Late Friday night, I sent out a tweet that included some variation of the phrase “Pirates still looking for a fifth starter.” This was after the Blue Jays announced that they signed J.A. Happ, who boosted his value through two months with the Pirates and whom the Pirates wanted to re-sign, to a three-year, $36 million contract.
Among other things Twitter is good for, it gives you immediate feedback from readers on what you tweet or write. Many people responded with some variation of the following: The Pirates need a No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 starter, because it’s anyones’ guess after Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke can’t be trusted, Happ is better than a No. 5, etc., etc.
I’m glad people responded this way because I think it helps illustrate where the Pirates are in their search for rotation help. I did not mean that Happ would be a fifth starter; he showed he was better than that. But he would have been the fifth starter in the Pirates’ rotation because right now, they literally don’t have one.
Here are the pitchers on the Pirates’ 40-man roster:
Cole and Liriano are rotation locks. Morton is under contract for $8 million and figures to be in the rotation as well. Locke is arbitration eligible for the first time and a possible non-tender candidate, though healthy young left-handed starters don’t grow on trees, regardless of the inconsistency he has displayed. After that? Who knows. Taillon and Glasnow won’t start the season in the majors. The Pirates’ coaches haven’t even gotten their hands on Webster, who was traded over on Wednesday, to see what they’re working with. Casey Sadler, Nick Kingham, Angel Sanchez and Brandon Cumpton all have had shoulder and/or elbow surgery. Adrian Sampson is in Seattle, having served as the return for Happ. They don’t have five starters.
There’s time. This will be more of an issue on Feb. 28 than on Nov. 28. The winter meetings are still ahead of us, and David Price, Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke remain unsigned. Those three will help open the floodgates on the free-agent market for the rest of the pitchers, as well as the trade market.
Three years and $36 million is a nice haul for Happ after he pitched 11 strong outings in Pittsburgh, rebounding from a sub-par first half in Seattle. The Pirates probably could have afforded that if they so chose, but might not have wanted to pay a 35-year-old pitcher $12 million or more in the final year of his contract. Happ also has more familiarity with Toronto, where he played from 2012-14, than Pittsburgh. There are still plenty of pitchers available for the Pirates -- Mike Leake, who isn’t tied to a qualifying offer; Doug Fister, who could try to rebuild his value -- and plenty of time to find them. Sorting out their payroll situation with Mark Melancon, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker will give them more clarity as well.
The Pirates made two moves this morning, acquiring right-hander Allen Webster from the Diamondbacks for cash and signing first baseman and outfielder Jake Goebbert. Both go on the 40-man roster, which is full.
Webster appears to be the bigger move. He was thought of highly as a prospect with the Dodgers and Red Sox, has a sinker (which the Pirates love) and a good changeup, and had success in recent seasons in the high minors. He has struggled with control and been homer-prone, so his acquisition falls into the reclamation category, but he’s only 25 and has good stuff.
The Pirates need pitching help in both the rotation and bullpen. After the departure of A.J. Burnett and possibly J.A. Happ, the Pirates have Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke in their rotation. They don’t have a fifth starter, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow won’t open the season in the rotation, and Locke and Morton lack consistency. They also lost Antonio Bastardo, Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria from their bullpen.
Goebbert might have been a minor league deal, but he was a minor league free agent and Rule 5 eligible so he gets a 40-man spot. The Pirates’ 40-man is now full.
Last year’s vote was, I thought, the toughest in the five years I’ve voted for this award. This year’s vote was challenging in other ways: The winner was clear, but spots two through 10 on the ballot were challenging.
Bryce Harper’s season was stellar. He led the majors in OBP, slugging, OPS and OPS+. His .330 average was behind only batting champ Dee Gordon’s .333. He hit 42 homers, tied for the NL lead with Nolan Arenado and behind only Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz in all of baseball.
In 654 plate appearances across 153 games, the 23-year-old Harper compiled a 195 OPS+, a statistic which weights a player’s on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) to account for the effect their ballpark has on their performance and the league in which they play. An OPS+ of 100 is league average. The only players with a higher OPS+ at age 23 or younger are Ted Williams and Ty Cobb. Only 23 other players of any age have ever compiled an OPS+ of 195 or higher since 1901.
Harper was worth 9.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) according to Baseball-Reference.com, tied with Zack Greinke for most in MLB. Fangraphs’ WAR calculation had Harper at 9.5. He added nearly 10 wins of value to the Nationals.
Here are the official criteria as set out by the Baseball Writers Association of America:
There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.
Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.
1. Bryce Harper, Nationals
2. Joey Votto, Reds
Votto finished one point behind Harper in OBP at .459 and led MLB with 143 walks. His ability to get on base remains unparalleled, but he augmented that with 29 home runs. Votto hit .362 with a .535 OBP and .617 slugging percentage in the second half of the season, giving him a 1.152 OPS. His average, OBP and OPS after the All-Star break ranked first among qualified hitters, and since the first time there was an All-Star break, in 1933, only Barry Bonds and Ted Williams have posted higher second-half OBPs.
3. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
Goldschmidt was one of four players to go 20-20 this season (33 homers, 21 steals). He also hit .321/.435/.570. He and Votto were very close, and Votto’s edge in walks, OBP and strikeout rate made the difference.
4. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
McCutchen rebounded nicely from his slow start and finished with an OBP of more than .400 for the fourth year in a row. He hit at least 21 homers for the fifth consecutive season, but stole only 11 bases, hampered on and off by a sore left knee. McCutchen’s 14.3 percent walk rate ranked fifth in the NL, and three of the four players above him were Harper, Votto and Goldschmidt. McCutchen plays a premium defensive position – you can debate how well he plays it, but he plays it – so I listed him here ahead of Rizzo.
5. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Rizzo had a great year: 31 homers, hit .278 with a .387 OBP, 5.5 WAR and a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .384.
6. Buster Posey, Giants
The difference between Posey and Rizzo came down to how much you value Posey playing behind the plate, a premium up-the-middle position, versus first base; and how much you value Rizzo hitting 12 more homers, walking more and posting a higher OBP. I went with Rizzo, but it wasn’t by much.
7. Zack Greinke, Dodgers
I struggled with where to put these three. I have no problem with a pitcher winning the MVP – I voted for Kershaw last year – but there were several strong performances by position players. Greinke was a stud, finishing with a 1.66 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 2222/3 innings. He never pitched fewer than six innings; Arrieta did three times. While Arrieta had a record-setting second half, Greinke was masterful all season, keeping his ERA less than 2.00 the entire time. Greinke had a miniscule edge in hits allowed and opponent OBP, and Arrieta allowed 20 more stolen bases.
8. Jake Arrieta, Cubs
We’re splitting hairs here, and Arrieta was more than deserving. He had a 0.75 ERA in the second half, a record. MLB-low 5.9 hits per nine, 0.4 homers per nine. He had a 1.77 ERA, 236 strikeouts in 229 innings and was this year’s NL Cy Young award.
9. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
How can someone who led the majors in innings pitched and struck out 301 batters with a 2.13 ERA be ninth, and behind two other pitchers? Tough ballot. Kershaw, like Arrieta, pitched fewer than six innings three times. He also was not as consistent early in the season. But from May 26 on, he had a 1.39 ERA and 228 strikeouts in 1741/3 innings, very Kershaw-esque.
10. A.J. Pollock, Diamondbacks
I considered several players for this final spot: Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Matt Carpenter, Matt Duffy, Dee Gordon, Brandon Crawford. In the end, I went with Pollock because of how well-rounded a player he is. He hit .315/.367/.498. He showed power – 20 homers. He had speed: 39 steals. He played defense: 14 Defensive Runs Saved at a premium position, center field, good for a Gold Glove.
It’s not exactly wind sprints yet, but good to see Jung Ho Kang back on his feet. The Pirates shortstop posted this video to Instagram last night of his early rehab. He had season-ending knee surgery in September after being injured by Chicago Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan’s takeout slide. The initial assessment was Kang would miss 6 to 8 months.
Gerrit Cole finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting Wednesday night. Cubs ace Jake Arrieta won, followed by Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. There was no right way to call this race, as any of those three were deserving.
Mark Melancon also received five fifth-place votes. Full voting breakdown is here. Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel won the AL Cy Young.
The MVP awards are announced Thursday. I had an MVP vote and will post my ballot, with explanation, here after the results are announced. The broadcast begins at 6 p.m. on MLB Network.
According to Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun, the Pirates and Orioles discussed a trade involving Neil Walker. This took place during the GM meetings. Walker is one of three 2017 free agents, in addition to Pedro Alvarez and Mark Melancon, that the Pirates are listening on. That term is a bit of a misnomer -- every team listens on every player; some conversations just go further than others. But the Pirates have motivation to move one or more of them to reduce the amount owed in arbitration.
Neal Huntington alluded to the possibility of moving each one when he went on KDKA-FM 93.7 the Fan morning show Wednesday. He said Walker’s return is not really tied to Jung Ho Kang’s recovery timetable; that they are exploring all options at first base, including Michael Morse as the everyday guy and also bringing in a full-time guy and making Morse a righty bench bat; and that they felt very good about Tony Watson closing.
What’s interesting about the Orioles’ interest in Walker is that they already have a second baseman: Jonathan Schoop, a 24-year-old who has not yet reached arbitration. Schoop hit at least 15 homers for the second consecutive year and had a .482 slugging percentage to go with a .279 average in 2015, but his staunch refusal to take a walk (23 in 817 career plate appearances compared to 203 strikeouts) gave him a .306 OBP in 2015. But the Orioles are losing Chris Davis in free agency, so it is possible they view Walker as an answer there.