Winter meetings: Pittsburgh Pirates still don’t get it

Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug  Opening image credit nbchardballtalk. 

Thoughts as some utterly disheartening Winter Meetings for Pirates’ fans begin to wind down…

1.  Entering the offseason after a history-making playoff run, I was cautiously optimistic about the following:

“That ‘thud’ sound? Probably our offseason to date.” Image credit isportsweb

*Pittsburgh Pirates’ ownership would finally fulfill their multiple promises to fans that with increased attendance as we’ve seen, they would finally provide an MLB-competitive payroll.

*No longer saddled with the yoke of offseason rebuilding, GM Neal Huntington would pursue well-respected talent to transform the Pirates into legitimate National League pennant contenders.

Like many Pirates’ fans, I have been supremely disappointed to date.  Huntington has made it clear through multiple interviews that the 2014 payroll will not be substantially higher than 2013- if at all.   Further, the GM’s free agent veteran dumpster diving has hit an all-time low.

2.  In fairness, I was wrong to be critical of Huntington’s acquisitions of C Russell Martin and eventual NL Comeback Player of the Year SP Francisco Liriano, as both turned out to be key contributors to the 2013 Pirates’ playoff run.  I certainly didn’t mind giving Huntington props during the season, but worried that this was a rare hit in a two-decade-old strategy filled almost entirely with misses.

3.  The GM has clearly gone back to the well again this offseason, drudging up 3 of the worst regulars in all of baseball in 2013, handing them a combined $8,000,000 (which is approaching the range where a team can sign one quality free agent), and hoping they’ll fill holes on a team far more desperate for marquee talent than roster-occupying role players.

Volquez (R) had a 5.71 ERA in 2013; image credit zimbio

4.  I’ve always liked SP Edinson Volquez, but even I have trouble giving the 30-year old righty with a career 83 ERA+ more than a Spring Training invite, let alone $5,000,000.  Defenders were quick to draw analogies to Liriano’s redemption a year earlier, but Liriano’s best season was two years prior to signing with Pittsburgh.  Volquez’s?  Five.  2008, to be exact.  And he hasn’t hit 100 ERA+ since.  Worse yet, there’s no team option year, so even in the rare event that Volquez pitches really well in 2014, he’ll quickly price himself out of the Pirates’ pocketbook.

5.  Coupled with SP Charlie Morton’s 3-year extension ($7MM/yr average) on the same day as the Volquez signing, I can’t help but wonder whether A.J. Burnett privately told the Pirates he was either retiring, or simply didn’t want their admittedly “below market” offer.  The Pirates then moved quickly to spend those limited resources elsewhere.

6.  Clint Barmes.  Why Neal, why?  It’s bad enough that Pirates’ fans had to stomach two years and $11,000,000 worth of .593 (64 OPS+) and .558 (58 OPS+) OPS’s from Barmes, but the batless shortstop also tallied 28 errors over the past 2 seasons, casting doubt on his status as an elite defender.  To bring Barmes back for another $2,000,000 is a folly, but to do so under the management of Clint Hurdle is a travesty.

Sorry, Jordy Mercer.  Looks like your 118 OPS+ (which would’ve ranked 4th among NL shortstops, had he the at bats to qualify) rookie season isn’t going to cut it.  With Hurdle at the helm, you better prepare yourself for Sunday afternoons, because that’s the only day of the week you can rely on to start consistently.

Now a Pirate…for some reason; image credit nydailynews

7.  Another promising Pirates’ rookie in 2013 will also have his playing time potential quashed in 2014 by one of the worst hitters in the American League in 2013.  C Chris Stewart was recently acquired by the Pirates for some reason, after posting a .211/.293/.272 slash line for the New York Yankees over 294 at-bats.  That’s no small sample size, and it builds on Stewart’s astoundingly low .575 career OPS (57 OPS+) over 734 plate appearances.

Stewart will not only burn through $1,000,000 of owner Bob Nutting’s money, but will almost certainly steal at bats from C Tony Sanchez, who posted a surprising 94 OPS+ through 22 games as Martin’s backup in 2013, to go along with an .872 OPS at AAA Indianapolis.

8.  So does Neal Huntington value draft picks, or does he not?  He certainly sounds like it here:

“It would be awfully tough for us to surrender a draft pick,” Huntington said. “Because we are mortgaging our future for our present, and that’s something we’ve talked about not wanting to do. We’ve talked about continuing to work to sustain this. We don’t want to break it one year and we have five more losing seasons.”

But consider the following:

*The Pirates could’ve insured themselves against the loss of A.J. Burnett by extending him a qualifying offer of $14,100,000, which would’ve given them a team’s 1st round pick if they stole Burnett away.  The Pirates didn’t do so, because Huntington claimed the cost was “too steep.”

*During the first year that MLB allowed teams to trade comp picks, Huntington quickly dealt the Pirates’ 1st rounder to the Miami Marlins for Gaby Sanchez, whose production is limited to the short side (vs. LHP) of a 1st base platoon.

Pirates more likely scared by price tag on Choo, rather than loss of draft pick; image credit mlbtraderumors

To me, it seems like the Pirates have less of an issue with losing a 1st rounder (they wouldn’t even pick until 28th overall this year anyway, far removed from the marquee draft talent) as they do paying the price tag associated with a marquee hitter like OF Shin-Soo Choo, who would absolutely solve the Pirates’ hole in RF, but would cost the miserly organization at least $15,000,000 a year to do so.

9.  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ron Cook disappoints me.  I normally appreciate his frank assessments of Pittsburgh sports, but much like Triblive writer Dejan Kovacevic was wooed to a private 2-hour “off the record” meeting with Huntington in 2010…

“Morning links: Meeting with GM
Saturday, 24 July 2010 00:40
Written by Dejan Kovacevic

“Some might be interested to know, in light of this being something of a topic last weekend, that I had a mutually sought meeting with Neal Huntington on Friday afternoon at PNC Park, lasting for about two hours. Just me and him, with nothing for the record or anything like that. Just an open exchange.

“All I will say about it, now and forever, is that it was immensely appreciated.”

Cook; image credit cbspittsburgh

…Cook seems to have fallen for the same siren song.  After talking with Huntington for more than an hour, Cook promptly wrote an article calling out Burnett for “stringing the club along”, and condoning the Pirates for not pursuing any high-priced free agents.  A very curious about-face, considering some of the sports writer’s highly-critical pieces in the past.

10.  If Huntington and the Pirates are going to continue to play the “small market = low budget” card despite all actual evidence pointing to the contrary, they need to stop wasting money on non-essential roles.

If you are a GM tasked with building a competitive roster on the cheap, you don’t burn $1,000,000 to bring in one of the worst hitters in the AL to be your backup catcher.  You save money by letting a promising young rookie who has nothing left to prove at AAA fill the role and gain experience.  You don’t waste $2,000,000 by bringing back one of the worst regulars in the NL to block the path of one of your best rookie success stories from the previous season.

Pay? Not much so far. Image credit elifbatuman.

You consider giving your ace and fan favorite a fair qualifying offer to show the players and fanbase that you are willing to spend money to retain your contributors, but are also smart enough to guard yourself against losing them with the insurance of a 1st round draft pick coming your way if you do.  You take the limited financial resources you have, and you invest them in 1 or 2 quality improvements, rather than spreading the money over 4-5 players that don’t produce to even replacement levels.

And if your team has vaulted itself back into the hearts and minds of fans across Major League Baseball, then dammit, you spend what you need to spend to actually keep them there.

Neal Huntington and the Pirates are once again popping nickels into high-roller slot machines, hoping to hit triple cherries two years in a row.  (And they’re only using a nickel at a time, because the bonus pay lines are too expensive, even though they could increase the Pirates’ chances of winning.)  Technically, it could happen, but they’ve only hit on 1 of the previous 21 pulls, so the odds are not in their favor.

Thanks for reading.  Hopefully we’ll have some promising Pirates’ news to discuss next time around.


  • Luke

    this article is simply ridiculous relying one or two BIG additions to live up to their giant contracts will only kill what the pirates are currently doing.while the inactivity is boring, they should stay the course, give their young guys a chance to play and not overpay for mediocre players with a big name. im not sure on Volquez, he could end up like Jonathan Sanchez did but who knows he could end bringing the same value or more then scott feldman produces this season. I would love for them to get James Loney but not for 3 years and 20+ mill and I dont think the bucs would ever do that. if they could bring back burnett too. perfect. anything more would be a complete shock and probably not a good idea. give the young guys in the minors we have been grooming a chance, not a bunch of old washed up veterans.

    • James Krug

      Actually Luke, one or two big additions would be far superior to Huntington nickel-and-diming the Pirates with 4-5 players each earning a few million dollars, which aren’t worth a damn collectively. Barmes, Stewart, and Volquez were 3 of the worst regulars in baseball last year. Are these really moves that we as fans should be promoting?

  • dave

    Don’t worry Tim Williams says these are great moves. If Tim says they’re great moves he’s either right, will deny saying they were great moves when they perform terribly, or delete all posts to his website proving him wrong. I can’t really blame Tim though, if my meal ticket (read press pass and access to Pirate minor league facilities and personnel) was tied to Scrooge McNutting’s sack I wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me either.

    • WriteBrainedJR

      If this is one of those cases where keeping access means saying something nice or not saying anything at all, there’s always the option of not saying anything at all. Back off with the sucking-up and spin and let the few critical (read: objective) voices be heard, instead of drowning them out with sycophantic spin.

      • James Krug

        I think that raises a really good point. It seems like one of the problems- especially in a smaller-sized city like Pittsburgh- is that the media given direct access to the Pirates often feels compelled to defend the team and their actions. They fear that by not doing so, their privileges will be curtailed, and so the cycle repeats.
        Nice observation on your part. Thanks for reading and posting.

  • WriteBrainedJR

    I’d say Neal and Nutting have a better chance of hitting triple cherries in bed than in free agency. These guys suck.