Pirates enter Plan B with Martin off market
Early last week, the Pirates turned their focus to Plan B.
Plan A was to retain catcher Russell Martin, a plan scrapped when Martin signed with the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday. Plan B is not tied specifically to replacing Martin — that has perhaps already been done with the trade for Francisco Cervelli. Rather, Plan B is tied to using the dollars set aside for Martin at other positions in an attempt to replace the value — and wins — Martin created.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington discussed Plan B at the GM meetings earlier this month in Phoenix.
“If that happens,” said Huntington of losing Martin, “we'll regroup and then re-allocate our resources to make the rest of our club stronger.”
The Pirates are believed to have put aside significant resources for Martin. The Tribune-Review reported the Pirates made Martin a four-year deal. Sources said the Pirates “went deep in the process” and made a “very strong” offer.
Martin signed a five-year, $82 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Chicago Cubs reportedly offered four years and $64 million. If the Pirates were competitive, that infers they have significant dollars to spend if they find the right fit.
But as the Pirates go back to the white board, where should they allocate those resources?
A starting pitcher?
One MLB talent evaluator told the Tribune-Review that with Martin's departure, it is an easy call where the Pirates should turn their attention and resources: an impact starting pitcher. While the Pirates signed A.J. Burnett, his advancing age — he'll pitch next season at 38 — and subpar 2014 suggests he might no longer be a viable front-end pitcher.
The Pirates almost certainly are not interested in potential $100 million arms but could target the second-tier of free agent arms: Brandon McCarthy, Ervin Santana and Francisco Liriano.
The Pirates demonstrated they are interested in a No. 2-type starter by extending a $15.3 million qualifying offer to Liriano. Left-handed starting pitchers who have two above-average offspeed pitches and a fastball that touches 96 mph are rare. While Liriano was not as good in 2014 as he had been in 2013, he was bothered by groin and elbow injuries last season. The draft-pick compensation attached to him also could reduce his market to the Pirates' benefit.
Free agent McCarthy possesses every trait the Pirates prize in a pitcher. He limits walks (1.5 per nine), misses bats (7.9 strikeouts per nine) and produced an above-average groundball rate (53 percent). He also is not tied to draft-pick compensation. McCarthy was much better after being traded from the Diamondbacks to the Yankees last summer in part because he was permitted to use his cut fastball in New York.
There's also this: McCarthy likes Cervelli. Said McCarthy via Twitter about the Pirates' newly acquired catcher: “Cervelli is a stud.”
Santana would cost the Pirates' their first-round draft pick, but he could very well be worth it. He has increased use of his changeup and thereby increased his swinging strike rate in the past two seasons. He typically is good for 200 innings, while limiting walks and missing plenty of bats. All three pitchers from this class figure to earn three-year deals in the $12 to 15 million range per season.
There also are intriguing, less-expensive options available in Brett Anderson and Justin Masterson, who are bounce-back candidates who could be signed to low-cost, one-year deals. Both have the ability to pitch near the front of a rotation when healthy. Both dealt with injuries last season.
Huntington is playing his cards close, saying that “ways to make the club better is our biggest need.”
The Pirates suffered through significant bullpen regression in 2014 and lost depth with the trades of Jason Grilli, Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson.
The Pirates could use another bullpen arm, and there are plenty of interesting ones in free agency, including Andrew Miller, a power lefty, and right-handers Luke Gregerson, Francisco Rodriguez, Pat Neshek and Sergio Romo. They all are projected to receive deals ranging from $6 to $8 million per year, according to Fangraphs.com.
A first baseman?
After Ike Davis was designated for assignment on Thursday, Pedro Alvarez appears in line to start at first base. “As it sits now, Pedro will be at first base,” Huntington told the New York Post at the GM meetings.
Still, there is a potentially affordable upgrade option on the market in Michael Morse (one year, $7 million per Fangraphs.com) if the Pirates wanted a complete overhaul at the position.
The Pirates also could use dollars set aside for Martin in a trade or on their own young players, attempting to lock up Gerrit Cole, Gregory Polanco, Jordy Mercer or Josh Harrison to long-term contracts. The Pirates approached Polanco with a lengthy contract offer last season.
“It's not just about retaining one player,” Huntington said at the GM meetings, “it's about building a championship club.”
And to build a championship-caliber club, the Pirates will need to execute a successful Plan B.