First Pitch: How Much Do You Trust Ray Searage?

Several weeks ago I wrote an article titled “Why I Trust Neal Huntington“. In the article I pointed out that I don’t agree with all of the moves Huntington makes. I give my own opinion, then I try to put that opinion aside to try and see the logic from the other side of a deal. For the most part I accept that I have limited information and that Huntington has an entire organization working to provide him with tons of information not made available to the public. That process led from the Pirates going from a horrible all around organization in 2008 to a contender with a top farm system in 2013. Huntington and the Pirates have earned trust after watching how they’ve built up the entire organization.

Today is one of those days where that trust comes into play. I said that I would have given A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer. The truth is that we don’t know if Burnett would have accepted this. It’s possible that he could retire. But that’s the deal I would have made. I’m also not a big fan of Edinson Volquez, who the Pirates have agreed to sign on a one year deal for $5 M. He’s got some appeal with his stuff, his ground balls, his strikeouts, and his advanced metrics being better than the results. However, he’s a bigger risk than guys like Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett due to his poor career walk rate. This is one of those times where I don’t agree with the move, but I’m willing to trust the pitching system the Pirates have used to turn so many pitchers around.

How you feel about the risks surrounding Volquez is one thing. How much trust you put in Ray Searage is another. Searage, Jim Benedict, the Pirates’ scouts, and the rest of the pitching staff in the majors and minors have revived or created a lot of careers. The two notable examples are Liriano and Burnett. There was also Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez last year. Charlie Morton was the original reclamation project. Guys like Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens played over their heads while with the Pirates. The minor leagues saw improved fastball command by Jeff Locke, who was stalling in A-ball when the Pirates got him. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon both made big strides to make their fastballs less hittable. The latter three have more to do with Benedict, although he works alongside Searage in the major league process.

So how much do you trust the process?

People will bring up Jonathan Sanchez. I don’t view Sanchez in the same boat as guys like Liriano or Burnett. The Pirates made a big investment in those pitchers. They pretty much guaranteed them rotation spots. Sanchez was your typical non-roster invitee signing that every team makes. He got a one month trial out of Spring Training as the fifth starter. The odds of him working out were much worse than Liriano and Burnett, and I think that was reflected in the price. A big reason why Sanchez didn’t work out is because he wasn’t willing to make any adjustments. Liriano and Burnett saw their numbers improve with the Pirates because of the adjustments made by Searage and company. Sanchez refused that. While adjustments might not have led to him posting strong numbers, it was a guarantee that he wasn’t going to improve doing the same thing that obviously wasn’t working.

The Pirates would have talked with Volquez before signing him. They would have been able to get a feel on whether he was open to adjustments, or whatever plan they had for him. That’s what happened last year before they signed Liriano. It’s total speculation here with Volquez, but I don’t think the Pirates would give him $5 M if they didn’t have a plan in place that they knew he would accept — just like that Liriano situation.

From there you’ve got a lot of questions. How much would working with Searage, Benedict and company help Volquez? How much will the defensive shifts help? How much will Russell Martin’s pitch framing help? I could take a guess at all of this. I’d imagine the Pirates have a prediction of their own. And in this case I’m just a guy looking at stats on FanGraphs, while they’re working with a lot more information. That’s why I’d trust they would have a better read on the situation. But I also think Searage and company have done an impressive job, and if they think Volquez is worth a $5 M investment, then that probably means they think he’s worth the risk. Think about it this way: they’ve only made this type of monetary investment with four other pitchers. Burnett, Liriano, Erik Bedard, and Kevin Correia were those guys. Burnett and Liriano ended up great. Correia played above his head and wasn’t really that bad from a performance standpoint. Bedard didn’t work out, although it should be noted that he did have strong numbers up until an injury in his second start in May. From that point forward he struggled. Overall, Volquez is in good company with this group.

I trust the system the Pirates have employed. I trust Searage to work his magic, even if I only believe the best case scenario would be leave average numbers over 180 innings. That would be worth the $5 M that Volquez received, but it would probably put him more in the Kevin Correia category rather than the next Liriano or Burnett.

First Base Rumors

The first base market saw a major change today when Seattle signed Corey Hart, and acquired Logan Morrison. Between the Mark Trumbo trade yesterday, and Morrison being added as an outfielder, that really reduced the options for Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Tampa Bay. The top choices now are James Loney, Ike Davis, and Mitch Moreland.

The Pirates are in the mix for Ike Davis. However, Adam Rubin of ESPN New York said tonight that he doesn’t feel they’re as high on Davis as an alternative to Loney, compared to the Rays and Brewers.

I’d say that Loney has more bargaining power right now than he did two days ago. He has been seeking $9-10 M per year for three years. The rumors as of Wednesday evening were that most teams only wanted two years. Rob Biertempfel reported that a three year deal wouldn’t be a deterrent for the Pirates.

Justin Smoak could be an option on the first base market, although the Mariners were saying they would use Hart and Morrison in the outfield, with Smoak at first base. That’s what I’d say if I’m trying to preserve trade value. You should know by now that I prefer Loney. I’d rather go with Andrew Lambo as a platoon at first over trading for any of the other options. The appeal with everyone else (former top prospect, still young, might figure it out) is the same as the appeal with Lambo. The difference is that Lambo hasn’t had a shot in the majors, and doesn’t have the limited success that some guys have had at times. So it’s not a perfect situation, but I don’t think the alternatives to Lambo are considerably better.

As for Loney, I think we still need to consider that the teams going after him are Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Tampa Bay. All three have said or indicated that he’s too expensive at his demands. It’s not like we’re about to see a bidding war between the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers. There might be a chance that his price comes down from the $9-10 M range. However, I wouldn’t expect him to sign anytime soon if teams are waiting him out. It’s not like the season begins anytime soon, and it would be in his best interest to wait it out and hope one team meets his demands.


Aside from Edinson Volquez, the Pirates made two other moves today. The biggest move was giving Charlie Morton a three year extension. That’s not really a move that impacts the 2014 season, as Morton was already under team control. The bigger impact here is on the 2015-2016 seasons, and maybe 2017 if his option is picked up. Earlier in the off-season I suggested the Pirates should sign Morton to an extension, pointing out how he’s comparable to Brandon Webb and Derek Lowe. So I guess you could say that I like the move to extend Morton, and if you’re looking for reasons, click those two links.

The Pirates also sent Kyle Haynes to the Yankees in the Chris Stewart trade. Click that link for a scouting report on Haynes, taken from the 2014 Prospect Guide (Haynes won’t be in the book now, but I already had the report written). This seems like appropriate trade value for a good defensive backup like Stewart.

Other Rumors and Notes

**Pirates Unlikely to Make Rule 5 Pick; Could Lose Zack Thornton. The Rule 5 draft takes place tomorrow morning and is usually the last big thing from the Winter Meetings. As usual, we’ll have all of the coverage on the site.

**I’m hoping to have the 2014 Prospect Guide finished tomorrow evening. Usually the Rule 5 draft is the last set of transactions that goes into the book, although I don’t have to submit things until Friday, so I’ll be leaving it open for any last minute changes. You can pre-order your copy here to make sure it goes out with the first shipment. I’m hoping to receive the first group of books and ship them out next Thursday or Friday.

**Edinson Volquez Player Page.

**MLB to Ban Home Plate Collisions. I don’t really have a strong opinion on this.

**Pirates Requested Medicals on Johan Santana. I wonder if they’ll continue pursuing him now that they have Volquez. You’d have to think that Santana would only require an NRI deal. I’m skeptical about him returning, since he has had shoulder problems, which is usually a career killer.

**In the Winter Leagues, Gregory Polanco returns to action. He missed some time over the last week with a stomach virus. There has been talk lately that Polanco won’t start the season in Pittsburgh, which shouldn’t be news. I’d still expect to see him in the majors by the end of the year, unless one of the right fielders has a huge breakout season.

  • Hey Tim,
    I just saw on MLB Network that Joel Hanrahan is still a free agent and he had Tommy John closer to the start of the season do you see any chance the Pirates would give him a contract of any sorts?

    • Right now they don’t have much room in their bullpen. In fact, they’ve got more bullpen arms than spots when you consider the option situations. Hanrahan wouldn’t be bad as a flier on a minor league deal, but I can’t see him signing here, since he wouldn’t have a great opportunity to re-establish value.

  • Do you think there’s any truth to the Jon Heyman’s rumor that Burnett could be interested in Baltimore. It would seem to be more practical considering he lives a half hour from Baltimore and he wants to be close to family. Also because his wife does not like to travel.

    • Heyman: “A.J. Burnett remains “torn” about whether to pitch in 2014, says friend. could be bucs, but orioles closer for MD resident.”

      I dunno. it looks more like Heyman speculation/logic than actual insider info. But just because it’s speculation doesn’t mean that it won’t be right in the end.

      • So the friend says exactly what AJ has said all along, Heyman adds a geography nugget himself, and this is speculation that AJ’s gonna sign with the Os? I’ll still take AJ’s word until there’s a reason not to.

    • If he pitches in 2014, I’m convinced it’ll be Baltimore. And I felt this way even before Heyman said that.

  • Cato the Elder
    December 12, 2013 9:01 am

    If anybody has earned the benefit of doubt it is Benedict/Searge. I’ll go ahead and say I’m optimistic that the $5 million will be considered well spent by the end of the year. Just look at what else $5 million gets you in free agency; if Volquez pitches like a quality #4 starter, then this will be a quality deal. Bear in mind that your average #4 starter is flawed with limited upside. I’d say Volquez is flawed with reasonably high upside (lacks control; swing and miss stuff with a good GB rate). My best guess is that he will blow up a handful of times over the course of the season, which will drag down his overall numbers, he’ll twirl a couple of gems (not as many gems as blow ups), but more often than not he will pitch 6-7 inning of 2-3 run ball. That’s a quality #4 in my book.

    PS – I hate the Mariners, who in addition to throwing money around like a caged chimp throws feces, are now sitting on 3 firstbasemen and have a 4th they are blocking access to by tying him to draft pick compensation. They have singlehandely submarined the whole buyers market and for no discenrnable purpose other than incompentance/panic. I wish them nothing but misfortune.

    • I agree I have no idea what the Ms are trying to accomplish. I guess they want to have an outfield made up of as many first basemen as possible.

      • Maybe they are just throwing it in Scott Boras’ face that Morales didn’t sign the QO…

    • lol caged chimp

    • Cato….”I wish them nothing but misfortune”

      Smart money is on misfortune. 🙂

    • Good points, any signing that was not Burnett was going to look bad by comparison.

      Hopefully Searage/Benedict saw something because Volquez went away from using his changeup last year, and relied on his curve more, getting less swing and miss and thus K/9 one batter below his career average. However, last three years: ERA/FIP/xFIP

      Bronso Arroyo: 4.19/4.76/4.23
      Edinson Volquez: 5.09/4.41/4.12

      What is Arroyo going to get /year? (Obviously Arroyo has a better ERA due to strand rate and lower BABIP, but his value is maxed out due to playing in front of the team that turn balls into outs at the highest rate.)

  • i still don’t understand the hatred of this deal. Even if he isn’t fixed by searage, FIP says we can expect an ERA of 4ish. FIP accounts for luck, not for mechanical fixes and Searage magic. Look at his BABIP last year.

    if searage DOES fix Volquez, his ERA, FIP, and xFIP will all drop.

    With Liriano, we should’ve expected a 4 ERA, even before Searage did a thing. That’s what his FIP said. Therefore, we should expect the same thing out of Volquez, because that’s what his FIP says.

    My argument is that a fix / bounceback isn’t even required for him to be effective. the stats indicate bad luck in 2013. everything that we’ve looked at in our pitchers…. xFIP for AJ, ‘stuff’ and FIP for Liriano, ‘stuff’ and babip for morton back a few years ago…. are present with Volquez.

    Yes his walk rate is higher, but walks are a part of the FIP formulas. They’re already accounted for. Even with the walk rate, we still shouldve expected a 4ish ERA in 2013.

    The one thing i can’t argue with is that he WAS in Petco, so maybe that takes some upside out of it.

    I’m not counting on Searage magic, but i think the overwhelming hate for this deal ignores the things that we’ve always looked at for the other acquisitions.

    I still want AJ. Go get AJ. Please.

  • My queston is this: say that Burnett retires and realistically that saves us 12million, say we don’t sign or trade for anyone significant for first base which say saves us $7 million per year that we were willing to spend on loney. the 5 on volquez is just wasted money in my opinion, but that still leaves us 14million to spend on something, somewhere for this year and with Wandy additionally coming off the books, about that much going forward as well. I still think a signing could occur in an area we might not expect, so looking at the overall free agent market, what is still out there? Lets look at shortstops, starting pitchers, even second baseman along with an outfielder and first base. Whats the scope change to at that point

  • Without even an option year, the signing is a pointless flush of 5million

    • totally agree….at best, we only get one year out of him.

      and you KNOW we won’t QO him, so….

      as Ken Harrelson likes to say “He Gone”.

    • This is the old way of thinking–option years are important when you’re rebuilding and don’t expect to contend for a year or two but not when you’re already a contender. If Volquez helps us get back to the playoffs, then it will have been a great investment.

  • I got one right! I’ve been saying all offseason that I thought Volquez was the Pirates type and that they would sign him. I even mentioned his name in a comment on Tim’s article looking at potential bounce back pitchers.

    I don’t think the Pirates are turning this one into a top of the rotation arm but he has the ability to induce ground balls and miss bats so I think he can be molded into a useful player and I think he will be. Five million was a little more than I was expecting him to get but I have faith that Volquez will not completely fall apart. This move strengthens the pitching depth which as always is helpful.

  • My biggest issue with this move is its one way. If it works then Volquez moves on after one year. If it doesn’t we are stuck with a 5 million dollar error. A mistake this franchise really can’t afford right now. t

    • You’re describing two different things. In the “if it works” you’re talking about what happens after 2014. In the “if it doesn’t” you’re only focusing on 2014. The actual comparison would be:

      If it works (during 2014) – The Pirates get a good starting pitcher for a cheap price the whole year
      If it doesn’t (during 2014) – The Pirates are stuck with $5 M in dead money

      If it works (after 2014) – Volquez becomes a free agent so there’s no long-term benefit.
      If it doesn’t (after 2014) – Volquez becomes a free agent so the financial risk is over.

      I’d also say that if they turn Volquez around, it’s a good possibility that they could find it much easier to attract future bounce back pitchers, even top guys like Josh Johnson.

    • Tim…if it works? If so, then they should’ve grabbed an option year.


  • Tim,

    You aren’t concerned that Lambo hasn’t played a lot of first base, as compared to Ike and Smoak? I think for defense and major league experience I’d rather have one of them in a “blah toon”. They both can hit righties. Contingent on what the Pirates would have to give up in a trade, of course.

  • I do trust Ray a great deal. I do not like the Volquez signing at all. I think that Ike Davis would be a huge mistake. Justin Smoaks numbers are not an upgrade at all over Garrett Jones. I support Loney only or a trade for Encarnacion.

  • Great article Tim! I for one trust Ray Searage as much or more than any pitching coach in baseball. If anyone can get max value out of Volquez it’s Ray.

    Also, I just ordered the Prospect Guide. Looking forward to reading it!