxious just looking at this list, which if tendered would represent half of the 40 Man Roster, I might call you a liar. It sure gives me fits at times and leads me to hypothesize on repeat exactly how Cherington will address each decision, but I have also been looking at it regularly since before the season even ended.
Before we fully dive into some of the possible choices that I might make if given the opportunity to magically switch places with Cherington, let’s break down the arbitration process and how players become eligible, for those who are maybe not as well versed as some. If you have this information down to a science, you can probably skip or skim the next few paragraphs.
Major League Baseball defines an arbitration eligible player as one who has three or more years of Major League service time, but less than six years and is not already under contract for the next season. Of course there is an exception, often referred to as “Super Two” Players. “Super Two” is a special designation that allows a certain group of players to become eligible for arbitration before reaching three years of service time. In order to qualify a player must rank in the top 22 percent, in terms of service time, among those who have accumulated between two and three years in the Majors. Usually, this applies to players who have two years and at least 130 days of service time, although the specific cutoff date varies from year to year.
As far as how the arbitration process will progress for the 2020-2021 off-season, clubs have until December 2nd to tender a contract offer to eligible players for the upcoming year. I should note that the team has the ability to cut a player’s salary offer by up to 20% based off the previous year’s contract. Any player that is “non-tendered” automatically and immediately become a free agent. Once a tendered contract is made, the player and his respective ball club have until January 8th to come to agreement on a salary. If an agreement is not reached, this when things can get ugly as Chris and I discussed in the most recent episode of Bucs In The Basement, as the the contract in question officially goes to arbitration.
In an arbitration hearing both sides have a chance to present evidence as to why their salary is more accurate, with clubs bringing up each and every area where a player struggles in order to make their case. In the end the panel of arbitrators chooses either the salary figure of either the player or the club. For example last year JT Realmuto took the Phillies to arbitration, asking for $12.4 million. The Phillies on the other hand had offered $10. Eventually Realmuto would lose and have to accept Philadelphia’s proposed salary, which he was none too happy about.
Now back to the decisions that Ben Cherington will have to make as they move through the off-season, with a little insight as to how I would proceed if given the power to do so.
As I look over the list there are a minimum three “non-tender“ candidates that jump of the page, a couple of others that I would truly consider just letting walk, others that I would tender to trade or at least attempt to trade and a few that I see as possible pieces of the future; if even for the next couple of years.
No offense to Yacksel, but this is a pretty simple decision. The young right handed reliever has made 13 appearances for the Pirates over the last two seasons; posting a 6.28 ERA and 1.395 WHIP, while striking out 13 and walking 7 over 14.1 innings. Unfortunately for Rios his season ended early as he was placed on the IL in mid-August with right shoulder inflammation.
Osuna has gotten a few looks over the past few years; impressing in the pinch hitter role and utility infielder/outfielder at times over the past few seasons. This past season lead the league in pinch hit home runs for the season with 5. He also posted a .325 Batting Average, a 1.232 OPS and 10 total extra base hits in this role. In 2020 he bounced back and forth between PNC and Altoona; ultimately slashing .205/.244/.397 with 4 homers in 78 at bats.
As it pertains to Crick this decision is based mostly on his drop in velocity during the 2020 season. In 2018 his fastball velocity averaged 95.8, in 2019 it was 95.3 and this year it fell to 91.8. Throughout the season Crick battled injuries, only making 7 appearances. It is possible that this is an easy explanation for the change in velocity, however, I am not sure it is worth the risk to find out.
Feliz is another reliever that caught the injury bug this season as he made on 3 appearances and lasted only 1.2 total innings. His ERA was a outrageously inflated 32.40, with a 3.60 WHIP to go along with it. In 2019 Feliz had shown some promise by striking out 73 batters in 56.1 innings of work.
On The Fence
Williams was able to receive his full compliment of starts during the truncated season, but could never really get things going. In 11 starts, across 55.1 innings, Williams allowed a MLB leading 15 homers, posted a 6.18 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP and struck out only 49 batters. This would be a tough decision for GMBC to make, but it could be a very necessary move to open up a spot in the rotation to one of the younger starters; such as JT Brubaker or Cody Ponce.
This is a tough one for me because the kid is just so easy to root for. After a gruesome injury in 2019 and eventual season ending TOS surgery, Burdi returned to the mound with a vengeance in 2020; pumping out 100 mph fastballs, only to have his year come to an end after 3 appearances as he once again hit the IL with right elbow/bicep pain.
John Ryan Murphy
Murphy’s place on the Opening Day Roster wasn’t solidified until Luke Maile broke his finger just prior to the beginning of the season. As defense first journeyman catcher, JRM’s work at the plate lead to a dismal .172 AVG, with a .433 OPS in 58 at bats. Behind the dish he was a serviceable back up to Jason Stallings. Across 23 games and 159.1 innings he earned a 1 DRS and a .8 FRM.
Tender To Trade
During the past off-season, Frazier, was seen as a potential trade target for multiple teams, however, nothing ever came to fruition. Once again at the most recent trade deadline, Frazier’s name kept surfacing. In the equivalent of 4 MLB seasons with the Pirates, Frazier has shown himself to be around a league average hitter (.275 AVG and 100 wRC+), with defensive upside (6 DRS IF/OF, 6 OAA 2B 2020 and 11 OAA 2019).
Stratton was a pleasant surprise out of the Pirates bullpen during the shortened season. In 27 games and 30 innings of work he posted a 3.90 ERA and a 1.300 WHIP, while striking striking out 39. These numbers should earn a Stratton another look in 2021, but I wouldn’t turn any team away if they came looking.
Gonzalez came out swinging to begin 2020. During a 7 game stretch in the beginning of August Gonzalez saw his average shoot up from .125 to .349 and his OPS reach as high as .907. However, as we all are aware, this streak did not continue and over the last 30 games and 111 at bats Gonzalez has slashed .225/.270/.351; leaving his yearly numbers sitting right around those for his career at a .252 average and a .679 OPS.
Through the first seven games of the season he was slashing .333/.385/.875 with 4 home runs in 24 at bats. Then reality sank in as he proceeded to hit .228 over his next 127 at bats. Some of the power stuck around as he hit another 6 homers and 20 total extra base hits, but he saw his once astronomical numbers slip to .247/.325/.472 at the end of the year. During the year, Moran also found himself playing 1st Base on a regular basis; posting a -1 OAA at the position.
Unfortunately Big Joe was unable to pitch a full season, making only 8 total starts on the year. In a limited 39.2 innings of work Musgrove was able to strike out 55 batters, while earning a 3.86 ERA and a 1.235 WHIP; ending the year with two strong outings. It is well known that Musgrove was nearly traded to Toronto just prior to the deadline and that there were other inretested parties.
Bell is one of the more interesting arbitration eligible player for the Pirates as he earned $4.8 million in his first arb year; coming of a season where he hit .277 with 37 home runs, thanks mostly to a near historic stretch in April and May. Now he comes into his second arb year having hit .226 with 8 homers in 195 at bats. At the end of the season he was relegated almost strictly to the designated hitter role, which surely causes his future expectations to take a slight hit.
On the surface his 4.98 ERA looks less than optimal. However, his 3.88 FIP and 1.11 WHIP show promise. After not having played a Major League game since 2017, Turley was sure to be a little rusty. I would like to see him get another shot in 2021 and possibly build up some trade capital along the way.
RichRod cemented himself as the closer of at least the near future by posting a 2.70 ERA and .857 WHIP, while striking out 34 in 23.1 innings. This situation is pretty clear cut; hope he pitches well and trade him at the deadline.
Taillon is going through his second arbitration after having not thrown a big league pitch since May 1, 2019. The former first round pick (2nd Overall) is coming off his 2nd Tommy John surgery, so this is more of a see what they have and/or hope he can make another comeback type of move; plus after all he has been through and how hard he worked in his rehab, he has truly earned it.
As the Team MVP, Stallings slashed .248/.326/.376 with 3 homers. However, it was really his work behind the plate that made him stand out. He finished the season with 7 DRS and a 2.3 FRM, good for 5th place in overall defensive fWAR at 6.3. For those who doubt Stallings overall value, I get it. He is never going to be the perennial slugger many want behind the dish; that’s just not the type of player he is.
In the beginning Kuhl was slowly brought into the fold slowly as a part of a “piggyback”, after having not pitched since June of 2018 and undergoing Tommy John Surgery in September of the same year. After struggling off and on through his first nine appearances he ended the season on a high as he struck out 11 and allowed only one earned run over his last 12 innings of work.
Surprisingly, Brault has probably been the Pirates most consistent starter over the past two seasons; really hitting his stride in the second half of the 2020 season. In this role he posted a 2.53 ERA and 1.055 WHIP in 10 starts; including the two hit, one run complete game against the Cardinals in his next to last outing of the year.
Now, I am almost positive that Cherington will not stick to my plan of attack when it comes to addressing arbitration with each and every player. However, I definitely look forward to seeing how he proceeds with some of the more crucial and potentially telling decisions in order to have a better idea of what his vision is for the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates.