Pirates Prescription

Derek VanRiper and I were talking with Joe Sheehan on the radio Tuesday, and the conversation turned to the Pirates. This was before the Pirates officially blew it ($) with A.J. Burnett, though at that point it was obvious he wasn't a slam-dunk to return to Pittsburgh. But for such a feel-good season in 2013, in such a winnable division, the Pirates were remarkably quiet this offseason, perhaps even more so than their division rival Reds, though the Reds' inaction came along with losing Shin-Soo Choo. Arguably the Reds got worse, whereas before losing Burnett the Pirates merely remained stagnant at the major league level.

But luckily for the Pirates, unlike the Reds, there's a fairly easy solution to improve their team for 2014. It won't be cheap, but it fits and is defensible.

They should sign Kendry Morales to address their weakness at first base, and then they shouldn't stop there. They should go ahead and sign Ervin Santana as well. Joe's recent newsletter talks about the CBA Five - the five free agents that have lingered out there for a long time, thanks to the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. To recap, if a team offers a player a qualifying offer (one-year, $14.1 million) and that player declines that offer (all players receiving said offer this year declined it), then when another team signs that player it will cost them a first-round pick (unless it's a top-10 overall pick) plus the slotting that goes with that pick. It doesn't go to the free ag team, though, it just goes away. And importantly, so does the bonus slot money allocated in that team's draft / international free agent budget set by the league. If a team has a top-10 pick or has already forfeited their first-round pick, then they have to forfeit their next pick.

For an elite free agent like Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury or Robinson Cano, it's a no-brainer to go ahead and forfeit the pick and slot money. And indeed, the Yankees by virtue of signing Brian McCann and Ellsbury forfeited two picks. But it's a harder decision for the next tier of free agents. Do you really want to give up a first-round pick (and the budget to sign him) for Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez or Stephen Drew? It's not a sure thing, especially if that team isn't contending.

But the Pirates *are* contending, and they have a clear weakness at first base, with Gaby Sanchez and Andrew Lambo the top two candidates there. Morales would be a sea change improvement over Sanchez, at least against right-handed starting pitching. That's a 2-3 win improvement right there, which is ever-important in the NL Central, where the Reds still hope to be right there and the Brewers are making another run to compete after signing Matt Garza.

If that alone isn't worth it, they absolutely should then sign Ervin Santana to replace Burnett. Heck, he might even end up being better than Burnett once you factor in the bump that most pitchers get when moving to the NL, especially with such a good park in PNC and with such a good defense. And the great part is that this signing would just cost them a late second-round pick! Diminishing costs for another 2-3 win, maybe 3-4 win improvement. As Frank Sinatra once crooned, the Pirates should go with all-or-nothing-at-all.

The Pirates are firmly in their window to compete - Andrew McCutchen is in his prime, Gerrit Cole is in the big leagues to stay and could make a big leap, they have a healthy-for-now Francisco Liriano, and a window in which their bullpen is strong. Meanwhile, despite graduating Cole, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte, their farm system remains strong. We expect Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon to make their big league debuts, and Alen Hanson isn't far away. Tyler Glasnow and Joshua Bell are two big names in the next wave, and they nabbed two great picks last year in Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. This is not the Astros in 2007, when their farm system was on the precipice of disaster, and they didn't have picks the first two rounds and didn't sign their third and fourth-round picks. This is a vibrant system that could better sustain the hit, and has done a much better job of scouting in the later rounds.

I hate to be giving advice to a division rival of my team, but to me it all makes sense to take the plunge.


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