10-15-21 By Craig W. Toth (aka @bucsbasement on Twitter)
At this point it can be safely assumed, with almost certainty, that many Pirates Fans have at least a general understanding of the arbitration process in Major League Baseball. In a very simplistic manner of speaking, the Pirates must tender a contract to all arbitration eligible and pre-arbitration players for the upcoming season. If they decide not to do so, the player is considered non-tendered and immediately enters the free agent market; which if you remember is exactly what Ben Cherington and Company did with Clay Holmes last year, even though he had not yet reached arbitration eligible status. Once this occurs, and even prior to it as was the case with Erik Gonzalez, Jameson Taillon and Michael Feliz this past off-season, the team and the player have up until the last minute before the actual arbitration hearing to come to an agreement on a salary; although they need to exchange each other’s figures prior to that.
Of course, as there is with every impending roster decision, a deadline has been etched in the rule book as to when the Pirates must make a choice; including Minor and Major League Free Agency, qualifying offers, protecting players from the Rule 5 Draft, International Free Agency and the aforementioned contract tenders, salary submissions and arbitration.
For the purpose of this article-even though there could be further 40-Man implications, like when the Pirates DFA’d non-tender candidate Trevor Williams prior in order to protect either Rodolfo Castro or Max Kranick-the focus will remain on the tender deadline of December 1st, the deadline to exchange salary figures of January 15th and the potential arbitration hearings that could take place around Mid-February; but more importantly the Pirates players that these decisions could affect.
Just a few days ago, MLB Trade Rumors released their much anticipated Projected Arbitration Salaries For 2022 article, based on the model created by Matt Schwartz, to give fans such ourselves an estimated contract tender that the players on our teams could receive. And, inadvertently to present me with the opportunity to present my opinions and arguments for keeping or moving on from the Pirates Arbitration Eligible Players.
Usually I split these into Tender, Tender To Trade (when we had likely trade candidates) and Non-Tender, but due to the second category being somewhat of a wash it feels like Pulling The Trigger, Walking The Line and Might Be Time To Move On might be more fitting options; with the message theme attached to each section still being pretty self explanatory.
Now before I get started, as a reference, here are Schwartz’s estimates for the Pittsburgh Pirates 11 Arbitration Eligible Players.
Pull The Trigger
- Bryan Reynolds-This is probably the biggest no-brainer that has ever existed. Unfortunately for Reynolds the disaster that was 2020 can’t be erased from the arbitration process, so his .182 AVG with 7 homers is all figured into the estimate. However, without his .302 AVG with a .912 OPS and 24 homer All-Star Campaign this season and his .314 AVG with 16 home run Rookie of the Year push in 2019, it could have honestly been slightly lower. All in all it sets up a fairly perfect scenario for the Pirates to come at Reynolds with a contract extension, as this is the cheapest a player of his caliber will ever be. Now, I know he is under team control through arbitration through 2025, but honestly that means 2024 at the latest in my mind, without an extension; because it’s not like the Pirates are going to just hold on to him for his team control years, and then just let him walk. Put pen to paper and get it done.
- Jacob Stallings-Stallings fits into a fairly similar category as Reynolds because in his case you are getting the best defensive catcher in the league, statistically, at an extreme value. Where he differs is that there is no prospect in the system that is pushing for his job anytime soon; not that Reynold is exactly on the hot seat, but there are a few guys that are closer. $2.6 Million for a 3 WAR/ 2.6fWAR catcher is a steal.
- Chris Stratton-This past year the Pirates Bullpen was one of the worst in MLB; finishing 27th overall thanks in part to a 4.55 ERA, a 1.39 WHIP and a -.71 WPA (Win Probably Added) each time they entered a game. Now imagine that bullpen without the likes of David Bednar obviously, Chris Stratton and the next arbitration eligible reliever Chasen Shreve. On the year Stratton posted a 3.63 ERA, a somewhat concerning 1.298 WHIP-although it was the lowest of his career-and 88.8 average exit velocity on balls in play, which ranks in the bottom half of the league. And for you analytics junkies, his fastball and curve spin rates rank in the 99th percentile in all of MLB.
- Chasen Shreve-Shreve is a slightly tougher sell than Stratton to most. The issues with runners on base stick out like a sore thumb, even when he achieved the desired result of a softly hit ground ball that somehow found its way through the shift. It’s a fact that negatives are more often than positives in the world of a Major League reliever. Yet, when you look at the entire body of work, it’s hard not to see the Pirates giving Shreve a few more months in the pen; at the very least with hopes of flipping him at the deadline. On the year Shreve posted a 3.20 ERA and a 1.260 WHIP, which was good for 1.2 WAR. Now, I know many will point towards his -.1 fWAR as an argument for a non-tender. However, may I remind you once again that Fangraphs-which overall I love-uses FIP in calculating fWAR for pitchers. Yes, a predictive stat that cannot be used to project a player’s performance from year to year; and is only a way of showing how a player should regress to the mean, not that they will. Did, I mention that it is stat that is very tricky to use with relievers? Did I also mention that Trevor Cahill had a .5 fWAR in his 8 starts with the Pirates only because he had a 4.06 FIP in comparison to his very real 6.57 ERA?
- Colin Moran-Here’s another Pirates player that not every is sold on, and one that some may have seen enough of; thinking that a better option exists or more bang for their buck out there somewhere. Sure, $4 million seems like a decent chunk of change for a player that batted .258 on the season with 10 homers and a 97 OPS+, but it’s hard for me to find a cheaper and/or better alternative. On the current Pirates Roster the choices are limited to Yoshi Tsutsugo-who is an upcoming free agent-and maybe Michael Chavis. First of all, Yoshi is more than likely going to be more expensive than $4 million; and secondly, after a ridiculously hot start, Yoshi cooled off significantly-hitting .260 with 3 homers over the last month, once teams were able to see him a second and third time. To drive this point home in his first meetings with the Reds and Cubs he was 9 for 28 (.321 AVG) with 3 homers, 3 walks and and 5 strikeouts. Now the third time around he was 4 for 27 (.148 AVG) with 0 homers, 2 walks and 10 strikeouts. Now, Chavis on the other hand will obviously be cheaper. Still, unless he immediately reverts back to the 2019 version of himself with his .259 AVG and 18 homers, which would be right around the value that Moran provides due to his 33.2% K to 8.1% BB rates, it is too much of a risk. Moving to the free agent market as it currently stands, you have Freddie Freeman at around $27 million, Anthony Rizzo at $21, Brandon Belt at $17 and Yulieski Gurriel at $8, with 36 year old Mitch Moreland and 37 year old Ryan Zimmerman rounding out the majority of the options.
- Ben Gamel-Often noted as the guy that many wish could be the 4th Outfielder for the Pirates, Gamel is probably the main success story from Cherington’s waiver wire watch in 2021. He is also the Pirates #2 Outfielder at the moment, and is unlikely to become #4 unless the purse strings are opened more than I would expect heading into 2022. For what it’s worth Gamel is due around $2.9 million after a -.3 WAR/1.2 fWAR season, so depending on what site you favor, it probably determines what camp you are planting your flag in. I fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to position players, and end up giving the edge to keeping Gamel because he provides professional at bats in a lineup, that has otherwise lacked this at times, and because he gives his all-including his body-in the field. Obviously a .247/.352/.399 slash line with 8 homers isn’t going to blow anyone away, but right now in the outfield, it’s the second best the Pirates have.
Walking The Line
- Wilmer Difo-The infield equivalent of Ben Gamel, Difo is almost exactly what you would expect to see step on the field when you think of a utility man; better at some positions and decent with the bat, especially on a pinch hitting role. Although, Difo would cost the Pirates a little bit less money, with an arbitration estimate of $1.1 million-which is exactly half of the next player with uncertainty surrounding him, Kevin Newman-and he has slightly more competition or at least more players pushing him for playing time. Known for his misplayed ball at Wrigley Field, Difo lead the Majors with 16 pinch hits while batting .269, smacking 4 dingers and posting an OPS of .713. Obviously not a must keep, but I also wouldn’t be disappointed if they did.
- Kevin Newman-Once on a comparable career trajectory to Reynolds following both of their Rookie Seasons in 2019, albeit with a lot more question marks, Newman turned his defense around this season as his bat continued to fall of a cliff. On the season he earn a 3 OAA and 8 DRS at the shortstop position; as compared to his -6 OAA/-7 DRS in 2019 and -2 OAA/-3 DRS in 2020. With the lumber he Newman managed an abysmal .210/.252/.273 slash line prior to the All-Star Break; and although it wasn’t great, after some adjustments, he was able to improve to .249/.283/.359 during the second half of the year. Nevertheless, in the end you have three players-Difo, Newman and Cole Tucker-vying for two positions on the roster, with a few others on the 40-Man and/or in Indianapolis possibly ready to take the next step. So, at most I keep two of the three. Newman and particularly Tucker have the edge in the team control department. Difo will be twice as expensive as Tucker and half as expensive as Newman. Truthfully, it’s just flip a coin.
- Chad Kuhl-For Kuhl it comes down to what the Pirates see him as. Is he on his way back to a starting, a long relief/piggyback guy or strictly a one or two inning bullpen arm? If the answer is the later, I’m out. In 14 appearances, across 13.1 innings, Kuhl posted a 6.75 ERA and a 1.800 WHIP; if he goes back to a starter or in a piggyback, I might just listen. Over the last two years in those roles he has accumulated a 4.35 ERA and a 1.359 WHIP. That’s worth $3 million.
Might Be Time To Move On
- Michael Perez-I get that he is merely a back up catcher, but when I think of Perez I truly do believe that a better option has to exist or a player that provides more bang for the Pirates buck out there somewhere. No he still won’t be super expensive at $900K, but if the expectation is a .141 AVG with 7 homers, to go along with a -2 DRS and -1.7 framing-Stallings has 21 DRS and a 8.9 framing-I candidly can’t think of an actual reason to tender him a contract. Perez was that cheap acquisition last off season. There has to be another.
- Steven Brault-Over the past two seasons the man with the golden voice has pitched 70.1 innings. Without the pandemic shorted season he would have pitched 70.1 innings, because as you all are probably aware of, Brault has not made it out of the past two Spring Trainings. In 2020 he was shutdown with a left shoulder strain/inflammation. Then in 2021 it was a left lat strain, which ultimately ended his season on September 13th after a one month return to action. When healthy in 2020, he was the ace of the Pirates starting rotation; with his 3.38 ERA, 1.195 WHIP and 2 hit/8 strike out/complete game/self described pitching machine performance in his next to last start of the season. Obviously, in spite of any of the concerns, Brault earned his $2,050,000 contract during the 2020-21 off-season. Now, after 7 starts in 2021, with a 5.86 ERA and a 1.627 WHIP, I just can’t say the same about a $2.2 million estimate. The track record speaks for itself. With a reoccurring left lat strain, guaranteeing any sort of money to Brault seems inadvisable; in spite of the Pirates low payroll. Maybe the Clay Holmes non-tender and Minor League contract route might be the best option. If he’s not open to it, it’s not the end of the world.
For me personally, arbitration is to not something I waiver back and forth on too much. Overall 40-man roster construction, including Rule 5 protection, is a completely different story, So, more than likely, whatever my brain has processed throughout this exercise-in a mix of analyzing statistics and simple gut feelings-easily refines itself into a natural train of thought as to what the Pirates should ultimately do with their arbitration eligible players; with little to no regret.
This is especially true this year as at least a few decisions pretty much made themselves, while the remainder are rather inconsequential to the future of your Pittsburgh Pirates.