Williams: The Pirates Need Value in 2019, And They Could Get It With These Deals

It’s impossible to say at this point what the Pirates’ plan will be this offseason. They’ve made a few moves, but the offseason is still very young. We haven’t even reached the non-tender deadline, and we’re still a few weeks away from the winter meetings, which is the point where the big names usually start to sign.

We’ve seen a trend so far for the Pirates, even if it has come in a small sample size of moves. I wouldn’t extrapolate this trend and say that it points to what they’ll continue to do the rest of the offseason. But the early trend matches something we’ve seen in the past from the Pirates: Low risk moves with the chance for a lot of upside.

The first move came when they brought back Jung Ho Kang on a one-year deal, paying him $3 M guaranteed. Then they signed Lonnie Chisenhall to a one-year, $2.75 M deal. In each case you’ve got a guy who has had previous success, comes with an extremely low salary, and fits a need for depth in 2019.

I’ve written that I’m not personally high on Kang’s chances of returning to the starter that he once was. There are too many question marks, whether it’s his age (32 in 2019), the lack of playing time the last two years, or the struggles he’s seen when he has played at higher levels.

Even if Kang does fall short of his 2015-16 production, he can still be a valuable addition to the Pirates. I don’t think it’s out of the question to expect David Freese type production from him, putting him at a 2.0 WAR upside. And if Colin Moran struggles again in 2019 with replacement level play, and if Ke’Bryan Hayes isn’t ready for the majors, then that Freese-type upside from Kang would be an upgrade.

If Kang doesn’t work out, and can’t beat Moran’s production, then it’s only $3 M lost.

Chisenhall is an interesting signing for the outfield. The Pirates need an outfielder to step in until Gregory Polanco is ready to return, which could be anywhere from mid-April to mid-June. In the worst of that timeline, the Pirates would need Chisenhall for about two and a half months as a starter, and would have him as a depth option after that.

The intriguing thing here is that Chisenhall has done very well the last two years. He’s combined for a .297/.368/.503 line, along with a .368 wOBA and a 128 wRC+. To put those numbers in perspective, the Pirates leaders in those stats last year had a .355 wOBA (Francisco Cervelli), a 125 wRC+ (also Cervelli), and an .839 OPS (Gregory Polanco). Chisenhall’s numbers the last two years were better than all of those marks.

But here’s the catch: Chisenhall has missed a lot of time the last two years. Those numbers are solid, but come in just 365 plate appearances, including only 95 in 2018. Chisenhall missed a lot of time in 2018 with calf strains in both legs, and missed time in 2017 with a shoulder injury and a concussion. So there are clearly injury concerns, which is probably what suppressed his market and price.

At the same time, it’s clear to see how the Pirates can get value here. All they need is for Chisenhall to stay healthy and produce like he has been doing when healthy the last two years. The best part is that they don’t need him to be healthy and productive as a starter for the entire year. They only need him to be healthy and productive for two months, maybe less. After that, any production from him is a bonus.

If Chisenhall doesn’t work out, then it’s only $2.75 M lost.

If Kang and Chisenhall don’t work out, then it’s $5.75 M lost. If you look at the free agent market the last few years, that amount of money won’t get you much. A top reclamation project would cost $8 M a year or more. Late inning relievers were running around the same price. If you want a starter, then you’re talking about a price north of $10 M, maybe even $15 M or higher, depending on the quality of the player.

A win above replacement level is valued at around $8-9 M. If the Pirates get 1.0 WAR combined from Kang and Chisenhall, they’ve already gotten positive value. Chisenhall was worth 1.4 fWAR in 2017 and 0.8 in his limited time in 2018. If Kang can get close to Freese value, then that would be over 1.0 WAR alone.

You don’t have to stretch your imagination to envision the Pirates getting 2.0 WAR combined from these guys. And if the Pirates hit it big with one of them, and get starter quality performance over the long-run in 2019, then they’re going to get a huge value — even if both players reach all of their performance bonuses and finish with their maximum salaries, which is coincidentally $5.75 M max per player.

Getting value is important for the Pirates. They have some money to spend this offseason, with a projected payroll around $80 M after the Chisenhall signing. They’re coming off a year where they won 82 games, and they’re returning all of the key performers from that team. They also made a splash at the deadline to boost the 2019 club with Chris Archer and Keone Kela.

They have some room to spend, but like any small market team, they’re going to be limited in the types of players they can go after, and how much they can spend overall. We’ve seen them counter this in the past with a lot of value-based moves, getting starter quality production for a fraction of the price. That’s largely what led to their winning ways from 2013-2015. And you could argue that they moved away from the aggressiveness of that approach the last few years, which could be one reason why they didn’t perform as well as the 2013-15 clubs.

We won’t know how Chisenhall, Kang, or any other value signing will work out until we actually see the results. I don’t think it would be surprising if we look back a year from now and see some of these types of moves as huge steals. For now, the approach of adding these types of guys is an encouraging sign, giving the Pirates a few wild cards that they can dream on for the 2019 season.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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