Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Vacation Catch-Up

I. First Base, Solved. Two days before Christmas, the Pirates signed John Jaso to a two year, $8 million contract. On the surface, this doesn't seem like a defining moment for the 2016 season. Jaso's 32. He's never played in more than 109 games in a season, and over the past three years, he's played an average of 80 games per season. Here are his stats over those years. The last column, the one I labeled POS, lists the positions at which he played, by games.
2013 29 OAK 70 249 207 31 56 12 0 3 21 2 1 38 45 .271 .387 .372 .759 114 48 C, 17 DH, 1 1B
2014 30 OAK 99 344 307 42 81 18 3 9 40 2 0 28 60 .264 .337 .430 .767 118 54 C, 35 DH
2015 31 TBR 70 216 185 23 53 17 0 5 22 1 2 28 39 .286 .380 .459 .839 132 48 DH, 8 OF
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/28/2015.

There are two nonintuitive things about the Jaso signing. First, he'll play first base for the Pirates. As you can see, over the past three years, he's played exactly one game at first, and that was in 2013. It also, as it happens, was for one inning. The sum total of the remainder of his experience at first base was a game in 2010 in which he played four innings there. So the Pirates signed a first baseman who's played a total of five innings there in his career.

Second, the Pirates' primary first baseman last year was Pedro Alvarez, who was not offered a contract for 2016. Alvarez hit 27 home runs in 150 games last year. Jaso has hit 27 home runs in the last four seasons combined, covering 347 games.

So the Pirates are replacing a slugging first baseman--career total 19 at bats per home run--with a guy who's pretty much never played the position, hits a homer every 43 at bats, and is four years older than the guy he's replacing.

Before I get into why I think the move makes sense, I want to point out two amusing things about the Pirates signing Jaso. First, on December 14, FanGraphs' Eno Sarris wrote a piece entitled "Finding the Pirates (Another) First Baseman," in which he previewed six first base possibilities for the Pirates, concluding:
But there’s one left-handed player left who is younger than the oldest of these options, better offensively than anyone we’ve mentioned so far, has experience playing the position, and offers the potential of a win and a half of production that would boost the Pirates to average all over the field. His name is John Jaso...He won’t cost a prospect, and he could help patch up the worst hole on the field. Plus, he’d return dreadlocks to the field in Pittsburgh, which is fun, if not valuable by traditional metrics.
In other words, Sarris totally nailed the Jaso pickup by the Bucs. Then, when the deal was announced, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan wrote a typically clever column  entitled "Pirates Sign John Jaso, Obviously." His smart analysis includes this gem:
He’s getting two years, and he’s getting $8 million, and if this isn’t the very most Pirates move, it’s at least in the conversation. It doesn’t get much more Pirates than this.
It's true: The Pirates finding a low-budget, nondescript solution to a problem is what they do best, whether it's Francisco Liriano, Jung Ho Kang, or Francisco Cervelli. Here's why I think Jaso will work for the Pirates.
  1. Yes, Jaso's had very limited experience at first, but he spent most of his career as a catcher (repeated concussions probably make that a non-starter in Pittsburgh), and catchers often make a smooth transition to first base. Besides, replacing Alvarez at first isn't exactly a high bar defensively.
  2. Look at the on base percentage line his stats. His career average is .361, and he's been above .370 in four of his six major league seasons. You know how many Pirates had an on base percentage in 2015 above .370? One: Andrew McCutchen. (Cervelli was at .370, exactly.) The Pirates had a good offense (fourth in the National League in runs scored), but as I've pointed out, a high on base percentage is highly correlated with scoring runs. Jaso will improve the team in that respect.
  3. Jaso bats left. The Pirates have only one other left-handed batter in their lineup: right fielder Gregory Polanco. Compare these two batting lines:
Player A 681 616 71 142 31 1 30 88 2 1 51 191 .231 .295 .430 .725
Player B 681 594 75 162 46 2 15 67 3 5 74 139 .273 .357 .433 .790
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/28/2015.
    Which would you rather have? Obviously, the second batter's better: Way more singles, doubles, and walks compensating for the reduction in home runs. Player A is the Pirates first basemen in 2015. Player B is a hybrid, assuming a platoon of Jaso and Michael Morse. I assumed that the Pirates face, as they did in 2015, about 75% right-handed pitchers and 25% lefties, and I combined Jaso's performance last year against righties (weighted 75%) and Morse's against lefties (weighted 25%). Now, line B is probably overstated, as the Pirates will have batters other than Jaso and Morse get some at bats, and each of them will face a relief pitcher against whom they'll have a platoon disadvantage from time to time. But there's reason to believe that the Jaso/Morse platoon will outperform the Alvarez/Morse/Sean Rodriguez combination of 2015. And that's looking just at offense, not defense.
Finally, Josh Bell is one of the Pirates' top farmhands (ranked No. 34 in baseball before the 2015 season by and the team's first baseman of the future, but he's still raw. He's played only 35 games at AAA, and 2015 was his first season at first base. The Jaso/Morse tandem will keep the position warm as the 23-year-old gains experience in the minors. Once Bell comes up, the Pirates will have a bat to deal at the trade deadline.

II. Andrew McCutchen, Not Solved. The Pirates' best player is signed through 2017, and the club has a certain-to-be-exercised option for 2018 as well. They'll pay McCutchen $13 million in 2016, $14 million in 2017, and $14.75 million in 2018, representing one of the biggest bargains in baseball; he'd probably get twice those amounts on the open market. He turns 32 in October 2018, so the Pirates have him signed for his prime years at below-market prices.

What's wrong with that? Well, it's what happens after the 2018 season. True, he likely won't be the same player then that he is now. This year, at 28, he's showed some signs of slowing down. He batted below .300, with a slugging percentage below .500, for the first time since 2011. With just 11 stolen bases and a 69% success rate, he's really not much of a stolen base threat. He's probably the worst fielder among the Pirates' three outfielders (though, in contrast to the club's defense at first base, that's a pretty high bar). He set a career high for strikeouts in 2015.

But, of course, we're talking about Andrew McCutchen here. He's been the face of franchise that hasn't really had a face since Willie Stargell, and its best all-around player since Barry Bonds and, before him, Roberto Clemente. In an article last week at ESPN, Buster Olney wrote,
It would make sense for the Pirates to sit down with McCutchen and his representatives before the start of the 2016 season, and take their best shot at signing the center fielder to a long-term extension...
Maybe the proposal would provide a platform for talks; maybe McCutchen's side would agree, or at least be willing to haggle some. It's also possible that the Pirates' proposal, within the current context, wouldn't be close to what McCutchen would want in an extension. Maybe McCutchen would prefer to play someplace else, for more money, which is entirely his right...
The sooner there is clarity on this for the Pirates and McCutchen, the better. If McCutchen agreed to terms, then the building anxiety over his situation -- for all involved, including the fans -- would end. (And with time, the price of an extension might only become more expensive).
If the Pirates and McCutchen cannot reach a deal, then the team's leadership would know, moving forward, that his time with the franchise will end. If the Pirates fall behind the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs in the NL Central standings next summer, the team could dangle McCutchen in the July trade market and at least begin the process of assessing what they can get in return for him. They could either move him before July 31, or swap him next winter or the winter of 2017-18, leading up to his free agency.
The idea of Neil Walker leaving Pittsburgh was controversial. Can you imagine the club dealing McCutchen? But that's the dilemma it may face: Sign your best player to a long-term extension that will almost certainly overpay him in the out years, or try to trade an asset whose value decreases with every day he moves closer to free agency after the 2018 World Series. 

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