The MLB Free Agent Market, and Ways the Pirates Could Play It

Did you ever fully expect something to happen, then as you watch it unfold you somehow still sit there with your jaw open wondering what’s going on? That’s me right now watching teams all over MLB start the process of trimming the fat. And fat probably isn’t the best word, because these aren’t garbage players being dropped, these are expensive players and it’s changing the landscape of MLB’s free agent crop before our very eyes.

The funny thing is, you couldn’t pick a worse year to be a free agent, for anybody, even Trevor Bauer, this season’s top free agent, at least right now. Oh, he’ll still get paid, and probably very well, but he isn’t going to come close to what Gerrit Cole got last year. I don’t think he’d have reached that territory anyway but with all the crying poor MLB is doing right now, who is going to step up and offer someone 250 Million dollars over ten years?

Here are the factors we all know about. First we have the COVID situation, and your personal feeling on lockdowns and fans in the stands means very little. We simply don’t know how baseball or any sport is going to handle it moving forward, let alone how fans will feel about packing a stadium again. For instance, I personally would go right now, but my wife for instance would have to not go back to work for two weeks if I did. The question is cloudy at best and nothing frightens executives more than uncertainty. It’s the same reason you always see the stock market drop prior to an election, it doesn’t matter who they think is going to win as much as not knowing who is going to win.

Next you have the already damning financial losses experienced from 2020. I can’t tell you how much faith to put in the numbers Rob Manfred put forward. They claim to have collectively taken on 8.3 Billion in debt and will post between 2.8 and 3.0 Billion dollars in operational losses. They’ve even been starting to murmur about “economic systemic changes” which is a flowery way to say salary cap. (floor comes too, so leave it out of your comment) Even if this doesn’t lead to big time changes like that, the losses are probably very real, and more importantly, very real to the teams that pack their house all the time and by the way, tend to pay the bills for the league.

I’m sure there are other factors that will affect this free agent crop but the last one I’m going to touch on is this, the new CBA. It expires after this season and if you watched the restart negotiations earlier this year it’s easy to see how contentious they could be. Toss onto this bonfire what is going to completely resemble collusion by owners to keep salaries down and you’ve got all the makings for a league that could be headed for a lengthy work stoppage.

You take all the factors there and it starts to resemble the Day After Tomorrow scenario of a perfect storm. How each team handles it will very much so depend on where they are and what they could do with it.

For instance, the Cardinals have opened most recent seasons with a payroll around 160 Million, right now they sit right above 100 million and might plan to sit right there. Don’t get me wrong, as a Pirates fan, I’m still left envious but think bigger. Think of the potential that 60 Million in spending power comes out of the collective pie. They aren’t alone, almost every team has stated that decreasing payroll even if only marginally makes sense if not the outright goal.

Supply and demand are two linchpins in the sales world and when you think of free agents as a commodity, it’s easy to see why more than ever flooding the market in a time when teams have less money to spend than any in recent history could lead to some incredible deals.

This is where the Pirates could step in.

Before I get too deep, the Pirates have already joined the chorus singing the song of needing to cut payroll a bit. But the Pirates already have mechanisms to get that done, by letting Keone Kela walk along with Dereck Holland and potentially passing on the option for Chris Archer the Bucs stand to save 16 million from an already league low payroll. Sure they have a ton of arbitration eligible players and that will eat into those savings but suffice to say, the payroll is going to trend down if they simply do nothing but exercise the buy out on Archer.

I’m thinking some free agents are going to go starved for offers and even if they get them, they could be short to at least eliminate some of the variables. The Pirates usually dumpster dive on the market, bringing in players like Evans, Riddle, and the like, but this year, they could possibly woo a more impactful player by simply offering years.

I’m not advocating this signing but lets use Masahiro Tanaka as an example. Here’s a guy who made 23 Million last season and is 32 years old. He’s clearly lost some zip on his fastball but is still fairly effective. In a typical year you could expect him to probably take a bit of a pay cut, maybe in the 16-18 range for a season or two. This season I don’t think he’ll touch even that. What if you offered him 14AAV for 4 or 5 seasons?

How about a reliever, Jeremy Jeffress is just coming off making 850K and many prognosticators have him getting a contract in excess of 7 Million. I don’t see it. What if a team like the Pirates swooped in with their incredibly low payroll and offered 5 AAV for 4 years? This would still most likely allow them to lower payroll but they get a real piece and he gets paid close to what will be in the market for a few years.

The Pirates are not in an enviable position, they were the worst team in baseball last year and if the players who could make a difference play to their 2020 level again, that won’t change. But they’re building under the surface and buying a quality player, relatively on the cheap, on a deal that takes them into their projected window might be a really smart play.

Guys who might not even take the meeting in a normal off season may be a bit more willing to listen right now and the Pirates could potentially buy themselves a cornerstone rather than waiting for the development and drafting changes to take hold.

George Springer made a little over 21 Million in 2020 (all these numbers are of course pro-rated) and again, many project him to get upwards of 24 AAV. He has a bit of an injury history, and of course the cheating stuff will follow him a bit. But if the market is as slow as I think it might be, Springer might have to settle for 18-20 Million. Now it might be smart for him to take a one year deal and bet on himself and the overall health of the game to improve as well but players are worried about a work stoppage too. At 31 years old, a five year deal would fit perfectly into the Pirates plan and give them a star they can plug right into the heart of the order. I’d have to imagine people suddenly start throwing Bell strikes if Springer is batting behind him.

Even if it made the payroll increase, and it most certainly would, an opportunity to even have him entertain a conversation with Pittsburgh may not come up again. By the time a deal like this would expire he’s 36 and if you want him for another year or two the spend won’t be nearly as bad, or you move him for prospects to keep the train rolling.

I can’t say I expect the Pirates to pursue this train of thought, but it could kill multiple birds with one stone. First, it makes the team better, now and later. Second, it sends a signal to the fans and for that matter the league that the Pirates are open for business and things are changing here. Finally, it gives them something they simply don’t have, a cornerstone offensive talent that isn’t actively being developed.

I don’t see many fans disagreeing with this, but I do definitely understand thinking it won’t happen. Part of me didn’t want to write this piece for that very reason, I sincerely doubt it will happen. But this off season is so unique, it would be a shame to let it slip by without at least considering all possible angles, all paths available to them.

Hell, it would almost make them look smart for carrying such a pitiful payroll last season.

What do you think? Should the Pirates try to jumpstart the rebuild or focus on doing everything internally? And keep in mind, once this perfect storm passes, it could possibly never happen again.

Through The Prospect Porthole: A Trio Of Young Catchers

About a week ago I wrote a column about the future of Jacob Stallings at the catcher position, which brought up the topic of three specific young catchers in the Pirates Farm System that I currently have my eye on; none of whom are ranked in the top prospects on any site at the present time. It is understandable that fans and media members alike to look no further than these lists to find the next player up in line at almost every position. However, not all contributors at the Major League level find themselves on these lists before they make their debuts. Yes they can be used as predictors of possible future success; it just can’t be the only way to forecast a prospects ability to contribute.

For me this is especially true when it comes to catchers; not only because of what seems to be a more limited player pool, but also due to facts that many players don’t stick at this position as they rise through the Minor Leagues or become physically unable to handle the grueling duties for the duration of their entire Major League careers. Neil Walker was drafted as a catcher and so was Kyle Schwarber. Joe Mauer eventually moved to first base, BJ Surhoff found his way out to left field and Mickey Tettleton jumped all over the place. These aren’t the exceptions and they aren’t the rules, just something to considering a team’s depth at the position.

As far as the Pirates go, they invited seven young catchers to the recent Instructional League; including my three. For those of you that are unfamiliar with their past play at the professional and amateur levels I thought I might do a little bit more of a breakdown as to how they got here and where they could go, as their futures have yet to be defined.

Geovanny Planchart

Planchart was signed on March 18, 2019 from Peurto La Cruz, Venezuela at the age of 17 and almost immediately was put into action as one of the primary catching options for the Pirates2 in the Dominican Summer League. Although his power left something to be desired, the approach he took at the plate was advanced for a young man his age.

In 32 games and 106 at bats Planchart slashed .368/.433/.406, while only striking out 9 times and walking 12. He also impressed behind the plate by throwing out 42% of the runners who tried to swipe a base. As the 2020 season approached the Gulf Coast League seemed to be his most likely landing spot, however, he never got the chance; and like many others had to wait and see.

For Planchart this was his second go around at Fall instructs, while preparing to show what he can do in stateside come 2021. This opportunity could likely come in the GCL as originally planned or in Greensboro as a Grasshopper. No matter his landing spot I am expecting much of the same from Planchart, with hopefully a little more muscle and a little more pop in his bat.

Kyle Wilkie

Wilkie was selected by the Pirates in the 12th Round of the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft from Clemson University, home of the Tigers. During his time in the ACC, the Georgia native quickly grew to be one of the best hitters on the team. As Clemson’s everyday catcher in 2018 and 2019, Wilkie ended his career as a. 307 hitter with a .431 slugging percentage and .400 on-base percentage. As a senior he also launched 6 homers and accounted for a total of 20 extra base hits.

When his professional career began as a West Virginia Black Bear, Wilkie didn’t get off to the best start offensively. In 185 at bats he was only able to manage a .243 Average without a single home runs. He did however lead all catchers on the team with a .992 Fielding Percentage.

Honestly the struggles at Short Season A ball do not concern me that much as he had just finished up a full college season with a few playoff games. Unfortunately for now this is all we are left with as he looks toward the 2021 season, most likely in a Marauders uniform.

Joe Jimenez

As the 2020 June Amateur Draft came to a close, Chapman University Catcher, Joe Jimenez, was still waiting for his call. With the draft being only five rounds, it was a tough time to be a college senior in an environment of unknowns. Fortunately for Jimenez the invitation to become a part of the Pirates organization was on its way. Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent less than a month after the drafts conclusion, he kept his training regiment going by catching bullpen sessions with fellow Chapman Baseball Alum and Pirates 3rd Round Draft Pick, Nick Garcia. As members of the 2019 team they helped lead the Panthers to a Division III National Championship, both earning All Tournament Team honors.

In his final 61 games as a Chapman Panther, Jimenez batted .325 with 4 homers, 2 of which came in a truncated senior season across only 12 games. It is also import to note that over his final 2 seasons he walked more than he struck out by a count of 28 to 23, while adding stolen bases to his repertoire.

Jimenez did experience a down year his sophomore season which was a complete anomaly if you look at his body of work. For the season he slashed .195/.317/.299 and struck out 19 times in only 87 at bats, which is more than he did in his 159 at bats the following year. This sharp decline was due to multiple swing changes that never really came together. To his credit he was able to work through it and bounced back as a junior and senior.

Due to this demonstration of hard work and perseverance on the field, his dedication off it as a member of the California Warriors and his positive outlook on the future, we are lucky as Pirates Fans to have him as a part of the organization; now and moving forward. It is my hope that he will be able to pick up where he left off at the end of his college career as a member of either the Grasshoppers or the Marauders in 2021.

I am not trying to claim that there is organizational depth at the catching position or that they don’t need to add more because the answer is already here. I just want everyone to realize that not all top prospects become Major Leaguers and not all Major Leaguers are former top prospects. And there may be some hidden gems already with the Pirates, who are waiting to break out.

Go to Bucs In The Basement to listen to a more in depth interview with UDFA Catcher and Pirates Prospect Joe Jimenez.

Through The Prospect Porthole: A JUCO Bandit

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with the Pirates Fifth Round Pick from the 2020 MLB June Amateur Draft, Logan Hoffman, on a lazy Sunday afternoon. As I have become more familiar with the decisions that players make concerning following the Junior College path to the majors, it has continued to fascinate me because this route is very often overlooked by many. For Hofmann the decision was made based on having two offers out of high school, one Division II school and the other at the JUCO level; eventually setting his sights on Colby Community College in rural Kansas.

As a young man growing up in the small town of Muenster, Saskatchewan, Canada the scouting and recruiting outreach for colleges in America is very limited and extremely competitive, so he would have to work even harder to set himself a part from the pack. According to Hofmann he felt like he almost blew this opportunity when Colby’s head coach came to see him throw at a fall tournament his senior year on a cold day in Alberta, when he unfortunately didn’t have his best stuff going. However, in the end they ultimately liked what they saw and were able to bring Hofmann to the NJCAA as a Trojan to continue his baseball journey.

In his Freshman year Hofmann got straight to work as he pitched 85.2 innings, starting 14 games and appearing in 18. During this time he posted a 4.11 ERA, struck out 102 batters, recorded 3 saves and threw 4 complete games. When he returned for the start of Sophomore season big league clubs began to take notice; tracking his progress and keeping in contact throughout the year. Looking back on his numbers he surely didn’t disappoint those that did as he lowered his ERA to 3.11, increased his K/9 from 10.72 to 12.85 and threw 8 complete games across 89.2 innings and 15 starts.

As the 2019 draft approached the St. Louis Cardinals invited him to throw a bullpen session at Busch Stadium and went on select him as their 35th round pick. It was at this point that Hofmann had a difficult choice to make, and one that he did not take lightly as he waited until almost the last possible day before deciding to bet on himself.

Hofmann went on to pitch that same summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League, where he struck out 22 batters in 16 innings with a 1.125 WHIP before returning to school; this time at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. Sadly, we all know now that his time there was cut extremely short, but he definitely made the most of it. In 28 innings over 4 starts he did not allow a single earned run and struck out 38 batters in the process. But, as with every other hopeful across the country a Five Round Draft was waiting, which had to be stressful time for all involved.

In the meantime Hofmann returned home, hoping he had done enough to get the call. In the 5th Round, with the 138th overall pick, General Manager Ben Cherington put all doubts to rest. Any other year Hofmann would have been swept into PNC, taken to Primanti Brothers and given a ride on the Incline, but we all know this year has been far from normal. Instead he sat down on his back porch and put pen to paper, becoming one of the newest members of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. If you ask him, he couldn’t imagine it any other way.

So, what does the future hold for the 5’10” 195 lb right hander? Well, after instructs are over he will return to school for some classes and then home for the holidays; all the while working toward the first season of his professional career. Where he will land to begin the 2021 season is anyone’s guess. The changes coming to Minor League Baseball have yet to be finalized, so it may be tougher to straighten out for the first couple of years. If forced to do so I would most likely say that Hofmann will be bringing his 91-94 mph fastball, often paired with a wipeout 75-77mph curveball, to either Greensboro or Bradenton with a trip to Altoona on the horizon.

Go to Bucs In The Basement to listen to a more in-depth interview with Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching Prospect Logan Hofmann.

My Step-by-Step for the Pirates Next Step

You know what they say about opinions right? Well, its absolutely true, but after you spend so much time critiquing and or commenting on the actions of a franchise, there comes a time when you have to put your path down on paper, or, virtual paper as the case may be.

Today is that day for me. Today I’m going to be outlining the steps I’d take to keep the ball rolling and position the Pirates to reach the next phase.

We should start with a basic map, after all it does little good to tell someone how to find the fish market in San Francisco if you haven’t first explained how to get to the Bay Area. The way I see it, the rebuild process can be broken into multiple zones.

The Bottom Rung Zone

This one doubles as a “You Are Here” tag on our map because this is ultimately where the Pirates find themselves. The bottom rung is typically after you’ve moved as much of your moveable talent as possible in an effort to acquire prospects and to bottom out the payroll so that you may spend later. For the time being we’ll ignore that we can’t trust spending later will happen and that they can and should still make moves to get those prospects. Even if it isn’t a perfect fit, they come closest to this zone.

The Youth Movement Zone

You could argue the Pirates are here already, and you might be right. I happen to think they have just a bit more veteran presence to move before this totally takes hold and some of my suggested moves will take the team into this zone by the time they’re completed. While others might not look like that’s the case. You’ll see with my signings I’m more or less trying to build a bit of a bridge (I know this gives you flashbacks) to the next pool of talent.

The Crack in the Window Zone

Remember 2011-2012? Yeah, like that. Things starting to take shape, stars emerging, youth stepping in to bigger roles, extensions being worked out, big time first round picks entering the stage. Sometimes this is defined as ‘arriving early’ but it’s really just starting to see the signs that things are improving. This is the zone my plan will resemble but it’s very much so a false window, again, it’s a bridge. You can’t be married to any of my signings, if any are here for the real window it would be at least a slight shock.

The Wide Open Window Zone

You go into the season expecting to win, rather than being pleasantly surprised and the impending doom of losing players that helped make it happen aren’t there quite yet. It’s what every rebuild shoots for and in no way does it guarantee a championship but it sure as hell means you are in the conversation.

After these zones you tend to decide if you can at all continue to live in the wide open window zone but you have to have been developing all along the way and pull the trigger on moves that can sometimes feel uncomfortable. It’s a dance few can pull off and outside a few top notch organizations can resemble a white guy dancing at a night club. That’s exactly why I recommend signing a couple players to allow the talent to evolve a bit more.

All that being said let’s move into the plan.

The Cuts

I start here because it comes up early in December and to make the type of moves I want to pull off I need to make decisions here. There are only a few worth mentioning as the rest are also rans really, I’d move on from Trevor Williams and Dovydas Neverauskas. Dovydas is a no brainer as he just clearly can’t repeat his performance from AAA. Some guys can’t bring it on an MLB mound and no matter how attractive that 95+ fastball can be, he’s never been consistent enough to spend another minute on him. Trevor is a little tougher but when I make up my roster I have to ask myself, is he a better option than at least 6 in my organization? If that answer is yes, ok you keep him and hope he shows something. If no, which for me is the case, you cut ties so as to not block the youth movement.

For me this is as simple as this. Would you start Trevor Williams over any of the following; Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, Mitch Keller, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, JT Brubaker. That leaves room for Taillon to get hurt, or Joe to get moved and still leaves Trevor on the outside looking in for me. Unless the Pirates want to pay 3.5 Million for a long man in the bullpen, I suggest Trevor’s time has come. If I thought someone would trade for him I’d recommend picking up the tender sheet but I just described how I don’t see him cracking the starting rotation for the last in almost everything pitching staff of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

I’ve gotten this far and not even mentioned buying out Chris Archer for 250K. We can overthink this but I just don’t see this as something I’d see enough upside in taking the opposite approach with. Best case scenario he’s a number one pitcher on a team not ready to really get into the race and I don’t see it as worthwhile cost for a prospect or comp pick.

The Promotions

Identify who is ready to take the next step. This is easy because there aren’t many if we’re honest. O’neil Cruz should he avoid any legal trouble, and we have little reason to believe he won’t, Jared Oliva and Blake Cederlind. That’s one bullpen arm and a middle infielder who might be able to play the outfield as well as a pure outfielder.

Specifically we’re talking here about players who could be ready to make the jump at the beginning of the season, by the end we could be looking at Bolton too. If it seems like I’ve forgotten all about Will Craig, well I just think they have too many pieces they need to move to make room. And I see this getting pushed back another year, plus I just don’t think he’s all that impressive yet.

Trade Bait

The Pirates have options and I don’t think they have to burn this to the ground. As I wrote a few days ago the club is already young, tearing down to the studs is usually done to get to where they are right now.

I’d trade Adam Frazier. I like Adam’s game and love the position flexibility but he doesn’t have an outfielder’s arm. He can go get it but playing left field in Pittsburgh is almost like center in other ball parks. I choose Adam because I choose to keep Kevin Newman and want to make room for O’neil Cruz. He plays two positions that need freed up if Cruz is going to crack the lineup. I think there will be takers for the back to back gold glove finalist and with every MLB club looking to save money, Frazier’s low payroll figure will make him affordable, at least more so than a similar player in the free agent field.

I don’t think there is value for Josh Bell right now, at least not enough to pry him away from the Pirates before the season starts. The two most attractive things about Josh right now are his raw power and his control. The control gets smaller every passing game but the Bucs desperately need Bell to figure it out if they want to get anywhere close to what makes moving him make sense. He is a deadline deal if anything.

I’d try to move Colin Moran, like him or not, Colin showed a pace that would put him near 30 homeruns this season and he, unlike Bell, presents more potential partners as he can play first base at a higher level. He’s not Al Oliver over there but he eclipses Bell in the field by a healthy margin.

I hold onto Joe Musgrove for right now, hear me out. Those two games at the end of 2020 alone aren’t enough but he has shown me enough to think he’ll be an effective starter in this league. Keep in mind, effective doesn’t mean I think he’s a perennial All-Star, it means I think he can hold down a slot in the rotation and at times shine. He and Jameson Taillon are the best bets for veteran pitchers who this team should consider extending, and I use this season to decide which. If someone will overpay for Joe, do it, but I don’t see it. The Bucs have some young pitchers in the system but if Mitch Keller is your elder statesman come window time, I worry about the makeup of the roster.


This is what I’d do to jumpstart the team a bit and it starts in the bullpen. Blake Treinen or Liam Hendricks. This is not the Pirates way mind you, they’ve almost always relied on young guys or resurrection projects but a legit top notch reliever will cost far less than a starter and potentially effect more games than one too. This will put less pressure on the rotation to deliver game in and out and improve the overall landscape of the pitching staff. This also turns into someone that can be flipped in a year or two for more prospects so it’s not a waste. Part of the Pirates development problem on the mound has been the very real necessity to bring up kids who aren’t quite ready, signing at least one bullpen arm helps mitigate that a bit.

I’d go after Joc Pederson. I don’t think he’ll struggle to find a job but that .190 average in 2020 and the Dodgers choice to not use him much might just keep him under the radar a bit. Joc could have something in Pittsburgh he hasn’t had in LA, a chance to play more and a place of prominence in the lineup. Yes, I know he doesn’t hit lefties, that gives them room to continue to work in youngsters. This gives the Pirates a bit more pop which they sorely need. More than anything, he is a drop in replacement for Polanco. You could easily argue they’re the same player, but Joc has put it all together more than once and I’m a firm believer in getting a champion to help change the culture on this ballclub.

In Closing

I’m not trying to force this team to arrive in 2021, I’m trying to show steps in the right direction. I also don’t expect them to do this, the club has already stated publicly they expect the payroll to actually creep down further. This is probably due to buying out Archer and after all the arbitration signings they’d probably come out a bit lower. To me though, I’m not looking for a false window, that timeline doesn’t change here, but I see no reason to not fill holes that exist and can’t be filled better internally. These are essentially future trade chips, think of them as a down payment that buys you time to get your pipeline in order. Stalling the need to force players up is essential when most of the top end talent is entering their first or second season in the organization.

Turning a franchise around isn’t easy, but despite having zero faith in ownership Cherington could get this done. I believe by spending a very moderate amount of money right now as I’ve suggested, and let’s be clear, we’re talking about no more than an 17-18 million dollar per year spend, would help provide the team some swagger and a better overall environment for growth and evaluation. The Bench gets stronger too which becomes much more important in a no DH league.

In short, go get a real bullpen arm with a track record (the names I put forward are irrelevant), and take a veteran outfielder off the board if you can. These two moves alone change the picture entirely.

The alternative is hope, I propose the Pirates give hope a hand up.

Recognizing RichRod’s Trade Value

As the 2020 Trade Deadline approached, only a little over a month into the 60 game season and with less than a full month to go, Pittsburgh Pirates Reliever Richard Rodriguez was discussed as one of the potential trade pieces for General Manager Ben Cherington. After giving up what turned out to be the game winning 2 run homer in the season opener versus the Cardinals, Rodriguez became nearly touchable as he struck out 17 batters in 12.2 innings of work. He also did not allow many base runners as his WHIP hovered around .8025. When the deadline passed on August 31st plenty of fans were surprised that the 30 year old pitcher was still a member of the Pirates bullpen.

The anticipation that led up to this point in the year has carried over into the impending off-season, as Rodriguez is being considered by many as considerable trade piece yet again. These feelings have been reinforced by the fact he finished the season strong with 16 strike outs and 2 walks in 9.2 innings, not allowing a runner to cross the plate in the last month. Also taking into account that he is just entering his first year of arbitration, with 3 years of team control, it is possible that the predictions of RichRod being moved before the start of the 2021 could come true. However, I am of the belief that the chances of this happening are not very high.

The main reason for me being of this opinion is that the performance level of relief pitchers from year to year are extremely unpredictable. Just look at Rodriguez’s history in Pittsburgh. In 2018 he emerged as a stalwart out of the Pirates bullpen as he earned a 2.47 ERA and a 1.067 WHIP, with 88 strikeouts in 69.1 innings. Then came a disappointing 2019 as he gave up 14 homers and only struck out 63 over 65.1 innings. He also saw his WHIP rise to 1.347. Even though he rebounded this past season to his 2018 form, who is to say that he won’t revert back to the struggling reliever he showed that he could be during the previous year?

Another reason arises out of something that occurs every off-season as additional options for bullpen help become available in free agency. The major benefit of going the free agent route is that it does not require you to give up any prospects in order to acquire a player. It can also be the cheaper alternative, depending on the level of signing that a team chooses to make. For instance a player signed to a Minor League Contract with an invitation to Spring Training has the opportunity to earn up to $1.25 million dollars if they make the opening day roster, which would be right around the $1.1-$1.7 million Rodriguez will be due in his 1st arb year.

Now let’s consider for a moment that my expectations are incorrect and Rodriguez does end up being dealt, what is the potential return that Cherington could expect in return for the setup man/possible closer? In an attempt to figure this out I wanted to find an example of reliever being traded in the off-season. I didn’t have to look too far back as the Tampa Bay Rays traded their closer Emilio Pagan during last year’s off-season. In 2019 Pagan had emerged as the Rays go to pitcher out of the bullpen in his year 28 season, having been acquired from the A’s during the previous off-season. In 66 appearances for Tampa Bay, Pagan posted a 2.30 ERA and a .829 WHIP, with 96 strike outs and 20 saves. This was good for 2.3 bWAR and 1.5 fWAR respectively.

After having such a productive season it was quite a surprise that Pagan was traded for the second off-season in a row. However, the Rays were ultimately unable to resist the trade offer from the Padres. In return for Pagan they received a young controllable outfielder in Manuel Margot and catching/outfield prospect Logan Driscoll, who San Diego had drafted in the 2nd Round of the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft. In three full seasons Margot had hovered in between .263 and .234, but he had shown power potential by hitting 12 homers in 2019. Mostly known speed and defensive Margot was seen as insurance in the off chance that Kevin Kiermaier was traded or more than likely was unable to remain healthy. Driscoll’s appeal appeared to be based more on the Rays fascination with players who have displayed position flexibility as he sits near the bottom of Tampa’s top 50 prospects as reported by Fangraphs with a future value of 35+.

So, how would RichRod’s value compare to that of Pagan? Well, Pagan was almost couple of years younger at the time of the trade, with one more year of control. He had accumulated a higher WAR in his best year than RichRod, who’s WAR was 1.4 according to Baseball Reference and 1.3 on Fangraphs in 2018. Although, no one can be certain what it would have been in 162 games in 2020, so the argument can be made that the return could be fairly similar. However, you would then have to ask yourself if you would be satisfied seeing a Margot and and a Driscoll coming back to the Pirates as they said goodbye to RichRod.

Manuel Margot has performed exceptionally well in the playoffs to this point; batting .296 with a .959 OPS and blasting 5 home runs. He has also shown up on the defensive highlight reel more than once. For his career, prior to arriving with the Rays, he has slashed .248/.301/.394 with 33 homers in 3 full years and short stint in 2016. During this time he accumulated 6.4 bWAR and 4.3 fWAR, mostly thanks to his defense. He did however, come with 3 years of team control.

Driscoll on the other hand is an unknown as he only played in 39 games in Low A ball while in the Padres System, along 6 games in the Arizona Fall League back in 2019. Prior to being drafted he was a stand out at George Mason University for 3 seasons, but has yet to really get his professional career started mostly due to the cancellation of the 2020 Minor League Baseball season.

For me it is hard to say if this level of return would be enough to move the needle in favor of letting go of Rodriguez. I would much rather see him moved at the in season trade deadline to a team that is desperate for bullpen help, but this would be gambling on the fact that RichRod shows off his 2018 and 2020 form for the majority of the year. It also doesn’t take into account that the eventual goal or plan could be to flip a Margot level player down the line if he continues to perform as well as he has in the playoffs. This is one of the reasons why trading is so difficult and the answer isn’t always as clear as it may seem.

Top Ten Takeaways From the 2020 World Series So Far

I’d love to be covering the World Series for everyone this year, but that was never in the cards for this club. That doesn’t mean we can’t take away some really important things from what we’ve watched.

10. The Rays have had Austin Meadows, Ji-Man Choi and Joey Wendle riding the pine much of the series. Good teams can survive the bumps and bruises of a season by having depth like that. The Rays and Dodgers have benches that could start in a ton of towns.

9. As much as the game has changed, there is still no substitute for a dominant starting pitching performance. That hasn’t prevented late inning heroics but Clayton Kershaw made one game almost uncontested.

8. Tyler Glasnow isn’t the finished product many fans would have you believe. That’s not to say we Pirates fans should be happy he was moved but he’s also not an example of someone who has completely realized his potential either.

7. Who says defense doesn’t make a difference? Mookie Betts is probably the best player in the game right now but his defense doesn’t get nearly enough coverage. He’s fluid, athletic and when it’s catchable, automatic.

6. The Rays Bullpen is unmatched and it makes up for any shortcomings they have in the rotation. Building a strong bullpen was one of the only things Neal Huntington consistently did well and its easy to forget what a difference maker it can be.

5. Joc Pederson played in 43 games for the Dodgers this season with only 138 plate appearances. He hit .190 and only hit 7 homeruns. This has earned him a seat on the bench for much of the playoff run but he’s easily be the third best hitter on the Pirates right now. That is perspective that scares the hell out of you and really shows the divide.

4. A small market can win but literally everything needs to go exactly right. They aren’t the first or last team with a low payroll to make it to the Series, but after watching what they put together this season, it really illustrates just how difficult it is to finish the race. Eventually masking deficiencies gets exposed.

3. The Dodgers are going to be good for a while. Aside from Kershaw their staff is young and if they choose they could hold on to Seager and Bellinger. They spend but they also build better than any team in the league, yes even better than Tampa.

2. The solo shot parade that allowed the Rays to reach the series might prevent them from winning it. The Dodgers hit homeruns too but they don’t sacrifice traditional baseball to do it. Wisely moving runners over and taking the opposite field base knock that scores two.

  1. For the Dodgers, its been 32 years and approximately 3.6 Billion dollars since the last time they won the World Series. The Rays haven’t even existed that long.

Sports Constantly Evolve, So Why Do We Always Hate the Changes?

Sports are a huge part of my life and every sport I watch has changed rules and style of play over the years. For some changes there aren’t any hard and fast points where you can say the switch flipped. For others rule changes prompted the seismic shift in our games.

Watching baseball the past 5 or 6 seasons in particular we’ve seen one of those shifts. Many call it the three true outcomes, the propensity for every at bat to end in a strikeout, walk or homerun. Stealing bases is now something only attempted by the absolute fastest players in the league. A strikeout no longer carries stigma with it. Years ago a 1 for 4 performance with 3 strikeouts and a double would have your coach fielding questions about this guy sticking in the lineup or lacking plate discipline. Today it has almost become a badge of honor for practicing patience by continuing to play the guy knowing eventually that double would come from it.

Growing up, the Steelers would win football games by running the football 50-60 times a game. They would just line up with both sides knowing fully what was coming and happily take the 3.2 yards per carry. In 2005 they rode that and a stifling defense all the way to a Super Bowl Championship. The game has changed. New rules on how the secondary penalties would be called led to the advantage being heavily in favor of the Offense. Bill Cowher once said 3 things can happen when you throw a pass and 2 of them are bad. Well the odds evened as pulling a flag for pass interference became just as prevalent as the other 3 possibilities.

The NHL was victim to the most boring dynasty to ever visit the doorstep of professional sports. The New Jersey Devils instituted the neutral zone trap. It was unstoppable, nobody could break through it and if they did Marty Brodeur was waiting to clean up the scraps. After the league had seen enough and fearing that fans didn’t like watching a skating chess match, the league changed the rules. Eliminating the two line offside pass opened the ice just enough to allow offense to break the trap.

Even since that change hockey has morphed several times. When the Penguins won the cup in 2016 they did so with an extremely light team. Light is what we used to call a club that lacked thumpers, enforcers and power wings. What it came to be called is fast. Speed took over the NHL and in many ways it eclipsed hands. Right when this was happening before our very eyes the West was still firmly in the heavy, bruising era of hockey and the speedy Penguins skated circles around the Sharks.

Back to baseball, we’ve certainly seen rule changes affect the sport. One that goes under the radar is the league enforcing a more consistent strike zone. Back in the era I grew up watching a strike above the belt was just not normal. Sure a pitcher would get a call once in a while but now it’s consistently called.

Baseball’s absolute deference to analytics has created situations I never thought I’d see. On Saturday I watched a World Series game in which the Rays used four outfielders for an entire inning. It worked, as all three Dodger batters willingly flew into the congested outfield for easy outs. Maybe you were like me, wondering why in the world all the batters didn’t even consider altering their approach.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad at the Rays for taking full advantage of what the game has become just like I won’t be mad when one day a team starts coaching their players to beat it. One day soon a team will see their opponent put all the infield on the right side and the approach will change to punching the ball opposite field. If and when it happens enough at least that one team won’t get shifted, at least not to the extreme degree we’ve seen recently.

If they manage to win more than they lose, other teams will pick up on it and things will start to change. As soon as someone can prove that swinging for the fences every at bat regardless of situation isn’t as productive as going with the pitch and taking what they give you things will change.

All sports are copycat leagues and some bold sumbitch has to be the trail blazer. Mike Sullivan was that in Hockey. The first team to do it in baseball will undoubtedly catch most opponents off guard, and that coach will look like a genius. Most older fans won’t see it that way, they’ll just take it as proof they finally screamed at their TV loud enough that someone heard them.

I’ve heard the takes that the game isn’t entertaining because of how it’s played right now but trust me, when your team wins you won’t care how they do it. In the early 90’s I loved the thunderous hits that Ulf Samuelson delivered for the Penguins and the energy it brought, but when they won the cup in 2016 skating past opponents trying to line them up for the same type of hit, I don’t recall whining that we didn’t have a thumper.

In baseball teams must play to the strengths of their roster. There used to be fast teams that small balled the hell out of you all game long. Murderer’s rows that could take you deep three or four times a game and balanced clubs that could beat you no matter what hole you left them to fight through.

That will come back, but it will take a courageous coach who sees things differently and isn’t afraid to stake his reputation on it. The game doesn’t need to legislate shifts out of the game to have teams cut down on it, no, that’ll come from having it beaten consistently.

Shortening the game has been a focus of this commissioner and it hasn’t really worked. In fact the number actually crept up this season by a few minutes. Games with 28 combined strikeouts will do that. The obvious rule change would be to tell batters once they step in the box there they stay until the at bat is over, but does it really matter? If they trim 20 minutes off the time it takes to play a baseball game are teens suddenly going to line up to watch? My guess is no, but I understand trying to do whatever they can so long as the game doesn’t suffer.

To me, the propensity to induce long at bats and putting the ball in play at all time low percentages probably play more into the length of games than anything. In other words, at some point it will take care of itself.

Change happens all the time, as I’ve said before, if you don’t like how the game is played right now, check back in five years from now and you might like what you see.

The only thing that doesn’t change in life is that things change.

Why is Making Changes So Difficult for This Version of the Pirates?

The easy answer, and the one most people that don’t want to really consider every angle will of course be Bob Nutting not spending money. Look a little deeper and you start to understand that even money wouldn’t prompt Ben Cherington to deliver an overall facelift for the club. At least not an immediate one.

The list of players that happen to be too young to give up on is far too big. Now, let me define that just a bit, not all young players are in this category. Kevin Newman is a former number one pick, he plays a steady, not excellent, short stop and thus far he’s been shaky at second. He had an excellent rookie campaign and struggled along with everyone else in 2020.

I hear quite a few people ready to give up on Kevin, and they might well end up being right, but if you truly want to see this club rise from the ashes at some point, its a very poor plan to start casting off first round picks that played an entire season hitting over .300. This isn’t to say if someone would want to trade for him and give you real value it should be ignored, it simply means you, me, the coaches, scouts, other clubs, none of them really know what Kevin can be yet. Potentially more importantly, he hasn’t shown enough to warrant a solid return just yet and is exactly the type of player who could leave and become a real contributor for another franchise.

Oh trust me what’s his name from Brookline, I know you KNOW. I’m not here to entertain that kind of stuff. Opinions are fair, everyone has those and every one is free to opine. If your GM does that sort of thing, I’m afraid you’ve got some rather large issues.

Kevin is one example, but you can easily lump Reynolds, Tucker, Hayes, Keller, and more into that group. They have yet to build value, they have serious amounts of team control left and you have to weigh that out.

Rebuilding this team doesn’t mean everyone here has to go, it also doesn’t mean everyone here should go. Unless the Pirates want to find themselves in the same situation 4 years from now they’ll need to sift through this roster and make sure they aren’t tossing out the gold nuggets with the rest of the pebbles.

The fans will change their opinion on a player month to month, year to year because that’s what fans do. Everyone gets that but your GM better not. That person needs to understand where they are on the scale. Are they on the rise, on the decline, or are they simply never going to evolve past where they are right now?

The other day I saw a poll question from our friend Ethan who does the Locked on Pirates podcast in which he asked who has a brighter future? Brennan Malone or Mitch Keller. Now only 17 people responded to it, so huge grain of salt but nearly 70% said Brennan Malone.

First, players in your system are always going to have a bright future. Especially in a place like Pittsburgh, because we’re always looking 3 or 4 years down the road. Malone is talented and I personally believe he’ll be a good pitcher for the Pirates one day, but he isn’t anywhere near being here. There is a whole lot that needs to happen between here and there. Mitch is already here and if anything he is victim to arriving at a low point for the franchise.

I already mentioned this on Twitter but it’s impossible to compare these two at this point, but the responses to the poll show what fans do. They see a bad baseball team and automatically assume nobody good could possibly play for them. It’s this kind of thinking that gets a pitcher like Tyler Glasnow moved, and do remember he showed even less than Keller has in his 17 starts in a Pirates uniform.

Unless you find it really entertaining to watch former Pirates play in the post season, I suggest rather than assume Mr. Cherington should move everyone for a bag of peanuts we embrace that this team isn’t going to turn around in a blink of an eye. Its a process, one that includes filtering through what’s here.

There are only a select few on the roster who need decisions made in the near term. Jameson Taillon is one, he’s a team leader and he’s been dangled in front of us like a Twinkie at the end of a treadmill for almost a decade. It’s probably not the Pirates fault that he’s faced so many injury challenges, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to absorb the information and make a call.

Let’s say he comes out in 2021 and looks great, he could, he’s certainly got the talent. They’ll need to decide, is he someone they want to be here heading into the next era or instead do they want to look to the next generation (Keller and others) while they turn Jamo into more prospects. This decision would have come up long ago if he wasn’t so often injured so in many ways the club has had ample time to think on it.

Josh Bell always comes up in this area too. Many people love to reference that his perception is based solely on a two month hot streak. I agree and disagree. Yes, that two month span probably isn’t something he’ll reach often again. No, he doesn’t need to have that level of production to be a good ball player. Just like Ke’Bryan Hayes doesn’t need to hit .370 next season for me to consider him good.

I’m basically advising patience. Something this team hasn’t exactly earned from fans but without it I fear another round of “boy wouldn’t that guy look good in black and gold right now” type comments.

That’s not to tell you this club is loaded with superstars in hiding, it’s simply to say there are some who we don’t need to declare what they are yet and it warrants this management team getting more than 60 games worth of observation to decide.

Back to the Future, the National League Set to Roll Back the Designated Hitter

For one short season, every professional league in baseball used a designated hitter. There were a lot of fights about implementing the rule in the National League but once it was here it suddenly just became baseball again.

Tradition has always been the top argument against it but today I’m not going to waste time discussing the merits. The fact is the rule will need to be collectively bargained to make it permanent and that isn’t going to happen before the first pitch is thrown in 2021.

I wrote some time ago that if the NL rolls back the DH the Pirates will have to make at least one choice they otherwise could have put off. That choice being Josh Bell or Colin Moran. For most of the season fans complained about Derek Shelton’s usage of his players in his lineup. From the choices he put in the lineup to playing both Josh Bell and Colin Moran while putting Josh in the field.

One of the points I would bring up often was the very real possibility that the DH would go away and having Bell not play the field could hurt his trade value or simply prevent this coaching staff from working with him to improve at the position.

Either way, and really no matter what you wanted to see, that discussion ends now. It changes instead to which one sits on the bench. The Pirates urgency to move one of them minimally steps up a level.

They aren’t alone, every team in the NL will face questions now about how they work that bat back into the mix. Ryan Braun for instance of the Milwaukee Brewers was a perfect fit for the role and having that option was a god send for the crew. Now what?

Every pitching staff in the NL gets to go back to that easy out at the bottom of the order. The one that allows you to work around the number 6 hitter if you choose and bleed the life out of a lineup. It places renewed importance on the heart of the order to get the job done and suddenly we’ll be back to the deflating feeling that this rally just started too low in the lineup.

The strategy comes back too. The bench was rarely important last year and it stole a role away from someone like Jose Osuna. Without the pinch hitting opportunities you either started or better be a defensive replacement type player.

It changes roster composition is the point. That’s why the news is trickling out now. The decisions that will need to be made by every team in the NL are clear, and the league wisely is letting GMs in on the joke. My biggest fear was the possibility that we’d get too far into the off season to afford ample time for teams to jockey their rosters around, so for that I’m grateful.

Another wrinkle here is, the DH was undeniably popular. I find it difficult to believe it doesn’t return in 2022 after the CBA is renegotiated. OK, maybe 2022, this promises to be a pretty contentious situation. So, teams must also be careful to not make rash choices for one season. In other words, don’t make a decision that is going to leave you an open question in a year if you can avoid it.

Maybe I’m wrong and the DH is as dead as disco in the NL forever, I have no way of knowing, but I’ll tell you what, public enemy number one for planning is uncertainty and at the very least that’s where we are.

Again, none of this is to argue the merits of the DH. We all have opinions on that but I’m much more concerned about rules that cause roster modification being a bit too flexible. 2020 created quite a few messy situations, but quite possibly nothing as far reaching as this.

Jacob Stallings Is The Top Option (Currently), But Is He The Answer?

The question as to whether or not Jacob Stallings is the answer at the catching position has been asked by Pittsburgh Pirates fans, bloggers, writers and media members on a regular basis for almost a year now; ever since Elias Diaz was non-tendered at the December 2nd deadline this past off-season. At the time this left Stallings as the only catcher left on the 40-man roster. This immediately led to calls for the Pirates to sign a free agent catcher to be the stopgap until the future backstop could be developed, traded for or signed. Names like Robinson Chirinos, Jason Castro, Austin Romine, Russell Martin and Martin Maldonado were discussed as possible options to fill this role, if even for a season.

As we are all fully aware now General Manager Ben Cherington did not choose any of these options, instead selecting the alternate route of a somewhat open competition between Luke Maile, John Ryan Murphy and to a lesser degree, Andrew Susac as they entered Spring Training. Prior to the restart of the season it appeared as if Maile had won the job, however, he was ultimately supplanted by Murphy having been placed on the IL with a broken finger.

In his absence, the defense first journeyman catcher’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 Stallings. Across 23 games and 159.1 innings he earned a 1 DRS and a .8 FRM. In spite of this Murphy now finds himself as a potential non-tender candidate in the off-season.

As for the Pirates Team MVP, Stallings slashed .248/.326/.376 with 3 homers. Although, 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, which was good enough for 5th place in overall defensive fWAR at 6.3. Throughout the shortened season, just as he had the year before, Stallings remained a favorite of the Pittsburgh pitching staff; a point was driven home by Steven Brault, who when questioned, told the media he skipped the scouting report in his complete game, two hit, eight strikeout performance against the Cardinals. In the same postgame session he was quoted as saying, “We decided before the game that I wasn’t going to shake. I wasn’t going to think. I was just going to be a freaking throwing machine, so it worked out.”

Stallings has also started to receive some accolades on the national level by being nominated for a 2020 Gold Glove; an honor that, if he wins, would put him in a select group with former Pirates backstops Tony Pena and Mike LaValliere.

So, after all this why hasn’t the universal narrative changed? Why are there still some people clamoring for that veteran stopgap?

In my honest opinion there a few reasons as to how these doubts continue to exist within the Pirates faithful and beyond at times. First is the offense production or lack thereof, which is a fair criticism to a degree; simply a little overblown. While a wRC+ of 93 is not ideal, it is only slightly below average. Sure it’s not the 125 of a JT Realmuto, 117 of a Yasmini Grandal or even 109 of a Wilson Contreras, but it was actually an improvement over the 82 he posted the year before. He is also pretty reliable in the clutch; slashing .276/.436/.379 with runners in scoring position and adding 13 RBIs along the way. These numbers got even better as the number of outs piled up, if you want to check it out.

Next would be the downplay of defensive metrics and their importance to a player’s overall value, especially as pertains to framing or as it is called by many, “stealing strikes”. Sure there are a lot of other skills; such as blocking, regular fielding and stolen base prevention. However, they rarely receive the same amount of disapproval from the naysayers; most of which should actually fall on the umpires for the reliability of their calls, if you are going to blame anyone. Nevertheless, until the rules change and/or Robo-Umps become a reality, this is still a very useful tool in measuring a catcher’s worth.

Finally there is the overwhelming fact that, as it stands right now, there is no clear successor to the position in the system. Having addressed this issue many times, and at great length on occasion, even I have become moderately optimistic on this front; mostly due to the injection of youth into the system. 19 year-old Geovanny Planchart, who is currently participating in the Instructional League, slashed .368/.433/.406 in 32 games and 106 at bats in 2019 for the DSL Pirates2. 2019 12th Round Draft Pick Kyle Wilkie from Clemson University is also there. Wilkie was one of the Tigers best hitters as their everyday catcher in 2018 and 2019, ending his career as a. 307 hitter with a .431 slugging percentage and .400 on-base percentage. So is 2020 UDFA Joe Jimenez from Chapman University. Jimenez was not only the battery mate of Pirates 3rd Round Pick Nick Garcia, he also batted .325 with 4 homers in his final 61 games. Are these guys as highly touted as an Adley Rutschman? Of course not. Could they be a part of the future? I am not going to rule that out just yet.

With all that being said, I realized I still hadn’t officially addressed the original question of whether or not Stallings is the answer. Simply put, for right now he is; and if he isn’t a long term one, he might just be part of the eventual equation. Currently Stallings is set to enter his 1st Year of Arbitration; estimated to make between $1 and $1.4 million in 2021. After this he has 3 more arbitration years before he reaches free agency in 2025, so there is no real rush in making any decisions. The Pirates will obviously have to at some point, I just don’t see as an immediate need and probably near the bottom of concerns that I have moving through the current off-season and possibly the next.