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
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.