The Pirates Won’t Have Problems Attracting Free Agents

Marlon Byrd Pittsburgh Pirates
Marlon Byrd is a free agent this off-season, and would be a good stopgap until Gregory Polanco is ready. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

We’re about a month away from the time when Major League Baseball players are first eligible for free agency. We’re about two months away from the time when those players actually start to sign with teams. So it’s early in the process. But it’s not too early to get a feel for how free agency could play out for the Pirates.

I’m not talking about specific players. I’m not talking about specific positions. I’m talking about the Pirates and their chances of being a team that looks attractive to free agents.

In the past, the Pirates haven’t been a popular landing spot. They could only attract players like Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, Erik Bedard, or other players who were on the downside of their careers. They offered big money to people like Edwin Jackson and Jorge de la Rosa, but those offers were turned down for other teams. There might have been other offers out there that went unreported, or even discussions that ended with “Hi, this is Neal Huntington from the Pittsb…(click)”. In short, no one wanted to sign with the Pirates.

Then, the Pirates were able to get players to sign, but only if they paid them top dollar and went after them aggressively early in the process. They over-paid for Clint Barmes, but they did so to get him locked up while Milwaukee was waiting to see what would happen with Prince Fielder. They did the same with Rod Barajas that same off-season when the catching market was thin. So the Pirates were to a point where people would come, but not impact players, and they still had to pay more to look like an attractive destination.

“I think in the past, when people came here, it was more of a rehabilitation center,” Andrew McCutchen said on the subject last week. “I mean it’s true. A lot of guys came here maybe saying this is going to boost them up. Have a good year so they can go somewhere else. And that’s kind of the way it was.”

McCutchen would know. He was the only impact player on the team for a few years. He was the only appeal the Pirates had in 2010 and 2011, apart from a few other players who had inconsistent performances in those years. Fans wanted the Pirates to land help so they didn’t waste McCutchen’s years on the team. Eventually he signed an extension, but the feeling of getting the most out of his years was the same.

Now the feeling has changed, according to McCutchen. It used to be that no one wanted to come to Pittsburgh. After the 2013 season, and after the steady rise of the Pirates the last few years, Pittsburgh has become an attractive landing spot.

“Now it’s people coming here because they want to be here,” McCutchen said. “They want to be part of a team that can change things, and part of a team that can win. That’s the change that I’ve seen in the team. It’s guys being happy to have the opportunity to put on the Pirates uniform.”

We started to see this last off-season. The Pirates signed Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Neither were seen as impact players at the time, although in hindsight they were arguably the top two free agent signings of last off-season.

We saw this during the 2013 season around the waiver trade deadline. Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau were acquired, and immediately fit in with the team. This wasn’t Derrek Lee being upset that he was traded to the Pirates and taking his time showing up, then retiring the following season when the only option was returning to Pittsburgh.

The Pirates are now an attractive landing spot for players. I don’t think this means they can land someone like Robinson Cano. There’s still the financial game to consider, and the Pirates are always going to be out-bid by teams like Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and more for the very best free agents. But the Pirates can continue to get players like Martin and Liriano. If they’re going after someone like Jackson or de la Rosa, they’ll actually get consideration from those players by making fair offers.

As I wrote last night, they shouldn’t be going off-course by giving someone like 31-year-old Shin-Soo Choo a big deal and blocking top prospect Gregory Polanco. But going after 27-year-old first baseman Jose Abreu, potential bounce back starting pitcher Josh Johnson, or a one year, bridge-to-Polanco stopgap like Marlon Byrd wouldn’t be a bad idea. And because the Pirates are now an attractive destination to other players, we can talk about those types of players as options for the Pirates, without discussing the Pirates having to overpay, or discussing whether they are realistic options or whether they would want to sign in Pittsburgh. For once, we can view the Pirates like a normal team when it comes to free agency.

“That’s the way it should be, because this is a proud franchise,” McCutchen said. “I’m happy to be a part of it.”

If the favorite for the NL MVP is happy to be here, then who wouldn’t be happy to be here?

  • An article about Free Agents wanting to consider future employment with the Pirates and the last 20 comments are the typical pro’s and con’s about Aramis Ramirez – I’m sorry, Pedro Alvarez. This kid had a VG season in 2012, but many experts wondered if he would be able to post similar numbers or better in 2013. He did, and the Pirates ended 20 straight years of sub-.500 seasons. They also played well enough to make the playoffs and looked great against probably the best team in baseball in October 2013. Pedro enters his 1st year of Arbitration and will probably get $6 mil or better. That means we will have plenty of opportunities to make a trade before the end of the 2016 season, if that is what NH and Frank Coonelly deem necessary. Pedro is a Boras client, but that does not necessarily mean that he will be inclined to select Free Agency.

    That said, can we just enjoy this a little longer before we identify all the flaws?

  • The free agent market may be changing because of the bloated contracts given to Pujols, Hamilton, Texeria, Arod, etc. Teams might take greater care when they sign 30-something free agents given their propensity to suffer injuries and performance declines. Pujols and Arod looked like strong candidates to play at an exceptional level into the mid-30s. But….

    This problem should suppress free agent deals for players in their late 20s-early 30s. But it’s also a matter of degree. And the risk of these older, proven players may not be perceived to be so great as to greatly deter the highest revenue teams from out-bidding their financially weaker competitors.

  • I would not trade Alvarez until his last year of ARB and only if he or his agent say he will not sign with the Pirates. When Alvarez is 28-29 IMO he will be a 200mil player, he will be that good. Find 3rd basemen that can hit with power these days, there are not many. They rave about Machado (14 hrs.) this year, (.314) OBP. I know he is still young, but he does not have the power of Alvarez and Alvarez (26) is still very young.
    Chris Davis (27) will become a free agent in 2016, it will be interesting to see what Baltimore does with him in the next 2 years with only 2 ARB years left.

    • Agree. He’s a rare commodity even with his flaws and again there are no replacements on the horizon.

  • Tim, question:
    How much do you think it would take to land Alvarez to a long term deal?

    • Also what do you think he’s worth? I was thinking/hoping 5 years $60-65 million? Or does 35 HR potential buy you in the 18 million range regardless of strikeouts and average?

    • I don’t think he;s signing a long-term deal. He’s a Boras client.

      • So then he would most likely get traded July of 2015 or before 2015 if the Bucs know they can’t resign him?

      • Tim, he is a Boras client, should they follow the Rays path with Pedro and trade him before his Arb years are up?

        • I’ll miss him terribly if he gets traded in a few years because the team is pretty power starved at the moment but I’ll be very intrigued as to what he can bring in.

        • The Rays don’t trade every player. They kept Carl Crawford until free agency, and let him walk. There’s no replacement for Pedro, so trading him wouldn’t make much sense.

          • So in that case you ride him out, take a shot at resigning him (probably fail) and get a comp pick? I could live with that.

          • Hey Tim, enjoy your site…first time posting here from nearby Clearwater.

            Anyway, I can understand the thought of “riding out” all you can get out of Pedro and then settling for a comp pick but couldn’t an argument be made to sell high on him and get whatever you can get? Or is the thinking that the Bucs wouldn’t get as much value as they should BECAUSE he is a Boras client and will go to FA with any team?

    • I’m not Tim and I can’t answer for him but for me, since I am not a Pedro fan I would say ….any amount would be….TOO MUCH.
      But seriously Pedro works if he is on a really good hitting team with other power hitters around him. Then you can bat him 6th and let him run into his HRs whenever he can. I mean here is a guy hitting almost 40 HR and they can’t bat him 4th.
      Maybe someday it will all come together for him but right now I just get frustrated watching him.

      • CalipariFan506
        October 11, 2013 12:52 pm

        Agreed. A guy hitting 36 HR and OPS under .800 is not a good hitter IMO. Doesn’t walk, doesn’t double, strikes out way too mych, weak range. His WAR is very league average at 3rd. Below guys like Todd Frazier and Seager from Seattle who a lot of Pedro fans would never consider to be more valuable.

        That is why trading him can be such a steal. A lot of teams will overlook his numerous flaws because he happens to hit a lot of long fly balls. I think the time to trade him starts as early as now.

        • I accept Pedro and all of his flaws. I get it. It drives me nuts when there’s a runner on 3rd with 1 or no outs and they throw him three straight pitches in the dirt and he swings at all of them. Even the last AB against Wainright I feel like everyone knew he wasn’t going to get squat to hit even with runners on but Pedro. But I still think he’s very valuable to this team which at the present time can really struggle to score runs. I love his rocket arm and ability to make the great play at third but what I’d like to see is more consistency there and to cut down on errors. Plus he’s only 26 and I think he can get better. The K’s will always stay with him but as long as it’s not outrageous I’d happily pay that man.

        • While I think there are teams that would over-value him, trading him means you’re shipping out 600 PAs of better-than average production, production that there’s no internal option to fill. The Pirates aren’t at the point where they should be trading valuable everyday guys for prospects anymore; if you’re going to ship Pedro out, you have to be getting a big-league ready replacement in return, and I’m not sure that deal is out there.

          • I am sooo glad a couple of the last posters here will never have Huntingdon’s job ! Here is a player ( Alvarez ) still figuring out pitch recognition in a lineup with 1 or 2 other players with power,and he hits 36 home runs,drives in 100,and then sets a MLB record for an RBI in 6 consecutive games,and you want to trade him ???? Unbelievable,especially when you consider what some other big strikeout/not much HR production guys like Bautista and Chris Davis have accomplished in their late 20’s.

        • I generally agree with your assessment of Alvarez and I think it is correct team overvalue power but several counterpoints to the trade Alvarez argument.

          1) Being league average at a position is different than being a league average player, and Pedro is not league average at 3rd, the league average for 3B is 2 WAR given 300 PAs.

          2)PNC Park is a hard place to hit home runs, like bottom 5 of parks, even for LHH it is below average. Thus Alvarez provides comparatively more value to a lineup that does not have a high OBP hitters.

          3) Any trade coupled with the lack of an internal replacement, means there will be a lot of moving pieces, each new piece introduces risk and the risks become compounding.

  • I don’t believe the Pirates could not get players just because of their record, the Marlins landed a bunch of high priced free agents when they built their new stadium, they spent a ton of money, money buys just about anything. The Pirates had the worst record in baseball in 2010, if they would have landed a windfall TV contract and blew 200mil they would have gotten just about any free agent they wanted to. It comes down to the Pirates don’t have the money more than it comes down to players don’t want to play here, they will play in Siberia if you give them enough money. I Don’t believe for one minute that the Pirates could not land Cano if they had 300mil to give him, the only reason they are not in the Cano sweepstakes now or any other year is they don’t have the money. When you have a losing record and you offer the same amount of money as a winning club to someone, more than likely the player is going to take the winning club, I do believe that would have been the case for the Pirates.
    Almost all players have preferences of cities they like better than others, they play at all of them these days. You can find examples of players that don’t want to play in many cities with winning teams. The GM for the Jays stating in one interview that he had trouble attracting free agents because of the turf, players don’t want to play on it, they want grass.

    • The Marlins had a few things working for them. First, there’s a huge difference between living in Miami and living in Pittsburgh. I think a lot of players would rather live in Miami.

      Second, there is no state income tax in Florida. Therefore, $10 M a year is worth more in Florida than it is anywhere else.

      Also, it’s not like Miami spent reasonably. Buehrle was 34 years old and got a 4/$58 M deal. Heath Bell was 36 and got a 3/$27 M deal. Any team could sign guys like that with money like that.

      The only player who might have had an appropriate value was Jose Reyes, who got about $17 M per year. And obviously Miami couldn’t afford this, since all three of these players were gone the next season.

      So if your point is that the Pirates could over-pay on aging pitchers, and land a top free agent, then trade them all away a year later, I’d agree. They’re totally capable of that.

      • Close to what I meant, I still think with 300mil they could attract Cano, who is still young, now or anytime.

    • What makes you think the Pirates don’t have the money? They are in a larger market than Wilwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. They have a an owner whom I believe is a billionaire but he is also a smart business man who doesn’t take chances. NH offered Edwin Jackson a 3yr, $30+ million contract 2 years ago. Jackson signed for 1yr with the Nationals. Roy Oswalt wouldn’t even talk to Huntington. NH offered Jorge De La Rose over $30MM and was turned down. The Bucs have the money and will have a payroll of over $100MM in the near future. I believe much more that players not signing with the Bucs was all about perception than money.

      • Market size does not equal revenue. According to Forbes, the Pirates were #27 in 2012 revenue – barely ahead of Oakland, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay. They were about $25M behind Cincinnati and Milwaukee – and they were $61M behind St. Louis, who is one of the richer teams in terms of revenue.

      • It’s not the size of the local market that drives the revenue but the actual draw area. St Louis “market” is pretty much the entire mid-west. States like mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky are all dominated with tv for the cubs, cards or braves

  • Tim,
    For a long time Pirate fan thru good and bad, your column gives me the most hope for an off season I’ve had since 1990.

  • I don’t believe overpaying is a Pirate thing, I think teams like the Yankees, Cubs, Angels, Dodgers drastically overpaid for their free agents and they drove up the prices. When the Pirates overpay, we are talking a couple mil, with these other teams we might be talking 5 to 10 mil overpaying.