Bob Smizik: Can Pirates keep Liriano?

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Part II on possible future contract moves by the Pirates.Today we cover the pitchers.

Francisco Liriano: There is no more compelling or important contractual issue for 2014 than the one with Liriano, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. Based on how well he pitched last year, Liriano, 30, will be a hard man to keep. If he fails to live up to his 2013 performance level -- and he has a history of not putting together good years -- he’ll be easier to sign, but there will be less reason to do so.

Why Liriano is so important: He is one of three free-agents-to-be in the Pirates’ rotation, along with Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez. Only Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton are contractually tied to the team after this season. The Pirates have some prospective starters in the wings, but none with an especially high upside. They don’t want to enter next season with, say, Jeff Locke, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, Nick Kingham, Casey Stadler and others of that pedigree filling out their final three rotation spots.

This is where the elbow surgery facing Jameson Taillon really hurt. It looked like Taillon would get a chance to start in 2013 and then be ready to be a major asset in 2014.

The Pirates could offer an extension to Liriano today, but based on how they operate, it would not likely be anything approaching what he might receive in free agency and would probably be rejected. The Pirates, though, are not without options. After the season, they can make a qualifying offer to Liriano. That figure for 2015 is expected to be about $15 million for one year. If he accepts, he is theirs for 2015. If he rejects, the team that signs him loses a top draft choice, which makes him less desirable on the open market.

If Liriano accepted a $15 million QO, he would be the highest-paid Pirate in team history. The Pirates could make that more manageable by then offering a multiyear deal at something less than $15 million annually.

If Liriano pitches just close to his 2013 form this season, it’s unlikely the qualifying offer would prevent another team from signing him.

Gerrit Cole: As a client of agent Scott Boras, Cole will be a hard man to sign to a long-term deal. The fact he is likely not eligible for arbitration until 2017 could make him interested in the type of deal that offers financial security for the player and cost certainty to the team. But, again, unlikely. Like Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' major down-the-road decision on Cole could be when to trade him -- not how to sign him.

Jason Grilli: His two-year, $6.75 million contract expires at the end of this season. He will be 38 next season. That’s not as old as it used to be, but it’s hard to see the Pirates re-upping with Grilli, especially considering what they have behind him.

Mark Melancon: He is the heir apparent to Grilli and filled in as closer last year. It stands to reason he would take over the job next year. But he earned a $2.675 million contract in this his first year of arbitration. If he is as good as he was last year, that could jump to close to $5 million in 2015. The Pirates do not believe in paying big money to relievers. There are pitchers behind Melancon who are less expensive. Still, expect to see the Pirates take him to arbitration (or settle before the process begins).

Tony Watson: There’s an interesting article in the baseball edition of Sports Illustrated about the insane trend to give major money to left-handed relievers. No one needs to tell that to general manager Neal Huntington, who signed Grilli for fewer years and dollars than some LOOGYs are receiving (Boone Logan, three years, $16.5 million from Colorado). Huntington is so opposed to paying lefty relievers that he once traded Javier Lopez for a sack of balls rather than taking him to arbitration.

But Watson is no LOOGY. He is just as effective against right-handed batters as lefties (.192 vs. RHP, .206 vs. LHP in 2013). He is eligible for arbitration after this season and the Pirates figure to go there, unless his performance takes a drastic downturn. If Watson continues to excel, a long-term deal after 2015, which could move him to a closer’s role, is a possibility.

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