Earlier today, FanGraphs released crowd sourced predictions for the top free agent contracts this off-season. Obviously those numbers come with the disclaimer that they’re not set in stone and can change. As noted earlier today, the actual results tend to be higher than the predicted numbers. Sometimes the change isn’t that big, and sometimes it can be several million and an extra guaranteed year.
I thought I would have some fun with the numbers tonight, getting an early preview of how much it would cost the Pirates to field a team with several realistic free agent upgrades. I started with the 2016 payroll projection, which currently sits at $101 M. From there, I looked at the big areas of need for the Pirates this off-season: starting pitching, first base, second base, and a left-handed reliever.
My focus wasn’t to find a random free agent for each position, but to see if a free agent made sense at the position using the FanGraphs contract estimates, and what the Pirates currently have. The focus was also on seeing which free agent might make sense, with a deep breakdown here on the starting pitching market. There was a bit of variety here with the four positions and the conclusions I ended up with. Since this comes down to personal preference, and is an article based on fan salary projections and estimates about what the Pirates will do this off-season, I welcome you to add your input and ideas in the comments below.
There are several tiers involved here. I’m going to assume that the Pirates won’t get involved in a top-tier free agent like David Price or Zack Greinke. I’ll also discard Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann, as they’re both projected over $100 M.
Last year we saw the Pirates spend on Francisco Liriano, going three years and $39 M, so it’s not out of the question that they’d go for more than a value signing. I will add the disclaimer that I haven’t taken a deep look at potential bounce back candidates, so I’m mostly going with name value here and throwing out a few interesting options.
Jeff Samardzija seems like a bounce back guy, but might be costly for that bounce back. He’s projected at 4 years, $64 M, and is projected to receive and decline a qualifying offer, meaning he’d cost a draft pick. At his best, Samardzija would probably be in the Cueto/Zimmermann category, worth an extra $5 M a year, and 1-2 more years guaranteed. So there could still be some value here if he does bounce back to his 2014 levels.
In terms of contracts, Mike Leake (4 years, $56 M), Yovani Gallardo (4 years, $56 M), and Wei-Yin Chen (4 years, $52 M) are all close to Samardzija in value. But I’m not sure I’d take any of those guys over Samardzija. They seem like number 3-5 pitchers, while Samardzija has the shot at being more than that. Perhaps Gallardo could be a reclamation project and get back to his best days from 2009-2012, although he’s seen a dip in velocity since that time, going from 92-93 MPH to 90-91 on average.
As for Leake and Chen, they seem like the most expensive versions of the next tier — guys who could be good #3-5 starters. That group also includes Scott Kazmir and Hisashi Iwakuma, who are both projected for three years and $42 M. That’s the same average price, but one fewer projected year. From that point, you start to get into Liriano territory with the following projected contracts:
Marco Estrada – 3 years/$36 M
Ian Kennedy – 3/$36
J.A. Happ – 3/$33
Brett Anderson – 3/$33
There’s also John Lackey, who is projected for two years and $30 M, but would probably cost a draft pick. I’d think you’d want more years if you’re giving up a pick.
Last year the Pirates spent three years and $39 M on Liriano, so no pitcher in this group is out of their price range. The beauty of the Liriano deal was that:
1. They didn’t have to give up a draft pick in the process. The FanGraphs projections have picks going to Gallardo, Chen, Lackey, and Iwakuma.
2. Liriano was very under-valued in hindsight. Out of 86 pitchers with 300+ innings between 2013-14, he ranked 25th in ERA, 19th in xFIP, and 8th in K/9. He had top of the rotation stuff, and the ability to be one of the better pitchers in the league.
The Pirates paid for Liriano, but they also got value, watching him put up a 3.38 ERA and 3.16 xFIP, which ranked 25th and 13th respectively out of 78 qualified starters. His numbers belonged at a higher price range, but the perceived risk that he couldn’t repeat his 2013-14 success put him in a lower range. So who is this year’s Liriano?
I think the window has passed for Scott Kazmir. He put up a 2.7 WAR season in 2013, then signed a two-year, $22 M deal in 2014 and combined for a 5.6 WAR over the next two years, with excellent numbers. Then again, he’s projected for just $1 M more per year than Liriano received, and wouldn’t cost a pick, so this could be a candidate.
Brett Anderson is interesting. He’s been injury prone in the past, but gets a ton of ground balls, and put up a nice season last year. The injury history is concerning — more than the history with Liriano.
The two guys I really like are Ian Kennedy and J.A. Happ. In Kennedy’s case, you’ve got a guy who can be dominant (a strikeout per inning), and a recent history that saw him pitching closer to a top of the rotation guy. He’s a guy with the potential to break out and get back to that number one stuff, especially with Ray Searage still around.
Then there’s Happ, who I discussed briefly today. I think his overall body of work in 2015 (3.61 ERA/3.69 xFIP) is worth the projected contract. I do think he’ll get two years with an option, but I think the price per year is about right. And the risk here is whether he can get close to his numbers with the Pirates. There’s reason for skepticism, but if he trends closer to those numbers than his numbers with the Mariners, he’d end up being another big steal, even when they are paying eight figures a year to sign him.
Getting someone like Kazmir, Happ, or Kennedy in the $10-13 M a year range makes a lot of sense, and would be a great addition behind Gerrit Cole and Liriano.
As for the rest of the rotation, we enter the Charlie Morton/Jeff Locke debate. Both pitchers are good enough to pitch in the majors. They’re undervalued in Pittsburgh, with numbers the last few years that put them as legitimate strong number four starters. The Pirates also have Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon in Triple-A, potentially coming up by mid-season.
Outside of adding another Edinson Volquez-type reclamation project at $5 M, most of the best options available to replace Locke/Morton would be in the $10-13 M a year range, over 2-3 seasons. With two top prospects coming up, and two capable pitchers in the majors, I don’t think it would be the best use of funds to upgrade two number four starters, when the alternative is a number three starter. With other needs on the team, the Pirates would be better off adding a solid number three starter, and going with their prospects as depth throughout the year, while spending the rest of the money on those other needs.
The Pirates currently have Pedro Alvarez (projected $8.1 M in arbitration) and Michael Morse (paying about $4.5 M of his 2016 salary) under control. They also have Josh Bell in the wings, projected to be up mid-season. So a multi-year deal isn’t the best approach, especially when there are bigger needs on the team. Finding a better one-year option than Alvarez might be a good approach.
Chris Davis is the big free agent on the market, but he’s projected to get $100 M over five years, and that’s not a number a team should pay when they’ve got Josh Bell in the upper levels.
The only other guy on the list is Justin Morneau, who is projected for one year and $7 M. Morneau wasn’t great last year, posting an 0.5 WAR, but that’s better than Alvarez. He’s also a bit cheaper, and would provide much better defense.
With these numbers, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go with Morneau once again in Pittsburgh, using him and Morse as a stopgap platoon until Bell is ready.
Note: Byung-ho Park wasn’t included in the FanGraphs predictions.
The Pirates have Neil Walker under control for one more season, with a projected $10.7 M salary. They also have Alen Hanson and Max Moroff in the upper levels of the minors, so this is another situation where a one year option would work best.
Howie Kendrick (4 years, $52 M) and Daniel Murphy (4 years, $48 M) would both provide similar production as Walker, but would be more expensive and would require pretty big commitments. The other second basemen on the list are Chase Utley (1 year, $8 M) and Kelly Johnson (1 year, $3 M) and neither are starting options.
As I’ve mentioned many times this off-season, keeping Walker looks like the best bet when looking at the free agent options. Unless the Pirates can find a good trade option, Walker looks like a value at $10.7 M, when similar players will be getting guaranteed about $50 M.
The Pirates have Tony Watson and Bobby LaFromboise under team control, so they’ll need at least one left-hander to round out the bullpen mix.
I’m assuming they won’t spend big on a lefty reliever, since that isn’t their normal approach with any reliever options. The top options on the projections are Tony Sipp and J.P. Howell, who are each projected for two years and $10 M. Rich Hill is also on the expensive side, but only for one year, at a $6 M price tag.
Antonio Bastardo is projected to be a bit cheaper, at two years and $8 M.
The projections only go down to one year and $3 M, so there could be cheaper options available, or options on the trade market. That’s how the Pirates got Bastardo last year, sending Joely Rodriguez and paying Bastardo $3.1 M in his final year of arbitration. As I mentioned earlier today, he’d be proper value at $4 M per year. He’s also more consistent than Sipp and Howell, and the youngest guy listed here, so I’d trust him more.
Fun With Numbers
The current 2016 payroll projection is at $101,267,833, and that’s assuming everyone on the roster gets tendered a contract. Let’s go with the assumption that the Pirates keep Neil Walker, get rid of Pedro Alvarez and replace him with Justin Morneau (1 year, $7 M), sign one of the $10-13 M a year starters (we’ll go with $13 M in 2016 for this experiment), and bring back Bastardo (2 years, $4 M).
That series of moves would take payroll to just over $117 M, which is a big jump from their projected finish in 2015 ($101.9 M), especially when you consider that they usually add $7-10 M per year during the season.
It’s possible that their number wouldn’t include Mark Melancon’s $10 M if they traded him, and depending on the return, they might be able to shed salary in other areas. I’m not going to say that they can or can’t afford $117 M + in-season moves, but I will point out that they jumped from a projected $81 M at the end of 2014 to a projected $101 M at the end of 2015. So another big jump after another contending season wouldn’t seem totally out of the question.
That said, you can see how this team is limited when it comes to things like adding a Joe Blanton for their middle/long relief role, or adding an upgrade over Jeff Locke or Charlie Morton for the first two months of the season. They’ve got some money to spend, and can make some upgrades to the team, but they’re still likely going to be limited in how much they can do. Fortunately, this is a strong team that doesn’t need much to contend, so a few smart moves, plus those prospects coming up mid-season, should put them back on track for another playoff appearance.
**J.A. Happ Projected to Get Paid in FanGraphs Crowd Sourced Contract Predictions. Looking at some of the predictions from the FanGraphs numbers.
**AFL: Terrific Outing For Brault, Two Hits For Meadows in Glendale Loss. I’ll be heading out to Arizona in the morning (very early in the morning) for a week of live AFL coverage.
**Winter Leagues: Munoz Homers, Dodson and Lambo Struggle. Good to see Carlos Munoz continue to hit. That, plus his strong 2015 season in Bristol, should give him a shot at West Virginia in 2016.