On Saturday night, Edinson Volquez pitched a gem, throwing seven shutout innings with three hits, three walks, and six strikeouts. That lowered his season ERA to 3.15 in 185.2 innings. Today, Vance Worley threw eight shutout innings, giving up four hits, no walks and striking out five. His ERA was lowered to 2.93 in 104.1 innings. The recent success, combined with the season-long success raises a simple question:
Why should the Pirates ever pay market rate for starting pitchers?
The big outcry over the off-season was that the Pirates didn’t offer A.J. Burnett more than $12 M on a one year deal. Instead, they added Edinson Volquez, who has been much better than Burnett this season. They also made a minor trade during Spring Training to bring in Vance Worley, who also has performed better than Burnett. Combined, Volquez and Worley make less than $6 M, which is $10 M less than what Burnett is making this year.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the Pirates have found value on the starting pitching market. Burnett, himself, was one of the previous values. The Pirates added him from the Yankees, with New York picking up a lot of his salary, making Burnett a two-year, $13 M pitcher. The following off-season they signed Francisco Liriano to a two-year, $12.75 M deal, which was later restructured after an injury. Liriano ended up making $11.125 M, which includes a $6 M base salary this year, and $2 M in performance bonuses for games started. Considering the performances of Burnett and Liriano during their deals, the Pirates got a massive discount.
Volquez is the big one. Prior to the Burnett signing, you could point to stats that showed Burnett was one of the worst pitchers in baseball the previous seasons. You could do the same with Liriano. But with those pitchers, you also had something to point to, showing that the pitcher once put up good numbers. That wasn’t exactly the case with Volquez. He had a great year in 2008, but over the next five years he combined for a 4.94 ERA. Prior to the 2008 season, he had a 7.20 ERA in 80 innings. The best season outside of 2008 was a 4.14 ERA while pitching for San Diego. The idea that Volquez could repeat the ERA from that 2008 season was ridiculous.
Yet that’s what Volquez has done. He’s having a career year at the age of 30. Vance Worley is having a career year. A.J. Burnett had two career years. Francisco Liriano, for the first time, looked like an ace in back-to-back seasons.
The reason for this is due to Ray Searage and Jim Benedict for making the adjustments with these players, and the Pirates’ scouting department and the statistical department for identifying the players who could use an adjustment (Benedict overlaps here, since he spends some of his time scouting other pro teams). It also helps that the Pirates put a focus on pitch framing, defense behind the plate, defensive shifts to maximize efficiency, and play in a pitcher friendly park.
The combined process should now be a calling card. Pittsburgh should now be the prime destination for any pitcher wanting to turn his career around. The Pirates should be able to use this to their advantage, getting huge discounts on pitchers who could end up pitching like top starters, in exchange for that pitcher parlaying their performance into a bigger contract on the other side of the deal.
There is going to be a lot of demand for the Pirates to bring back Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez. The former will likely get a huge deal in free agency. The latter will probably see multiple years, and much more than the $5 M he received this year. I don’t think the Pirates should try to bring either player back. Instead, they should look for the next Liriano and the next Volquez. (Side note: doesn’t Justin Masterson just look like the poster boy for a Pirates’ reclamation project?)
Earlier today, Neal Huntington talked about how small market teams need to find value where other teams don’t. He talked about how they needed to pay guys for what they think they will do, and not for what they’ve done in the past. It seems the best way to get that value is to keep going with the reclamation projects. It is certainly working, and is a big reason why the Pirates are about to go to the post-season for the second year in a row.
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