Let me begin by making my opinion clear. I think the Pirates should definitely attempt to trade Jason Bay before the deadline, and acquire as much young talent as possible in return. That is definitely the best course of action for the team. But I thought I should look at how advantageous it would be to sign him to a long-term contract.
I’ll start by going over the positive aspects of keeping him. Obviously, Bay is a premier talent. Here are his yearly numbers (AVG/OBP/SLG) over his five full seasons in baseball:
2004 – .282/.358/.550
2005 – .306/.402/.559
2006 – .286/.396/.532
2007 – .247/.327/.418
2008 – .285/.384/.524
He has proven through his performance this season that 2007 was an anomaly, whether that was due to injuries or other variables. Outside of that year, he has consistently been one of the best hitters in baseball. And there are indications that Bay will age pretty well. Players like him, with many different skill sets, tend to do so. He hits for good power and decent average. He has good on-base skills, with very good plate discipline and a high walk rate. He also is an above-average base runner, with a career stolen base success rate of 82%. When some of his physical abilities begin to erode with age, he will have much to fall back on.
If the Pirates begin trading their veterans for prospects, the team could get very young very quickly. It will be difficult to replicate the production the Bucs would receive from Bay. In addition, the team would lose the player that has been the face of the franchise for the last few years.
Now, the most important question: can the Pirates afford Bay? Sure they can. The team definitely has the ability to boost the payroll, and budget increases have become much more realistic with the new regime in control. As Dejan points out in yesterday’s Q&A, next year’s outfield could be some combination of Bay, Nate McLouth, Andrew McCutchen and Steve Pearce. McLouth will receive a raise in his first year of arbitration, but McCutchen and Pearce will earn close to the league minimum. In addition, there is quite a bit of salary expected to come off the books in the next year or two. There is plenty of money there to retain Bay.
But just because they can keep him, does that mean they should? The Pirates are very far from fielding a competitive team. Probably three or four years away. Sure, they may squeak out a .500 season or two, but it will take some serious rebuilding to make them actual contenders. Bay will be approaching his mid-thirties by that point, soaking up millions of important dollars the entire time. The best-case scenario probably would see the Pirates competing in 2011. By that time, the core group will be Ryan Doumit and McLouth in their prime years, Pedro Alvarez and McCutchen playing the part of developing youngsters, and hopefully some other talented young players that have yet to be acquired. If Bay is still around, he will no longer be quite the middle of the order presence that he is now. Most likely, he will be an aging veteran superstar that is controlling a large portion of the payroll.
Or the Pirates could trade Bay, and bring back two or three top prospects. That would free up many millions of dollars for the next several years, and would hopefully add a couple pieces that will help a few years down the road.
Quite simply, the Pirates are not in the right position to offer Bay a big contract. They need to totally rebuild their organizational talent first, and costs at the Major League level should be kept low until that happens. Hopefully in a few years, the team will be at the point where they can spend some money to add the final pieces to a quality team. Right now, spending big money on Bay would be wasting resources.