How the Pirates Should Spend Their Russell Martin Money

Russell Martin is gone. But perhaps for the Pittsburgh Pirates he is gone for the better.

Russell Martin leaves PiratesThe Pirates offered Martin a four-year contract to stay in the ‘Burgh, according to Travis Sawchik of the Tribune-Review, and I must think it was in the area of the Cubs’ $64 million offer to the departed catcher.

So it goes. Baseball is a zero sum game — chalk it up as a plus for the 2015 Blue Jays and a minus for the 2015 Pirates.

But then the Bucs can turn the crisis into opportunity.

Let’s get into the mind of general manager Neal Huntington and spend $64 million a different way. Let’s make the 2015 team better and ensure the future of the team is strong. Let’s diversify our portfolio.

What do the Pirates need? Mostly pitching and help at first base. In order to get an accurate view of our money, we’ll use the always-pretty-good crowdsourced (CS) contract projections from FanGraphs, adjusting them up or down a million or two as I see fit.

Start with the, um, starters…

Instead of mailing $36 million to Francisco Liriano, I propose spreading his potential money around to four free-agent pitchers, including three starters that I consider all to be improvements on the current back-of-the-rotation candidates of Jeff Locke, Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton.

Starting Pitcher — Edinson Volquez — 2 years, $16 million

Pirates pitcher Edinson Volquez

(Courtesy: David Hague)

Bringing Volquez back may not be as sexy as trucking in new blood like Brandon McCarthy or Brett Anderson, but I believe that Volquez is one of the better investments the Pirates can make.

Consider first that Volquez has a lot to improve on as a pitcher in 2015 — he wasn’t that great last year. Now, that may sound absurd if you’re looking at Volquez’s 3.04 ERA, but his ERA was so low largely because of luck on balls in play (a career-low .263 BABIP) and in sequencing (he stranded a career-high 77.5 percent of baserunners).

General managers are smarter than ever. They won’t be taken in by Volquez’s 3.04 ERA and overpay him based on that number (WARNING: May not apply to Ruben Amaro), so I could see him returning at $8 million per year.

Look at what Volquez actually did in 2014:

  • He walked far fewer batters (a career low 8.8 percent walk rate) and…
  • Got more ground balls (50.4 percent, above his career average), but…
  • Had his worst career season striking hitters out (just 17.3 percent K-rate and 8.3 percent swing-and-miss rate)

I want to see Ray Searage tutor Volquez for another two seasons, especially since Volquez does not turn 33 until the second half of the 2016 season. I’m no fan of small sample sizes, but if you believe that Volquez’s better second half (3.87 FIP and 19.3 percent K-rate) is evidence of Searage’s handiwork, then Volquez could look truly great in 2015.

Volquez has said that he would “like to stay” in Pittsburgh, citing his feeling that last year he “signed in the right place with the right coaches.” He wants to be a Pirate, and so do I.

Starting Pitcher — Justin Masterson — 1 year, $10 million

Free agent Starting Pitcher Justin MastersonNeal Huntington could not build a better match for his ideal free-agent pitcher.

Ground-ball generator? Over the last three seasons, Masterson has generated the third-highest grounder rate in the Majors (minimum 300 innings), behind only Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel.

Strikeout man? His 20.4 percent strikeout rate since 2012 is above-average for starting pitchers, right around the zone of Mat Latos, Bud Norris and Matt Garza.

Regression for the good? The former Indian and Cardinal has a 4.62 ERA over the last three seasons, but a far better FIP (3.94) and xFIP (3.83). Put a better defense behind Masterson, and his run-prevention numbers should improve.

Former top prospect? A young Masterson was Boston’s No. 4 prospect entering the 2008 season and No. 64 of all prospects by Baseball America.

Masterson’s main issues are a high walk rate (around 10 percent) and those poor run-prevention numbers, both of which were problems the Pirates’ pitching coaches attacked in order to improve Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez.

At the very least, Masterson ought to gobble up innings — he had four straight seasons of 29+ starts and 180+ innings before dealing with knee, rib and shoulder problems this past season.

Starting Pitcher — Josh Johnson — 1 year, $5 million

Free agent Starting Pitcher Josh JohnsonBuilding a rotation is a war against attrition — and Josh Johnson is Exhibit A. He has suffered through forearm strains, arm inflammation, shoulder inflammation, and Tommy John surgeries the first and the second.

Johnson is returning from that second surgery and is turning 31 years old. Consider it almost likely that your $5 million will become completely lost money, as the folks at Webster’s have unkindly placed a picture of Johnson next to their definition of the word “liability.”

But the high risk is exceeded by an even higher chance for reward. In 2010, he was the best pitcher in baseball. Really. His league-best 2.41 FIP lapped the opposition, guided mostly by his striking out one of every four batters.

Let me repeat: this is a guy who over a full season looked like baseball’s best pitcher.

In 2012 he again pitched like a No. 1 starter, posting a 3.40 FIP by getting plenty of strikeouts and allowing very few homers.

If you can swallow the distinct possibility that you will get nothin’ at all, nothin’ at all, NOTHIN’ AT ALL from Josh Johnson, you could collect the value of a top-of-the-rotation starter on the very cheap. Huntington had Johnson as his No. 1 target last offseason, so Neal, here’s your guy again!

I present your starting rotation chart heading into 2015 Spring Training (with numbers since the start of 2012), as you always want more starters than you think you will need.

  1. Gerrit Cole (3.09 FIP, 3.28 SIERA, 97 ERA-)
  2. A.J. Burnett (3.51 FIP, 3.52 SIERA, 104 ERA-)
  3. Josh Johnson (3.77 FIP, 3.84 SIERA, 112 ERA-)
  4. Justin Masterson (3.94 FIP, 3.86 SIERA, 120 ERA-)
  5. Edinson Volquez (4.15 FIP, 4.29 SIERA, 119 ERA-)
  6. Jeff Locke (4.20 FIP, 4.21 SIERA, 107 ERA-)
  7. Brandon Cumpton (3.04 FIP, 3.88 SIERA, 113 ERA-)
  8. Vance Worley (3.98 FIP, 4.10 SIERA, 109 ERA-)
  9. Stolmy Pimentel (3.85 FIP, 3.32 SIERA, 127 ERA-)

Relief Pitcher — Ronald Belisario — 1 year, $4 million

Free agent Relief Pitcher Ronald BelisarioI have previously stated that you should not pay for relief pitcher, and that there’s no such thing (this side of Mariano Rivera) as a consistent reliever.

I stand by both those statements. Or at least, I sit by them, because I don’t stand when I blog.

That said, I think it is worth it to devote a little bit of cash to improving the bullpen, which is critical for a team that should be right on the cusp of playoff position all year. Last year the Pirates’ bullpen ranged from average (7th in the 15-team NL in ERA-minus) to below-average (12th in FIP). Huntington ought to add new bullpen blood instead of crossing his fingers and hoping the later innings turn out fine.

Enter Ronald Belisario, who since 2012 has the third-best grounder rate of all relievers with a minimum of 120 innings.

His 5.56 ERA last year with the White Sox was mostly due to awful luck on balls in play (.339 BABIP) and sequencing (57.7 percent strand rate). He still had a career-best strikeout-to-walk rate.

When you include his superhuman ability to get ground balls, Belisario has been a legitimately above-average relief pitcher: his 3.17 SIERA over the last three seasons is better than that of highly-regarded relievers like Drew Storen, Jeremy Affeldt and Pat Neshek.

Belisario will be 32 and not worth of multiple years, but he would likely accept a $1-million raise from his 2014 salary and improve the Pirates’ bullpen. Maybe he could even be — GASP — consistent.

Projected Bullpen (3-year totals):

  • RHP Mark Melancon (2.52 FIP, 2.23 SIERA, 70 ERA-)
  • LHP Tony Watson (3.13 FIP, 3.00 SIERA, 64 ERA-)
  • RHP John Holdzkom (2.13 FIP, 1.04 SIERA, 56 ERA-)
  • RHP Ronald Belisario (3.42 FIP, 3.17 SIERA, 105 ERA-)
  • RHP Jared Hughes (4.04 FIP, 3.54 SIERA, 78 ERA-)
  • RHP Stolmy Pimentel (3.85 FIP, 3.32 SIERA, 127 ERA-)
  • RHP Vance Worley (3.98 FIP, 4.10 SIERA, 109 ERA-)

First Base — Michael Morse — 1 year, $8 million

Free agent first baseman and outfielder Michael MorseWe’ve heard murmurs of Adam LaRoche being a good fit returning to the Pirates, but I don’t like the price ($10 million per year) or the likely two-season obligation to a 35-year-old. Morse is a better value and could even be more productive at the plate than LaRoche.

Morse’s 112 wRC+ over the last three seasons has been better than that of Adam Dunn, Nick Swisher and Mark Trumbo. The dude can hit. More specifically, the dude can hit both righties and lefties, making Morse into Andrew McCutchen’s ideal of an everyday first baseman instead of a platoon guy.

He is often blasted for being a terrible fielder, but that’s really more true of his lack of ability in the outfield (-12 runs saved and -19 UZR per year) than it is at first base, where he is almost average (-4 runs saved and -2 UZR per year). Keep him at first, and he won’t be any worse than LaRoche at the position.

So Morse is an above-average hitter and an average fielder. He looks like a great value.

The only issue I have is one of too many cooks in the first-base kitchen. The Pirates would have to non-tender Ike Davis and/or Gaby Sanchez (or trade them for cents on the dollar) so as not to spoil the broth. And it will fill my heart with so much, so much looooooove.

Michael Morse would be a fine everyday first baseman, leaving Pedro Alvarez to potentially try third base one last time. I think it’s worth it to see if Alvarez can get his mind and arm right at the position in Spring Training.

Outfielder — Chris Denorfia — 1 year, $5 million

Free agent Outfielder Chris DenorfiaThe only gap I now see on the 2015 Pirates (other than catcher) is a lack of right-handed hitting off the bench, especially if Gaby Sanchez must depart.

In the underrated Chris Denorfia (by Baseball Blogger Law his full name must include “the underrated”), the Pirates would acquire a masher of left-handed pitching, as his 123 wRC+ against southpaws since 2012 is comparable to right-handed-hitting sluggers Adam Jones and Yoenis Cespedes.

But wait, there’s more! The defensive metrics love Denorfia in the outfield — even though he is entering his mid-30s, Denorfia averaged +11 UZR and +10 runs saved as an outfielder the last two seasons.

What a quietly fine piece to acquire — a veteran No. 4 outfielder who can smack lefties and act as a late-game defensive replacement for Gregory Polanco if need be.

And I’ll bet Denorfia (who has never made more than $2.25 million in a season) will want to play for a contender. He will turn 35 next year, his 10th major league season, without a postseason appearance. The Pirates can certainly entice him to join the NL Central hunt.

Now (with numbers over the last 3 years) we have an offense!

RF Gregory Polanco (.235 BA/.307 OBP/.343 SLG — 87 wRC+) (-6.7 UZR/150)
3B Josh Harrison (.285/.321/.440 — 113 wRC+) (+10.5 UZR/150)
CF Andrew McCutchen (.320/.405/.534 — 160 wRC+) (-4.8 UZR/150)
2B Neil Walker (.267/.341/.438 — 119 wRC+) (-3.7 UZR/150)
LF Starling Marte (.282/.342/.445 — 123 wRC+) (+14.7 UZR/150)
1B Michael Morse (.266/.313/.448 — 112 wRC+) (-3.0 UZR/15)
SS Jordy Mercer (.263/.314/.404 — 98 wRC+) (-2.5 UZR/150)
C Francisco Cervelli (.291/.373/.447, 132 wRC+)

C Chris Stewart (.238/.309/.298 — 69 wRC+)
1B/3B Pedro Alvarez (.236/.308/.452 — 109 wRC+) (-8.1 UZR/150)
IF Justin Sellers (.194/.278/.287 — 62 wRC+) (9.0 UZR/150)
OF Chris Denorfia (.269/.324/.390 — 103 wRC+) (+9.1 UZR/150)
OF Travis Snider (.243/.315/.380 — 96 wRC+) (-4.6 UZR/150)

Okay, we have spent $48 million of our $64 million budget to vastly improve the 2015 Pirates team. Now we can use that last $16 million to look to the future, as Neal Huntington is always conscious of doing.

Use $5 million to lock up Gregory Polanco

Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco

(Courtesy: David Hague)

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the Pirates are still discussing an extension with Polanco. Yet those now-months-long discussions have still not resulted in a signed contract. Why? Well, why do you think?

Last we heard, the Pirates offered a 10-year deal reportedly worth up to $75 million, but the words up to are significant, since the contract would have included multiple non-guaranteed team options at the end of the deal.

Polanco is worth extending. Don’t let his rookie struggles fool you — Gregory Polanco is going to be the real deal. The Pirates would not be offering tens of millions to keep Polanco in Pittsburgh through 2024 if they didn’t believe he will thrive here. They want to lock him up before he potentially becomes a champagne-popping $300-million man.

After more than half-a-year of negotiating, I have to believe Polanco’s agent and the Pirates front office are not that far away from each other in dollars. Maybe turning $5 million from non-guaranteed money to guaranteed money would close the deal? Polanco was no bonus baby at $150,000; the assurance of cash could be enough to put his pen to the contract.

Use $5 million to lock up Jordy Mercer

Pittsburgh Pirates Shortstop Jordy MercerSpeaking of real deals — Jordy Mercer is the Pirates’ shortstop of the future.

Having played 252 regular season games the last two years, we have a decent MLB sample size on which to judge Mercer. That judgment? He is very good.

  • Offense: 7th of 28 shortstops (min. 700 PA) with a 100 wRC+, better than J.J. Hardy and Asdrubal Cabrera
  • Defense: 7th of 23 shortstops (min. 1500 innings) with +7 runs saved, better than Jean Segura

When he is healthy, Jordy Mercer is one of baseball’s 10 best all-around shortstops, and it’s not unreasonable to think he could be one of the five best next season.

Now it is on the Pirates to pay Mercer before the other teams can figure out how great he truly is. Mercer is not a natural extension candidate, as he will only become a free agent at age 32. However, the Bucs may need his services in those age-32 (2019) and age-33 (2020) seasons.

Nobody else is walking through that clubhouse door. Solid starting shortstops are hard to come by. In the system, last year’s first-round pick Cole Tucker may be the only true shortstop prospect the Pirates have. And Tucker may not be ready to take over the job until 2020 — even then he’ll only be 23.

Jordy Mercer is your starting shortstop now and into the future, and this appears to be the best time to lock in the price, with that $5 million bridging any gap in negotiations.

New Long-Term Contracts:

  • Gregory Polanco through 2024
  • Starling Marte through 2021 ($50.5 million)
  • Jordy Mercer through 2020
  • Andrew McCutchen through 2018 ($51.5 million)
  • Charlie Morton through 2017 ($25.5 million)
  • Jose Tabata through 2016 ($9.25 million including buyouts)

Squirrel away $6 million for next offseason

Maybe next November the Pirates will want to make a play for an top-flight pitcher like Johnny Cueto, David Price or Jeff Samardzija. If they’re in on a No. 1 starter, they will need all the money they can gather up; $6 million may make the difference between acquiring your ace or letting him slip away.

Or perhaps you want to put that money toward a Gerrit Cole or Neil Walker extension, or use it on the international market, or help give McCutchen a new megadeal to keep the outfield together into the 2020’s.

Point is, the Pirates have a lot to gain by spreading $64 million to several players instead of tying it all to one player — even a great one like Russell Martin. A diversified portfolio is a balanced one, and perhaps a better one.

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5 thoughts on “How the Pirates Should Spend Their Russell Martin Money

  1. “He wants to be a Pirate, and so do I.”

    We all want to be Pirates, James.

    Aarrrrr.

    But you just replaced a 4/$64 contract (which would probably have been something like $10M/$14M/$18M/$22M) with a bunch of short-term deals that would cost the team around $40M in 2015, $8M committed in 2016, $6M reserved for something else in 2016, and $10M in longer-term commitments.

    There’s a big difference between 10/14/18/22 and 40/14/2/2/2/2/2.

    • You wouldn’t believe how much time I spent trying to phrase that Pirate sentence correctly.

      As to the second thing, you make a good point in that area. But it’s not so ridiculous if you think about two things —

      (1) Even if the Pirates signed Martin, they would have still needed to spend more money this offseason to upgrade the pitching staff and possibly first base. It’s entirely possible that Martin+Pitching could have brought the 2015 payroll up around $100 million, just as my plan would.

      (2) The ownership and front office have to be mindful of the future, certainly, and not put all the eggs in the Russell Martin basket. However, if there is any time to finally push the payroll to $100 million (which is now the league median), it’s now. The Pirates are legitimate playoff contenders, and this is ownership’s opportunity to parlay some success into more success.

      • Sure, but then you should be comparing what they would have spent on (Martin + pitching + first base) in 2015 to what they can now spend on (pitching + first base + whatever else) in 2015. You can’t just suppress the time variable and say that since they avoided spending $64M on Martin over 4 years, they can go ahead and spend $40M in 2015.

        Well, you can, actually; it’s your blog and you can do whatever you want :-). But it’s not reasonable to expect the Pirates to spend $40M on free agents in 2015 just because they avoided spending $64M over the next four years.

      • I honestly haven’t done the homework to say. Don’t you understand that it’s so much more fun to criticize someone else in blog comments than to actually do the research?

        What I would say is that if they were willing to go 4/64 with Martin, that means they’ve likely got around $11M they can apply elsewhere in 2015, because they replaced 12M 2015 Russell Martin dollars with roughly 1M 2015 Francisco Cervelli dollars. There may be more (maybe they are willing to go 3/36 with Liriano so if he signs elsewhere they’ve got another $8M-$10M; maybe they free up another $6M-$9M from the three-headed first basemonster; Wandy’s off the books; etc.) – but all we know now is that they’ve got around $11M to spend on FA that they wouldn’t have had if they’d signed Russ.

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