Thursday, March 8, 2012

Extension Candidate Not Named Neil Walker

How about this guy?
I've said this a lot over the last week, but I'll say it again.  The Pirates signed Andrew McCutchen to an extension! Great news for the Pirates undoubtedly, but Neal Huntington's work is far from done.  Before the ink could even dry on McCutchen's contract the focus shifted to contract extension talks with second baseman Neil Walker.  MLB Trade Rumors immediately detailed what an extension would look like, seemingly justifying such a move. David Todd over at Bucs Dugout offered his theory that such an extension is probably a poor idea.  According to Walker himself, the talks haven't "gone very far" yet. 

Personally, I'm with David on the Neil Walker issue.  He sums up my thinking about it nicely by stating, " The next 3-4 years are likely to be the most productive of Walker's career. Because of the system currently in place the Pirates will get Walker's services relatively cheaply during that time, starting with a well-below-market cost of $450,000 this year. The Pirates shouldn't overpay for the later years of control or free agency years because they get him cheaply now. Any long-term deal is likely to do that."  Still, even if Neil Walker isn't the ideal candidate for an extension doesn't mean the Pirates should be done with contract talks.  To understand my reasoning on who I think the Pirates should try and extend, I'll offer this additional point on Walker.  According to Cot's, Neil Walker won't be a free agent until after 2016.  With McCutchen no longer set to leave after 2015, that gives the Pirates the next 5 years with their "core" of McCutchen, Tabata, Alvarez, and Walker.  Hence, I see no rush to extend the Pirates current second baseman.

On the other hand, the same is not true for Charlie Morton.  Morton was arbitration eligible for the first time this year and will be able to test the free agent market after the 2014 season.  That doesn't mesh well with the "core's" contract lengths nor with the arrival of potential aces Jameson Taillon or Gerrit Cole.  For Morton be a Pirate from say 2014-2016, when the Pirates should look like a competitor on paper, he will need to sign another contract with the Pirates.  The options are sooner or later.  Sooner is generally cheaper but admittedly it's also more risky.  The question is whether that risk should be applied for Morton.

First, a quick primer on Morton.  Morton's 28, so he's not young but nor is he old.  For a pitcher, he's just about to enter his prime, although a swift decline could soon follow that prime.  That's a double-edge sword.  As far as performance goes, prior to last season Morton had only pitched a total of ~175 major league innings.  2009, his first season in Pittsburgh showed promise but 2010 was abysmal and Morton's confidence suffered.  However, in 2011 he changed his approach and became and different pitcher.  Morton mostly scrapped his 4-seam fastball and became almost exclusively a sinker pitcher.  The results were dramatic.  Morton ended the year with the third highest GB% of any pitcher at 58.5% behind Jake Westbrook and Derek Lowe.  He lowered his ERA to 3.83 on the season over the course of 171.2 innings, down from 7.57 in 2010.  That ERA could have been even better if not for a terrible June (not really excusable) and a poor September (somewhat excusable considering the jump in innings).  During those two months, Morton was plagued by walk rates that were by far the worst during his season.  Morton's improvements made him the most valuable pitcher on the Pirates last year according to fWAR, narrowly edging out Paul Maholm at 2.2 fWAR* to 2.1 fWAR.  In addition, it must also be noted that Morton was excellent at preventing homeruns, finishing fourth in baseball.  At first blush, that may seem like luck, but the sink on his fastball is tremendous and it's effects are evident in the groundball rates, so a future of low homerun rates seems plausible. 

Ultimately, Morton seems to be a young-ish pitcher who's figured out how to make a seamer work for him.  He's about to enter the prime of his career and with marginal improvments in his strikeout and walk rates and continued excellence in the groundball and homerun departments, Morton could produce FIP's in the 3.20-3.60 range for the next four or five years.  Combine that with good health and that seems to be a pitcher who can provide 2.5-4.0 fWAR, which would be in the 20-70 range of all pitchers last year.  While optimistic, that seems to be the definition of a solid #2-3 pitcher or maybe even a borderline ace.  More conservatively, all signs point to Morton being a #3-4 mid-rotation pitcher if he can avoid serious regression.  To me, that seems to be a guy worth keeping.

That leads to discussing contract details.  As mentioned earlier, Morton is in his first arbitration year.  He has two more years.  As Tim Williams points out in this article, the 40/60/80 rule - which states that arbitration values will be 40%/60%/80% of what a player would have earned on the free agent market - is a good place to start but seems a bit high.  Considering Morton was worth around 10 million (9.9 according to fangraphs based on his 2.2 WAR; currently 1 WAR equals about 4.5 million) last year, he should have made about 4 million dollars.  Now, Morton technically avoided arbitration, so who knows what an arbitration board would have awarded, but he only accepted barely more than half of the four million "expected."  Let's assume Morton improves.  If he produces 2.6 WAR next year and then 3.0 WAR the year following, he would be worth about 11.7 million in 2012 and then 13.5 in 2013.  Using the 60/80 "rule" for the second and third years, it calculates out that Morton should "expect" ~7.0 million and 10.8 respectively.  Those numbers are too high, so let's multiply each by 60%, similar to what happened to get from 4.0 to 2.2 million.  Final numbers are 4.2 million and then 6.5 million.  Those are similar numbers to what Zach Duke received until he had a poor 2010 season going into 2011.  Looking at those numbers, I would suggest the Pirates try and sign Morton to a 5 year contract - that way he would be a Pirate through 2016 with the "core" - worth around 24-26 million with maybe a club option for around 9-10 million to add an additional year.  It may be prudent to go a bit higher, but considering there is some risk involved, I'd float the offer to Morotn and see what happens.

*For what it's worth bWAR has him at 2.4 WAR last year, so similar values. 


  1. I really like Charlie Morton. I do. Having said that, I think Morton could be in a similar situation to Neil Walker. A 5 year deal would sign him through his age-32 season. I'm not convinced that the Pirates won't already get "Good Stuff" Morton's best years. Plus, there is a big risk in locking in so much of the team's limited resources to a guy that was horrible in 2010 and was hit hard by lefties in 2011.

    If we're talking about the 2015 season, it's conceivable that Cole will be going into his second full season, Taillon will be going into his fist full season, and J-Mac will be a 30-year old vet going into his final arbitration year. It's not out of the question that the Bucs could find two other starters by then out of the Altoona 4, McPherson, Lincoln, ZVR and Cain. If not, they could hopefully afford a #3 or #4 starter in free agency.

    Put another way, it wouldn't surprise me if Morton is our most valuable pitcher from 2012-2014. It also wouldn't surprise me if he is just our 3rd most valuable pitcher in 2015.

  2. It's conceivable but as it stands Morton has had more success at the major league level than any of the pitchers named and that includes McDonald and other than Taillon and Cole, having success at the major league level like Morton has would be a good outcome for the Pirates.

    I think this is one of those "one in the hand is better than two in the bush" scenarios. Just my opinion though.

  3. i like chollie. lock him up. the price is right.