Analysis of a Fire Sale: The Pittsburgh Pirates, Pt. 3

(Note: All research and projections were done two and a half weeks ago, but this article was simply not written out then due to other commitments. Any changes due to more recent results can be blamed on my laziness. Adjust accordingly if you'd like.)

Parts 1 and 2 (shown here and here) detailed the players that left the Pittsburgh Pirates this year in trades and how much surplus value they may have provided over the life of their remaining contracts. The Pirates gave up ten players, some of real worth due to their contract status, some not as much due to the remaining length and price of their deals. Using the projections and Sky Kalkman's Trade Value Calculator, I came up with a surplus value of $86.8M.

(Addendum: An emailer and blogger for the Pirates vehemently denies that the Pirates would have non-tendered Tom Gorzelanny. I'm unsure about this, especially given my prediction of another player that the Pirates received of similar value, but if you feel the Pirates would have tendered Gorzelanny after a season of rookie contract team control, add an additional $7M to that $86.8M, calculated as either a 160 inning starter or a 65 inning reliever.

However, the haul the Pirates got in return is almost entirely under team control for the next half decade, with the exception of a few players. Can these players provide the value the Pirates need to offset that large value? We'll find out after the jump.

The Pirates received 18 players in return for the ten they dealt away. Of those 18, I considered 13 of them to be valued as prospects based on Victor Wang's research on the value of prospects. Of those 13 players, three of them I deemed organizational fillers that added no value to the team above replacement. This is more of a function of me unable to utilize either a projection system or Wang's research, which is based on both Baseball America's Top 100 rankings and John Sickel's prospect grades. The remaining five players were given projections based on how major league performance and major league equivalents for minor league performance. Major league equivalents were provided by Minor League Splits. Let's get started.

The Prospects

Thirteen players were labeled prospects for the purposes of this evaluation. Of the thirteen, three players were most discussed in terms of their potential: former Atlanta Braves prospects OF Gorkys Hernandez and LHP Jeff Locke, and former San Francisco Giants prospect RHP Tim Alderson. Two of those players, Hernandez and Alderson, were in Baseball America's Top 100 list and thus derived the most value when using Victor Wang's valuation system. Of the players who were valued using John Sickel's grades, only Locke was graded at a B or higher. The remaining players were graded at C or deemed organizational fillers and thus not valued.

Here's the table in descending value:

Prospectval_medium

So not considering any value from the players that have played in the majors, we can estimate $47.3M in value in the prospects acquired alone. Most of that value is tied to Alderson and Hernandez, and if you don't value those guys highly enough, you can knock them down a peg or so to the next area of value. But these are based on the preseason rankings by BA and Sickels' preseason grades.

This means the remaining five players acquired need to make up an expected surplus value of $39.5M, or around $40M, to make up for the value traded away.

Ronny Cedeno

Of the five players mentioned, Ronny Cedeno holds the least future value for the Pirates. He is regarded as a all-glove, no-hit shortstop, but over his career he hasn't had much of a glove at short either. When running a weighted projection and regressing his UZR/150 to the mean, I got a UZR/150 of -0.8 runs at shortstop. This isn't likely to be enough to make up for his terrible bat. Given that the Pirates don't have anyone coming up to play shortstop for them soon, you can expect to see Cedeno at least for one season with the Pirates. Here's what I got for Cedeno's value.

Cedenoval_medium

The calculator presumes some sort of positive value of production when calculating the arbitration salary, but in this case Cedeno is shown to be just about replacement level. Just for ease, I gave Cedeno $1M, which would be a $1.1M loss to the Pirates. Combined with the value Cedeno's provided so far this season, and you actually get a small positive gain from Cedeno's services.

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton has started for the Pirates since being traded from Atlanta in the Nate McLouth deal. So far this year, in part due to his ability to hold off the home run, Morton has shown to be an average starter with 4.34 FIP. In Morton's previous stint in the big leagues with Atlanta, however, he was hammered, posting a 5.14 FIP and walking almost as many as he struck out. Using the ZiPS end of season projection and the appropriate weighting and regression, here's the sort of production we might expect from Morton.

Mortonval_medium

With the regression, you get a projected 4.68 FIP for Morton, good for 1.5 WAR in 160 innings. Giving him a little bit more WAR in his subsequent years to show a modicum of growth, Morton's average production over his rookie contract and arbitration years would be worth $21.2M to the Pirates. Note that this takes into account that Morton would qualify as a "Super Two" for arbitration.

This is production similar to that of a player the Pirates traded away, LHP Tom Gorzelanny. While the differences between lefties and righties in terms of scarcity are significant, their age and projection of their production is somewhat similar. If we treat Morton as a "Super Two" player eligible for arbitration in his second year with the Pirates, both him and Gorzelanny would be under team control for the same number of years. A similar projection for Gorzelanny leaves him worth about $7M short of Morton's projection.

Jeff Clement

Jeff Clement was a former first-round draft pick out of USC and was supposed to be the catcher of the future in Seattle. However, despite solid seasons in the minors prior to 2008, Clement's only extended look in the majors ended with a .289 wOBA in 224 PA. There are also issues with Clement's defense at catcher and the need for a potential move to first base.

Having been traded to the Pirates will not help Clement's chances at playing time. The team's current catcher, Ryan Doumit, is signed on for two seasons after this one, and the Pirates system also includes Jason Jaramillo, who started the majority of the games this season with Doumit out with injury, and 2009 first round pick Tony Sanchez. At first base, there is the potential of highly touted prospect Pedro Alvarez being moved across the diamond to first base due to defensive issues at third. Thus, it appears Clement, who was immediately optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis when acquired by the Pirates, may be blocked at the only positions he can play.

Using minor league equivalents for Clement's Triple-A seasons and adding on his major league time, then using the typical projection and regression to the mean for his time in the majors, we get a projected .324 wOBA. I gave Clement's 100 games and 400 PA split between catcher and first base; he gets 40 games at catcher as the primary backup to Doumit and considering Doumit's prior injury history, and 60 games at first base considering the multitude of other players that could potentially play first for the Pirates. For defense, there isn't much of a track record of Clement's defense at first base, so I gave him an average score at the position. Giving him the appropriate adjustments, it yields this sort of production from the calculator.

Clementval_medium

Even this sort of low production in limited playing time by Clement can yield close to $20M in surplus value because of his pre-arbitration years. This doesn't give a whole lot of variation to Clement's production either, and even at age 26, there's still an opportunity for him to shape up into an average major league player. In addition, if his defense at catcher improves and becomes acceptable at the major league level, he may supplant the oft-injured Doumit if there aren't better options, and more playing time at catcher combined with average defense may be the best way for Clement to provide value.

Lastings Milledge

Lastings Milledge is another former highly-touted prospect, originally from the Mets organization. Milledge was dealt last year to the Washington Nationals, where he spent the year playing center field and showing that he wasn't a center fielder. However, he started this season in center field for the Nationals, but spent only seven games with the big league club before being sent down to the minors, where he remained until being traded in that controversial deal for Nyjer Morgan. The Pirates eventually brought him up to the majors and began starting him in left field.

Milledge's hitting has never met the expectations of the organization's he's been a part of. Using ZiPS projections and major league equivalents for his Triple-A seasons for the weighted projection and regression to the mean, I got an expected wOBA of .320, not far off from his career .317 wOBA in 1201 plate appearances. Given that the Pirates already have a center fielder of the future in Andrew McCutchen, Milledge's playing time would primarily be in the corners, where I have him projected as a -3 defender per 150 defensive games. Putting this all together in 137 games and giving him some extra WAR for his age and you get this from the calculator.

Milledgeval_medium

There isn't a whole lot to go with here. Pushing him up to 0.6 WAR still gives him a surplus value below $10M. Much of the argument for the positives of the Nyjer Morgan trade lied in the potential of Lastings Milledge. While he does still have room to grow, the Pirates would have to receive at least a league average player in order to get close to the value in return from Morgan.

Joel Hanrahan

Joel Hanrahan had proven so far to be a decent reliever for the Nationals despite a sky-high ERA this season. Coming off of the deal, most analysts felt Hanrahan was an excellent pickup as a reliever for the Pirates as a throw-in in the Milledge-Morgan trade, as in most defense-independent pitching stats Hanrahan was a clear favorite over the player the Pirates traded away, Sean Burnett. Hanrahan is also under team control for a few more seasons. Projecting and regressing his FIP for next season yields a solid 4.08 FIP, right in line with his ZiPS expected rest-of-season total. Projecting this sort of production over 70 innings for the next few years and you get this from the calculator.

Hanrahanval_medium

As far as relievers go, that is pretty good value for Hanrahan, especially given that Burnett, the guy they replaced with Hanrahan, was closer to replacement level. If Hanrahan is good enough or if the Pirates recognize his ability, he could get a shot at closing for the team, which would give him higher leverage situations and improve his WAR values as well.

Here's the total for just those players.

  Piratesvalue3_medium

The Grand Finale

The grand total for the Pirates acquired players, including both the prospects and the five players projected values, comes out to $91.1M, for a net surplus (based on my expectations) of $4.3M of value. There are perhaps a few assumptions here that are of question, in particular A) the lack of growth in terms of production given their age by the acquired players for whom I did projections, and B) the non-tendering of a few players that the Pirates had, particularly Tom Gorzelanny, who was the youngest of the players dealt away, and C) the somewhat high evaluation of Nyjer Morgan. I believe that those are of the magnitude where, taken as a whole, they are likely to even out, so I am of the opinion that this analysis more or less holds.

The Pirates gained an extremely large amount of service time tied up in young players who are either prospects or haven't had a lot of major league service. By my count, the Pirates brought back in 101 years of service time spread out between 18 players. However, much of that service time is unknown, and there is certainly no guarantee that all or even half of those players will see that sort of time on the Pirates big league club.

The key to this set of trades lies in the fulfillment of a number of prospects. The three players at the top of the list of prospects, Tim Alderson, Gorkys Hernandez, and Jeff Locke, could each become assets to the big league club beyond what those values have them at. As you saw in the case of Charlie Morton, a 1.5 WAR pitcher is a guy who puts up around a 4.7 FIP, decently below average, and yet still valuable to the club, according to the often used method of valuation of WAR. If Alderson and Locke can become just below average pitchers, they'll hold plenty of value for a team that will be paying them well below market value, and it will push the value of the deals even further towards the side of the Pirates.

Essentially, the Pirates dealt known commodities for plenty of lottery tickets of varying chances of success, a well-known strategy of such . None of the players they acquired were sure positive commodities, but most of them had potential, including the players who had accrued a good deal of major league time. The Pirates took a chance on players like Milledge and Clement, players who were still young but no longer considered "prospects," on the off chance that they realize the potential once seen in them. If either player becomes league average and receives adequate playing time, the Pirates will have received more than adequate return on their tickets.

The Value of Change

Is there also something to be said about the fact that change was made in the first place? GM Neal Huntington received the ire of a lot of fans last season when he dealt Xavier Nady, but so far the returns have been promising. The Pirates organization for years had been running in circles, unwilling to move into a clear rebuilding campaign and instead filling the major league roster with middling veterans such as the likes of Joe Randa, Matt Morris, and Jeremy Burnitz, while neglecting to focus on the farm system. Huntington has changed the way the Pirates work with their farm system, apparently retooling the draft strategy from the days of Dave Littlefield, and in this set of trades he has sought to rebuild a thin farm with desperately needed quantity.

Huntington has attacked this problem by trading players who likely had no future in a winning PIttsburgh team. While we can never be sure that Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, or Freddy Sanchez would not have produced a playoff berth for Pittsburgh, the previous core had had its chance for almost three years without results. While there may not be specific monetary value in the way the Pirates front office has attacked rebuilding the team, there is something be said for an organization that realizes its current iteration does not have much chance for success. Apparently, Huntington saw this and decided to rebuild, which was likely the correct move. The rewards he reaps from the previous core will mostly be seen in three to five years, and maybe then we can have a better evaluation of whether the entire process was a success.

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