Roster Decisions For the Pirates During the 2017-18 Offseason

Every offseason brings a list of roster decisions for teams to make. You’ve got arbitration eligible players, players who are out of options, non-tender decisions, options to be decided on, and so on.

The Pirates have more than the basic decisions to make this year. They have the normal stuff that relates to options years, arbitration eligible players, and non-tender candidates. As I wrote yesterday, they already project to have a payroll near $100 M, and that’s without any other additions. They will most likely need to cut payroll in some areas, in order to spend in other areas. I’ll be breaking down that potential juggling act tomorrow. Today, we’ll just be looking at the standard roster decisions on the table.

Here is a rundown of the players who have key roster decisions, along with some analysis on what I think the Pirates will do in each section.


Jordy Mercer – 3rd Year

George Kontos – 3rd Year*

Gerrit Cole – 2nd Year

Felipe Rivero – 1st Year*

*Has four years of arbitration

The biggest cases here will be Gerrit Cole and Felipe Rivero. Cole is arbitration eligible for the second of three years, and as a Scott Boras client, he will end up going year-to-year. He’s coming off a bad season by his standards, which followed an injury-ridden 2016 season. However, the arbitration process takes into account his entire career, so expect him to get a good raise, even with the last two years of performance.

It’s hard to tell what Rivero will make, as arbitration pays heavily for saves, and he doesn’t have a lot of saves in his early career. He’s also Super Two eligible, so this amount could be significant down the line, as it will set the stage for three more years of arbitration following years where he will be getting a lot of saves.

Jordy Mercer is in his final year of arbitration. The Pirates and Mercer were both open to an extension last offseason, but nothing came from that. I could see them going for a Clint Barmes type extension this year, as they won’t have a shortstop prospect ready until at least the middle of the 2018 season, and might need Mercer as a bench guy and a mentor when that player is ready to take over.

George Kontos has two years of arbitration remaining, and is due a raise over his $1.75 M. I think the Pirates will keep him, as they added him right after the trade deadline with an eye on the 2018 season. I could see them making a Wade LeBlanc type deal, where they sign him to a one year deal with an option for a second year.


A.J. Schugel

Elias Diaz

Nick Kingham*

Wade LeBlanc

Dan Runzler

I’m not sure if Nick Kingham is out of options, since he may qualify for a fourth option year due to his Tommy John surgery. The fact that the Pirates didn’t call him up makes me lean more toward the idea that he will get a fourth option year.

I think A.J. Schugel could have an inside track on one of the bullpen spots, due mostly to his option situation, but also because of his performance the last two years.

Elias Diaz will almost certainly be on the team, with the only way he wouldn’t be on the roster being a trade. He’s out of options, and I can’t see the Pirates letting him walk and paying Chris Stewart $1.5 M to be the backup.

I’m not sure what the deal is with Dan Runzler. He was a surprise addition in September, but I could see him being non-tendered.


Wade LeBlanc

Dan Runzler

Chris Stewart

Jack Leathersich

Gift Ngoepe

LeBlanc has a $1.25 M option with a $50,000 buyout, and I think the Pirates will choose the buyout. I also don’t see Runzler sticking around on the 40-man, since he’s older and out of options. I could see Stewart getting traded or bought out, since they don’t need to pay his $1.5 M option with Elias Diaz around.

The Pirates claimed Leathersich in September, although he’s the type of guy who they might try to sneak through waivers in the offseason. Gift Ngoepe didn’t get a callup in September, which isn’t really a good sign. His future role is bench depth, and the Pirates didn’t call him up when they needed extra bench players. They also don’t have much room in a crowded Indianapolis infield next year, so he would be expendable.

  • Is there really NO chance for Kang to play for the Pirates in 2018????

    • That’s up to the government, and based on tougher immigration laws, especially for those who have legal problems, I would say he has between 0 and 5% chance. Smart money would be on 0%.

    • I guess im in the GREAT minority but surely the Pirates will give him one more chance if he is allowed in country. A 3 mill 3B that will hit 30+ HRs…Pirates can sell that to fans (with the zero tolerance caviat) Have no clue if he will be allowed in USA but if he is, Harrison gets traded for Relief Pitcher and lineup will be (FrazierMoroff/Rodrz) 2B Marte LF Cutch CF Bell 1B Kang 3B Polanco RF Cervilli C Mercer/Moroff SS (until Neumann ready)

  • i think the hitters are basically set next year:

    – C Cervelli/Diaz 60/40 split
    – Bell
    – Harrison
    – Mercer
    – SRod/Freese 60/40 split
    – Marte
    – Cutch
    – Polanco/Luplow 70/30 split
    Add’l bench pieces of Frazier and Moroff

    I don’t think they can get a replacement for less money than they are currently spending anywhere but C – and even there Cervelli might thrive with less planned starts.

    We could free up Freese’ salary from the bench but after our bench’s performance this year, I wouldn’t want to take that risk.

    So Diaz and Mercer are in. Stewart is gone.

    • Yeah, nothing much is going to change until after 2018.

    • A whole off-season to think about a starting lineup that includes paying a combined $10 mil for Sean Rodriguez and David Freese to share a defensive position and hit in the middle of the order? That is disturbing on so many levels for a team that finished 12 under .500 and should be looking to get younger and cheaper.

      • If it were up to me, I would move Freese to the bench, move Harrison to 3B and platoon Moroff and S-Rod at 2B. That would allow the team to give youth a shot.

        My original point was that you are not going to get a game changer by say swapping S-Rod or Freese out and looking for a free agent with that extra $5 million. If you trade both, you might be able to get a decent 3B but your bench would be weak again.

        I really think next year’s success hinges on the small hope that Kang returns.

    • I’d rather see Frazier at 2B and JayHay at 3B. Lineup could be Frazier, Mate, Cutch, Bell, Harrison, Luplow/Polanco, Catcher, Mercer

    • I think I would sacrifice some defense and put Frazier at 2nd and move Harrison to 3B. With the way this offense struggled last season, we cannot afford to keep one of our more consistent bats on the bench. Plus, I think we need another lefty in the lineup.

  • The Pirates are looking to compete in 2018. If however things go south, look for them to dump every and all they can at the TDL. So don’t look for any real changes going in. in 2019, contracts for Cervelli and Marte are the highest and Cervelli will be gone after that year as will Nova in theory. J Hay is gone and lots of money will be free to use. Cutch, J Hay, Cervelli, Mercer, Nova represents 47 million alone. Add in Freese, S Rod, Hudson and that is another 15 million.

  • another year with mercer as starter
    oh the humanity

  • Not many difficult decisions among the players mentioned in the article. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not. Tougher decisions might mean there are mo betta players.

  • Am I the only one that gets a feeling of disgust when I see a picture of Cole? There is something about him other than the 31 HR he allowed and the stench of underachievement. I think it’s just that when you see his stuff compared to how much he gets hit it gives me a deep feeling of remorse because I know the guy is gonna go elsewhere and have a top 3 Cy Young season.

    • I think Cole’s stuff is vastly overrated. It appears that his fastball is as straight as a string. When he’s able to hit both sides of the plate, he can be pretty good.

    • Though a distant 4, Gerrit Cole was number 4 in Cy Young voting in a Bucco uniform in 2015.

  • Make Gift an infield coach and allow him to stay with the team, that way.

  • I see Stallings and it just doesn’t make any sense to exercise that option on Stewart. Stallings is a .700 OPS catcher in AA, AAA, & the MLB combined. His offense has improved to the point where he is definitely a better player than Stewart. I like someone with the defense and reliability of Stallings at AAA to start 2018. Stewart should be happy he made 6.5 mil catching in the majors somehow and retire and start coaching…hopefully in the Pirates’ org.

    • honestly, i think it’s even time for the debate of if Diaz is definitely better than Stallings.

      • I can see that. If Stallings could reproduce his AAA numbers in the MLB he would be a nice backup…and with Cervelli you almost need two starting catchers.

        • hell, if he replicates his 2017 AAA numbers, then he’s one of the better catchers around haha.

          i’m definitely not suggesting that he could do that.

          but “good AAA season” is a really really important thing that Stallings just put on his resume that Diaz has never even come close to doing.

          Diaz hasn’t had a good minor league season since 2014 in AA.

          Another player who we could say that about? Alen Hanson.

          I don’t know why we, as a fanbase, think there’s any chance that Diaz is going to be any good.

          • I could even make the case that if the bats on the
            bench are weak (and they may not be), I could
            even see them keeping 3 catchers with one of
            the three being the designated pinch hitter
            each evening.

          • Because there *was* a chance that Diaz could be good. It just does not seem we’ve collectively updated our expectations since 2015.

            • That could be the case with quite a few people.

              • At least we don’t have any winter of excusing Alen Hanson as being young for his league. 😉

            • yep. i understand us being excited about him in 2014. and even after a bad year or mayyybe even two bad years in AAA.

              but 3 bad years in AAA? it’s time to re-evaluate.

              i mean… his 2015 in AAA wasnt bad, per se. but it certainly wasn’t good enough to predict MLB success.

              2016 was bad but only 100 PA.

              2017 was bad.

              in AAA, .300 OBP in AAA with a .311 BABIP and no power.

              in mlb, .265 OBP with a .273 BABIP and no power, and apparently bad framing.

              it blows my mind that anybody thinks he’s any good. Even good enough to be a backup. I would understand if his framing numbers were like… super good. but theyre not.

              of course he could break out and prove me wrong. but there’s absolutely no evidence that that’ll happen.

              • I do agree with the general point but will push back a bit…I don’t think it would take *that* much for him to be a solid backup.

                Drop some weight, improve his framing, and see incremental improvement – within reasonable range – across the board offensively. Couple more walks, couple less K’s, bit better contact.

                The bar is pretty low here.

                • oh yeah i guess all a backup really has to do is frame well, pop a .300 OBP, and mow down base stealers as far as i’m concerned.

                  but as of now, he only does one of those things.

                  .300 isn’t out of the question. he just has to go from awful at OBP to being merely “very bad” at OBP. incremental, like you say. Not out of the question.

                  but he actually has to change from being bad at framing to being good at framing. that’s a big jump.

                  But at this point, we are talking about how much he has to improve in order to become an *okay* *backup*.

                  *that’s* the problem.

                  At this point I’d probably rather them just spend $3 million on someone like Rene Rivera, and trade Diaz to a rebuilding team (that can afford to be patient and hold him on their 25 man roster) for some interesting lottery ticket pitching prospect tbh.

                  • *whispers*

                    What if Diaz is *already* on a rebuilding team?

                    • oh staaahhp

                      Regardless, my humble opinion is that if they want Glasnow on the team next year… then the backup should be Glasnow’s personal catcher and should be a pitch framing god. or at the very least, neutral.

                      Stallings graded as neutral-ish, for the record.

                      or maybe they can trade for Martin Maldonado as a throwin in the inevitable trade for Andrelton Simmons 😛

  • John Marzullo
    October 4, 2017 2:14 pm

    It’s going to be an interesting offseason for sure. With so much salary committed and such a down attendance year it makes you wonder what they’ll do. They went down to close to 80-85M in years after a million more fans went through that turnstyle. I look for them to trade guys like Cervelli in favor of saving money and rolling with Diaz.

    • They may do that. And they might have to do that. But it can’t be overstated how horrible Elias Diaz was this year. Baseball Prospectus had him at -1.4 WARP primarily because his framing is horrible- to go along with a very bad bat.

      People seem to want to simply assume his framing is league average next year. I see little evidence in support of that assumption.

      • Which is odd because I have heard people at the top say his framing is good. Small sample but if it is horrible it doesn’t give you a feeling of optimism for 2018.

        • I’d say 3500 pitches is not a tremendously small sample. And on top of that I’d say he clearly looks bad as far as how he all too often receives pitches.

          • Catching is so tough to evaluate. How many guys have we seen come just through the Pirates’ system with the “excellent defensive catcher” label put on them only to have it fizzle? Tony Sanchez being the biggest. Sanchez got 1 AB for the Braves this year by the way. His first since 2015. He threw out 27% in AAA too with a .729 OPS. Pretty solid emergency catcher season for a guy that is 29 until next May. There is still hope carve out a niche. Hey! Chris Stewart did it!

            • I agree but Diaz turning 27 by beginning of next season and being kept in the minors so long tells me there’s probably some truth to the suggestion that he’s got some real deficiencies in his game. He wasn’t even good enough to replace Stewart and we know if the Pirates could have saved 12 cents by bring up Diaz and cutting Stewart, they would have.

          • We all had a chance to see a lot of Diaz in September and I agree with you. I was very surprised and disappointed in the way Diaz sets up and receives pitches. The arm is a cannon, BUT he doesn’t provide a target and he actually stabs at strikes and finishes out of the zone, costing his pitchers strike calls. A couple of times Bob Walk called him on it, saying basically don’t blame the ump blame Diaz. At the plate he fizzled after a strong start. Another “development” fiasco in the making like Pedro and Hanson? I hope not.

            • I agree. He looks really bad and his glove is moving all over the place. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence he loses a lot of borderline calls.

            • People are starting to get a glimpse behind the curtain.

            • I’d rather Diaz set up in the middle and not on the edges like he tends to do, but in his defense, in every case where he stabbed at a strike, the pitcher did not come remotely close to hitting his spot. Hitting the catchers glove is the pitcher’s job. In any case, I’m not entirely convinced that getting the occasional borderline pitch called a strike is hugely impactful overall. On the other hand, I am not sold on Diaz as a starting catcher. Cervelli would not have been signed to a multi-year deal if the FO believed in Diaz, and as much as I’d like to move Cervelli’s salary, I don’t think we can assume Diaz can be a starting catcher at this point. He should back up Cervelli next year.

      • educate me. How in the hell do they calculate framing?

        • It’s basically just a measure of how good or bad a catcher is at getting borderline strikes called. Whether it’s getting something that is technically a ball called a strike(good) or getting a strike called a ball(bad).

          • Framing also requires some level of command from the pitcher. Framing numbers for catchers should get thrown out when Glasnow is pitching. He often throws border line strikes, but on the opposite side of the plate from where the pitch was supposed to be and from where the catcher set up.

            • All the framing in the world isn’t going to get pitchers like Hudson, Kuhl and Glasnow any borderline strikes. John W doesn’t seem to want to consider that at all. Framing isn’t the be all and end all to catching. Blocking and throwing might have something to do with that position also, particularly blocking.

              • I know LEO! You’re right. Baseball Prospectus said he was 1.4 WAR below replacement but what the hell do they know? Framing doesn’t matter! Baseball Prospectus also rated Diaz as below average in terms of blocking but… carry on! I like when you educate me.

              • Interesting… then how did Stewart get borderline strikes called catching those same pitchers?

                I’ll wait

        • Michael Sanders
          October 6, 2017 9:23 am

          Someone says that a catcher is an excellent pitch framer. Everyone believes it so they say the same thing. Thus the calculation is: grapevine+grapevine=excellentpitchframer

      • The evidence is that he was a pretty good framer in the minors. So, either he’s bad now, or he had an off year. But it’s not like it would be unbelievable for him to return to being a good framer.

        • What is this evidence you speak of?

          Elias Diaz is one hell of a conundrum right now. There’s a lesson to be learned here, I’m just not sure exactly what that lesson is.

          Diaz received strong praise for his framing from *scouting reports* but ranked just 33rd, 64th, and 35th in CSAA among all AAA catchers with at least 1000 chances from 2015-2017. Judging by the numbers, he was a bad framer in the minors and a bad framer in the majors. Judging by the eye test, he was a good framer in the minors and a bad framer in the majors. Is this a matter of poor scouting?

          Even his overall defensive abilities didn’t appear to be as described. Scouting reports generally were unchanged regarding his defense going back as far as I can find, but the player that was in the majors this year was not the same guy he was going back to 2015. Noticeably slower and thicker. Is this another sign of poor scouting, Is this a sign of *lazy* scouting, simply regurgitating old reports? Or is the real Diaz much better than he showed this year?

          • There’s a question that isn’t being asked here: Is framing something that translates from level to level with no adjustments, or is it something — like every other aspect — that takes some adjustment from the minors to the majors?

            A big part of framing is knowing your pitchers, and knowing how their pitches move. You have to anticipate how a two-seamer on the outside is going to break, so that you can counter the break.

            I talked with Russell Martin about the process a lot when he was here. If a pitch is breaking away from the outside edge toward the LH batter’s box, he will start his glove closer to the box and catch with a small movement to the plate. If he starts closer to the plate and follows the pitch, the ball will carry his glove. If he counters the momentum, he can stop the ball and make it look like there is no movement.

            I don’t know if Diaz will improve. However, I wouldn’t say he’s this bad based on a small sample size. That would rule out the possibility that there is a learning curve to framing, just like everything else.

            As for the scouting reports, they definitely weren’t regurgitated on our part. Every year I talked to a free agent who was new to the system who raved about Diaz and his skills behind the plate. Most of these conversations were off the record, and not a guy talking up a catcher because he’s asked “How good is Diaz?”

            • “Is framing something that translates from level to level with no adjustments…?”

              That *is* a very good question, however, it would have zero relevance to Diaz’s poorly-graded framing in AAA over parts of three seasons. Either way, it does appear that framing is something certain catchers can improve upon so several years of bad results do not necessarily guarantee continued bad results.

              “Every year I talked to a free agent who was new to the system who raved about Diaz and his skills behind the plate.”

              I question the validity of anecdotal evidence such as this. I guarantee you *every* big league catcher was at some point raved about by his peers. That’s not to say it isn’t worth considering, but that it’s only a small part of the equation.

              • It’s not even that Diaz’s framing skills weren’t good at the MLB level. They were objectively HORRIBLE by any measure.

                I’m going to weigh that data more heavily than his middling framing #s in the minors which are nothing to hang one’s hat on.

              • I know it’s a small part of the equation. But when a guy who has played in many organizations with many catchers comes up to me and asks me about Diaz, then raves about his skills, it’s something I pay attention to. Especially because it’s not just a one or two time thing, and happens quite frequently.

                • Sure, it just seems the difficulty is in translating the narrative.

                  For all that has been *said* about his defensive ability, BP and FG both put a 50 on that tool last report I can find. MLB Pipeline graded him out as a 55 defender.

                  That’s average to slightly above average, for a guy whose value was largely based around his glove.

            • Of course he could improve. That doesn’t mean it will happen in a meaningful manner even with more reps. There are a number of young catchers who were either good(or simply not horrible) framers working with pitchers for the first time.

            • So Diaz didn’t have much experience how 2 seamers break or even how specific pitchers 2 seamers break? He didn’t work with Kuhl, Taillon, Williams, or even Glasnow much in the minors?

              Regardless, the point remains that many young catchers come up and work with pitchers for the first time and don’t look as awful as Diaz does as far as framing/receiving pitches.

              While he could show vast improvement that certainly is not the most likely course.

    • I just don’t see Pirates discarding Cervelli. I see them keeping him and hoping he stays healthy next season. If so, he provides so much more than any other Catcher on roster.

      I’d rather them look to trading Nova to save some money and either give a prospect a shot in rotation, or replace him with a cheap reclamation project.

  • I am not sure I’d want Mercer back even at your $6M figure, and I believe he could get even more of a raise. At his age he’ll project for about 1 fWAR next year. If the payroll is around $100M, the pirates need to average around $2.5M/WAR to be contenders.

    They should go replacement level at league min, or close to it, and try their luck elsewhere. They have to take some risks to get out of no man’s land. Locking in a 1 WAR for $6M is the opposite of taking a risk, and is a good way to ensure more mediocrity.

    • Mercer is a bridge to Tucker and Newman and there aren’t that many guys out there as far as 1+ WAR SS go…but I think Mercer for 6 mil is a safe play. He will have trade value next July even if he slips back to a .675 OPS player. I would think a contender would want an MI with a little pop that can play decent at the 3 important infield positions. I’d keep him around and hope Newman is ready by June. Although those are all solid points Arik.

      • “Mercer is a bridge to Tucker and Newman.” I think this is an important comment. Unless we go outside the organization, we have no viable SS options aside from Mercer. Newman and Tucker aren’t ready yet, but if we can get one more year out of Mercer, we can eye a transition in 2019.

        • Regardless, Mercer will stay and be the bridge to Cole Tucker. Newman is the next best SS, and could be a short term fix with Mercer being the one and only UT IF.

      • I would think Moroff can hold down SS until something better comes along, especially if Newman is only 3 months away.

        At the risk of repeating my earlier point a different way, if you pay $6M here and there for bridges, you have nothing left for actual upgrades.

        • Agreed. Stats like UZR seem to really like Moroff’s work there. My untrained eyeballs agreed with UZR. Granted, small sample size, yada yada.

          0.5 WAR in 140 PA. extrapolates to over 2 in 600 PA. And even that was with an awful batting line (that i think we can agree that he is likely to exceed). I really think they need to take a shot at him as a starter at 2b or SS, trade Mercer and Harrison, and then spend some or all of the savings at whichever position that Moroff doesnt occupy.

        • Exactly. $4+M for Freeze, $5M for S-Rod, $6M for Mercer, $4M for Jaso last year, all with limited upsides. Need some cheap guys to put up 5 WAR like Harrison did in 2014.

      • Michael Sanders
        October 6, 2017 9:17 am

        It doesn’t really matter that Mercer is a bridge to Tucker or Newman. They will not be contenders in 2018. They can play Frazier there in the meantime, or even Gift, while the Pirates rebuild. I don’t see the 2018 team being a contender so go with the low cost solution that will give them solid experience for 2019.

        • Gift would hit .190 and k 210 times. They need a viable SS in there.

          • Michael Sanders
            October 19, 2017 5:49 pm

            But why do they need someone who can hit? They are set up for a downturn in 2018. Why spend the money? Play the obscurities and the Quadra-A players. If they do well, great. They found a hidden treasure. Honestly, I am more with the philosphy of hiring solid players and if the team starts to fail, trade them off in July and restock the farm system, but this is the Pirates, not the Mets. The Pirates go cheap, so might as well go all the way and save some money during a downward spiral.

    • Can you name the player who was 3rd on the team in RBI?

      • RBI is a completely useless “stat”.

        • It’s arbitrary and/or circumstantial but not useless. RBI’s and pitcher win-loss records are generally superficial but if your 8 hole batter is your third best run producer or if you have a starter that goes 14-6 on a 90 loss team that says something and can’t just be dismissed offhand.

          • Yes it can and it should be. If a pitcher is 14-6 on a 90 loss team, what does it tell you? What were the outcomes of his 12 no decisions? If he has peripheral stats that would support a 14-6 record, the the record would still only be a product of the way the team played. The pitchers record is completely arbitrary. Same with RBI, if a players hits 40 solo home runs, he could legitimately(although not likely) end up with 40 RBI. No matter how capable someone is to hit a baseball, if others in front of him are poor at getting on base, his “ability” to garner RBI is limited.

        • Michael Sanders
          October 6, 2017 9:21 am

          You kind of need them to win some games.

          • Teams need runs to win games.

            Barry Bonds once got an RBI by being intentionally walked with the bases loaded, that takes no skill at all.

            • Michael Sanders
              October 19, 2017 5:44 pm

              Did he not get an RBI for that walk?

              • Exactly, proving the worthlessness of the stat. He did not even take the bat off of his shoulder.

                I am not disputing the fact that the RBI is a stat, I just don’t feel it is a relative stat that would dictate a player has any special ability.

                • Michael Sanders
                  October 25, 2017 7:36 am

                  So in order for it to be a worthy stat, movement on behalf of the player needs to occur?

                  • No, but it does require a discernible quantifiable skill. If there is no one on base, there is a very limited chance of garnering an RBI, and it takes zero ability from a hitter to have a prior hitter reach base.