Reviewing Recent Pittsburgh Pirates Contract Extensions

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Jordan Luplow /

Pirates owner Bob Nutting sat down for an interview recently, and answered questions about the club.  At one point in the interview the question about contract extensions to players came up.

In a recent interview with Pittsburgh Tribune writer Rob Biertempfel, Bob Nutting spoke about the Pirates and had this answer to one of Biertempfel’s questions:

"“Trib: Marte missed 80 games after flunking a steroids test. Gregory Polanco has underperformed. Francisco Cervelli and Josh Harrison missed significant time because of injuries in each of the past two seasons. Does any of that make you want to reconsider your approach to giving multi-year contract extensions?Nutting: There will be times when it’s appropriate to sign great players to multi-year deals. Not every one of those is going to work out. It’s not a precise science. You need to make the very best decision you can with the information you have at the time. Frankly, my role then is to make sure Neal and his team know that if they make the best decision they can, we’re not going to second-guess it three months or six months or two years later based on something that was unforeseen. We would do all of those (contracts) again. We also have to reassess how we train in the offseason, how we focus on stretching and conditioning, to see if we can minimize some of those injuries.”"

It’s nice to know Nutting is more of a laissez-faire owner and allows the people he hired to make baseball decisions make those decisions.  However, there are times to second guess some of the decisions, especially contacts decisions that were questionable at time.  Biertempfel threw out four players who signed contracts recently, and I’ll take a look at how much value they look to provide, and some players provide way more than others.  The league dollar per war comes from Matt Swartz analysis and has a 5.9 percent growth rate, the 2018 WAR number comes from STEAMER projections, and the aging curve is +0.25 WAR per year for ages 18-27, 0 WAR/year for ages 28-30,-0.5 WAR/year for ages 31-37, and -0.75 WAR/year for ages greater than 37, which is noted by Fangraphs about Carlos Santana signing in Philadelphia.  Years with an asterisk (*) represent an option year on the contract.

Starling Marte

Starling Marte was only ranked in Baseball America’s top 100 just once, ranking 73rd in 2012.  He hit a home run on the first pitch he ever saw, and his first full season was the one in which the Pirates ended the streak.  He’s stolen 20+ bases every year since 2013, and that’s despite playing just 77 games in 2017 because of an 80 game performance enhancing drugs suspension.  Marte has had his injuries throughout his career, only playing more than 140 games just once in 2015, though from 2013-16 he was always a 3.0+ win player, and mostly a 4.0+ win player, and his career WAR/600 is 3.99.

Marte, up until his suspension, had been an All-Star level player.  From 2013-16, Marte hit .292/.349/.448 with a .347 wOBA and 122 wRC+.  His 22.4 BsR over that four-year stretch ranked seventh best in baseball, and his 68 runs saved was the fifth highest, and second best among outfielders.  Marte combined his excellent offense with great base running and defense and was an all around player.  In spring training 2014, the Pirates signed Marte to a six-year deal with the following base salaries:

YearAgeWARRatelg $/WARContractSurplus

Marte did most of his damage from 2014-16 and really paid for his contract over those years.  After his suspension, the quality of player that Marte will be is still questionable, but he did steal 21 bases (caught four times) and had nine defensive runs saved in left field in limited action.  His game is speed and defensive related, and he still possessed those skills after coming back.  The offensive production was below average last season, but STEAMER projects a .336 wOBA and 106 wRC+, way down from his pre suspension results, but that’s mainly because of his lacking power and walk numbers and relying more on contact.

Marte might not be an all-star level player again, and the projections don’t favor that happening, but him being a solid starter for the next four years at his cost is a still a bargain for the club, not just as large of a bargain as it was from 2014-16.  Getting a premium player that projects to provide $162 million in surplus over seven years is a remarkable contact, and there is nothing to second guess.

Gregory Polanco

Polanco has never really lived up to the hype surrounding his prospect status, ranking as high as number 10 in Baseball America’s 2014 rankings.  Polanco has only had one season in which he was an above average hitter, the 2016 season in which most of his damage was done in the first half.  Health has been a problem, though he has played through some injuries in the past such as a groin injury in 2015, and after both the 2015 and 2016 seasons he had PRP injections in his left knee, also having a PRP injection in his left shoulder following 2016.  2017 Polanco had multiple hamstring problems and a knee injury while running to make a catch, and as a result played just 108 games.

Polanco has but up just two 2.0+ WAR seasons, 2015 and 2016, but only one season in which he has produced a 2.0+ WAR season when standardized for 600 plate appearances. For his career, Polanco has been a solid role player to solid starter, nothing special but a solid complimentary piece.  That didn’t stop the Pirates and Polanco from coming to a contract agreement in early 2016 for five years and $35 million and two option years.  The contract started in 2017 and with the following projections his contract breakdown looks like:

YearAgeWARRatelg $/WARContractSurplus

Of course given his injury problems and lack of offense, just a .330 wOBA and 102 wRC+ for the 2018 season, Polanco being a two win player for the next six years might be a stretch.  Even if Polanco is a 1.0 win player in the final three years of the contract (2021-2023, going from 1.5-0.5 WAR), the total surplus provided over the seven years would be $60 million.  His contract is manageable and though he has never turned into the star, and likely never will, that the Pirates had hoped, getting a solid starter signed for a low price is nothing regrettable, and provides the Pirates with great value over the length of the deal.

Josh Harrison

Josh Harrison had a breakout 2014 season that saw him hit .315/.347/.490 with a .365 wOBA and 137 wRC+.  Along with his 3.5 BsR and nine runs saved at third base, along with the ability to play all over the place, Harrison was a 5.0 win player.  The Pirates and Harrison came to an agreement for a four-year contract worth $27.3 million, along with two option years for 2019 and 2020 and a $1 million signing bonus.  The base salaries and projected production are as followed:

YearAgeWARRatelg $/WARContractSurplus

Harrison’s value provided to the team compared to the cost isn’t as high Polanco and Marte’s, and if his options aren’t picked up and he is bought out for $1 million, his final surplus will end up at $40.5 million.  There is still value to Harrison, especially early on, but over the last two seasons, his name has come up in trade rumors.  He’s not a bad player by any means, and his versatility is nice to have on any team.  However, there were concerns at the time of his contract extension surrounding if his 2014 season was a fluke or not.

After that 2014 season, Harrison regressed, and heavily, hitting just .280/.326/.404 with a .316 wOBA and 96 wRC+.  STEAMER projects a .276./.324/.415 slash with a .318 wOBA and 94 wRC+ for 2018, making him a below league average bat, but his defense at either second or third is valuable, but might not be for the Pirates.

The Pirates have seen their offense fall over the last couple years, and they have ranked 12th, 13th, and 28th.  The need for offense at this point might (does) outweigh the need for defense.  With the Pirates spending, Harrison represents roughly 10 percent of the Pirates payroll, and with the need for offense, Harrison might be on the move.  A team like the Yankees makes the most sense, as they have Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Greg Bird to carry the offense.  Harrison would provide an upgrade over Ronald Torreyes, who STEAMER projects at a 78 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR.

The balancing of offense and defense, the value the player the provides, and the percentage of the payroll the player takes for the value they provide are all variables in assessing the contract.  Harrison was and the Pirates avoided arbitration at $2.8 million entering 2015, and the club bought out all of his arbitration years.  Over the four-year period Harrison will have made $27.3 million, which is probably close to what he would have gotten in arbitration based on his production.  The Pirates took a risk with this extension, and Harrison provided most of his value the first couple years, and his options likely won’t be picked up.  Overall this contract seems like a wash, as his arbitration would provide a similar total, and the Pirates might trade him anyway, with the only regrettable decision being the back loaded nature and his percent of the total payroll on a team that needs more offensive production than defensive.

Francisco Cervelli

Cervelli came over in a trade from the New York Yankees for Justin Wilson in the offseason before the 2015 season, and was a 3.7 win player.  The Pirates and Cervelli came to an agreement on a three-year and $31 million contract in May, 2016.  Cervelli looked to provide the Pirates a long-term catcher, however he has only played 101 and 81 games the last two years.  His contract and projection are as followed:

YearAgeWARRatelg $/WARContractSurplus

Cervelli is projected to hit .266/.355/.378 slash with a .323 wOBA and 98 wRC+ in 2018, an on-base over power approach, something he’s been as a Pirate for the last three years.  His FRAA (fielding runs above average) has gone from 17.5, 8.0, -4.5 in his Pirates career, and his framing runs have gone from 17.3, 10.6, -5.0 as well, though that can be because the floor is increasing and the data has done some crazy things.  But with the decline in offense from a .341 wOBA and a 117 wRC+ with 17.3 framing runs in 2015 to a .315 wOBA and 93 wRC+ and -5.0 framing runs in 2017 is concerning, along with his projections.

Like Harrison, Cervelli looks to take up about 10 percent of the payroll, but only provide about $7 million in value over the contract length.  Of course the Pirates almost had to sign Cervelli to an extension, given Elias Diaz had the look of a backup catcher entering 2017, and before being traded to Toronto, Reese McGuire never looked to have offensive value, though he did put up a .859 OPS in 45 games this season.

Cervelli might be underpaid based on the market, but for the Pirates he might be overpaid.  He’s still a nice player, similar to Harrison, but the Pirates need offense, and while the club values a catchers defense and framing more than their offensive production, Cervelli has seen a decline in his framing numbers.  Cervelli’s injury history has always been a concern, even at the time, and with the benefit of hindsight, this might be a deal that Neal Huntington regrets, though the lack of catching depth is still a problem with the Pirates.

Next: Fangraphs Pirates Top 25 Prospects

Final thoughts

The Marte and Polanco deals are solid deals for the club, and the two have ranged from all-star level players to solid starters.  Josh Harrison provided value early on, though with the back loaded nature and limited offensive production, that contract might be a hamper to the Pirates in the present.  What it did for the Pirates and Harrison was provide certainty, but the value gained from the extension with Harrison’s production, it might have been better to just go through the arbitration process.  The Cervelli contract was always risky with his injury history, but with his decline in offense and defense, along with missing extended time, it appears the Pirates should’ve just let Cervelli play out the contract and leave in free agency.  Tyler Flowers, currently of the Atlanta Braves, is a similar player and is more of a bargain, though the Pirates should’ve looked at him instead of Chris Stewart heading into 2016.

The first two contract extensions were rather safe and provided great value to the Pirates.  The last two were risky, and though they provide value to the Pirates, they might be too much of an allocation of the payroll to limited offensive players.  It’s great that Nutting doesn’t interfere with baseball decisions, at least publicly, but there are some decisions looking back that the Pirates probably shouldn’t do again.

*Numbers from Fangraphs