I’m not sure if anyone has noticed this, but there’s a little bit of a gaping hole in the center of the 2018 Pirates’ outfield. It didn’t get a lot of press around these parts, but the Pirates traded face-of-the-franchise/one-of-the-greatest-modern-Pirates, Andrew McCutchen, to the Giants a couple of weeks ago. In terms of everyday options, the Pirates have Starling Marte and the chronically underachieving Gregory Polanco still in the fold, but after that it’s a bouillabaisse of flawed options and untested players.
The Pirates are currently sitting on a payroll of $84M, accounting for all arbitration salaries and minimum scale salaries to fill out the roster, so they have some wiggle room for an addition to the team. Oh, and they have a $50M BAMTech check coming any day now…which owner Bob Nutting says is going to be re-invested in facilities and player development and…ugh…hands going numb…may be having…an aneurysm.
There are ready made, plug-and-play options available on the free agent market like Jarrod Dyson and Jon Jay. Each has positives and negatives. Each may need a 2 year deal at about $5-6M per year to make it happen. Maybe you like Carlos Gomez and hope he’ll bounce back. Maybe the Pirates can get Cameron Maybin to replace one 2005 1st round draft pick with another.
But there’s also the trade market and some teams have been making moves lately that portend they’ll have to make other moves to reduce their surplus. One of those teams are our neighbors to the north, the Toronto Blue Jays.
Toronto is a team with a lot on the line this year. Their payroll currently sits at $151M after a series of moves designed to win-now this year, as their best player (Josh Donaldson) is a free agent after this season as are two of the Blue Jays’ pitchers (Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ). If they don’t make the playoffs this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Blue Jays tear it down in the offseason and re-load on the same timeline to match the progression of their top two prospects in the minors, 3B Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. (SSL 80, BA #3 prospect) and SS Bo Bichette (SSL 75, BA #8 prospect). Those two are each three years away, so a modest rebuild would be right in line with their debuts.
The Blue Jays traded for Cardinals OF Randall Grichuk and signed OF Curtis Granderson as a free agent. Both of them are going to play as recent acquisitions, although Granderson has a built-in platoon split against fellow lefty pitchers that needs to be covered up. Still on hand for the Jays is defensive whiz CF Kevin Pillar, Steve Pearce, Ezequiel Carerra, and unproven players Teoscar Hernandez and Anthony Alford.
In order to get Grichuk, the Blue Jays had to trade reliever Dominic Leone, who may not be a household name, but is a very good reliever that featured heavily in the 7th and 8th innings for them. If you’re jumping ahead in your thought logic, you can probably see where I’m going with this — the Pirates move a reliever for an outfielder and both parties get what they want.
But which one from each side? Ah, there’s the rub. Let’s look at the outfield candidates for the Blue Jays:
Kevin Pillar (age-29 in 2018 season) is a defensive savant in CF. He’s like a Kevin Kiermaier-lite in terms of his defensive proficiency. Pillar carries a career 85 wRC+ (15% less than league average offense), but his defensive chops are sublime.
If the Blue Jays want to win in 2018, they need to keep Pillar in CF, most likely. He makes chicken feed ($3.25M in his first arbitration year) in 2018, plus if the Blue Jays do decide to rebuild, he’d fetch a nice asset with his two years of control after this season. He’d be a good pickup, especially if his career-high power surge of 16 homers continues, but I can’t see Toronto moving him right now.
Did You Know? Not only was Steve Pearce a long-time Pirates farmhand, but he was also drafted in the same draft year as McCutchen? The former 8th round pick never did much of anything with the Major League club after showing very well in the minors. No one put up too much of a fuss when he left in 2011.
Pearce carved out a decent little run with the Orioles first and then the Rays in recent years. He’s banked a good sum of money for his effort, so good for Steve Pearce. Last year with the Jays was a mixed bag. Pearce only played in 92 games, as he dealt with back issues, but he did have a league-average bat when he played (.252/.319/.438, 99 wRC+, 13 HR). The defensive metrics did not rate his work very kindly in LF last year for the Jays (-12.4 UZR/150).
This year is Pearce’s age-35 season and he makes $6.25M. If the Pirates are going to get him, with his inherent flaws, then my suggestion for the return to the Jays would actually make some sense. Foreshadowing!
Ezequiel Carerra has been around the block a bit, but he’s still entering 2018 in his age-31 season. Last year was pretty easily Carerra’s best year in the Majors, as he crested the 100 mark of wRC+ for the only time in his career with a 107. His line of .282/.356/.408 in 325 at-bats is a very respectable line. He contributed 8 homers and 10 stolen bases to the campaign.
Carerra is very cheap, just $1.9M in his arb-2 year, and still has one more year of control remaining. He’s a great 4th OF to have on your team, even if he’s not able to cover CF for most teams. Luckily, the Pirates have two (theoretically) CF-capable players in Marte and Polanco already.
Carerra wouldn’t be a savior, but he wouldn’t embarrass himself out in RF, either. He’d require a modest return to the Blue Jays.
Teoscar Hernandez/Anthony Alford
I’m lumping both of these guys together, as both have minor league options remaining, so the Blue Jays could very easily just shuttle them back to AAA Buffalo. Teoscar Hernandez is kind of like a younger Carerra in that he’s more of a 4th OF long-term for me. The age-25 Hernandez showed well in his 95 at-bats with the Blue Jays after coming over from the Astros in a trade (.261/.305/.602, 132 wRC+, 8 HR), but he had an alarming 37.9% strikeout rate and his power spike is obviously unsustainable. Hernandez has a full six years of control remaining.
Anthony Alford (age-23 in 2018) has been on the Baseball America Top 100 list multiple times for the Jays over the years. He made his Major League debut in 2017, but only received 8 at-bats. Alford has dealt with injuries throughout his minor league career, but his power-speed combo is intriguing. With his full six years of control remaining and his prospect star holding steady at #60 this year, the Blue Jays are not going to move him unless it was part of a substantial deal.
What Would The Pirates Give Up?
After fantastic closer Roberto Osuna, the Blue Jays bullpen is pretty non-descript. With Leone gone to the Cardinals, MLB Roster Resource lists the Blue Jays setup men as Ryan Tepera (3.59 ERA/3.75 FIP, 1.0 WAR) and Joe Biagini (5.34 ERA/4.27 FIP, 1.4 WAR due to his starting 18 games, too). They could use a boost.
If the Pirates picked up Pearce, the logical return to me would be another downtrodden asset with 1 year of control remaining — Daniel Hudson and his $5.5M salary. The Pirates would only be taking on a net positive of $750,000 and they get a semi-competent corner OF bat. This would allow Jordan Luplow much needed time in AAA and the Pirates could mix and match Adam Frazier/Sean Rodriguez when needed.
If the Pirates pursued Ezequiel Carerra, then you might be looking at more of an Edgar Santana-type of return. The six years of Santana’s control obviously don’t balance out the two of Carerra’s, but Santana is at best a 7th inning guy and rather fungible. With Kyle Crick hopefully just needing a tune-up in AAA, I could Santana being a casualty of the bullpen numbers game at some point in 2018 anyway.
Look…I’m writing this in the wake of the Brewers trading for Christian Yelich (giving up the type of prospects that Huntington never has in a deal for the present) and signing Lorenzo Cain. They still don’t have any pitching, but their payroll is so low right now that they could sign Yu Darvish (as they’re rumored in on him) and trade OF Domingo Santana for another young, controllable pitcher.
That would put the Brewers in the mix for the division title and put a direct market-size competitor in a position far better than the Pirates.