Last year, the Pirates had a potentially expensive arbitration class of nine contracts that featured the likes of Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, and Mark Melancon, among others. I don’t have to tell you what happened with those first two, of course.
This offseason, the Pirates have an equal number of potential arbitration cases (9), but that will have a smaller overall potential cost, albeit with some key players to address. To determine potential arbitration salaries, I’ll be using two avenues. The first is the arbitration model we developed that shows for a standard arbitration player with three years, the rates are 25%/40%/60% of their potential free agent value. Once that dollar figure is determined, I’ll use the second part to adjust as necessary by finding a comparable recent player to gauge against.
3RD YEAR ARBITRATION PLAYERS
TONY WATSON (2016 salary of $3.45M for his arb-2 year)
Tony Watson is entering his final year of control with the Pirates in his arbitration-3 year. The model says that Watson’s salary should be around $5.25M. However, with Watson taking over as closer for the final two months of the 2016 season and accruing 15 saves, I’m going to bump that up a touch to $5.8M.
JUAN NICASIO (2016 salary of $3M for his arb-2 year)
Nicasio is an odd case. There aren’t a lot of players that have progressed through the arbitration system with stats as both a starter and a reliever. Nicasio is better as a reliever and I believe the Pirates would love to see him claim the setup role that is most likely going to be vacated by Neftali Feliz this offseason. Since becoming a reliever, Nicasio has pitched 54 innings, struck out 75, and walked 20. I’m going to stick with the model’s forecast of $4.5M.
JARED HUGHES (2016 salary of $2.15M for his arb-2 year)
Hughes is a different case, as he’s a Super Two player, meaning he gets four bites at the apple instead of three. (Felipe Rivero will be falling into the same category next year). When we developed the arbitration model for Super Two players, the percentages came back at 20%/33%/50%/70%. By those numbers, Hughes is on track to make $3.2M. However, this past season was atrocious for Jared Hughes, even if he surface numbers don’t indicate it. His ERA doesn’t reflect the fact that the fireman we’ve come to know and love started to let a large number of inherited runners score in 2016, thus charging the runs off to the preceding pitcher.
With Hughes’ escalating salary and decreasing productivity, I’m actually projecting him to be a non-tender candidate. I think the Pirates have other arms on hand that could fill his role and a lower cost of salary.
2ND YEAR ARBITRATION PLAYERS
JEFF LOCKE (2016 salary of $3.025M for his arb-1 year)
I’ve been a defender of Jeff Locke over multiple articles here at TPOP. To me, he was a perfectly serviceable #4/#5 starter at the relatively low-cost price of $3M this past season. It seemed as if people had an unrealistic view of what a 5th starter should be. However, after his June 25th start against the Dodgers (7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 K) his season went drastically off the rails. To make matters worse, when he was moved to the bullpen for a few games and then given a spot start, he pouted and made excuses for his poor performances instead of shouldering the blame.
The rise of the Pirates’ young pitchers in 2016, both top of the rotation and back of the rotation guys, has squeezed Locke out of the picture, in my opinion. The model shows him getting $4.85M, which I’m going to keep, even though he didn’t finish out the year in the rotation. Neal Huntington has made some cryptic statements about Locke’s value on the trade market, implying that even though his surface numbers are not appealing, he may be of interest out there to another team based on his two years of control. If he’s not traded, I believe that Locke is a non-tender candidate.
JORDY MERCER (2016 salary of $2.075M for his arb-1 year)
Quietly, Mercer had a very solid year for the Pirates in 2016. His previous two years were plagued by prolonged slumps at the start of the year that he had to dig himself out of the rest of the year, but he put forth a full campaign from start to finish this year. He’s workmanlike and not flashy, which in this era of fantastic young shortstops around the Majors makes him seem poor, but he’s a steady option for the Pirates.
I’ve had Mercer on the Zack Cozart track of salaries and don’t see much reason to alter that. The model has Mercer at $3.32M this coming season. Although Cozart’s arb-2 salary was $2.925M, that was due to the fact that his 2015 season consisted of only 53 games; his salary probably would have been around $3.7M had it been a full one. Since Cozart has a stronger bat than Mercer, I’m going to put Mercer at $3.4M.
DREW HUTCHISON (2016 salary of $2.2M for his arb-1 year)
You guys remember Drew Hutchison? He was the key (and only) return in the Francisco Liriano salary dump/financial flexibility move/resource re-allocation bruhaha at the trade deadline on August 1st. Remember when the Pirates had to use two prospects (that aren’t going to be that good) in Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez as sacrificial lambs to pay down Liriano’s 2017 salary? No one really brought that up in Pittsburgh, so I wasn’t sure if you recalled it.
Hutchison was exiled to AAA by Toronto and then continued his Napoleon-on-Elba exile after his trade to Pittsburgh. Why? Perhaps some second-tier thinking is that Hutchison entered the 2016 season with 3.128 years of service, meaning 3 years and 128 days. A full year of service time is 172 days, so with his joint exiles, Hutchison did not qualify for an additional year, so the Pirates still have three potential years of him.
With very little major league time this year, Hutchison’s salary will probably be flat and come in around $2.5M.
WADE LEBLANC (2016 salary unknown for his arb-1 year, signed minor league deal with TOR)
I’m probably dedicating to many brain cells to a guy that I believe won’t be on the Pirates’ roster once the calendar flips to 2017, but here we go. Last year LeBlanc was pitching in Japan. This season, he signed a minor-league deal with Toronto and got traded to Seattle before ending up here in September to fill out the roster. He has 500+ career innings of 4.40 ERA as a mediocre starter and OK bullpen guy. I’ll say $1M and be done with it, but I think he’s a non-tender.
1ST-YEAR ARBITRATION PLAYER
The first part of determining what a 1st-year arb player may make is to guesstimate what he would make as a free agent presently. Cole, as a low-end #1/high-end #2, is probably in the Johnny Cueto level of contract and Cueto just recently got $23M/year. Using the 25% for an arb-1, that equates to $5.75M.
Next, let’s see what some other young #1-level pitchers got last year in arbitration. The tragically-departed Jose Fernandez got $2.8M, Matt Harvey got $4.3M, and Dallas Keuchel got $7.25M. That’s all over the board for three pitchers of equivalent value. But with Fernandez and Harvey both missing significant time for injuries, here’s how their inning totals look for all three going into arbitration last year (with their awards in parentheses):
Jose Fernandez — 289 IP, ($2.8M)
Matt Harvey — 427 IP, ($4.3M)
Keuchel — 671 IP, ($7.25M), has a Cy Young on his resume
Cole — 579 IP
So it appears as if the rule of thumb for this level of pitcher is $10,000 per inning pitched. I’m sure more goes into it, but perhaps I’m giving arbitration calculations too much credit. By that metric, Cole has pitched 579 innings and should be looking at around $5.8M.
Pedro Florimon did not accrue enough service time to be a standard arbitration player, but there is a chance he got enough days to around the 2 year 130 day Super Two cutoff. Florimon is a useful piece to have around, especially if you can stash him at AAA. He’s a good glove and can run the bases. These kind of borderline players get about $750K in their first years of arbitration, historically, a slight increase over Major League minimum salary.
If you total up all nine players shown above, the total comes out to $31.8M. However, I think the Pirates will non-tender/trade Hughes, Locke, LeBlanc, and maybe Florimon. That would bring the five-man arbitration class down to $22M.