Baseball is a fickle mistress. The game returns while the world around us is in full bloom, with colors exploding, the days becoming longer and warmer. Then, just as the temperatures chill and those hues fade, fans are left with the prospect of a cold, long winter without the greatest game in the world.
Don’t worry. There will be plenty of activity between now and February (say it with me- pitchers and catchers report..)
The schedule may be complete, but as any astute baseball fan will tell you, there is no offseason. Between free agency, arbitration and the Rule V Draft, there is enough activity for a baseball junkie to survive the winter.
Today, let’s look at the status of some “on the fence” players- those who may or my not return in black and gold next season. For each player, I have provided a reason for a return (Welcome Back) and a devil’s advocate take on why the player may end up in another city (Hit the Road). In addition, the players in question have been broken into smaller groups: Trade Bait, Non-Tender Candidates, Pending Free Agents, and DFA (Designated For Assignment) Candidates.
-Player ages are as of Opening Day, 2008.
– The slash stats for the hitters are BA/OBP/SLG. VORP is a Baseball Prospectus stat the measures the amount of runs a player contributes above a replacement-level player at the same position.
– Cot’s Baseball Contracts was an invaluable source for this article. If you’re ever wondering the what the contract status of your favorite Bucco is, check out this site- the information is incredibly detailed.
Age: 29 Contract Status: Arbitration Eligible ($2.15 M in 2007)
2007 Stats: .278/.330/.476, 15.0 VORP in 470 PA
Welcome Back: Nady established a career-high in home runs ( 20) and slugging percentage (.476) for a Pirates team that finished 21st in baseball in Isolated Power (.149).
Hit the Road: Nady is due a raise in arbitration, and the right fielder’s trade value may never be higher. Though he certainly possesses some pop, Nady remains an impatient hitter (4.89 BB%) who is basically a second-tier starter, perhaps more of a platoon outfielder on a first-rate team (He showed some improvement in ’07, but Nady is a career .252/.302/.427 hitter against righthanders). 29 isn’t old, but is he really a building block?
Prediction: Hit the Road. Steven Pearce hasn’t embarrassed himself defensively in right field and can give the Pirates 85-90% of Nady’s production (a higher average and more walks, less power) for the league minimum. Look for Nady to be shopped this winter.
Age: 28 Contract Status: Arbitration Eligible ($3.2M in 2007)
2007 Stats: .272/.345/.458, 19.6 VORP in 632 PA
Welcome Back:After a dismal April (.133/.255/.265), LaRoche got back on track and finished the season strong, putting up respectable numbers on the whole. LaRoche continued a 4-year trend of increasing his walk rate (9.81%) and for what it’s worth, the lefty found PNC Park to his liking (.304/.369/.512 at home).
Hit the Road: Generally speaking, first base is considered a more easily replaced position. First basemen really need to mash to separate themselves from the pack (the average NL first baseman compiled a .284/.365/.481 line in 2007.) With Steven Pearce in the fold, the Bucs may feel that LaRoche has more long-term value to the team as a trading chip.
Prediction: Welcome Back. LaRoche has 2 more years of arbitration before he can become a free agent, and I believe that he’ll be with the team in ’08 and ’09. Going year-to-year may be the best move for the Pirates; LaRoche would be hitting the open market at 30, an age where many first base-types begin to decline. The Bucs should enjoy LaRoche’s peak and then let him walk following the 2009 season. With minimal speed and a long hitting stroke, LaRoche has the feel of a player who may not age well.
Age: 33 Contract Status: 2008- $9.5M (2009- $9M club option with a $1M buyout)
2007 Stats: 198.2 IP, 91 ERA+
Welcome Back: Frankly, no one may want Matt Morris. Morris is extremely hittable (240 H in 198.2 IP) and went from mediocre to awful upon arriving in Pittsburgh. His trade market will be limited to the National League; Morris would likely be ripped to shreds in the DH league.
Hit the Road: The upcoming class of free agent pitchers is less than appealing, featuring numerous hurlers with injury and age concerns. Kyle Lohse (career ERA: 4.82), Carlos Silva (4.41) and the 41 year-old Curt Schilling are the “gems” of the group. Perhaps the Pirates can talk a team into taking on Morris’ contract, citing that it’s essentially a 1-year deal.
Prediction: Hit the Road. “Resource allocation” has become something of a buzzword for the new front office, and there is no bigger offender of that principle than Morris. Given the dearth of starters available in free agency, the Pirates will talk a desperate NL team into taking Morris.
Age: 29 Contract Status: 2008- $5.75M; 2009- $7.5M
2007 Stats: .247/.327/.418, 3.9 VORP in 614 PA
Welcome Back: Prior to an awful 2007 (his VORP plummeted from 49.7 to 3.9, a drop of nearly 5 wins), Bay had been the best hitter in the lineup by a wide margin. Bay is signed the next 2 years for a reasonable salary, and the Pirates probably wouldn’t get full value for the left fielder at the moment. Trading Bay for 70 cents on the dollar wouldn’t be wise. There is hope for a rebound- Bay has been bothered by issues with his right knee. Perhaps with an offseason to get healthy, the Bucs will get something closer to his 2004-2006 peak.
Hit the Road: If the Pirates find fair value on the trade market, they should at least consider a Bay trade. His contract would be considered pocket change in comparison to potential free agent outfielders, so that could make him an attractive target. Bay has had some physical issues (shoulder surgery, troubles with both knees) and has seen his strikeout rate increase from 20.1% in 2005 to 22.9 % in 2007. While 29 isn’t old, this could be a sign of decreasing bat speed.
Prediction: Welcome Back. Bay has a manageable contract, and it’s likely that teams will try to talk the Pirates into receiving less than full value in a trade. Bay’s value is far lower than it was a year ago; it makes little sense to trade him when his stock is down. If Bay rebounds, I could see the Bucs shopping him at the All-Star break, looking to net several intriguing prospects for the next rebuilding attempt. Otherwise, Bay will likely play out his final 2 years and then depart via free agency.
Age: 30 Contract Status: 2008- $6.5M; 2009- $7.25M; 2010- $8.4M club option ($0.6M buyout)
2007 Stats: .296/.350/.440, 24.8 VORP in 535 PA
Welcome Back: Wilson enjoyed his best offensive season since 2004, hitting .296/.350/.440 and raising his walk rate to a more acceptable 7.1%. By most defensive metrics and the naked eye, Wilson remains one of the better defensive shortstops in the game. If Wilson can hit at a competent level, he’ll be worth his remaining contract. Also, who replaces Wilson if he’s traded? Cesar Izturis would be painfully inadequate in an everyday role if his option were to be picked up. Prospect Brian Bixler, who has contact issues, a lack of power and questionable range, looks like a utility player in the long run.
Hit the Road: Wilson’s market value is as high as it’s been in quite some time and at 30, he won’t be part of the next contending team in Pittsburgh. With an absolutely barren free agent shortstop class (David Eckstein may be the only non-disastrous option), Wilson could be an enticing option. Jumpin’ Jack is a career .269/.312/.378 hitter, though. How likely is it that he established a new standard of performance?
Prediction: Welcome Back. Without a decent replacement available, look for the Pirates to bring Wilson back. I’m still not entirely sure that he’ll remain in Pittsburgh for the next few seasons, but look for Jack to be a Bucco in 2008.
Age: 36 Contract Status: 2008- $3.2M; 2009- $3.75M club option ($0.3M buyout)
2007 Stats: 52.2 IP, 81 ERA+
Welcome Back: Intermittently moody and ineffective, Torres has limited trade value at this point. Torres was used as frequently as any reliever in baseball over the last several seasons, and simply may not have any bullets left. Torres may not be a very appealing target.
Hit the Road: In a market where Danys Baez gets 3 years and $19M, Torres could be seen as a more equitable, short-term acquisition. Though Torres’ beef seemed to be with the previous front office officials, he probably didn’t endear himself to ownership, either.
Prediction: Hit the Road. $3.2M may not seem like a lot, but there’s little reason for a rebuilding franchise to pay a middling reliever that sort of scratch. Look for the Bucs to dump salary and ship Torres elsewhere.
Age: 27 Contract Status: Arbitration Eligible ($1.9M in 2007)
2007 Stats: .244/.270/.335, -8.1 VORP in 230 PA
Welcome Back: Castillo has been highly regarded by the organization, and was once seen as a key figure in future Pirates teams. That’s all I got.
Hit the Road: Despite the high praise Castillo has received, his performance was pedestrian in the minors (.283/.336/.422 overall) and craptastic in the majors (.256/.297/.380 career). Castillo has made no discernible improvement at the plate, still flailing at pitches and showing little understanding of the strike zone. Despite this aim-for-the-fences approach, Castillo hasn’t gone deep since August 14th, 2006. Not to pile on. but Castillo has also grown (ate?) his way out of the middle infield, and no longer possesses the range necessary to play the keystone position. His bat is poor for a corner infielder or outfielder.
Prediction: Hit the Road. Castillo made nearly $2M this past season and is once again eligible for arbitration. The former starter at second base has clearly fallen out of favor with the organization and has been vocal about his displeasure over playing time. This one is easy: Castillo will be non-tendered.
Pending Free Agents/ Players With Options
Age: 30 2007 Salary: $3.825M
2007 Stats: 96 IP, 113 ERA+
Welcome Back: This is precisely the sort of mistake that the Littlefield administration would have made. Chacon had a superficially solid year out of the bullpen despite a rather poor walk rate.
Hit the Road: Chacon is going to command in excess of $5M per season, which is far too much for a middle reliever. Chacon may try to bill himself as a starter, but poor control and stuff that plays down in a starting role say otherwise. There’s no rational argument for spending so much to retain an ordinary reliever/flammable starter.
Prediction: Hit the Road. Happily, Neal Huntington has stressed to importance of proper valuation and resource allocation. Here’s hoping that Huntington lets Chacon walk. No team should be paying an ordinary middle reliever $5 or $6M per season, much less a team with finite resources like the Pirates.
Tony Armas Jr.
Age: 29 2007 Salary: $3.5M (2008 mutual option- $5M with a $0.5M buyout)
2007 Stats: 97 IP, 74 ERA+
Welcome Back: There is no argument to be made here, other than masochism.
Hit the Road:The Bucs don’t need a creaky, fatigued starter/mopup man making seven figures. Armas has a dubious injury history, lasts less than 6 innings a start, and is homer-prone. Need I say more?
Prediction: Hit the Road. This one is a slam-dunk. With a Boeing-sized ERA and a lengthy medical record, Armas will likely have to settle for a minor league contract this winter.
Age: 28 2007 Salary: $4.15M (2008 club option- $5.45M with a $0.3M buyout)
With Chicago: .246/.298/.304, -4.2 VORP in 207 PA
With Pittsburgh: .276/.310/.333, -2.8 VORP in 130 PA
Welcome Back: If the Pirates do decide to shop Jack Wilson this winter, Izturis could be back; there are no attractive free agent shortstops, so the Pirates would likely go with either Izturis or a trade acquisition. His bat is absolutely anemic, but at least Izturis is a plus defender.
Hit the Road: There’s obviously no chance of Wilson and Izturis returning in 2008, and the talk of shipping off Jack seems to have cooled down. Despite his range, Izturis makes for a lousy starter. His career .259/.295/.334 line is cringe-worthy.
Prediction: Hit the Road. Wilson may be shopped, but his departure no longer seems inevitable, as it did during the summer. Izturis is essentially an expensive utility infielder, and his offensive production is wholly inadequate, even by shortstop standards. Look for the Bucs to decline Izturis’ option.
2007 Stats: .209/.275/.399, 15 HR at AAA Indianapolis
Welcome Back: Eldred will occasionally hit the ball in excess of 450 feet, which will tend to catch someone’s attention.
Hit the Road: Eldred is an outstanding BP hitter, but he just isn’t a very good baseball player. Eldred is an extremely impatient hitter, an unathletic sort that has serious contact issues. “Big Country” struggles horribly with breaking balls, and endured a disastrous season at AAA Indianapolis. Already 27, Eldred is clearly behind LaRoche and Pearce on the first base depth chart.
Prediction: Hit the Road. Eldred is squarely in the 4A slugger category, and is a strong candidate to be DFA or outright released. His future will likely include innumerable bus rides through Iowa, mascot races and home run derbies.
2007 Stats: 109 IP, 79/51 K/BB, 2.56 ERA at AAA Indianapolis
Welcome Back: VanBenschoten is a former first round pick who posted a 2.56 ERA for AAA Indianapolis. Perhaps there is hope that JVB will recover his stuff with a conversion to relief.
Hit the Road: VanBenschoten’s ERA at Indy looks considerably dimmer when his peripherals are examined (79/51 K/BB in 109 IP) and performance with the Pirates was nothing short of laughable (10.38 ERA, 55 H in 39 IP). Already 27, JVB is out of options and must make the club out of spring training or risk being claimed on waivers. VanBenschoten’s injury history, diminished repetoire and lack of control suggest that he’ll never be a competent starter.
Prediction: Welcome Back. Some of VanBenschoten’s stuff and control were clearly left on the operating table, but look for the Pirates to convert JVB to relief and give him one more chance to impress. Considering how bad VanBenschoten has been in the majors, he would likely pass through the waiver process.
2007 Stats: 150.2 IP, 89/59 K/BB, 4.00 ERA
Welcome Back: Bullington is a former number one overall pick. Often, these players get an extended look in the big leagues, even if only to say “look, we didn’t mess up that bad. He’s in the majors!” With a decent sinker that generates grounders and a couple of average breaking balls, there is hope that Bullington can be a 5th starter.
Hit the Road: Like VanBenschoten, Bullington is not particularly young and has durability concerns. Bullington’s year at AAA doesn’t inspire great confidence (4.00 ERA, 89 K, 146 H in 150.2 IP). Eerily similar to Matt Morris in stature and stuff.
Prediction: Welcome Back. The Pirates have a glaring lack of pitching talent that will be ready for prime time in the next few seasons. Look for the Bucs to keep Bullington on the 40-man roster.
2007 Stats: .249/.313/.357, -0.1 VORP in 270 PA
Welcome Back: Duffy covers a good deal of ground and is speedy, giving hope that he can be a decent 5th outfielder.
Hit the Road: Duffy is no spring chicken, turning 28 early in the 2008 season. With a lack of secondary skills (walks and power), Duffy is strictly extra outfielder material. Duffy has clearly fallen behind Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan, and don’t forget that top prospect Andrew McCutchen will enter the discussion at some point next year. Has had trouble staying on the field, through both injuries and surliness.
Prediction: Hit the Road.With Morgan essentially possessing the same skill set and McCutchen waiting in the wings, Duffy doesn’t appear to have a future with the Bucs. Duffy will likely be DFA.