There may be no team in all of professional sports that handles negotiations more quietly than the Pirates, which is to their credit. In this era of reporters seeking Twitter scoops with just a mention of negotiation talks and babbling agents eager to score points with national writers, it’s not easy to conduct business in such a quiet manner.
The recent Starling Marte contract extension was evidence of how the Pirates operate. Who saw that coming? Who knows what other contract offers the Pirates have made in recent days or will make in the days ahead?
Some possible deals worth talking about:
Neil Walker: He is important to the Pirates in many ways. He is an above-average second baseman. There is no one on the immediate horizon to replace him. He is the Pittsburgh Kid, a humble, hometown guy who made good. Cutting ties with Walker would be a PR nightmare, but it might come to that. A deal with Walker will not be easily made.
Walker is a Super 2 in terms of arbitration. That means he gets four years of arbitration instead of the normal three. He made $3.3 million in his first arbitration year and $5.75 million in his second. He received that increase of $2.45 million with a good, but hardly excellent year. There’s reason to believe he could vault to $8 million next year and to $10 million in 2016. He would be a free agent after that season.
Jason Kipnis signed a long-term deal with Cleveland last week -- six years, $52.5 million. He and Walker are somewhat comparable. Both are above-average offensive second basemen. Kipnis just turned 27. Walker is 18 months older. Walker is two years from free agency, Kipnis had four when he signed his contract.
Would the Pirates offer a Kipnis-type deal to Walker? Probably not. Would Walker -- with a longer record of success and a better glove -- accept anything less? Probably not.
It’s easy to say the Pirates should keep Walker for one more year, pay him the $8 million, then trade or non-tender him for 2016 to avoid the $10 million payday and hope Alen Hanson is ready. But jettisoning him for the 2016 season would coincide with the Pirates having to make a similar decision on their third baseman.
Pedro Alvarez: It’s possible the Pirates already have made an offer to Alvarez. That would be in line with the strategy to sign their core talent (Andrew McCutchen, Marte). It’s also possible if there were an offer, Alvarez and his agent, Scott Boras, rejected it.
Given the Pirates' recent history of offering long-term security along with a comparatively moderate salary and given the long-term history of Boras, this does not look like a deal that will get done. Alvarez is making $4.75 million this season, his first in arbitration. If he only replicates 2013, that figure could almost double in 2015. If he repeats or betters the 36 home runs he hit last year and builds on that with an improved on-base percentage, it’s not out of the question he’ll be making close to eight figures in 2015. Walker’s salary, for example, increased 74 percent from his first to second year with just this batting line: .251/.339/.418 -- .757.
It is widely believed Boras always takes his clients to free agency. That’s not totally true. Last March, Carlos Gomez, a Boras client, agreed to a long-term deal with Milwaukee when he was a season away from free agency. However, that is a rare case.
It looks like the biggest decision for the Pirates is not how much to pay Alvarez, but at what point in time do they trade him. That’s a tricky process. The longer they wait, the less his value in a trade. But, of course, trading him immediately diminishes a chance for a championship.
When the Pirates deal Alvarez and who they receive in return will be the major decision facing general manager Neal Huntington.
Jordy Mercer: He should not be under consideration for a long-term deal at this point in the season. He has much to prove. But what if it’s July and he has shown his defense is good enough and he continues to hit as an above-average shortstop. He was fourth in OPS among National League shortstops with more than 300 at-bats last season. There are numerous examples of teams tying up players this early in their career. The Pirates did it with Jose Tabata. The Braves did it in the offseason with shortstop Andrelton Simmons (seven years, $58 million), not that Mercer would be in line for that kind of money.
Tampa Bay has used such deals to get cost with young players, most famously with Evan Longoria, six years, $17.5 million in 2008. The Rays signed pitcher Matt Moore, five-years, $14 million, after he had pitched three MLB games. This offseason they signed pitcher Chris Archer, six years, $25.5 million, after 27 MLB games.
Russell Martin: A contract extension is highly unlikely for Martin, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. He earned $17 million in his two seasons with the Pirates. He will likely be seeking more as a free agent. Even in the best of circumstances, the Pirates might not be bidding for Martin. Tony Sanchez appears to be ready, and ready or not the catching job is going to be his. This is not about being cheap. This is about being smart. Sanchez will make about $1.6 million from 2015-17 (assuming he spends most of this season in the minors). Martin would cost close to $30 million.
Pitching staff: A discussion for another day.