Saturday, December 13, 2008

Love Me Tender...

Midnight was the deadline to tender contracts to the arbitration eligible Pirates, who numbered ten going into the off-season, and the Bucs pared another one off the list, Denny Bautista.

Bautista, you may recall, did a Frankie Osario imitation, pitching lights out early and then completely losing it as the innings piled up, finishing with a 6.10 ERA.

He might be a candidate for a minor-league deal. Bautista made $395,000 last year, and the suits feared that amount would double in arbitration. And for a guy that walked 28 batters in 35 appearances and was iffy to make the team, that's a lot of loot.

Buatista's cause wasn't helped when he qualified for arbitration a year early as a "Super Two" player. In fact, it may have cost him his spot on the 40-man roster.

Two more arb guys, Jason Davis and Raul Chavez, were also given their walking papers earlier.

We considered Davis to be a solid veteran insurance policy, but a combo of a potentially high sticker price and the influx of arms that came during the trading deadline frenzy made him expendable.

He made four starts and 10 relief outings, going 2-4 with a 5.29 ERA, earning $650,000 and expected to get bumped up to at least $750,000 in arbitration. The only way Davis comes back, as we see it, is if he takes a pay cut and minor league gig. He's rumored to be looking into Japan as his next baseball landing spot.

Chavez was caught in a numbers game. He was brought in with Michel Hernandez last year when the Pirate catching consisted of Ronny Paulino and Ryan Doumit, with Candy Maldonado being the only Plan B backstop. With Robinzon Diaz and Jason Jaramillo now in the flock, Steve Lerud at Altoona, and Andrew Walker at Lynchburg, the Bucs are adequately stocked in the upper levels of their farm.

Still, he'll almost surely be offered a minor-league deal to come back to the organization, as the Bucs liked both his performance and work ethic. Chavez's biggest asset was his defense (he threw out 48% of the runners that took off against him) and game smarts, while hitting a respectable .259. He made $550,000 in 2008, and the Pirates would like to sign him again at roughly the same cost.

So there are seven left, and they were all tendered deals - Nate McLouth, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, John Grabow, Tyler Yates, Adam LaRoche and catcher Ryan Doumit.

Doumit, Duke, Maholm and McLouth are all in their first year of arbitration and are due for significant raises. Yates is in his second year, while Grabow and LaRoche are entering their third and final arbitration season.

Local media reports say that the Pirates plan to offer Maholm (9-9, 3.71 ERA), McLouth (.276, 26/94) and Doumit (.318, 15/69) multi-year deals, looking to buy out the remaining arbitration years and perhaps a free agent season or two, although action has been excruciatingly slow on that front.

We understand that they've made an initial offer to McLouth at the winter meetings, but we're not so sure if they've made concrete proposals to Doumit or Maholm yet.

All three will reap huge leaps in pay, as McLouth made $425,000, Maholm $424,500, and Doumit $412,000 in 2008 and all came through with break-out years. We won't guess what their ceiling may be in arbitration, and the Pirates aren't sure how high the limit will be, either.

One reason that the Bucs have been foot-dragging in contract talks is because they would love to tie up the trio's arbitration years and at least a season of free agency, as they did with Ian Snell. He signed a three year deal in 2008 with two club options afterwards, extending their control over him through the 2012 season. But coming up with numbers that satisfy both parties isn't an easy task.

That approach, of course, is also a double edged sword. The Pirates get cost certainy and control over the players, but run the risk of them becoming one-year wonders. And the players themselves need a pretty juicy carrot to give up their walk year, even with the added security of a long-term deal in their pocket.

The same dynamic came into play when the suits tried to ink Matt Capps last year. The two sides couldn't strike an agreement that met everyone's interest, and they ended up hammering out a two-year pact that covered his first pair of arbitration seasons, to be revisited in 2010 when his value is more firmly set.

So that will be the first sub-plot of arbitration. Can the Pirates ink their trio of future lynch pins, or will their contracts become the stuff of soap operas in future seasons?

Next, we have the cases of LaRoche (.270, 25/85) and Grabow (6-3-4, 2.84 ERA), both in their final arb year. Frankly, we can't see an upside from the players point of view that would make signing a deal beyond 2009 attractive.

LaRoche made $5,000,000 last year, and will be looking at $7,000,000+ in 2009. Unless the suits blow his socks off, there's no reason for him to talk - he'll have a comfy salary no matter what and just one year left to reach the promised land of free agency. As Ralph Kiner famously said: "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs."

That's bad news for the Pirates. While his infamous slow starts have helped to put the team behind the eight ball by Memorial Day, his pay will make him a difficult guy to move, even at the deadline, when he's traditionally hot.

There's also the small matter of there being nobody in the Pittsburgh system ready to take his place, unless they think Jamie Romak looks good with a first-baseman's mitt on his paw (does anyone think that Neil Walker or Steve Pearce have another position switch in their immediate future?) So the Bucs are danged if they do and danged if they don't with LaRoche.

Grabow has been one of the guys the Pirates have been aggressively pushing this winter. He made $1,135,000 last year, a reasonable salary for his performance, especially if you're with a contending team. The lefty will get a healthy jump this year.

Pittsburgh's theory, even predating Neil Huntington, is that you can build a bullpen pretty much from scratch if you have a closer. They did it last year, and look to do it again this season, as they showed by shipping Damaso Marte to the evil empire. We'd be surprised to see the 30-year old set-up guy last until camp.

That leaves Tyler Yates and Zach Duke.

Yates (6-3-1, 4.66 ERA) showed enough last year to hang around, and our guess is the Bucs will try to ink him to a one year deal for $1M and some change, up from his current $800,000.

Duke (5-14, 4.82 ERA) took a pay cut last year, to $400,000, and is probably in a make-or-break year in Pittsburgh. He may get a one-year deal, or he may end up in front of a hearing judge, unless his second half resurgence impressed the suits.

Duke won't have to worry about his salary this season; either way, he's expected to get a nice bump. His more immediate concern should be establishing a major league career.

The Pirates have until February to ink their seven. The arbitration hearings begin on the first and run until the twenty-first that month for the unsigned players.

The arbitration deadline is sort of a second free-agency period for baseball. By MLB Trade count, 34 players were non-tendered. Guys like Ty Wiggington and Takashi Saito should land on their feet, though almost certainly not in Pittsburgh.

But there are a couple of interesting names that may be on the Pirate radar. A thumper like Tampa Bay's Jonny Gomes, a sweet glove guy like Dodger SS Angel Berroa, Rox speedster Willie Taveras, and starters like Baltimore's Daniel Cabrera, Washington's Tim Redding, Atlanta's Chuck James, and the Brew Crew's Chris Capuano should all have their tires kicked by the Bucco mechanics.

The wheel keeps on turning.

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