Bucs avoid arbitration with 5 eligible players

Mercer, Cole, Nicasio, Hutchison, Hughes agree to deals; Watson unsigned

Bucs avoid arbitration with 5 eligible players

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates agreed to terms on Friday with starter Gerrit Cole, shortstop Jordy Mercer and reliever Juan Nicasio, leaving only one arbitration-eligible player -- closer Tony Watson -- without a set salary for 2017.

Pittsburgh will most likely go to an arbitration hearing with Watson next month. He would be the Bucs' only case, as they announced one-year deals with all five of their other eligible players: Cole, Mercer, Nicasio, Drew Hutchison and Jared Hughes.

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If it comes to a hearing, Watson would be the Pirates' first since 2015, when the club went up against Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Vance Worley. Watson, who made $3.45 million last year, is projected by mlbtraderumors.com to earn $5.9 million this season. He filed at $6 million, while the Pirates countered at $5.6 million.

The Pirates have been a "File-and-Trial" team in the past, so they are not expected to negotiate a one-year deal with Watson's representatives between Friday and their hearing in February. Theoretically, they could discuss a multi-year extension or trade Watson during that period.

Watson gets the save

Cole, arbitration-eligible for the first time, will earn $3.75 million this year. Mercer's salary will rise to $4.325 million. Nicasio, who signed a $3 million free-agent deal last offseason, saw his salary increase to $3.65 million. The Pirates settled late Thursday night with Hutchison ($2.3 million) and Hughes ($2.825 million).

Pittsburgh announced all five deals on Friday afternoon. Sources confirmed the financial figures to MLB.com.

Watson can be considered a trade candidate entering his walk year, making his situation even more intriguing. The 31-year-old lefty reliever is slated to be Pittsburgh's closer on Opening Day, but the Bucs will presumably continue to receive interest from other clubs as Watson nears free agency.

Watson posted a 3.06 ERA in 70 appearances last season, serving up a career-high 10 homers and struggling down the stretch after succeeding Mark Melancon as the Pirates' closer. It was a slight step backward for the durable late-inning reliever, who logged a 1.97 ERA over 222 appearances from 2013-15.

Cole would have been perhaps the Bucs' most interesting arbitration case. The 26-year-old right-hander, who finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting following an outstanding 2015 season, struggled through an injury-plagued '16. Pitching through injuries to his ribs, triceps and throwing elbow, Cole posted a 3.88 ERA in 116 innings over 21 starts.

Cole looks to rebound in 2017

Mercer, 30, returns as Pittsburgh's everyday shortstop. He hit .256/.328/.374 with 11 home runs and 59 RBIs in 149 games last season. Mercer's salary climbed significantly in his second year of arbitration eligibility, jumping from $2.075 million in 2016.

Mercer will be eligible for arbitration again at the end of the year. He can become a free agent following the 2018 season.

Nicasio, 30, will report to Spring Training with a spot secured in Pittsburgh's bullpen. The right-hander struggled as a starter last season but thrived as a reliever, ultimately posting a 4.50 ERA in 118 innings over 52 appearances. After moving to the bullpen full-time, Nicasio put together a 2.96 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 54 2/3 frames.

Nicasio fans Smith in the 5th

Hutchison appeared in nine Major League games last year, six of them for the Pirates. Acquired from the Blue Jays in the oft-debated Francisco Liriano deal at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, Hutchison posted a 5.56 ERA in 11 1/3 innings over one start and five relief outings for the Bucs.

This marked Hutchison's second year of arbitration eligibility. He gained a fourth year of club control by remaining in the Minors as long as he did last season; After getting traded on Aug. 1, Hutchison was not called up by the Bucs until Sept. 6. He was projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to earn $2.2 million this season.

Hutchison's seven strikeouts

The Pirates parted with Liriano and prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez to acquire Hutchison and free up payroll space, which they have effectively spent this offseason on starter Ivan Nova and setup man Daniel Hudson. Since the deal, club officials have said they believe Hutchison possesses untapped potential. Hutchison is 30-21 with a 4.93 ERA in 82 Major League appearances. He will compete for a spot in the Pirates' rotation next season along with top prospect Tyler Glasnow and pitching prospects Steven Brault and Trevor Williams.

Hughes, 31, struggled in 2016 after two outstanding and underrated seasons as one of the Majors' best ground-ball specialists. He posted a 3.03 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP in 59 1/3 innings over 67 appearances after missing all of April with a lat injury.

Hughes fans Santana

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.