Travis Snider, left, is congratulated by Michael McKenry after scoring on a wild pitch against the Cardinals last season.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pirates have until midnight today to offer players salary arbitration, which guarantees them a contract for the 2014 season, or non-tender them and allow them to become free agents.
Of the eight players eligible for arbitration, catcher Michael McKenry and right fielder Travis Snider are uncertain to return. Charlie Morton, Neil Walker, Gaby Sanchez, Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro and Pedro Alvarez are likely to receive contracts.
McKenry had a .262 on-base percentage in 122 plate appearances as Russell Martin's backup before a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee required surgery and ended his season in late July.
Martin is under contract for 2014 and the Pirates also have rookie Tony Sanchez, who debuted in 2013.
Because McKenry, 28, ranked in the top 22 percent in terms of major league service time among players with at least two years of service but fewer than the required three, he qualified as a Super 2 player, meaning he received a fourth year of arbitration eligibility.
Snider, 25, is eligible for the first time like McKenry. He hit .215 with a .281 on-base percentage and five home runs in 285 plate appearances this past year. A toe injury kept Snider out for more than a month. After hitting .300 in March, Snider struggled the rest of the way.
The Pirates recently traded for outfielder Jaff Decker, adding him to Snider, Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo as right-field options currently on the 40-man roster.
Neither McKenry nor Snider will take a large chunk of the payroll, but the combination of a pay increase and other options on the roster might cause the Pirates to cut ties with them, as they did last week with Garrett Jones, who was due a raise in his third year of arbitration.
"It got to a point where we felt it was above where our threshold was," general manager Neal Huntington said.
Players become eligible for arbitration after accruing three years of service time or reaching Super 2 status. They are then eligible for the next three years -- four for Super 2 players -- before becoming a free agent after six years in the majors.
Offering arbitration guarantees a player a contract for 2014 and commits the team to going through the arbitration process. The player's agent and team exchange suggested salary figures in January. If the sides haven't agreed to a deal by February, they argue their case in front of a panel of arbitrators, who assign a one-year contract at one suggested salary or the other.
The player and team often agree to terms before the hearing. The previous time the Pirates had an arbitration hearing was 2012, when Jones lost his hearing.
The Pirates have six players under contract for 2014 with about $42 million committed to them, though the Houston Astros are responsible for $5.5 million of Wandy Rodriguez's salary.
"Every year you have an internal increase, an organic increase in your payroll," Huntington said. "Unless you lose players via free agency, we're always going to face that."
The Pirates' 2013 payroll finished at $73.6 million, according to The Associated Press in October, though about $13 million of that came from other teams. Arbitration salaries will increase the payroll, as will any free-agent signings. New MLB television rights deals from ESPN, Fox and TBS will increase the revenue distributed to the teams, but Huntington said that between MLB initiatives and the equal distribution, the payoff is minimized.
"When all 30 teams get the same amount, the impact is relative," he said.
Huntington confirmed that Alvarez, 26, will void his contract option for 2014 and enter the arbitration process for the first time. Alvarez signed a major league contract after the 2008 draft -- the rules have since changed to prohibit that -- that allowed him to void a $700,000 option if he had enough service time for arbitration. His 36 home runs tied for the National League lead and he made his first All-Star team, but he also struck out 186 times and had a .296 on-base percentage.
Morton, 30, is entering his final season of arbitration and will be a free agent after the 2014 season. He returned from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in June and had a 3.26 ERA in 116 innings across 20 starts. He took a slight pay cut in his second year of arbitration, agreeing to a $2 million contract while rehabilitating from the surgery.
Gaby Sanchez and Walker are eligible for the second time. Sanchez, 30, is the only first baseman on the roster after Jones' departure and had a .361 on-base percentage in 320 plate appearances in 2013. He made $1.75 million in his first year of arbitration.
Walker, 28, saw his batting average drop but his power increase in 2013, when he hit .251 with 16 home runs. Walker twice spent time on the disabled list, but one stint resulted when his hand was spiked while running the bases. Walker, who was Super 2 eligible before the season, earned $3.3 million this past year.
Melancon, 28, had a stellar season as a setup man and fill-in closer when Jason Grilli was hurt. Using his cutter more than half the time, Melancon struck out 70 batters in 71 innings while walking only eight. Mazzaro, 27, worked his way into a solid relief option with his third organization and stranded 78 percent of runners on base. Both are eligible for the first time.
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