101 Plate Appearances. That’s how many times Josh Harrison has come to the plate in 2015. It might seem silly to talk about a player struggling when the sample size is this small. When it comes to Josh Harrison, though, there are some pretty clear warning signs that can’t be ignored. No one expected Harrison to repeat his surprising 2014 line of .315/.347/.490. There was some pretty clear BABIP help there that boosted the average and OBP, particularly because Harrison is, for lack of a better phrase, walk averse. Last season he set a career high walk rate at 4%. That’s not very good. Among players who qualified for the batting title last year it’s the 10th worst walk rate. It’s not impossible for a player to be valuable walking 4% of the time, but you’re throwing a lot of your fate to the BABIP gods, unless you have the secondary skills to make consistently hard contact that should lead to more hits. Harrison might have something like that. He makes contact with a greater than league average percentage of pitches he swings at. He also swings at a far greater than league average percentage of pitches. In 2014 the league average swing rate was 46.7%, Harrison swung at 52.8% of pitches thrown. One of his problems this season is that he’s swinging even more. 54.4% of the time, versus a 46.5% league average. So while the average swing rate has virtually stayed the same, Harrison’s swinging at 2% more of the pitches thrown his way, and most of those pitches are outside the strike zone. Harrison has always swung at a high rate of pitches outside the zone. In 2014 he swung at 39.2% of pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone, compared to a 31.3% league average rate. So far in 2015 he’s swung at 41.8% of pitches thrown outside the zone. That 2% increase in pitches Harrison’s swinging at (primarily outside the strike zone) could be leading to less consistently good contact, while at the same time limiting his ability to take walks. Fangraphs new soft/medium/hard hit tracker system seems to agree with this idea. In 2014 Harrison hit the ball softly 14.9% of the time, medium 53.2% of the time, and hard 31.8% of the time. In 2015 Harrison has hit the ball softly 19% of the the time, medium 53.2% of the time, and hard 27.8% of the time. Swinging at more pitches outside the zone has thus far sapped Harrison’s ability to hit the ball hard, not by a lot, but enough to damage his offensive profile. Those soft hit balls are turning into more grounders (Harrison’s ground ball % is up almost 4% on last season), which aren’t yet finding holes in the infield. So while some BABIP regression (his .211 figure won’t be so low for very long) should help Harrison regain his offensive prowess, without even a small adjustment he isn’t likely to provide similar offensive value to his 2014, not that anyone expected him to anyway.
With Spring Training rapidly approaching, it’s a good time to take remember some things that maybe people forgot over the winter.
Statistics do not matter
This is the most important thing to remember about Spring Training. The statistics are meaningless. The level of competition isn’t level, there aren’t enough games to judge how good a player is against Major League talent, some pitchers aren’t throwing all of their pitches while others are. Remember Jackie Bradley jr.? In 2013 Spring Training Bradley jr. hit .419/.507/.619 and broke camp north with the Red Sox when indications before the season were that he would start in AAA. The rest, as they say, is history, with Bradley jr.’s bat tanking in the bigs and a demotion back to Pawtucket. He doesn’t really have a place in the Boston outfield now. You know who led the Grapefruit League in hitting last year? I don’t, and a pretty cursory google search revealed that it’s possible those stats aren’t even online anymore. So don’t worry about it if Starling Marte hits .125/.220/.250 or Pedro Alvarez doesn’t hit a home run. If Jung Ho Kang hits .400/.500/.600, that doesn’t mean he should be the starting shortstop over Jordy Mercer. It just means he had a really, really good spring. Although the same could be said if he discovers tacos for the first time. That’s a really good spring.
Jung Ho Kang’s debut
Speaking of Kang, the public knows virtually nothing about how the 28 year old Korean will translate to Major League Baseball. Spring Training is earliest chance to see not only how the Pirates use Kang, whether he plays predominantly shortstop, second base, or elsewhere, but how he performs at each of those positions. If it seems like he has the defense to play a passable shortstop, it lowers the bar for what his offense must produce in order to provide positive value on what is an already minimally risky contract. As previously mentioned, Kang’s statistics offensively won’t mean a whole lot. So enjoy the chance to scout Kang on TV during those four televised games, because the best part about Spring Training is the opportunity for every person to pretend that they’re scouts.
Watch out for injuries
The Brewers just announced that Jonathan Lucroy is out 4-6 weeks with a hamstring strain. The Tigers announced that Victor Martinez’s surgery went well and he should be ready for opening day. Josh Hamilton’s hurt again. None of these injuries happened in Spring Training, but they’ll affect how these players prepare for the season. Once people start playing baseball there are going to be injuries, and that’s fine. That happens. You just have to hope that your team is lucky and doesn’t suffer any injuries that severely impact the team’s chances of success. If you’re a nice person you could hope that no player suffers any kind of injury that could hurt his career. That’s a good thing to hope for too. Particular Pirates with injury histories to keep an eye on: Francisco Cervelli, Corey Hart, and that’s pretty much it. The Pirates are a mostly healthy team.
Just listen to baseball on the radio, watch it when you can, and read about it. Go outside and enjoy nature, because Spring Training means that the weather’s warming up. And do not pay attention to statistics.
The Pirates have a smart front office. They spend money smartly. They also like to find pitchers who might qualify as cheap reclamation projects and attempt to reshape them into valuable assets. One such rumored acquisition is former Atlanta Brave Brandon Beachy, who last pitched in the majors in 2013 before re-injuring his elbow and undergoing a second Tommy John surgery (his first surgery came in 2012). Beachy was non-tendered by Atlanta in what would have been his second year of arbitration, so any team signing him would acquire his rights for two seasons. Beachy has mostly pitched effectively when able to make it to the mound, owning a career 3.23 ERA, 3.34 FIP, and 3.54 xFIP. Beachy has also struck out 25.1% of batters he’s faced, but his most glaring defect is his inability to remain healthy. The 28 year old has never topped 150 innings in a season, and has only broken 100 innings twice. There’s value in a pitcher who can put up similar numbers to Beachy’s, but he clearly won’t be able to throw enough innings to contribute much of anything next season. Steamer projects Beachy to throw 77 innings, with a 4.55 ERA and a 4.47 FIP. That’s virtually replacement level, worth 0.3 WAR. ZIPS has a slightly more pessimistic view of Beachy’s future, projecting 58 innings only, but with a 4.19 ERA and a 4.41 FIP. The drop off in run prevention is likely related to the injuries Beachy has suffered and the long layoffs the have ensued. If he can only throw 50 innings a year, it might even be that Beachy will have to find a home in a bullpen somewhere, to see how his arm plays in short bursts. Of course, the Pirates have a history of taking pitchers with problems and helping them back on track, but they’ve never had a pitcher with an injury history as severe and troublesome as Beachy’s, who doesn’t seem to have the control related issues that Jim Benedict and Ray Searage typically work on. It’s possible that a team might be able to recognize some flaw in Beachy that has led to his two elbow injuries, but it wouldn’t be smart to wager a significant amount of money on it.
The link to the Pirates comes from Jim Bowden, who listed the Pirates as the most likely team to sign Beachy in an article for ESPN insider yesterday. It’s not a clear fit, as the Pirates rotation looks mediocre but crowded enough. The team also appears confident in their minor league depth (as they likely should be, with several interesting players at or nearing Major League readiness). That’s the one way it would seem Beachy could make sense for the Pirates. A minor league deal laden with incentives should he appear in the majors and make a certain number of appearances or starts. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a bad minor league deal. Beachy would probably be hesitant to take one though, unless he was sure of his ability to make the Major League team out of Spring Training, a certainty he wouldn’t have in Pittsburgh. That’s why when reports are indicating he’s selected the team he wants to play for, it doesn’t seem like the Pirates will be the likely winners. Some team will probably be willing to give Beachy a major league deal in the hopes that he’ll continue to perform at a high level and stay healthy. That seems like a long shot though.
The Pirates signed Jung Ho Kang for 11 million dollars over 4 years, with a 5.5 million team option for a fifth year. Add the 5 million dollar posting fee and the $250,000 option buyout and the Pirates are committing $16.25 million to Kang. That’s less than the Astros will be committing to Jed Lowrie over his age 31-33 seasons ($22 million). The Pirates have Kang signed through his age 28-31 seasons. Lowrie will be the full time shortstop for Houston for at least the first of those years, and it seems as though Kang will be utilized as a super-utility player for his first season in Pittsburgh. With the impending departures of Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez after the 2016 season, Kang will likely be auditioning for a starting role at every position he plays. It will be interesting to see what position the Pirates give Kang significant time at, particularly in Spring Training, as it might signal their intent to deal the starter at that position (looking at you Walker).
An under-discussed aspect of the Kang signing is that the Pirates will now have their games broadcast in Korea. I’m not an expert on MLB media rights, and I wouldn’t pretend to be, but it seems as though it’s likely that the Pirates will make some amount of money for showing their games on Korean television. If they are getting money, it impacts the financial outlook of the deal, because even if the Pirates are only making half a million dollars for broadcasting their games in Korea (an uneducated and unresearched number), that’s half a million they would not be making if they hadn’t signed Kang. I don’t want to dig too deep into the Kang contract before he’s even played a Spring Training game, and the enthusiasm for the player should be tempered by the knowledge that every other team in the league didn’t think Kang was worth more than a $5 million bid, a relatively paltry sum for MLB clubs these days. With that said, the Pirates are looking to exploit the international market, and with the relatively low risk involved, there’s little downside to this deal.
A few days ago the Pirates were linked with soon-to-be Dodger Brandon McCarthy. While this news came out after the Pirates signed Francisco Liriano and it’s possible the Pirates were interested in Liriano or McCarthy, it would be smart of the team to look to acquire another starting pitcher. As currently projected, the Pirates rotation would consist of:
- Gerrit Cole
- Francisco Liriano
- A.J. Burnett
- Vance Worley
- Jeff Locke
Brandon Cumpton, Nick Kingham, Clayton Richard, and Brad Lincoln would serve as immediately available depth, as both Charlie Morton and Jameson Taillon will likely begin the season with injuries that prevent them from pitching to start the season. It also seems foolish to bet on the ability of Morton to make it through an entire season without missing at least some time due to injury, excluding the time he’s sure to miss at the beginning of the season. Taillon, ramping back up from Tommy John surgery, won’t be available for some time to begin with as the Pirates are sure to be cautious with him, and once he does return he’ll probably pitch for an extended period of time in AAA, only appearing in the majors in the event of an emergency or during the final part of the season. It’s also probable that at least one or two of the Pirates other starting pitchers will be injured at some point in the season and need to be replaced. Another issue is ineffectiveness. It’s possible that a starter might struggle and the team will feel they need to fill that rotation spot with a better option.
Fangraphs.com depth charts list the Pirates rotation as 16th in projected Wins Above Replacement from starting pitchers (8.8), tied with the Texas Rangers. It projects the following totals
|Gerrit Cole||174 Innings Pitched||3.63 ERA||2.2 WAR|
|Francisco Liriano||169 Innings Pitched||3.59 ERA||2.4 WAR|
|A.J. Burnett||169 Innings Pitched||4.05 ERA||1.6 WAR|
|Vance Worley||160 Innings Pitched||4.08 ERA||1.2 WAR|
|Jeff Locke||113 Innings Pitched||4.22 ERA||0.6 WAR|
|Brandon Cumpton||55 Innings Pitched||4.61 ERA||0.1 WAR|
|Charlie Morton||47 Innings Pitched||3.89 ERA||0.4 WAR|
|Jameson Taillon||38 Innings Pitched||4.07 ERA||0.3 WAR|
|Nick Kingham||28 Innings Pitched||4.58 ERA||0.0 WAR|
Obviously, it seems likely that Charlie Morton will pitch more than 47 innings, which should take innings away from the virtually replacement level Jeff Locke. The problem is that nearly all of the Pirates remaining options are replacement level. Should Charlie Morton be unable to return for longer than expected, or any other pitcher suffer an injury, the Pirates rotation will have two pitchers in it whose expected performance level will not help the team. Improving on the rotation would allow the Pirates to keep Jeff Locke as depth and bump every pitcher down a spot. When Charlie Morton returns the Pirates would then have to figure out their plans for their rotation, but it would be a good problem to have.
Any player projected to perform better than Jeff Locke this season should be considered an improvement on the fifth spot in the Pirates rotation. Once again using Fangraphs depth chart to estimate expected performance, any one of the following players would be a fit for the Pirates rotation, before you start to whittle down players based on presumed contract demands or other factors. It’s also important to note that the projections of each of these players should change marginally if that player were to sign in Pittsburgh. It’s also important to note that these are only free agent rotation candidates, and the list does not include any potential trade candidates the Pirates could explore.
|Max Scherzer||208 Innings Pitched||3.02 ERA||4.1 WAR|
|James Shields||214 Innings Pitched||3.62 ERA||3.2 WAR|
|Hiroki Kuroda||179 Innings Pitched||3.72 ERA||2.6 WAR|
|Josh Johnson||102 Innings Pitched||4.09 ERA||1.1 WAR|
|Jake Peavy||160 Innings Pitched||4.07 ERA||1.0 WAR|
|Edinson Volquez||166 Innings Pitched||4.62 ERA||0.8 WAR|
|Chad Billingsley||120 Innings Pitched||4.32 ERA||0.8 WAR|
|Kris Medlen||83 Innings Pitched||4.14 ERA||0.8 WAR|
Each of these starters represents a projected upgrade on Jeff Locke in the Pirates rotation. In narrowing the list down, it’s easy to rule out certain players. Kuroda won’t be a Pirate, as he’s repeated time and again that he’ll either re-sign with the Yankees, return to Japan, or retire. It’s also highly unlikely that Scherzer will be signing in Pittsburgh, due to his financial demands. Shields is more reasonable if the Pirates were searching for a higher tier starter, but it’s still unlikely he’ll end up in Pittsburgh. That eliminates the entire top tier of pitchers, leaving only reclamation projects and mediocre fifth starters. For 3/5 of the remaining starters, their biggest question marks are health. Medlen’s twice had Tommy John surgery, the last time in March of 2014. Any team signing him would have to be very wary of his medical reports. Billingsley’s recovering from a torn flexor tendon in his arm, an injury he too has suffered twice. Josh Johnson’s injury history is more complicated, and more extensive. The remaining two pitchers, Jake Peavy and Edinson Volquez, are innings eating fourth or fifth starters who’ll give you more in terms of innings, but sacrifice run prevention. If the Pirates seek an improvement on Jeff Locke and additional depth to their starting rotation, these are the best pitchers for the job.
The Indians just completed the long rumored deal to acquire 1B/DH/OF Brandon Moss from Oakland in exchange for 2B Joey Wendle, a 24-year old who’ll probably move to AAA this season and could make his Major League debut. The Indians are trading from a position of strength (middle infield) and acquiring a position they where needed help. The move gives the Indians some roster flexibility, and essentially ensures that the struggling Nick Swisher will see a vast reduction in playing time. Not only is Moss a safe bet to perform better than Swisher, he’s also far cheaper. If the Indians were able to find someone willing to take a gamble on Swisher they could look to offload him, eating some of the 30 million he’s owed over the next two seasons and receiving little in return in the way of prospects.
As for what Moss can be expected to provide when he recovers from the hip surgery that currently has him expected to miss a bit of spring training, his steamer projection for next season is:
.241/.328/.448, .340 wOBA, 121 wRC+, 1.8 WAR.
Moss gets dinged because his defense is well below average, but he’ll see time at DH to help mitigate that defensive loss. Mostly, Moss gives the Indians a power hitter, one who is only projected to make 7.1 million (by MLB Trade Rumors) and has another year of arbitration after this season. Even with his defensive liabilities, Moss will still provide a surplus value to his cost, and the Indians didn’t give up much by dealing Wendle. The most interesting part of this move is the possibility of a Nick Swisher trade that it opens up. Just something to keep an eye on as the offseason progresses.
The Pirates have until midnight tonight to tender contracts to each of their arbitration eligible players. They’ve already begun cleaning out the players they were planning on non-tendering anyway, with Gaby Sanchez and Ike Davis making room for other players on the 40 man roster. As of today, and before any last minute moves, the Pirates have 11 players eligible for arbitration. The breakdown below lists every player, their projected salary from MLB Trade Rumors, and a comment about the likelihood the player will be tendered a contract.
Sean Rodriguez- 2.0 million
It would be pretty stupid to trade for a player and then immediately let that player go. The Pirates will tender Rodriguez.
Neil Walker – 8.6 million
Walker has the highest projected salary of any arb-eligible player, but he’s still a bargain relative to his level of production.
Francisco Cervelli – 1.1 million
A similar situation to Rodriguez, Cervelli is the de-facto starting catcher for next season, and he’s a lock to be tendered.
Mark Melancon – 7.6 million
The Pirates have shown a hesitance to pay relievers a large amount of payroll, and perhaps the least talked about point of the offseason for Pirates fans has been Melancon and the possibility of a trade. None of that affects him tomorrow though, and he’s going to get an offer.
Chris Stewart – 1.3 million
Another cheap catching option, Stewart will probably backup Cervelli next season, and he’ll almost assuredly be worth around the 1.3 million the Pirates will be paying him.
Travis Snider – 2.0 million
Whether Snider is the starting right fielder or a bench player (or traded) won’t matter tomorrow, when the Pirates will keep him around for another season.
Pedro Alvarez – 5.5 million
The move to first base should help Alvarez in the field, even if it raises his offensive expectation. He’s not a lock to be worth 5.5 million, but there’s no way the team won’t pay him that much and more in the hope that he puts together a strong offensive season.
Tony Watson – 2.0 million
2 million, Tony Watson, easy decision.
Josh Harrison – 2.2 million
The arbitration system does a great job of depressing salaries. 2.2 million would have been more than fair for Harrison before he played as well as he did last season, now it looks like a steal. His age makes him unlikely to receive a long term extension, and the Pirates might do well to just take Harrison year to year and see if he keeps up the level of performance or anything close to it.
Jared Hughes – 1.1 million
Hughes is one of those relievers whose ERA was so much better than his peripherals he had both a sub 2 ERA (1.96) and a negative fWAR -0.4. In fact, he’s never been above replacement level in his 3 year Major League career. But he’ll probably take another crack at that next season, as the Pirates should have no problem committing 1.1 million to a middle reliever who gets a fair amount of ground balls even if he doesn’t miss bats.
Vance Worley – 2.9 million
Acquired for virtually nothing, Worley has turned into a rotation lock. He’s a back end starter, but back end starters are worth more than 2.9 million, and Worley will be worth that much next season.
The biggest takeaway from this list of the Pirates arbitration eligible players is that they’re probably going to tender all of them. They’ve already removed the obvious non-tender candidates, and they replaced them with players they want to keep. With the exceptions of Walker and Melancon, no one here is making above 6 million dollars. They’re fairly cheap arbitration eligibles, and they’ll hopefully settle their contracts sooner rather than later so the Pirates can be aware of their payroll obligations and allocate available resources elsewhere.