Monday, January 7, 2013

Could the Pirates still make a splash?

At this point, I think that you could make a pretty strong case that the Pirates have made their last flashy move of the 2012-13 offseason. They already signed Russell Martin to the largest free agent contract in team history. Then they came out of nowhere to sign a high upside starting pitcher in Francisco "BetaMax" Liriano (can this be his new nickname? Yes, I'm officially going to make this his nickname). Finally, they traded closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox in a solid if somewhat uninspired move.

It wouldn't surprise me to see a couple more pieces shuffled around. They might try to sign another LOOGY or a veteran bench bat, but I don't think there's anything else that will land on the front page the Trib's sports section. Honestly, that's probably a good thing. Most of the splashy moves don't really seem like good fits to me. Sure, landing Justin Upton in a trade would be exciting but it doesn't sound like Arizona wants to sell low on him, and I certainly don't want to overspend. Many of the remaining big name free agents were given qualifying offers from their former teams and I'd hate to see the Pirates give up the #14 pick in the draft (Oscar Mercado?) for the privilege to overpay Kyle Lohse. Still, I can't help but feel like there's one move that the Pirates should...although probably won't...really consider.
Aledmis (sometimes spelled Aledmys) Diaz, 23, is a 6-foot-1, 185-pound shortstop who recently defected from Cuba. Offensively, the righthander seems to be a fairly advanced hitter, especially given his age. He has shown good power and a solid approach, posting a .314/.404/.500 line with more walks than strikeouts during his last go-round in the Serie Nacional. Defensively, he is a little more of a question mark. He has a very good arm as well as solid range but has been somewhat inconsistent and struggled with errors from time to time. He started at shortstop in Cuba but some see him as a better fit for 3B. In any case, he is undoubtedly talented and is seen as being almost major league ready. Add this all up, and Diaz could really fit in to the Pirates' organizational plans (as well as a lot of other teams' of course).

Diaz has at least shown the potential to be able to stick at short defensively, in which case his bat would seem to play very well. The Pirates, as almost everybody would agree, have a dearth of shortstop prospects throughout the minor leagues. At the upper levels, guys like Chase d'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer are there, but few people really seem them as long term options. Top-prospect Alen Hanson dominated the SALLY League last year but there a lot of scouts who question whether or not he will be able to handle shortstop defensively and might be better suited for 2B. Plus, he is young enough that it's hard to really expect him in Pittsburgh any time before 2015. There are some other interesting guys in the system, but it still looks like a position of need. With Clint Barmes still in Pittsburgh for another year, the Pirates could send Diaz to AAA (or even AA) to start this season with an eye towards bringing him to Pittsburgh in 2014. If, during the season, it seems like his glove won't keep him at SS, they could move him to 3B and slide Pedro across the diamond to play first. Since the Bucs don't have any notable 3B prospects on the way, this move could fill a need just as easily as playing him at short (although obviously it would be preferable for him to stay up the middle).

The problem, as it often is for the Pirates, is the potential cost. All of the things that make Diaz an appealing target for Pittsburgh, make him appealing for the other 29 teams in baseball, too. While baseball did implement an international spending cap last summer, Diaz after turning 23 on January 8th, became exempt from this cap and can be signed like any other free agent. As we saw last year, the uncapped Cuban defectors can sign some relatively massive deals when compared with other "amateurs." The biggest name, Yoenis Cespedes, signed a 4-year, $36M deal with Oakland, although he rewarded the A's with an excellent debut, providing more than 3 WAR despite losing a month to an injury. Outfield prospect Jorge Soler drew comparisons to Giancarlo Stanton before ending up with the Cubs for 9 years and $30M. He played well in his stateside debut. Finally, the Dodgers signed 21-year old Yasiel Puig to a $40M+ contract just before the International Cap took effect. It is at least plausible that the new spending limit actually caused LA to increase their offer because once the cap was in place, they could no longer just outbid everybody else for the slugger.

Apparently, there are at least ten teams interested in Diaz and the Pirates should be one of them. On the one the thought of giving what would likely be the largest free agent contract in team history to (essentially) a prospect, is scary. If he flops, it could really hinder the team's success for the next few years. At the same time, if they send their top scouts to his workout and these guys come back sold on his ability, it would make a lot of sense to offer him a deal in the neighborhood of 6-years and $30M (as a cap...since I'm not a scout and since I don't know what the market for him would be, it's possible that his offer might come in lower and the Pirates don't want to waste money if the market for him seems closer to Leonys Martin's 5/$20M deal). A contract like this would give Diaz the same Average Annual Value as Clint Barmes and it would cover his age 23-28 seasons. His ceiling is also high enough that they could be adding a potential stud for well below market value. Not only that, because the yearly cost isn't unreasonable, he could still earn his money simply by being a decent major leaguer. If the Pirates are able to plug a 2-win SS into the lineup for the next 5 or 6 years without paying any more than they are to Barmes, nobody is going to be upset even if he never becomes an All-Star. Maybe one of the big spenders comes in and blows the Pirates out of the water but if contracts given to the last crop of defectors serve as a template, he could also be an affordable and worthwhile gamble for the Pirates. 

Too bad it's not gonna happen...