In the week leading up to Christmas, the Pittsburgh Pirates made a few moves that were mostly on the small-scale. Several of these moves involved the bullpen, but two of the moves shored up the first base position.
The Pirates traded for Jason Rogers, adding an interesting right-handed hitting option who had success in a small sample size in the majors last year. They capped off the first base position by adding John Jaso, a converted catcher who has played all of 20 innings at first base in his career, but whose numbers against right-handers rank up there with fellow left-handers like Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Carpenter, and Anthony Rizzo.
The combination of Jaso and either Rogers or Michael Morse should give the Pirates a strong offensive pair at first base, and Jaso should be an upgrade over Pedro Alvarez from the left side of that platoon. Defensively, there are some questions, but it would be almost impossible to be worse than Alvarez, and easy to upgrade over his performance last year.
The Pirates are currently sitting at $94.5 M with their projected payroll for the 2016 season. They also still have a few needs remaining as we approach the new year. In most years, the fact that they still have needs at this point in the off-season might be cause for concern. However, the problem this year seems to be spread across baseball. Ken Rosenthal pointed this out a week ago, noting how a lot of big free agents haven’t signed yet. A few of those guys have since signed deals, but the market is still stalled across the league, and across many positions.
With that in mind, let’s look at what could still be in store for the Pirates in the final two months of the off-season.
I’m putting this first, because it’s the biggest one. The Pirates added Jon Niese in the Neil Walker trade, and they signed Ryan Vogelsong to a $2 M deal with an additional $3 M in incentives. They’ve also added Kyle Lobstein and Juan Nicasio as potential depth options. But right now the rotation looks a bit thin.
At the moment, the rotation would include Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Niese, Jeff Locke, and Vogelsong. Nicasio isn’t much of a starting option at the moment, but could be used as a spot starter if needed. Lobstein looks like deep depth out of the bullpen.
The Pirates appear to be missing two things: a good number three starter, and more depth.
They have still been connected to other pitchers, even after the Vogelsong deal. That’s good, because while their track record of turning around starting pitchers has been strong, Vogelsong doesn’t look like a guy who should be in this rotation. I don’t see him returning to his 2.1-2.5 WAR days from 2011-12 at his current age, and even if he put up a similar season to 2014, the rotation would still lack upside, with three guys expected to put up numbers slightly below the league average in their best case scenarios. An ERA around 4.00 isn’t a bad thing at all, but it’s not something you want from your number three starter. At this point, the upside for Niese, Vogelsong, and Locke looks to be that mark.
It would be better if Vogelsong was bumped to the bullpen as the long reliever, pitching in the Vance Worley role. He’d be a good guy to step in as the number six starter, and might have better luck bouncing back as a long reliever. Meanwhile, you could upgrade the rotation with a higher upside arm, even if that arm is also a bounce back candidate like Mat Latos.
If the Pirates add an additional starter, and that bumps Vogelsong to the bullpen (or Locke, but I’ll get to that later), then it would give them eight starting options on Opening Day, with the prospects set to arrive by mid-season. I’d expect them to add at least one more guy, possibly a veteran for the Triple-A rotation. Last year they started the season with ten starting options who could pitch on Opening Day, and that wasn’t including the expected mid-season additions of Nick Kingham or Jameson Taillon. It also didn’t include the possible mid-season addition of Adrian Sampson. None of those three options ended up working out.
This year the Pirates have Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon as their top prospects expected to make the jump. They also have Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, and Steven Brault as possibilities who aren’t top-tier starters. But don’t expect them to rely on just seven starting pitching options until those guys arrive, especially when two of the starting options are Nicasio and Lobstein. They will make a few moves for the rotation, and hopefully one of those moves will upgrade the number three spot.
Bobby LaFromboise was lost on waivers this past week, and while he wasn’t a strong option to be the second lefty out of the bullpen, he was pretty much the only option they had. Currently the Pirates have just two guys behind Tony Watson. There’s Kyle Lobstein, who I think will pitch out of Triple-A as rotation depth. They also have non-roster invitee Robert Zarate, who has interesting numbers and good stuff, but seems better as a number three option out of Indianapolis.
The Pirates need a left-handed reliever, and this might be their second biggest remaining need behind a starter. Last year they filled this need via trade, sending Joely Rodriguez to Philadelphia to get Antonio Bastardo. That was a good move, and Bastardo would be a good option to return to the team and fill that need for a second lefty. However, he’s currently looking for a deal similar to the three years, $18 M that Tony Sipp received, and it would be difficult to imagine the Pirates paying that with their track record.
They’ve got plenty of mid-tier starting pitchers in Altoona and Bradenton, and could pull off a similar move as last year in trading for a lefty relief option. I don’t have any names to throw out there, since there would be a ton of possibilities, and no word on who is available. That would be the affordable route to take, and the Pirates could deal a starter from those levels without really feeling the impact in the system. Bastardo would be the safe route to take, but would put the payroll at just over $100 M, and that’s without adding another starter or making any other moves.
One possibility here is Jeff Locke. I mentioned Vogelsong above as a guy who could move to the bullpen if another starter is signed. But what if the Pirates moved Locke instead? Long-term, Locke has no place in the rotation. By the end of the 2016 season, the hope would be that the rotation would include Cole, Liriano, Glasnow, Taillon, and Jon Niese at his pre-2015 numbers. So beyond the 2016 season, and maybe beyond June 2016, the Pirates won’t have a spot for Locke in the rotation.
Locke seems like a good candidate to be a strong reliever. His biggest issue has been control, and that tends to be reduced in a relief role. He also has good stuff for a lefty, and that could play up as a reliever. He hit 94.7 MPH last year with his fastball, with an average velocity of 91.2. You could imagine where his velocity would be if he only had to focus on one inning.
There are also signs that Locke could be a really good reliever. He has two trends that have really stuck out in his career. The first is his success early in games. In his first plate appearance in a game against an opponent, he gives up just a .686 OPS. That number goes up to a .742 OPS in the second plate appearance, and .741 in the third.
Locke also has struggled in the second half each year. In 2013 he had an xFIP of 4.21 in the first half, but an ERA of 2.15. That was expected to regress, and did just that, although he went to the other extreme in the second half, when he had an ERA much higher than his xFIP. He had another strong first half in 2014, with a 2.89 ERA/3.32 xFIP. He struggled again in the second half with a 4.66 ERA/4.34 xFIP. The trend continued in 2015 with a 4.03 ERA/3.96 xFIP in the first half, and a 5.10/3.92 in the second half.
There is no explaining this trend with Locke, since he’s had years where he’s expected to regress in the second half, and years where he looks totally legit in the first half, only for the second half to fall apart. As a reliever, you’d think Locke would take advantage of the first half numbers more, since his workload would be cut down. If it’s an issue of tiring at the end of the year, then perhaps that would disappear in a role that doesn’t require him to pitch more than 70 innings.
Locke seems like an interesting option for the second lefty in the bullpen, although that would require the addition of an upgrade in the rotation. Either way, the Pirates also need a second lefty, and maybe an additional depth option out of Triple-A.
The Fallout at First Base
The first base position looks set from the left side with the addition of John Jaso. From the right side, Michael Morse and Jason Rogers will battle it out for the other half of the platoon. Jake Goebbert is also in the mix as a depth option out of Triple-A. Morse was added last year in a trade that sent Jose Tabata away, and the Pirates owe him about $4.5 M this year after money coming from the Dodgers. That’s essentially what they would have paid Tabata, although they might actually get a useful player out of Morse.
That said, they didn’t trade two prospects for Jason Rogers just to send him to Triple-A to ride the bench behind Josh Bell. He’ll factor into the mix somehow, and the fact that he’s not strong defensively at third or the outfield suggests that his primary position would be first base. And that means one of Morse or Rogers are expendable. Morse seems like the obvious guy to go, since he was already on the roster when they traded for Rogers. If they were going with Morse from the right side, then they probably wouldn’t have dealt for Rogers at all, unless they’re planning on sacrificing defense on the bench in favor of Rogers’ bat.
If that’s the case, then they could keep Morse and Rogers, and they’d probably be in trouble if a middle infielder went down. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Morse goes on the move.
The Utility Spot on the Bench
The Pirates added Sean Rodriguez as a bench option, and while he provides good defense, his offensive value isn’t great. Rodriguez did have strong numbers down the stretch, posting a .379 wOBA and a 146 wRC+ from August 1st to the end of the year. Just to put those numbers in perspective, Andrew McCutchen had a .379 wOBA and a 146 wRC+ in the second half. But expecting these numbers from Rodriguez going forward is not advised, since they came in just 79 plate appearances, and were a result of a massive spike in BABIP and just a 2.5% walk rate.
The hope for Rodriguez would be that he could return to his pre-2014 performance. The reality is that you should expect an all-defense, no bat utility infielder. And that’s not a big problem, since the Pirates had the same thing at the start of the 2015 season. They also had Jung-ho Kang at the start of the year as another utility option. Kang later became a starter, which pushed Josh Harrison back to the utility role. The point is that the Pirates had two utility infielders the entire season. So don’t expect them to be set with just Rodriguez.
I’m not entirely convinced that they’ll made an additional move here. There are plenty of internal options who can take this role. Alen Hanson would be the top option, and putting him in that role would make a lot of sense. He could fill in for Kang at the start of the year. He’s a guy who has started slow at each level in the past, so having him as a utility guy to start his MLB career would be the best approach until he showed that he could be a starter (similar to how Kang was handled last year). The Pirates also have so many middle infield options in their system that they don’t need to worry about Super Two status with Hanson, since they’ll probably have a few options to replace him five years from now when that matters.
Behind Hanson, they’ve got a few defense-only options like Pedro Florimon and Gift Ngoepe, although those guys would be excess with Rodriguez already on the team. They could go with Jason Rogers and keep Michael Morse at first if they want to sacrifice defense in favor of a bat. Cole Figueroa is also an option as a non-roster invitee. If the Pirates go with an in-house option here, then expect a few more NRI guys to be signed, just to add a bit more competition during the Spring.
Mark Melancon Trade
The final thing to bring up would be the possibility of a Mark Melancon trade. This has been discussed as a foregone conclusion all off-season, to the point where Tony Watson was repeatedly asked about being a closer at PirateFest, with the assumption that Melancon was as good as gone.
The Pirates don’t necessarily need to deal Melancon. If they add a starter for around $8-10 M, move Jeff Locke to the bullpen, deal Morse and his salary, and stick with Alen Hanson or one of the other internal options as a utility guy, then the payroll would be around $100-105 M, even with Melancon. So they could deal Melancon, but it would only make sense if they needed the money for other moves (like going with someone else instead of Locke as a lefty reliever, or keeping Morse and making Rogers a bench player). It would also make sense if they could get a big return for their closer. But other than that, it might make sense to keep the best relief combo in baseball together if they can.
If the Pirates did trade Melancon, they’d have to use some of the payroll space to replace him. Even if they moved Locke to the bullpen, they’d need one more lefty reliever, since Tony Watson would move to the closer’s role. And I doubt they’d go for two question marks at lefty relief, so it’s possible they’d add someone like Bastardo in this situation.
They’d also need additional bullpen depth to help make up for the loss of Melancon. The current bullpen looks strong. They’ve got Melancon and Watson in the late innings. The middle innings would currently feature Jared Hughes as a ground ball specialist, and the hard throwing Arquimedes Caminero following his strong 2015 season. I think Juan Nicasio is a guarantee to make the team due to his salary, and he seems like the best bet to be this year’s version of Caminero. Add in a second lefty reliever, and that leaves one final spot.
The Pirates have plenty of hard throwing options competing for that final spot. Yoervis Medina, John Holdzkom, Rob Scahill, and non-roster invitee Curtis Partch have all hit 97 MPH in the past. That group makes someone like Guido Knudson — who has only hit 94 — seem like a soft tosser. One of these guys would be a great option as the final piece in the bullpen (assuming they don’t move Vogelsong AND add a second lefty from the outside, at which point they wouldn’t have that final spot).
The point here is that the current bullpen looks great. You’ve got the best relief combo in baseball in Melancon and Watson. You’ve got two guys in Hughes and Caminero who you can count on at middle relief, with the obvious disclaimer that you can’t really count on any middle reliever. Then there are a lot of high upside arms, led by Nicasio. The hope would be that someone steps up as a future closer option, ready to take over for Melancon in the future, or maybe ready to take over for Watson in the future.
If you trade Melancon, and assuming his replacement wouldn’t come back in the deal, then you’ve got a great closer in Watson, and a big question mark as the setup man. Maybe that question mark is answered by signing someone like Bastardo, and going with a lefty/lefty combo in the late innings. But the result here is that you’re only saving $4 M total in this scenario, and the right-handed relief becomes a big question mark, albeit with a lot of upside.
The Pirates don’t necessarily need the $10 M that they’d get by dealing Melancon, and they’d probably have to use over half of that amount to replace him, and to add a replacement lefty with Watson becoming the closer. If they dealt Michael Morse and the $4.5 M they owed him, then they’d have about $10-15 M to spend on a starter and any other need, putting their payroll in the $100-105 M range on Opening Day. And that figure would include Melancon and a strong bullpen.
The remaining off-season seems pretty straight forward at this point: add another starter, a lefty reliever, address the utility infield spot, and make some additional minor depth moves at every position. But if Melancon gets dealt, then we’re in for a very interesting final two months heading into Spring Training.