Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Will Pirates make more moves after signing Melky Cabrera?
Neal Huntington refused to tip his hand, but the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager last month sounded like someone who wasn’t quite finished putting together the team’s roster for this season.
“We are open to adding, if it makes sense,” Huntington said at PiratesFest at PNC Park, noting that the Pirates signed David Freese in mid-March 2016 and traded for Corey Dickerson last February.
The Pirates have since signed pitchers Francisco Liriano and Brandon Maurer and second baseman J.B. Shuck. They made another move on Sunday by signing outfielder Melky Cabrera to a minor-league deal and offering him a non-roster invite to spring training to provide depth at a position of need.
ESPN reported that Cabrera will earn $1.15 million if he makes the team, plus the opportunity for $850,000 in incentives. Cabrera projects as a fourth outfielder, with Lonnie Chisenhall expected to start in right field while Gregory Polanco recovers from shoulder surgery. Chisenhall signed a one-year, $2.75-million contract this offseason.
The question is whether the Pirates could have signed a more productive player at a similar price tag (about $5 million) than what the combination of Chisenhall and Cabrera will provide.
1. The Melkman: Signing Cabrera would be celebrated if this were the Pirates of 2013, a contender acquiring a switch hitter coming off a season where he slashed .346/.390/.516 with 11 home runs and 60 RBI (along with a 50-game PED suspension).
But Cabrera, 34, is a 14-year veteran who has played for seven teams and spent last season with the Cleveland Indians, slashing .280/.335/.420 with six home runs and 39 RBI in 78 games.
He’s more of a role player than an impact performer at this point, but could fill the veteran leadership void left by the departures of Freese, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer and Sean Rodriguez.
Cabrera isn’t the type of free-agent signing to get fans excited, but the Pirates could have done worse than a player who has two World Series rings – in 2009 with the Yankees and ‘12 with the Giants – been named All-Star Game MVP and hit for the cycle.
It’s a low-risk venture.
2. Practicing patience: This is a reminder that the Pirates opened training camp last year without Dickerson.
They spent the first week playing Rodriguez, Jordan Luplow and Austin Meadows – three players no longer with the organization – in left field after trading Andrew McCutchen to the Giants and moving Starling Marte to center.
The Pirates also signed Daniel Nava to a minor-league deal, traded for Bryce Brentz and signed Michael Saunders before they made the deal with Tampa for Dickerson.
I’m guessing Cabrera won’t be their final move.
3. Stopping at short: The Pirates, however, don’t sound like an organization in search of a starting shortstop.
Despite the departure of Jordy Mercer in free agency, the Pirates talked like a team that is going to give Erik Gonzalez every chance to win the starting job at shortstop.
Gonzalez was acquired from the Indians in a five-player trade that sent Luplow and Max Moroff to Cleveland. But Pirates manager Clint Hurdle didn’t discuss Gonzalez like he was a utility player.
“Some of our guys did as much homework as our scouts have done on Erik Gonzalez, because they know people in Cleveland. They called and asked about this guy. The narrative you get back: The kid can play,” Hurdle said of the 27-year-old, whose path to a starting job was blocked by Francisco Lindor with the Indians.
“The kid hasn’t had a chance to play because of the people he’s played behind. But we have scouts that beat the table for this guy. We’ve had people that have seen this man play defense say, ‘This man can be dynamic.’ They didn’t say he’d be OK. OK was never a word that came out of anybody’s mouth. Above average, dynamic, very good, more range than anybody you’ve had at short since you’ve managed.”
4. Different strokes: A big storyline to follow this spring will be the influence new hitting coach Rick Eckstein and assistant Jacob Cruz have in helping the Pirates produce more power internally.
Eckstein and Cruz were touted as tutors of the modern philosophy of hitting by Huntington when they were hired in November to replace Jeff Branson and Jeff Livesey.
“Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz bring a different mindset, different mentality, different approach, different ability to help these guys get to the pitches that they do damage on,” Huntington said.
Eckstein and Cruz already have introduced themselves to Pirates players, so it will be interesting to see how their philosophy is practiced throughout spring training.
“It’s about the approach, having a good approach and trying to be the best hitter you can possibly be,” Dickerson said. “I think Rick will help us out with that, narrow our approaches more, specifically with certain pitchers.”
5. What’s next?: The Pirates still have holes to fill.
They could provide competition for Gonzalez and Kevin Newman at shortstop, but it will likely be a stopgap type with prospect Cole Tucker in Triple-A.
They could look for a backup first baseman, given that Freese handled that role and Jose Osuna will be fighting for a roster spot. Perhaps former first-rounder Will Craig will get a long look.
And there’s no guarantee that the Pirates are committed to Francisco Cervelli at catcher. He was involved in trade rumors this offseason, and the club might not be interested in paying a 33-year-old catcher with a concussion history the final year of a contract worth $11.5 million this season.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.