The Pirates have a relatively small arbitration class this year, but there are some key names in it — their starting SS, their #1 pitcher, and a budding stud closer.
To determine potential arbitration salaries, I’ll be 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 adjust as necessary by either finding a comparable recent player to gauge against or to factor in that player’s performance in the 2017 season.
3RD YEAR ARBITRATION PLAYERS
JORDY MERCER (2017 salary of $4.325M for his arb-2 year)
As we continue to hone in on these projections, we study why our numbers were too high or low from previous estimates. We had estimated Mercer last year at $3.4M, but in actuality he got nearly $1M than that. His 2015 season was his platform season that saw him receive $2M in his first arb year. But that was an injury-plagued year that saw him hit only 3 homers and have poor offensive stats. His 2016 season saw a return to a more typical Jordy Mercer line of .256/.328/.374 (89 wRC+) with steady defense. This resulted in the $4.325M for the 2017 season.
Mercer is a middle-of-the road shortstop overall. His 2017 line of .255/.326/.406 (88 wRC+, 1.4 WAR) shows exactly what he is — he’s good for the Pirates, but not great. With Kevin Newman not impressing very much in AAA this year, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Pirates offer a small extension to Mercer, similar to what they did with Cervelli when it became apparent they didn’t fully trust Elias Diaz or Reese McGuire. A 3-year deal would probably be appealing to both sides.
As for his 2018 salary, I’m using the $4.325M as the 40% figure in arbitration-2 and increasing it by 1-1/2 times for a potential salary of $6.5M. A possible 3 year deal of 3 years/$28.5M (using his free market estimate of $10.8M as a starting point) could be the bones of an extension.
GEORGE KONTOS (2017 salary of $1.75M for his arb-2 year)
You really have to hand it to the Giants. For a guy with as many games and appearances as Kontos, the Giants must have masterfully gamed his service time. Use him, send him down. Recall only when needed, send right back down. Through all of these maneuvers, Kontos has fallen into the Super Two category, as he entered 2017 with 3 years and 171 days of service time. That’s right — it takes 172 service days to qualify for a full year, so he got hosed out a full year by 1 day through the machinations by the Giants. But only the Pirates manipulate service clocks, right?
Neal Huntington has been after this particular white whale since 2008 when Kontos and Phil Coke were rumored to be two of the pitching pieces in the Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte deal. When a medical issue turned up (probably with Kontos, who ended up tearing his UCL in 2009), the pairing switched to Daniel McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf (along with Jeff Karstens and the infamous Jose Tabata, of course).
Kontos is a good-not-great reliever, something that the Pirates certainly can’t turn their nose up at after this putrid bullpen year. Using the Super Two model, I’m projecting Kontos for $2.7M. Considering the Pirates were more than willing to give Jared Hughes $2.8M last year, I have to imagine they’re fine with this potential number. He can easily slide into a 7th inning role for the Pirates next year.
2ND YEAR ARBITRATION PLAYER
GERRIT COLE (2017 salary of $3.75M for his arb-1 year)
I was very surprised by the figure of just $3.75M for Cole, accepted without potentially enduring a “file-and-trial” between Scott Boras and Neal Huntington. We had him projected, based on his accrued innings and good counting stats, to get $5.8M. But like with Mercer, his platform season heading into his first arbitration year was injury-plagued and not up to his standards. It probably shouldn’t have been as surprising, in retrospect.
His 2017 season wasn’t as gleaming as his Cy Young-contending 2015 season, but it was miles better than 2016. Cole took the ball 33 times and compiled 203 innings of 4.26 ERA/4.08 FIP, resulting in 3.1 WAR. That’s equivalent to a high-end #3 starter, when you factor in his K rate (8.69/9 IP) and BB rate (2.44/9 IP). Cole was undone this year by his bout of homeritis, which will merit a followup article of its own later this offseason.
Much like with Jordy Mercer, I think that Cole is going to get rewarded for the return to normalcy and double his salary to $7.5M. If you thought the constant debate over whether Gerrit Cole Is An Ace was teeth-grittingly bad this year, just imagine when he starts making Pirate-expensive money next year.
1ST-YEAR ARBITRATION PLAYER
Well, this should be interesting. It was pretty apparent from very early on in the 2017 season that Felipe Rivero was, by far, the best Pirates’ reliever in the bullpen. But with it being Tony Watson’s last year before free agency, the Pirates wanted to showcase him as a closer in an attempt to swing a lesser version of the Mark Melancon trade from 2016 that begat Felipe Rivero in the first place.
So Rivero bided his time behind both Watson and newly-signed setup man, Daniel Hudson. After watching both Watson and Hudson self-immolate on a near-nightly basis, Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington both swallowed hard and agreed to install Rivero as the closer. Besides boosting Watson’s trade value, the other reason for not installing Rivero as the closer sooner was to suppress his saves total. Coming into the year, Rivero was tracking to be a Super Two player and a Super Two reliever with saves gets very expensive, very quickly.
A perfect example is John Axford. The Brewers pressed him into service as the closer in his rookie year of 2010 and by the time he started his Super Two arbitration adventure, he had accumulated 71 saves. His first year arbitration figure was $5M for the 2013 season. Once his performance started to slip, his baseline salary started to work against him. He went through a series of non-tenders with the Cardinals and Rockies and…the Pirates…before finding a deal with the A’s in 2016. He’s since been DFA’ed by them this past season.
Rivero will only enter the process with 24 saves, but he’s still going to make the cash register ring a little bit more than he would have as a setup guy. Plus his 1.67 ERA/2.47 FIP (2.1 WAR) is pretty flashy, too. I’m going to factor in his setup time with his unreal closer time this year and put him at an even $3.0M. If this is his baseline, that means using our 20%/33%/50%/70% Super 2 arbitration model, Rivero is going to get very expensive, very quickly.
That would bring the four-man arbitration class to $19.7M heading into the 2018 season. If the payroll isn’t bumped up, there’s not going to be a lot of available extra cash when you couple the arbitration estimates with the $61.6M of salary commitments already.