First Pitch: Should the Pirates Continue Going With Reclamation Starting Pitchers?

This past off-season, the Pittsburgh Pirates made what seemed like a risky decision to go with Edinson Volquez and pass up on A.J. Burnett. Despite the fact that they revived the careers of Burnett and Francisco Liriano the previous two seasons, Pirates fans didn’t trust them to turn Volquez around, and instead wanted the “guaranteed production” that Burnett would bring to the table, based on his track record.

I am one of the people who felt that Burnett would be better than Volquez. If it was up to me, Burnett would have gotten a qualifying offer. I wouldn’t have signed him for the amount that Philadelphia paid, but I would have offered more than the Pirates reportedly offered.

At the same time, I was fine giving the Pirates a chance to work their magic once again. Aside from Burnett and Liriano, the magic worked on several relievers the last few years. They deserved the chance to see if this was something they could repeat, and to see if Ray Searage and Jim Benedict could give them results like Dave Duncan gave the Cardinals for years, with the ability to sign a struggling pitcher and turn him into a productive player.

So far this year, the Pirates have seen two success stories in Volquez and Vance Worley. Volquez has performed better than anyone hoped, posting a 3.31 ERA in 165.2 innings. His xFIP is lower, at 4.30, and it’s closer to 4.00 in the last month. That’s about the range I expected him to be in when he was signed, and it’s where you could expect him going forward. That production for $5 M is still a value.

Meanwhile, Worley was added in a very minor trade at the end of Spring Training, worked with Jim Benedict on his mechanics in extended Spring Training, and is now looking like the pitcher he was in his first few years in the majors. Worley has a 3.05 ERA and a 3.64 xFIP in 91.1 innings of work. He’s looking like a guy they can pencil into the rotation for the next few years.

But what about the other options next year? The Pirates will see Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, Worley, and Charlie Morton returning. That leaves one rotation spot open for a free agent. They will have Nick Kingham, Jameson Taillon, and Adrian Sampson as possible options at various times throughout the year. They’ll have Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler as depth, although Sadler seems to be switching to more of a reliever role based on his MLB appearances. That means they’ll need 1-2 free agent starters.

Have we reached a point where the Pirates can just do what they want with free agent pitchers? Or do they need to make the safe move that makes everyone comfortable?

Looking at the free agent list, there are several guys who would definitely qualify as “safe”, and who would probably end up out of the Pirates’ price range. That’s especially true when you consider that they should be making Russell Martin a priority. I’m not about to speculate on which starters could be reclamation projects. I might do that during the off-season, but right now we don’t even know who will actually be a free agent. That said, there has to be someone on that list who would be worthy of being a value pick. Someone who won’t cost anything close to what Jon Lester and Max Scherzer will receive, but who will put up solid numbers all year after a Spring Training adjustment. And maybe, just like Burnett and Liriano, that pitcher could put up numbers like a top of the rotation guy.

I was fine trusting the Pirates heading into this season, because I felt they earned that trust after Burnett, Liriano, and others. I don’t think the results from Volquez and Worley have taken that trust away. The Pirates are still finding starting pitching value at a fraction of the price that others are paying for the same production.

The only concern I’d have with this is the makeup of the rotation next year. Heading into this season, the expectation was that Liriano and Cole would pitch like top of the rotation guys, with Jameson Taillon joining them mid-season. If Volquez only became a 180-inning guy with league average numbers, then that would have been fine. But then Taillon got hurt, Liriano struggled before the All-Star break, and Cole pitched like a number three starter all year. You could say that the Pirates don’t have anyone projected to be a top of the rotation guy heading into next season, although I’m not about to give up on Cole reaching his upside this early.

It seems the need will be a top quality pitcher, more than just an innings eater. That might add a wrinkle to the value approach, if that’s the approach they take. Keep in mind that while the Pirates have been successful with this approach, they’ve also made big offers in the past for Jorge De La Rosa and Edwin Jackson. If they do go with the value approach, I don’t think they’d be restricted from trying to add a top quality guy. They’ll have to spend more than $5 M to get that type of pitcher, but if it works out like Burnett and Liriano, then the extra money won’t be an issue at all.

Links and Notes

**Pirates Release 2015 Schedule

**Pirates Release Ernesto Frieri

**Morning Report: What to Expect From Players in Winter Ball

 

First Pitch

  • Did they forget what they told Liriano last year? Or was he hurt in 2012, and healthy in 2013?

    • I think the less sexy but more accurate explanation is that there’s just a really fine line between extremely good, as he was last year, and just plain good, as he’s been this year.

      Only 2% more of his pitches this season have gone for balls, and only 1.6% of the contact he’s given up have turned out to be homeruns. Those are tiny numbers, I think we can agree. Combine that with sequencing them together a little bit differently and this is what you get.

      I don’t think Liriano is an appreciably worse starting pitcher this year than last.

  • Haven´t anyone noticed that actually Edwin Jackson can be the next reclamation project. His peripherals are exactly what the Pirates are always looking. 6.09 ERA, 4.32FIP and 4.05 FIPx. A very unlucky BABIP at .352, his K rate is up and GB down, so maybe Searage can works his magic into turning him into a ground ball pitcher again.
    The problem is his salary at 22M for the next two seasons.
    Can the Pirates get a better pitcher for less money?
    How much would an Santana/Hammel/Peavy will get? I think they will get more.
    I would try to extend Liriano and trade for either Ian Kennedy (for Alvarez maybe?) or Jackson.
    So a rotation would look like this:
    Liriano
    Cole
    Jackson/Kennedy
    Morton
    Worley

    Yes, I am leaving out Locke. He still has an option so I would send him to AAA in case Morton is still injured. If by midseason the combo of Taillon or Kingham live up to their hype, then they can trade anyone fromo Liriano or Kennedy, even Worley.

    • I think Pedro’s trade value right now is essentially zero. MAYBE you find an AL team that’s willing to take him on. But he has proven he can’t play 3rd. Not enough info to say if he can transition to 1st. and theres that little problem with him still not learning to lay off certain pitches. Plus theres the whole Boras thing. It all adds up to him being about as worthless a trade piece as you can find.

  • The Brewers might not going to give Gallardo the club option. He is only 28 and has consistently been a 180ip+ pitcher the past 6 years. He could be a perfect target, depending on his price.

  • The question isn’t whether or not the Pirates will continue this strategy, they will. The question is how long it will continue to work and what happens when it doesn’t.
    I suppose it’s fine to fill out the back of your rotation in that manner. But the Pirates don’t need a back of the rotation starter, they have about 6 of them. Unless anyone thinks that Locke, Morton, Worley, Cumpton and Sadler are anything but.
    I’d rather see Cole, good FA, Liriano (resigned) Locke and Worley, at least until Taillon is up to speed. I have no faith in Morton, too many injuries, no heart. Cumpton is what he is, a valuable guy as a spot/emergency starter. Sadler ? Who cares. Keep the best of what you have if you can, and build on it. Constantly replacing pieces isn’t moving forward, it’s spinning your wheels.

  • I hope, if the Pirates can’t reach longer term deals with Liriano and Volquez, that they at least, unlike they did with AJB, make QOs to them. Likely the QOs won’t be accepted (since the premise is that the parties were unable to agree on longer term deals and so far no QOs in MLB have been accepted) and the Pirates thereby will get draft picks right after the 1st round which will be shortened by those teams who sign FAs who rejected QOs. The “worse case” potential scenario from a financial point of view is the Pirates get one or two above average starters with limited long term financial commitments (one year only) who can either pitch for the Pirates next year or serve as very valuable trade chips especially if Kingham, Taillon or Sampson are not ready at the beginning of the year (which seems highly likely) but are later.

    Maybe the Pirates can “fix” Cole during an extended spring training which starts earlier than usual for Cole next year??

  • The Pirates biggest need for 2015 is top of the rotation talent, no matter where it comes from. As they aren’t likely to give big money long term contracts to top free agent pitching (a method that is not without risk), they are going to have to come internally or look for undervalued pick ups. Teams can pay a lesser but still expensive price for durable mid to back end guys with 180-200 innings/season histories, but pitchers are durable until they aren’t, see Bronson Arroyo.

    Potential undervalued free agent could be Masterson, assuming his knee issues will heal and the Cardinals don’t attempt to resign him, already a sinker heavy pitcher that the Pirates like.

    • Masterson seems like a great fit, but the Cards have an advantage in getting him in front of their doctors. That velocity decline is an obvious red flag, although not necessarily an injury precursor.

      • Cardinals do have a history of resigning guys they traded for so that is a hurdle, if we assume Lackey honors is $0.5 million salary for next season it seems that their rotation could be a little crowed, but then the same was said this off-season. I think the velocity decline is a result of the injury, his knee hasn’t been healthy all year.

  • there aren’t a ton of guys who have big ERA – FIP differentials. There’s McCarthy, but the secret is out. everyone’s seeing how awesome he can be.

    any reclamation project will have to be scouting and adjustment based ( like worley) , and not ERA – FIP based (like burnett, melancon, etc) since there aren’t any obvious ERA – FIP candidates.

    If guys like Shields and Lester are off the table…

    I’d try Liriano and then McCarthy as mid-cost options, and if they say no, Brett Anderson is a nice hail mary option.

    • Anderson’s injury history is considerable. Worse than Morton’s even. That’s a big risk for this team.

  • Justin Masterson, Brandon Morrow, or Brett Anderson would be great targets for next season as reclamation projects. I see those 3 as having the highest upside. Brandon McCarthy, Colby Lewis, and Kyle Kendrick could also be targets too.

  • The Pirates could always just resign Liriano…since coming off the DL he looks exactly like the pitcher he was last year who was pitching like a #1/#2.

  • The biggest hole in the Pirates’ pitching staff is the lack of top of the line performance. They have no #1 and only Worley has performed like a #2, and that only over half of a season. Based on ERA only Volquez, Locke and Liriano have pitched like #3’s, Cole and Morton like good #4s. So when facing other team’s #3, #4 and #5 the Pirates have a very good chance, but when facing the other team’s #1 or #2 the Pirates have little chance of winning. It is highly unlikely that the Pirates can uncover #1 or #2 like performance off of the reclamation pile. They need to either draft and develop it, or sign it in the FA market. I think Cole will eventual be a #1 or #2. He has the stuff, but hasn’t learned how to pitch for a whole game yet. No one can consistently just blow 96 MPH fastballs past MLB hitters. Third time through the lineup they will hit it. Taillon, Kingham, Sampson or Glasnow could eventually provide #1 / #2 performance, but not over the next two years. In order to leverage what should be top of the line offensive performance in 2015 / 2016 the Pirates need to sign a #1 in the FA market this winter. My hope is that they target Jon Lester, sign him to a multi year contract at about $25MM/year, hopefully back loaded, and then trade him after two years so that his money is available to sign other performers to a multi year extension, and other options will be ready to step forward to take Lester’s place. If you consider that the Pirates won’t be paying Wandy, Liriano and Volquez next year the money is almost there to afford Lester. This is not to say that you abandon the reclamation approach. You simply recognize it’s limitations.

  • No more reclamation projects without favorable options beyond the first year. It would be great to have a team friendly option for Volquez for next year or even the next 2 years. Imagine if we had an option year to Liriano’s 2 year contract and options on Volquez’s contract. Their priority would only need to be Martin. We could have those two pitchers ready to next year or sell high and trade them for prospects or another arm to slot into the rotation. Obviously those options may have been discussed and they could have been deal breakers, but I don’t remember hearing any other teams mentioned in the pursuit of those two.

    • “It would be great to have a team friendly option for Volquez for next year or even the next 2 years.”

      This is true, but it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a very good value this year – especially when compared to the price-tag / performance of Burnett – and it certainly doesn’t mean it would be foolish to sign somebody similar for next year. Good value is good value.

  • Jonathan Sanchez’ FIP was well under his ERA with the Cubs AAA affiliate this year. His ERA was 67.51 but his FIP was only 38.20, so there’s almost 30 runs worth of potential improvement there.

    No, no, a billion times no to Edwin Jackson. And no to Dice-K, he’d put our already iffy fielders to sleep.

    The “new” groundball throwing Brandon McCarthy might be worth a look though (although his HR/FB is scary, even though it’s partly due to Yankee Stadium). McCarthy won’t buy into the Bucs’ “pitch inside” strategy, but maybe having him out there every five days to give a different look would be a positive.

    I was ready to trade Morton this year. Unfortunately, his latest injury makes him a sell-low candidate, so I guess Bucs should hold him until Taillon comes up.

  • I think the Pirates roster dictates they take more of a Van Swerly option than a Voqueziean signing. I.e. someone who will come in either cheap enough to cut in spring training or with a minor league option. I doubt Taillon, Kingham or Sampson would be ready for April starts but Cumpton, Stolmy or even Jeanmar might be their best options at #5. I would certainly hate to lose a good arm at cutdown day to save a spot for Edwin Jackson. Vin Mazzaro and Jose Tabata show us a third way to sign a project pitcher without guaranteeing a contract, if they appear overpaid DFA, then assign to AAA.

  • Stargell_Stars
    September 9, 2014 9:06 am

    Lock in Martin first. Without him, the whole staff will suffer greatly.

  • Tim….no mention of Pimental?

    • Pretty sure Tim was only highlighting the instances in which the Pirates have been successful.

    • I think the definition used here involves guys with a considerable MLB track record; Pimentel falls more in the category of prospect with great stuff but no clue how to use it.

  • To a man, Pirate “reclamation” projects are at least a sizable product of random variation in performance. The Pitch Whisperer narratives are fun and partly deserved, but each case comes with a foundation of a player whose immediate past performance understated their true talent level. Huntington and his scouts/analysts deserve just as much credit.

    There certainly is more risk in this strategy, but in my opinion, that risk is only significantly greater when looking at next-year results only. The “safer” free agent pitchers are almost always rewarded with multi-year deals, and length of contract for pitchers is an enormous source of risk. The reclamation approach allows a club to be flexible and dynamic.

    • To a man, Pirate “reclamation” projects are at least a sizable product of random variation in performance.

      ___________________________________________________
      I think you might be right, but got a source or anything?

      • Not a one-stop-shop source, but each one of these guys had peripherals outpacing their actual results. Vance Worley is as close as they’ve come to taking a guy that was truly awful and completely turning him around.

      • AJ Burnett 2011 Yankees 5.15 ERA 3.86 xFIP
        2012 Pirates 3.51 ERA 3.40 xFIP

        Francisco Liriano 2012 5.34 ERA 4.14 xFIP

        2013 3.12 ERA 3.02 xFIP

        Edison Volquez 2013 5.71 ERA 4.07 xFIP
        2014 3.31 ERA 4.30 xFIP

        In each case, the peripherals suggested an full run improvement might be gained by assuming a performance closer to that which the xFIP predicts. In all cases the ERA the next season was almost a full better than that expectation. So roughly equal credit could be applied to scouting and coaching – though I think it is worth noting that some of the improvement in ERA over and above the previous seasons xFIP could be attributable to an improved defense. I don’t have the numbers on that, but it is conceivable that the Pirates (above avgerage) defense, shifting, etc and run scarce home park deserves some of the credit for pitcher ERAs out performing their previous years xFIP (because xFIP is calibrated to assume something close to a league average park and defense).

        • Pirates defense has been anything but “above average” this year.

          • That is true and worth bearing in mind when considering Volquez. Still worth noting that the defense was quite good in ’13 (8th) and above average (12th) in ’12 and the Park factors will work in favor of the Pirate pitchers’ ERA regardless of team defense.

        • This is an absurdly reductionist take, the Pirates didn’t make a spreadsheet and look at xFIP ERA gap, and target those guys then run them out there and bank on regression. Look at the change in FIP and xFIP since coming to Pirates, it strongly suggest maybe the Pirates altered something.

          Liriano (shoulder injury May 2011)

          2011-12: 5.23 / 4.43 / 4.31

          w/ Pirates: 3.35 / 3.28 / 3.22

          Burnett w/New York

          2009-11: 4.79 / 4.63 / 4.19
          w/Pirates 3.41 / 3.17 / 3.17

          There are one run gaps is FIP and xFIP numbers. You can be skeptical of discussed mechanical adjustments and pitching philosophy, but go look at the first pitch strike rates for Liriano, Burnett, Melancon, even Gomez, and Volquez (the Pirates continued the changes the Dodgers made at the end of 2013). In addition the Pirates altered the pitch mix.

          Burnett: http://www.brooksbaseball.net/outcome.php?player=150359&b_hand=-1&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=year&startDate=03/30/2007&endDate=09/09/2014&s_type=2

          Liriano: http://www.brooksbaseball.net/outcome.php?player=434538&b_hand=-1&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=year&minmax=ci&var=pcount&s_type=2&startDate=03/30/2007&endDate=09/09/2014

          Melancon: http://www.brooksbaseball.net/outcome.php?player=453343&b_hand=-1&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=year&minmax=ci&var=pcount&s_type=2&startDate=03/30/2007&endDate=09/09/2014

          There is a lot more going on than random variation and regression.

          You certainly have a point with Volquez as much of his value is linked to his low BABIP and strand rate. Pirates have continued to remake him into a pitch to contact pitcher, there is clearly a significant amount of luck in his ERA but, he is holding runners at career best rates and has been in the fewest 3-0 counts and most 0-2 counts of his career.

          • Tetrapharmakos
            September 9, 2014 2:23 pm

            Relax, man. I was just pointing out the pattern of ERA>xFIP. Moreover, I explictly acknowleged that statistical regression didn’t account for all of the improvement, so I don’t know why your panties in a bunch. What is absurdly reductionistic about pointing out that the FO isn’t expecting to improve anybody and everybody, but rather targeting particular pitchers who already profile to improve? Of course xFIP-ERA>1 is a gross oversimplification; I was just providing some context to the idea that “a sizable portion is due to random variation” and some of the credit should go to scouting / FO for targeting the right players in addition to the coaching staff for mechanical adjustments, approach, etc.

  • Right on, Tim. I have no issue with the Pirates trying for another reclamation project, but they should not let that pursuit stand in the way of resigning Martin and getting a more established No. 1, 2 or 3 starter. If they fail to do both — especially Martin — it could make for a disappointing 2015. Given that a few significant contracts will roll off payroll after the season, the terrific fan turnout this year, and increase in MLB and playoff revenue sharing, the front office should not get away with another year of crying “poor.”

    • Agreed on that last point. Unless the Dodgers or someone makes some ungodly offer to Russell Martin (5 years; 75 million) they have to resign him! If they let Martin walk and try to tell us that Tony Sanchez or a small trade for a Wellington Castillo type leaves us stronger, or they let all the free agent pitchers walk like Burnett, then the rumors are true. The Nuttings don’t belong at the big boys table and need to go back to the penny slots.

  • As a Plan B strategy to fill in gaps, I have no problem with reclamation projects. But, personally, I do not believe it can be the Plan A strategy. At some point, this FO needs to show more faith and confidence in their own prospects – pitchers and otherwise. That was supposedly the strategy – building something from within – through the draft and player development.

    • While what you say is true, pretty much every team needs to supplement their internal options with free agents. The “Plan” as I understood it was really to have a good enough team that free agent and trade acquisitions would make the difference between a winning season and making the playoffs.

      The only guy who can claim he hasn’t been given a fair shot is Andrew Lambo. I suspect he’ll get that one way or another next year.

      • Andrew Lambo was literally handed the 1B job this spring before completely falling on his face. One has to be severely entitled to say that wasn’t a fair shot in baseball or life.

        • what he said

        • lonleylibertarian
          September 9, 2014 6:33 pm

          42 at bats was NOT a fair shot – Ike Davis has had 350 or so – walks a lot and has hit NINE home runs – about one in every 40 ABs.

          You keep repeating this line – and I guess you believe it. But if Jay Hay did not get something like a 5th chance to make a contribution where would the Pirates be this season? Harrison was on the team in 2012 – sent to Indy at the start of 2013 – had a couple of short call ups when he did not impress – your should have read what the posters had to say back then on him. Players do not click all at once – some need to have good coaching and the confidence of the management – Hurdle prefers veterans – Barmes – Inge etc to younger players – always has.

          • It wasnt 42 at bats, this is a fallacy that people use who want to have Lambo play. He played well below average allll winter long, and followed it up with 42 poor at bats. That altogether is a solid reason for most teams to assume he may need a month or so getting his swing right. After that, Lambo ran into 3 months of bad luck that kept him out (injury, Ike Davis getting a shot, having nowhere to play thanks to Harrison/Polanco and the team admitting he didnt play well at 1B on defense).

      • To a lesser degree, I would add d’Arnaud, Tony Sanchez, Harrison, and Cumpton to that list. The team also was very slow to finally turn SS over to Mercer – and only after efforts to first use Barmes and John MacDonald.

    • Like having their LF, CF, RF, 3B, SS, 2B all be home grown? Like having half of the rotation be home grown? Lets be honest, this team is built on and around draft and development. Once Taillon arrives, you have the two pitchers they are depending on to lead the rotation. Along with guys like Kingham it makes a fine rotation.

  • Wonder if the Pirates (Searage, Benedict, etc.) have the stones to pick up Edwin Jackson from the Cubs on the cheap and try to turn him around. If they succeeded with that project it would qualify them for HOF status in my book.

    • I sure hope not!

      • Sure you thought the same when they signed Liriano and Volquez. Whatever they do, it will not be popular, but those are the opportunities on which the Pirates capitalize.

        • No, not really. Edwin Jackson is a scrub. The Pirates almost signed him before trading for Burnett. We already dodged that bullet once.

  • If I were a once highly effective SP who has seen regression lately and Pirates offered a contract, I’d ask where do I sign! There can be no denying the fact Benedict and Searge are Pitcher Whisperers. I see no reason to deviate from the reclamation project plan at this point.

    • SK: It would be very hard to argue with the results posted the past 2 or 3 years. I am not sure of trying to sign EV for 2 or 3 years, or go into 2015 with Cole, Locke, Morton, Worley and Cumpton as our projected Rotation. Another probability could be to see if that magic will rub off on Stolmy Pimental. He has had almost a full year of rest, and I would love to see him as a possible No. 5 SP. Either Cumpton or Pimental will give us a quality No. 5 while allowing Kingham, Taillon, and Sadler enough time to get themselves together. I do not think it will be very long before we see Nick Kingham at PNC . . . . Taillon possibly in late June.

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