Should the Pirates start spending this offseason? – Part Two

Apr. 15, 2010 - Denver, United States - epa02118768 Colorado Rockies pitcher Jorge De La Rosa pitches to the New York Mets in the first inning at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, USA, 14 April, 2010.

Jorge De La Rosa - ZumaPress

In August, I considered whether the Pirates starting lineup could be significantly improved through free agency this upcoming offseason. I concluded that the realistic best-case scenario would be for the team to sign Johnny Damon and Adam Dunn, which would probably add just a few wins to the team’s record. And quite honestly, signing one of those two players is a bit of a stretch. I completed that post by promising a part two in which I would take a look at the free agent pitching options. Well, that was more than two months ago, but a promise is a promise.

Taking some advice from epoc in the comments section of my original post, I am using CHONE’s updated player projections for this analysis. Specifically, I am looking at CHONE’s context-neutral ERA projection (nERA) that was updated on August 23rd. Here are the top six projections for Pirates starting pitchers. Note that CHONE still has McDonald projected as a reliever.

Player nERA
James McDonald * 3.75
Paul Maholm 4.31
Zach Duke 4.65
Ross Ohlendorf 4.84
Charlie Morton 4.89
Brad Lincoln 4.89
* projected as reliever

Now let’s take a look at the free agent options. Here are ten potential free agent starters with the best CHONE projections.

Player nERA
Cliff Lee – Type A 3.29
Brandon Webb 3.71
Javier Vazquez – Type B 4.01
Hiroki Kuroda 4.04
Jorge de la Rosa – Type A 4.05
Jeff Francis – $7MM club option 4.14
Erik Bedard – $8MM mutual option 4.15
Jake Westbrook 4.25
Andy Pettitte – Type A 4.27
Carl Pavano – Type A 4.30

Let’s take it one at a time.

Cliff Lee
Not going to happen.

Brandon Webb
Webb is an interesting option. The 31-year-old was one of the best starters in the game from 2003-2008, but labrum surgery has kept him off the field for nearly two years. He is attempting to return, but his velocity was reportedly in the low 80’s last I’d heard. He is clearly a risk, and he’s unlikely to be as good as his CHONE projection, but he may be worth a shot if he were to come cheap.

Javier Vazquez
Vazquez is another interesting risk. He totally fell apart in 2010, which could make him an inexpensive option. But his fastball velocity dropped a few MPH this year, and any significant commitment is probably too risky.

Hiroki Kuroda
Kuroda has quietly been a very good pitcher for three years now. He will be 36 and it’s hard to gauge what it might take to sign him (or if he will even reach free agency), but he would be a definite upgrade on the rotation.

Jorge de la Rosa
De La Rosa will be one of the most sought after free agent pitchers, behind Lee. The Rockies seem intent on bringing him back to Colorado. I would rather stay out of a bidding war for a guy who walks more than four hitters per nine innings. He is also a Type A free agent, meaning the Pirates would lose their second round draft pick if they somehow signed him. I would pass on De La Rosa.

Jeff Francis
The Rockies hold a $7 million club option for Francis in 2011. They are likely to decline that option to free some money for De La Rosa, but may bring Francis back at a discounted rate. He is not a very exciting option to me, and doesn’t seem like much of an upgrade on what the Pirates already have.

Erik Bedard
Bedard is another guy who has had injury problems that CHONE is not aware of. I’m not sure he is even an option these days.

Jake Westbrook
I wouldn’t mind having Westbrook in the rotation, but I wouldn’t break the bank for him. With the scarcity of starting pitching available, he may receive far more than he is worth.

Andy Pettitte
Pettitte may retire this offseason, and I doubt a chance to pitch in Pittsburgh would convince him to stay on the mound. It’s not worth discussing.

Carl Pavano
Pavano has had a couple of solid years since leaving New York following the 2008 season. He would improve the Pirates rotation a bit, but he is also a Type A free agent. He’s not worth losing a draft pick.

That is basically the extent of free agent pitchers who would be clear upgrades on the Pirates rotation. There are a few other options, but nobody who would be more than a marginal upgrade over Zach Duke. I honestly would not expect the Pirates to be very active in free agency.

The problem with added starting pitching via free agency is that anyone worthwhile is going to require a multiple-year commitment. A low-revenue organization that is probably two or three years away from entertaining serious thoughts of competing simply should not be taking that sort of risk. I would hate to end up owing some back-of-the-rotation starter eight figures in 2013, when the team may need that payroll flexibility.

Because of this, the more likely scenario would have the Pirates trading for a costly pitcher who only has a year or two left on his contract. Matt Garza and James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays are two names I have seen thrown out there. Garza is due an arbitration raise on his $3.35 million contract and Shields is owed $4.25 million in 2011. Garza has three more years of control left, but is not signed to a guaranteed contract. Shields has club options for 2012-2014, with $2 million, $1.5 million and $1 million buyouts for those seasons. With less expensive pitching available and a limited budget, the Rays may be looking to dump some salary. If not, expect the Pirates to look for similar situations to upgrade their rotation. This is more likely than free agency, in my opinion.

I’m not going to look at the bullpen options available, because 1.) reliever performance is tough to predict, 2.) the Pirates are unlikely to improve their record much by sinking money into the bullpen, and 3.) I find relievers pretty uninteresting. After writing these two posts, I really don’t see much benefit of increasing payroll significantly. Not yet, at least.


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e poc

Vazquez, Kuroda, and Francis all seem like good options to me, depending on the price. In my opinion, signing someone like Francis for $8MM or Vazquez for $10MM on a one-year deal would be better than trading away the type of package it would take to get Garza or Shields. This is based on the premise that the Pirates aren’t going to be competitive until 2013 anyway, so trading for or signing established players except as stopgaps isn’t really prudent at this point. (Also based on the unspoken premise that the Bucs are already working with a 70-75 win true talent roster, so NH doesn’t have to make any rash moves this offseason in order to save his job.)

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