After decades of watching the Pirates let talent go, Neal Huntington has done a great job in recent years at extending players and buying up their free agent years.
Giving guaranteed money to a player doesn’t always work. Josh Harrison has not lived up to his big deal yet and Jose Tabata’s contract was a disastrous error (albeit an affordable one).
But those failures are overshadowed by the successes. Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have combined for 42.5 fWAR since they each signed their respective deals. One fWAR is traditionally worth $7M in the open market, meaning they “should” have made just under $300M. The Pirates have paid them a combined $39M to date.
Huntington did a great job in re-signing his two most important pending free agents this year: Francisco Cervelli and David Freese. Still, there are several players that could be good extension candidates that need to be looked at.
(Please note that any projected contracts are just rough estimates on what similar players have received in recent years. If something seems high or low, it might be. I’m a nerd, not an accountant.)
Why they should:
With the exception of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson is the most reliable reliever the Pirates have had the past few seasons. Even though his ERA has taken a jump to 2.72, that is mostly due to an uncharacteristic three game stretch in early June where he gave up seven of his 16 earned runs. He has posted a zero in 45 of his 55 outings this year.
Why they shouldn’t:
Relievers are extremely volatile from year to year. Drew Storen went from a 1.12 ERA in 2014 to losing the closer job in 2015 to being DFA’d in 2016. Jose Valverde was a perfect 49/49 in save opportunities in 2011 before becoming a minor league pitcher in 2013. Even the Pirates’ Jason Grilli went sour in 2014 before being traded. The list goes on and on.
Watson is holding batters to an .096 average with runners in scoring position, which is the lowest among all NL pitchers with over 25 innings. While you can make the argument that he is clutch, luck probably has something to do with that too. Eventually bleeders and bloops will come with runners on second and third.
Watson has also seen his WAR values drop this year. In 2014 and 2015, he was worth 1.4 fWAR per year. This year that number has dropped to 0.2 fWAR. A big reason for that is his jump in walks (from 1.75 per nine innings in 2014 to 3.23 this year) and his diminishing sinker, which is losing velocity, resulting in him throwing it less.
Relievers can get by with only two pitches and Watson still has a great changeup, but when you think of great closers, they all have great fastballs or cutters.
Watson is going to be an interesting case in his final year of arbitration because he will have a lot of holds and saves, but he is guaranteed to get a nice raise from his $3.45M contract this season.
Mark Melancon was a similar case after inheriting the closer job midseason in 2014, and he more than doubled his pay from $2.6M to $5.4M that winter. If the same happens to Watson, that would put him at about $7M in 2017. Huntington has never given a reliever more than two years in a contract. That second year would probably come with another decent pay raise.
Last year Oakland gave $6.5M and $4.5M contracts to relievers with some closing background. Darren O’Day, who is a few years older than Watson and had similar numbers serving as Baltimore’s setup man, was given a four year deal with two of those years paying $9M. Watson would probably make a little more than that since it would be just for one year.
Prediction: 2 yrs, $17 M ($7M in 2017, $10M in 2018).
Why they should:
Even though some fans are questioning Cole due to his recent slump, there is no denying that he is the ace of the Pirates’ rotation, an All-Star and a potential Cy Young contender when he is hot.
We all know that Cole is not destined to be a lifer in Pittsburgh. That’s not necessarily bad, but a contract to buy out his arbitration years makes sense on both sides.
Cole has seen one of his fellow Scott Boras clients go from All-Star to being non-tendered over the course of a few seasons: Pedro Alvarez. This year is most likely just a step back for him, but he can guarantee his pay increases heading into free agency, giving him more selling power once his six seasons are through.
The Pirates will have peace of mind knowing how much their best pitcher is going to cost them over the next few seasons, and with the influx of young starters that have/will come up, they could probably afford to invest an inordinate amount on him. Perhaps if they’re lucky, they might even be able to buy a year of free agency too.
Why they shouldn’t:
Two words: sticker shock.
There is also the risk that Cole might not return to his 2015 form, and that might have to do with who is catching him. Cole holds batters to a .617 OPS when Chris Stewart is catching him. Batters have a .710 OPS when Cervelli catches him. If Stewart leaves, will Cole mature or will he continue to be just a guy with a mid-three ERA? Is it worth the investment knowing that you may need to commit 4 percent of your roster to a personal catcher?
Dallas Keuchel just set a first year arbitration record this past offseason with a $7.25M payday. While Cole has been worth more fWAR than Keuchel was entering arbitration, the Astros star also had a Cy Young on his resume. We’ll operate on the assumption that Cole only gets 90% of what Keuchel did, putting him at $6.5M in his first year of arbitration.
Cole could probably double that salary in 2018 and then get close to David Price’s $19.75M arbitration salary in his last year.
Prediction: 3 years, $39M ($6.5M in 2017, $13M in 2018, $19.5M in 2019).
Why they should:
After an off year in 2015, Mercer hasn’t been spectacular, but he’s been solid. He has provided the Pirates a near league average stick at the bottom of the lineup and a good double play partner for Harrison. While his glove has been lacking according to most advanced defensive metrics this year, he passes the eye test with flying colors.
He has also become more patient at the dish, walking 9.4% of the time compared to just 6.3% in 2015 and 2014. He’s also had some power return to his bat, clubbing nine home runs and 17 doubles.
Why they shouldn’t:
The farm system is currently littered with quality middle infielders. Pirate fans have already become familiar with Adam Frazier, but there is also Max Moroff (who I wrote about a few weeks back), Alen Hanson and Gift Ngoepe already on the 40-man roster. Kevin Newman is also a top 50 prospect overall and currently is hitting over .300 in AA. He is projected to be major league ready by 2018, but that could be accelerated to September of next year if he keeps raking.
While Mercer is a solid major leaguer, he is still rated as a slightly below average shortstop. Out of the 26 who qualify, Mercer ranks 20th in fWAR (1.0), 17th in wRC+ (97) and 20th in isolated power (.117).
Mercer is still a few years away from free agency, which is probably better for him because last year’s middle infielder free agent market was brutal. His pay raises will solely go on merit.
The Rockie’s D.J. LeMahieu signed a two year pact for his first two years of arbitration after a 1.8 fWAR season in 2015. Mercer had a comparable year, falling within 15 points in OBP and 5 in slugging.
LeMahieu took two years, $7.8M, with $3M due in 2016. Mercer would probably get a modest bump from that figure since he’d be entering his second year of arbitration. It’s safe to assume that if Mercer continued to play well, he too could get close to 60% pay increases year by year.
Prediction: 3 years, $17.5M ($3.4M in 2017, $5.4M in 2018, $8.6M in 2019).
– – – – – – – – – – –
Follow Alex @AlexJStumpf