First Pitch: Is Pittsburgh Finally Becoming a Destination For Free Agents?

A few years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates tried to go after Jorge De La Rosa, offering him a three-year deal. He ended up re-signing with the Colorado Rockies, in part because they gave him a player option and the Pirates wouldn’t, but also to remain with a team that he was familiar and comfortable with.

A year later, they pursued Edwin Jackson on a three-year deal. He ended up turning them down to sign a one year deal with the Washington Nationals.

Even last year they went after James Loney, although they didn’t want to give him the amount of years that Tampa Bay gave him, and Loney wanted to remain in a familiar place with the Rays.

That’s how it has been for a long time for the Pirates. They were just short on a lot of free agents. Players didn’t want to come to Pittsburgh. And that’s not universal like some make it seem. Obviously they were able to sign guys like Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. But to do so, they needed to see value where other teams didn’t, and get a discounted price on a deal that everyone else initially viewed as going above market rate. When it came to going after highly sought after free agents, where everyone agreed on the value, the track record wasn’t good.

That changed today. The Pirates agreed to a deal with Francisco Liriano, paying him $39 M over three years. That’s about what he was expected to receive at the start of the off-season. And the surprising thing about all of this is that Liriano wasn’t expected to sign until Jon Lester set the market. That could have potentially given him more bidders, and driven his price up higher. Instead, he signed early with the Pirates, while every other team looking for pitching is waiting for Lester to make his decision.

Neal Huntington was on MLB Network tonight, and talked about this very subject.

“I think, quite honestly, if this comes to fruition, Francisco probably left money on the table to come back to Pittsburgh,” Huntington said on MLB Network.

If that is true, then it wouldn’t be the first time it happened this off-season. A.J. Burnett declined a $12.75 M option with the Phillies, and immediately went to the Pirates to give them a discounted one year, $8.5 M price. He had no intentions of testing the market. There was just one team he wanted to play for. And after everything with De La Rosa, Jackson, Loney, and every other sought after free agent the Pirates pursued, it’s nice to see them on the other side of things. It’s nice to see Pittsburgh as a competitive destination for top free agents, and a place where people want to play.

“What’s been so phenomenal in the two years that we’ve become a playoff calibre team is that more and more guys are wanting to come to Pittsburgh,” Huntington said. “Not only is Francisco staying in Pittsburgh, but we’re becoming a place that agents are calling us. I’ve met with more agents this winter meetings than I have in the past.”

The Pirates entered the off-season with the need for two starting pitchers. While almost every other team looking for starters is waiting on the market to open up, the Pirates have already added the starters they needed. This is definitely better than their situation over the last few years.

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Here is the Huntington interview on MLB Now:

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I doubt the “Nutting is Cheap” arguments are going to die anytime soon, even with this move. But if you’re still using that line of thinking, you are missing what is happening. Their payroll has been increasing steadily, as pointed out a few weeks ago. After the Liriano deal, they should be in the mid-$80 M range, with more moves expected. Even with no moves, they will probably top the expected $90 M after in-season spending (which usually amounts to about $8 M a year).

I don’t care much about how much they spend. I’m more interested in how they spend it. The Pirates have been spending smart money. They’ve spent to lock up impact talent like Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, buying out control of three free agent years each. They spent a lot in the draft and international markets, and that is starting to pay off at the Major League level. They focused on value in the free agent and trade market, getting a huge discount on Russell Martin before everyone learned about pitch framing, and getting five great seasons worth of stats from A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, and Vance Worley for a combined $30 M. And now they spent money on a need, adding a top of the rotation starter when they could really use a top of the rotation starter.

You can focus on the final number, but that doesn’t get you in the playoffs to have a shot at the World Series. How you spend that money is what gets you there, which is why the Pirates have been more successful than the Reds and Brewers the last two years, despite those two teams having a higher payroll figure that is desirable to a lot of Pirates fans.

Links and Notes

**The 2015 Prospect Guide will be sent to the publisher on Friday, and will be released at some point next week, aka, whenever I get the first shipment back from the publisher. You can pre-order your copy of the book here. All orders placed before Friday morning are guaranteed to go out in the first shipment.

**I’ll be updating the payroll pages on the site when the Liriano deal becomes official and the specific contract details are known. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens after the Rule 5 draft. Until then, as shown in the links below, the Pirates could be on the lookout for relievers next.

**Pirates Agree With Francisco Liriano on a Three Year, $39 M Deal

**Pirates Will Address the Bullpen After Francisco Liriano Deal is Finalized

**Pirates Searching the Trade Market For Lefty Relievers, Also Like RHP Pat Neshek

  • Its great that more players and agents are considering the Pirates as a viable option, but in 99% of the cases it still comes down to money and who can provide the best offer. I don’t think there is strong evidence that we are suddenly a hot destination for free agents – especially those coming off good seasons and therefore being heavily courted. Heck, Neshak just chose the Astros over us!

    Yes, Burnett wanted out of Philly and came to Pittsburgh at a “discount”. I say that in quotes, because I am not so sure that he would have had a lot of offers to pay him much more than that – given his age and his 2014 performance. He’s also the same guy who said he would play 2014 in Pittsburgh or retire….so, his credibility leaves something to be desired.

    In our original signings of guys like Lriano, Volquez, Martin – they were all coming off of horrific years and probably didn’t have a ton of equivalent or better offers, if any. Fortunately, for the Pirates, they all out performed expectations and their contracts. The re-signing of Liriano this year is a huge get – I really considered him gone. Not re-signing Martin hurts big time….but, again I am not surprised. If we re-sign Volquez, that would be good – depending on the size of the contract. Bit, I am a little skeptical of him, given his overall body of work vs. his one season in 2014. His performance in the one game playoff still smarts.

  • OK… here’s an observation followed by an interesting thought. Arizona is said to be looking to bring their payroll under $90 mill, are actively shopping Miley and listening on pretty much everyone else.

    As they’re admitting they are in a rebuilding situation, odds are decent Goldschmidt will be in his last year or two of arb or his team option year before AZ is actually good again. So, there’s certainly some incentive to deal Goldschmidt while his value is astronomical.

    If the opportunity presented itself, do you reach into the Bell/Meadows/McGuire pool, take a couple of those guys, plus Pedro and Kingham or whatever aggressive package you can put together to get Goldy, who you’d have through 2019 at very reasonable prices?

    • I would… do you feel 1b position is worth giving up so much value for sense there’s little defensive value..

      • Given Goldy would still only be making $14 mill in 2019, it would be hard to dismiss. Five years of control over a .900+ OPS guy, four of which Cutch is still here, plus a Taillon/Glasnow/Cole rotation… I’d pitch a deal and see if they bite.

        • Me to.. I was all about trading for a 1b last year and was presented a really good counter as to why it’s a bad idea to give up a lot of prospect value for 1b… even so though, goldy has a monster bat so maybe it wouldn’t apply here.. I really like the idea but just wasn’t sure if I was missing something

  • lonleylibertarian
    December 10, 2014 11:26 am

    I am not sure the picture is quite as rosy as you want to paint it Tim.
    1. AJ coming to a park and team where he has a chance to go out a winner – and getting away from the horrible park and defense in Philadelphia and “settling” for $8.5M is a nice story – but I doubt Huntington would have gone any higher for him.
    2. We probably will never know – but my gut is Frankie was told that he had until a time certain – or until Lester signed – to accept the Pirates best offer – which is what I think he did. The market for him would have been different if a draft pick was not part of the cost of signing him for other teams – doubt he left much if any $ on the table.

    In principle I have always felt that it is not how much a team spends – but how well it spends it. But the price of competing is that you have to commit to doing what it takes to make your team better and winning World Series – not just being in contention for the playoffs. This team still has,
    1. No real bench bats that are going to scare anyone – and especially no right hand threat.
    2. A second baseman who is a plus bat – but a defensive liability – and misses significant playing time each year – average of 133 games the last three years
    3. A third baseman who is one year away from being seen as a good utility player – I love J-Hay – and he may have broken through – but he also may be a one year wonder.
    4. A young RF who got off to a great start when he arrived last year – but really struggled to produce for the last part of the season. Hopefully he is going to get back on track and be the future star Tim and others told us he could and would be – but has yet to prove out.
    5. A farm system that is ranked very high – but will probably not contribute much if anything to the Pirates of 2015 – maybe something in 2016.
    With the Lester signing the Cubs are now one more starter away from being a real competitor in the NLC.

    • You do realize paying market value in free agency contradicts the principal of spending money well.. you’re competing against teams who aren’t interested in spending wisely

      • lonleylibertarian
        December 10, 2014 2:27 pm

        Not me – someone a lot smarter…..

        “Dave Cameron: If you think every contract is too much, your baseline is too low.”

        • That’s the general theory of market prices.. if someone is willing to pay x, then the commodity is worth x.. doesn’t mean it’s a good investment though

    • Lonley you need a comparison group to put your pessimism in perspective. The Pirates aren’t competing against some ideal flawless team, they are competing against teams that also have holes, flaws, and are banking on players hitting their proverbial upside. Yes they don’t have the revenue structure (or their owner is too parsimonious,) to support a massive payroll but the link between payroll and wins is the lowest it has been in recent memory.

      • lonleylibertarian
        December 10, 2014 2:27 pm

        One of my degrees is in Economics and I love the concept of marginality – what would another $X M do if you were able and willing to spend it. Last year another $10M might have allowed the Bucs to consider Abreau seriously – or go after a bigger bat than Loney – or heck – go ahead with a QO for AJ.

        This year another $10M might have allowed them to at least kick the tires on Adam Lind – or Josh Donaldson.

        Another $20M gets you in on Sherzer and Lester…

        • I guess that explains why you continue moving the goal post

          • lonleylibertarian
            December 10, 2014 2:56 pm

            I don’t think I have moved my goal post – I have said for over two years that the Bucs will be struggling to do more than compete at the margin until they spend WISELY at the $100M level. They are still not there.

            If anything the MARKET is moving the goal posts on me and them…

            Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs is using ~$7M per WAR in analyzing the value of the Lester contract/deal – two years ago that was ~$5M

            • I stand corrected. . You’ve been consistent in what you believe. . The process of which the front office has consistently communicated to increase payroll is to avoid paying market rates for wins and instead focus on using payroll dollars for talent retention and market inefficiencies.. the cost of wins in the free market is driven up by market inefficiencies that currently exist in the baseball world.. you just feel they should ignore their principles and pay inflated rates for wins.. I just wonder if you recognize the improvement the organization has experienced sense these principles were defined

              • lonleylibertarian
                December 10, 2014 3:39 pm

                35 years and counting – BIG opportunities lost at least two of the last three years

                • True.. I’m sure nh has recognized those opportunities as well.. still, there is 30 teams in baseball so 29 weren’t able to capitalize on each opportunity. . Usually there’s a big risk/downside a associated with the opportunity. . Especially guys like abbreu

        • That is all well and good, but where is this 12.5%, 25% increase in payroll coming from? How do you know that extra $10 million wouldn’t have been spent on Josh Johnson or Stephen Drew.

          The link between payroll and revenue has been falling, $10 million last year on average across the league would have bought .008 in winning%, so 1.2 Wins.

          http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-real-market-inefficiency/

          If anything the most recent playoffs demonstrate you just have to be good enough to get in, then let the randomness of 5 and 7 game series take over, there just isn’t as much value in building truly great teams as there was with less inclusive playoffs.

    • Travis Snider was 5th in baseball in pinch hits last year. So I’d say he’s a bench bat that scares the opposition.

      • lonleylibertarian
        December 10, 2014 2:07 pm

        Good catch – I had forgot about Lunchie.
        With Lester in Chicago a right hand bat is going to be more important – facing a quality lefty another 3-5 times a year.

  • Winning does a lot, including attract players that want to come to Pittsburgh, but every team has players that want to play for them, I don’t think it is that big of a deal, money still talks.

  • Sorry Tim but until the “PBC” are willing to spend their profits on salaries it won’t happen…so far we got someone who was happy with the club.and wants to return .but for a player that will make his decision based on $ ..they will not come to the Burg at a “discount” price..not that that’s a bad thing…My problem with the “PBC” is that here we are knocking at the door ..we don’t want spend to take the next step revenue has gone up 36% the last 2 years …that would mean a payroll of 100 mill or so..if the “PBC” spends all their mlb shared revenues on salaries they could spend 150m easy..and that should be good for a WS win.”.just saying” IF YOU ARE GOING TO DO SOMETHING ..DO IT RIGHT”

    • i respectfully disagree with every aspect of your argument. For example, since numerous clubs spend 150mm, how can spending this arbitrary amount be considered a magical number that should be good enough for a WS win?

      I think you may be happier cheering for the Yankees.

      • Viewed over a 20-year period, the Yanks will win more games since they can significantly outspend almost everyone – which makes up for a lot of the stupid moves they make. But for the next few years, the Bucs will be a better team. They have significantly more talent than the Yanks do, and the Yanks are locked into so many horrendous contracts that there is only so much they can do.do. Also the Pirates have more minor league talent than the Yanks at the moment.

      • SK : He is one of those guys who wants to move the goalposts to fit his thinking. If they went to $ 125 mil he would say they need to go to $ 150 blah blah blah……

        • What an unhappy existence it must be to fixate on other people’s finances. Just because I cheer for the Pirates doesn’t mean I OWN the Pirates. I think some fans get confused in this matter. Clearly Will is one such fan.

    • Why exactly is the magic number to go for it $100m? Just cause it has another digit I reckon

    • I’ve gotta say I have been critical of nutting in the past, I however have had to revize my stance as he is putting his money where his mouth is and spending money. Nh is taking that money and spending it wisely (as usual) all in all I think the pirates model is working both on and off the field, so I guess it’s time my friend to find something else to b!#&h about.

  • “Destination” in the sense that every Pirate who hits free agency is automatically gone, or that every signing won’t be a reclamation-project and rebuild-value one. Obviously, Pittsburgh will never be a Jon Lester/Max Scherzer type of “destination”.

    • Nor should they. 6 years and 155MM for a pitcher is insane. Full stop.

    • I, for one, have no desire to see the Pirates evolve into an organisation that chases a WS title by making Lester type deals. It’s just as apt to set the franchise back as put it over the top.

      I lived in SoCal in the late 90’s when the Angels gave Mo Vaughn a huge contract to leave the Red Sox. I was in the park on opening day and distinctly remember how fat and out of shape he looked. And sure enough in the very first game of his big new contract he injured himself because of a lack of conditioning. The team had high hopes going into the season and instead was a losing club despite making the big splash signing of that particular off-season.

      Give me the Pirates model any day over the get rich quick scheme employed by others.

      • And I wouldn’t argue with you; I’m merely saying there’s destinations and there’s destinations, and Pittsburgh is not going to be a destination in terms of the marquis names, which is. by and large, not a bad thing.

  • If you build it, they will come. Build a first-class organization replete with highly thought of coaches/managers/front office personnel. Play in one of, if not the best, parks in all of MLB. Play with one of the 2-3 best players in the game. Play in front of an impassioned fan base. And most importantly, play on a team committed to competing for a title.

    Add all of this together and it’s easy to see why guys are sacrificing $$$ to stay/return to the Pirates, and having their agents contact the team to gauge interest.

    It’s a great time to be a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates!

    • Scott: Agree 100% and give Bob Nutting a nod for picking the right people to run the Pittsburgh Pirates. He made the move to Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington almost immediately after taking control of the team. How has Bob done? In 2008 the Pirates had a value of $292 mil. In 2009 and 2010 when the team was being dismembered and re-built the value was $288 mil and then dead last # 30 of 30 MLB Franchises at $289 mil. In 2011 they moved up to #29 at $301 mil. In 2012 to #28 at $336 mil and in 2013 to #27 at $479 mil. Last year after making the playoffs in 2013 they reached up to #23 at 572 mil, and when Forbes issues their MLB Values in April 2015, I expect they will crack the Top 20 and be up to near $700 mil in value. Two straight years in the playoffs, a new attendance record, a Top 3 minor league system, and a young and contractually sound major league team of very talented players/pitchers will earn the Nutting Family a 5th straight year of increased value.

  • I like that Neal said they’ve got Harrison and Walker to man 2nd and 3rd. I’d really like to see Walker slide back over to 3rd, and keep him from all that twisting on double plays at 2nd.

    • I’d like Walker to build up his core, which should help with the back issues. That video of him shirtless by the pool in Arizona was not something I want to see again. Love handles? Really?

    • I wouldn’t mind that either.

  • Exxxeeellleennttt!! Signing,aj and frankie back in the fold. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again nh is a sneaky genius.

    • Being able to see opportunity where others don’t, as he did w Burnett, Martin, Liriano, Volquez, Melancon, et al is not “sneaky” genius. It’s pure genius!

      • I say sneaky because rarely do you hear anything about what’s going on until the last minute, either way nh is the right gm for the pirates.

        • Good point. He does play his cards close to the vest. Totally agree w your assessment of his value to organisation.

  • Thank You , Tim. You nailed it. I don’t envision this management team moving away from theories like buying low on a guy like Polonco. Paying ten years, buying out pre- and arbitration years to lock in those prime under age 30 FA years.
    This regime seems to have an eclectic and unique design on how they are structured , allocate funds and value players. They have cherry picked ideologies and strategies from any and every small market approach that has had success , making for a system that is not only successful but built to last , evolve and regenerate from it’s own foundation .

  • Lester is a Cub – time to find that right handed bench bat.

  • Well I can’t call em cheap anymore. they did what needed to be done. The one guy that needs mentioned here is Searage. He’s worked wonders with some of these guys and it’s nice to see that they don’t forget that. going forward, this is a team that now knows how to win. and that knows it’s good. This years going to be interesting.

  • James Loney has a nice batting average the past two seasons, but its been 8 years since he had an OPS over .800. For a big free agent first base signing, I would want to see something better.

    Edwin Jackson has put up ERA’s of 4.98 and 6.33 the past two years, and is owed the remaining two years of a 4-year, $52 million dollar contract. Might make a good reclamation project at a lower cost, but he’s not good value for his production right now.

    De La Rosa has put up decent ERA numbers in a bad pitchers park in Colorado – he would have been the most intriguing of the three free agent prospects.

    Overall, it looks like the Pirates avoided signing some free agents that may not have produced at any great level.

    • Theres always been something about that guy that the teams he was with didn’t like. Put up decent numbers in ST Louis and they let him go. Wasn’t too bad in WASH and they let him go. I;ve always wondered why.

      • Funny. I was ambivalent about JdlR and was surprised at the amount of support Loney got here, but at least it was a “safe” option. But I had a visceral “OMG NFW” reaction to Jackson when he was being discussed.

        Tim forgot to mention Beltran. When I think of FAs who told the Bucs in no uncertain terms to get lost, Beltran is the first name that comes to mind.

        Anyway, I don’t think Bucs are over the FA hump yet simply because of money/years they can offer vs some other teams. Liriano and AJ have a comfort level here. If they get Eddie back, same thing. As Neal noted in that interview, they’re going to have to continually find new market inefficiencies. But Bucs aren’t attracting top tier FAs and likely won’t be anytime in the near future unless the whole MLB economic system changes.

        And let’s not forget that the main reason any of this is possible is because of Cutch’s team-friendly deal (and to a much lesser extent, Marte’s). That’s something else the Bucs are going to have to do with Polanco and any other significant homegrown talent – and some will not be as munificent as Cutch. If Neal can’t keep producing a handful of uber-talented guys every few years who will sign team-friendly contracts, then the whole thing collapses.

        • Plain old buying power is a hump they are never going to get over. My issue with them was when they’d lose a guy and they never attempted to find a similar guy and instead put a band aid on it. they’ve finally showed a willingness to take a little risk. That’s all anyone can ask for.

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