PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates agreed to terms with three players on contracts for next season, held on to 10 other arbitration-eligible players and non-tendered reliever Clay Holmes prior to Wednesday night’s deadline to tender contracts for next season.
The Pirates agreed to sign shortstop Erik González for $1.225 million, according to multiple sources, while reliever Michael Feliz agreed to a $1 million deal for 2021. Starter Jameson Taillon is set to earn $2.25 million, according to sources, the same full-season salary set for him while he recovered from his second Tommy John surgery this year. Taillon is expected to return atop the Pirates’ rotation next season.
González, Feliz and Taillon will avoid arbitration hearings. That leaves the Pirates with 10 arbitration-eligible players: first baseman Josh Bell; second baseman Adam Frazier; corner infielder Colin Moran; catcher Jacob Stallings; starting pitchers Chad Kuhl, Joe Musgrove and Steven Brault; and relievers Kyle Crick, Richard Rodríguez and Chris Stratton.
The Pirates’ decision to non-tender the 27-year-old Holmes is somewhat surprising, as the club strongly believed entering last season that the right-hander offered untapped potential. But Pittsburgh wanted to clear a spot on its previously full 40-man roster before picking first in the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 10, and removing Holmes freed a spot that will allow them to make a selection.
Holmes made one scoreless appearance on Opening Day, then missed the rest of the season due to a sprained right elbow. General manager Ben Cherington said Holmes has thrown off the mound this offseason, indicating he is in good health, and the Pirates are hopeful that they will be able to re-sign Holmes -- who is out of Minor League options -- to a non-roster deal that will keep him in the organization moving forward.
González was viewed by many as a potential non-tender candidate given his struggles at the plate and the Pirates’ younger middle-infield options. But rather than cutting him loose, Pittsburgh kept the 29-year-old infielder on board by signing him to a non-guaranteed contract. This is the second year González has been eligible for arbitration.
González showed some early signs of progress at the plate this past season, slashing .282/.314/.494 with three homers in August. But his production cratered after that, and he finished the year batting .227/.255/.359 in 193 plate appearances over 50 games. Overall, the slick-fielding shortstop owns a career .250 average and .645 OPS over the past five years.
Bringing back González creates some uncertainty in the Pirates’ infield. Ke’Bryan Hayes will play every day at third base, while Bell and/or Moran (depending on whether there’s a designated hitter in the National League) will handle first base. That leaves a logjam with González, Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker at shortstop if Frazier, the two-time Gold Glove finalist, returns at second base.
It’s possible that Frazier -- who was in some demand at the 2019 Winter Meetings -- could be traded this offseason, leaving the Pirates with three middle infielders for two spots. That could create opportunities for both González and Newman, a 27-year-old former first-round pick who shined as a rookie in 2019, depending on what the Pirates decide to do with Tucker. A natural shortstop and energetic presence in the clubhouse, Tucker hasn’t hit consistently in the Majors, has Minor League options remaining and almost exclusively played the outfield last season.
“The way we’re seeing it is, in no particular order, González, Newman and Tucker are all capable of winning the lion’s share of shortstop opportunities next year. We also don’t think that any of them have wrestled that away right now,” Cherington said. “So, we see competition amongst those three to earn playing time at shortstop. Erik is one of those and has an opportunity to earn that, and if someone else earns more time at shortstop, he’s obviously a good enough defender that he pretty easily slides into a backup role and can move around the infield.”
Feliz was another potential non-tender candidate, as he made only three appearances last season due to a sprained right elbow. The 27-year-old right-hander pitched well at times in 2019, finishing the season with a 3.99 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings, but he has put together a 5.16 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in parts of six big league seasons overall. He agreed to a $100,000 salary cut from what he would have earned in a 162-game season this year.
Feliz is healthy and spending the offseason working out at Driveline Baseball, the data-driven performance center and training facility near Seattle. Feliz informed the Pirates of his decision to work at Driveline, which stood out to Pittsburgh’s front office and coaching staff.
“I think it does reflect some level of desire and commitment on his part to put himself in a good spot going into Spring Training,” Cherington said. “I think that was pretty cool of him to do that. Doesn’t guarantee anything, obviously, but in terms of the commitment that he’s making to himself, I think that’s a good thing. He’s obviously performed some in the past, and we feel generally good about his health progress at this point.”
The Pirates removed a bunch of arbitration-eligible players from their roster earlier this offseason, cutting down some of the decisions they had to make on Wednesday. The most notable examples were Trevor Williams and Jose Osuna, who were designated for assignment on Nov. 20, but others included JT Riddle, Luke Maile and John Ryan Murphy. Heading into Wednesday, the Pirates had only one player signed to a guaranteed contract for the 2021 season: right fielder Gregory Polanco, who is entering the final year of the contract extension he signed in April 2016.
Craig clears waivers
First baseman Will Craig, the Pirates’ first-round Draft pick in 2016, was outrighted to Triple-A Indianapolis on Wednesday after clearing waivers. Craig was designated for assignment on Nov. 25 to make room for the addition of right-hander Ashton Goudeau.
The Pirates were relieved that Craig cleared waivers and remained in the organization, and it seems likely that he will be invited to Major League Spring Training as a non-roster invitee.
“I’m selfishly happy he cleared. He wouldn’t be the first corner player to have gone through this, come off the roster, come back and have a really good Major League career,” Cherington said. “Obviously, I hope that happens for him and for us, and we’re happy he’s still a Pirate.”