On Friday, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed David Freese to a 1 year/$3M deal to be the presumptive 3B starter while Jung-ho Kang continues his recovery from The Coghlaning. This is a move that I was endorsing back in mid-February when it seemed the Pirates were woefully shallow in depth.
I’d like to see #Pirates sign 3b David Freese. Would be Kang insurance, strengthen bench. Pirates have $ left, if Coonley’s $105m limit true
— The Point of Pgh (@thepointofpgh) February 16, 2016
There is nothing flashy at all about David Freese. He is pretty much the definition of league average player. Last year in 470 plate appearances for the Angels, he put up a 110 wRC+ (10% above league average). Defensively, he was also a hair above average with +1.2 runs saved and a 0.6 UZR/150. That equated to a 2.2 WAR, with 2.0 WAR considered to be a league average player.
For this upcoming season the four projection systems used by Fangraphs predict more of the same, ranging from 97 to 104 wRC+ with defensive ratings hovering around the break even point. Due to a predicted decrease in his plate appearances, his WAR has been estimated to be 1.3 to 1.7.
To me, though, this move has the possibility of being the most important move of the offseason. Why? Because for the first time, the Pirates’ front office is acknowledging that this is a playoff team and can not afford to squander any games with sub-par players.
If Freese was not signed, the Pirates ran the risk of playing the month of April with either the defensively-challenged Jason Rogers at third or the offensively-challenged Sean Rodriguez. Either scenario could have resulted in a black hole that may have cost the Pirates an April win or two that come October could have been the difference between the Division or the Wild Card.
The Pirates have always been far too optimistic in Kang’s recovery to me (although clearly they have infinitely more access to his medical records and recovery viewing). Trading Walker in December was a bold move to make and left them exposed with their infield depth. By waiting until mid-March, the Pirates were clearly hoping Kang could make it on Opening Day. When they announced last week that he would be out most of April, it was then that they pivoted to Freese and signed him up.
So now this is what a version of the Opening Day lineup could be:
- 2B Harrison
- 1B Jaso
- CF McCutchen
- LF Marte
- C Cervelli
- 3B Freese
- RF Polanco
- SS Mercer
I’ve seen some reports that once Kang returns Freese will assume the right-handed part of the 1B platoon with Jaso. Keep in mind that Freese has only played 9 games total at 1B over parts of three seasons, none since 2011, but what the heck — apparently having experience playing 1B is no longer a pre-requisite for the Pirates. This just tells me that the Pirates have no faith in Michael Morse, something I’ve felt and discussed for a while now, based on his limited work with the team after being acquired. He was brought in to send Tabata and his salary out.
This move makes either Jason Rogers or Morse redundant. If Morse can’t be moved, he’ll stay on as a bench piece that can cover 1B (and maybe 3B if the workouts are to be believed). This would put Rogers in AAA, as he has one remaining option. If the Pirates either eat Morse’s $4.67M salary or find a taker, then Rogers stays and gives the Pirates a bench piece that could cover both infield and outfield corners.
I’ve also seen a few people suggest that when Kang is back to playing shape that he should assume the everyday SS job and Freese stay as the everyday 3B. Kang got his leg broken and knee shredded playing SS and probably won’t be anywhere near 100% mobility, so there is no way the Pirates are going to risk him turning double plays this year, unless absolutely forced to by other injuries.
When Kang is healthy, the bench could then be:
- Chris Stewart
- David Freese
- Matt Joyce
- Sean Rodriguez
Uh, oh. Wait a minute. I don’t see a no-glove, wafer-thin middle infielder on this bench. The candidates of Cole Figueroa/Alen Hanson/Pedro Florimon may not have a place on the bench when Kang returns. If a problem arises mid-game, Rodriguez could be plugged in somewhere to fake it at 2B/SS. The Pirates may then have a reliever mysteriously develop a twinge and need to be 15-day DL’ed, enabling them to bring up one of the aforementioned trio in this scenario.
The option other would be to totally jettison the Rogers/Morse line item (with Rogers going to AAA), but then there would be very little power on that bench.
Regardless of how it exactly shakes out between now and April 2nd, David Freese is here and he has made the Pirates an ever-so-slightly better team. His salary takes the approximate Opening Day payroll up to $98M, leaving $7M off of Frank Coonelly’s $105M payroll statement. That means at the deadline, there would be a prorated portion of $21M of potential salaries that could be acquired by the Pirates. That’s a huge amount of flexibility to address any possible needs.