PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) – A year after John Jaso and Jose Osuna spent swaths of time patrolling outfield grass for the Pirates, it’s hard to believe it, but here we are.
The Pirates still only have two Major League-ready, everyday outfielders on their roster.
And they’re telling us – straight-faced, mind you – that trading Andrew McCutchen didn’t reduce their chance of winning in 2018.
With just two outfielders.
If Pirates’ management truly believes that the team they’re sending to Bradenton in less than two weeks can truly compete in an NL Central with the Cubs, a Marcel Ozuna-fortified Cardinals’ team, and a now loaded-for-bear Brewers’ club, they need to acknowledge several items:
1) The trades of McCutchen and Gerrit Cole drastically reduced 2018 payroll. By projections, it will be around $80 million on Opening Day.
2) This is – if everything goes as expected – a 78-win team.
3) It will take at roughly 83-84 wins to “compete” for a postseason berth (i.e., finish the season within 5 games of the final NL Wild Card spot).
By simple math, no one free agent player on the market can add the 5-6 wins necessary for the Pirates to actually compete. But, if you’re looking to sell short-term hope to bridge the gap to the arrivals of Austin Meadows and Mitch Keller, an established veteran on a 1-year flier of a contract at $8-12 million wouldn’t be a huge gamble. If that player gets you 2-3 wins, the rest of your everyday roster only needs to over perform by 3 wins combined to put you in the “competition” for a postseason berth.
In fact, that kind of player is abundantly available in a historically cold offseason for Major League Baseball. And whether it’s the luxury tax, collusion, next year’s All-Star free agent crop on the horizon, or just a third of the league deciding this is the year to tank, the convergence of factors means the Pirates, if they want to, can back up the somewhat ridiculous assertion that trading McCutchen and Cole doesn’t hurt their chances to win a World Series.
It means they’ll have to commit to actually hiring a third, Major League-ready, everyday outfielder, though. And they’ll have to commit to a payroll that would still come close to hitting the $90 million mark. When you consider, though, that this spring’s $50 million payout from MLB’s sale of its stake in BAMTech to Disney would take care of at least half that, and that revenue sharing will take care of a majority of the rest, if not all of it, that number isn’t astronomical; not even for a team that’s staring down the barrel of the lowest attendance of the Clint Hurdle era.
So, Bucco management wants to maintain the idea that they can “compete,” spending another $10-15 million won’t throw them into the red, they need to add 2-3 wins at a single position, and they’re a year away from Austin Meadows taking over a corner outfield spot.
What players fit into this hole the best?
Let’s take a look:
5) Jarrod Dyson (1 year/$9 million w/club option for 2nd year @ $10 million)
He doesn’t provide the pop that the Pirates’ lineup is in desperate need of, but he’ll give Starling Marte someone worthy of succeeding him in PNC Park’s enormous left field, meaning fewer Adventures in Outfielding for Osuna and Adam Frazier, and less time out there for Gregory Polanco, who’s shown himself almost wholly incapable of handling any spot other than right field. For a pitching staff that’s still focused on downhill angle, sinkers, and pitching to contact, the vastly improved defense over last season – when according to Ultimate Zone Rating they had the worst outfield defense in their division – could save the runs that Dyson’s bat can’t bring. Give him the extra year in case you want to bring him back as your 4th OF in 2019 when Austin Meadows should be starting the year in Pittsburgh.
4) Neil Walker (1 year/$11million w/vesting option at 500 plate appearances for 2nd year @ $11 million)
I know, I know, I know. You think I’m crazy for suggesting this.
To be honest, I kind of think this is crazy, too. Especially if the Red Sox and Yankees are still sniffing around the Pittsburgh Kid and willing to give him 2 years/$20+ million.
What if they’re not, though? And what if Neal Huntington went to Walker, hat-in-hand, and said “Neil, I need to acknowledge that trading you for Jon Niese is one of the largest mistakes of my career. I need to acknowledge that the way we treated you on the way out the door was less-than-ideal. And I need to acknowledge that bringing you back gives us a legit middle-of-the-order 20 HR option… IF you can stay healthy. Here’s $11 million to play second base 130 times, first base 10 times, and a cute little vesting option to reward you if you can stay heathy, and also because I’m pretty sure you hate me.” Then tell Josh Harrison he’s playing left field this year and enjoy having Starling Marte, Josh Bell, Neil Walker, Gregory Polanco, and Colin Moran hitting 2-through-6 for you.
3) Carlos Gomez (1 year/$11million)
Get over Gomez’s Easter 2014 brawl at PNC Park with Travis Snider and you get a guy who, despite a decline over the last 2-3 seasons, is still a curious mix of skills that play like Starling Marte lite. Maybe a titch more power, a lot less speed, but range to play all the way to the notch in left-center field.
You also get a guy who could be the veteran voice of accountability that’s lacked to an extent since the departure of A.J. Burnett. Gomez has an attitude at times, but it’s because he expects to win and busts his rear end 110% of the time to try and make it happen. Effort’s not lacking in the Pirates’ clubhouse, but for a young team –and the Pirates’ were tied for 3rd youngest before trading the 31-year old McCutchen and 27-year old Cole– having a veteran around who won’t suffer losing easily can be an important step in learning how to win.
2) Melky Cabrera (1 year/$10 million)
Cabrera may be at the point in his career -34 years old and floating from team-to-team like a tumbleweed on the prairie- that he’s more interested in a multi-year deal. That’s assuming he’ll find one on this ice cold market, though. And there simply aren’t a lot of teams looking for a 34-year old outfielder with limited range and ability in the field. He does still have a little power left though, and he can still hit from both sides of the plate.
While more of his power comes from the right side – his HR rate is twice as high in that regard than on the left – and all of his home run metrics (Fly Ball rate, Pull rate, etc.) indicate he’ll continue to swing for more power from the right side than the left side, there’s something enticing about getting the Melk Man in the beer league softball stage of his career with the Clemente Wall looming just 320 feet away.
Yes, his defense can be atrocious, but if you feel like Polanco may be able to figure out left field, Cabrera’s ability to show up from both sides of the plate in the top of third of the order day-in and day-out is valuable.
1) Carlos Gonzalez (1 year/$12 million)
This is all about the bat and betting on a bounceback.
CarGo was a disaster in 2017, with a .160 Isolated Power number that was his lowest since his rookie year of 2008 in Oakland. Away from Coors Field that plummeted to just .129. However, as FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik pointed out recently, Gonzalez came back to life in September, slashing .370/.477/.753 and producing 1.3 WAR.
In one month.
Get that CarGo for a full season, and you’ve got an MVP. Heck, get that for 2 months, and a 1-year/$12 million deal would already be a bargain.
There is no better 1-year gamble on the corner outfield market right now than Gonzalez, and if Huntington wants to impress upon his boss, and his boss’s boss, how important remaining relevant is, he’d bring in a potential 30 HR bat with the ability to make rain over the Clemente Wall – or at least put some holes in that fancy new pirate ship Trevor Williams wants to put out in the Allegheny.
Perhaps this is all for naught. Perhaps the Pirates will decide to divvy up playing time between a slew of less-than-ideal options in left field, as Jason Rollison of Pirates Breakdown wrote about recently in his Cabrera post. Perhaps the Pirates will continue to tell us they think they can compete in 2018 without actually having three Major League-ready, everyday outfielders. Perhaps saving the $9-12 million it would take to pull of one of these moves is simply too rich for their blood.
Perhaps though, on the off chance they want to look like they believe their own ‘we can still compete’ rhetoric, they’ll take a flier on one of these options.