After the 2014 season, and the success the Pittsburgh Pirates saw with Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley, it seemed that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be able to sign any reclamation pitching project they wanted. They had previous success with guys like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Mark Melancon, to name a few. The transformations of Volquez (who cashed in his season with a two year, $20 M deal that could be worth $27 M over three years) and Worley (who will receive $2-2.45 M in his first year of arbitration) were different situations, taking pitchers with no value on the open market, and turning them into valuable pitchers in one season.
Despite this, they didn’t go for many reclamation projects this off-season. A.J. Burnett would technically classify as one, since he’s coming off a down year. He said he only wanted to play for the Pirates, which might be due to the city and his experience with the team in 2012-13, but also could have to do with what the coaches were able to do in order to give him two of his best seasons of his career.
The other starting rotation spot went to Francisco Liriano, who is no longer a reclamation project. That filled up the rotation, and the Triple-A rotation looked full, with Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, Adrian Sampson, Brandon Cumpton, and Casey Sadler as options throughout the year.
The Pirates did end up signing one reclamation project this off-season, getting Clayton Richard on a minor league contract. Richard fits the typical bill for a reclamation guy. He is a few years removed from having good numbers in the majors, and has dealt with some injuries that derailed his career. In fact, Richard told me during mini-camp that this was his first normal off-season in a long time, and the first where he’s been healthy, allowing him to throw more, and throw with more intensity early on.
The success the Pirates have had with previous pitchers is what drew Richard to the team. Specifically, it was the recommendation of his former teammate in San Diego, Volquez.
“Everything I’ve heard about the organization from other players, and everyone in the game, has been positive. I’m excited to be a part of it,” Richard said. “The one that stood out was Edinson Volquez. We played together in San Diego, and he was really positive with his experience here.”
As an outsider who got his first look inside the organization during mini-camp, Richard was able to give a unique perspective on how the Pirates are seen around the league.
“I think it’s more so the staff that they have put together,” Richard said on what makes the Pirates an attractive destination. “What they’re doing, and how they communicate with the players, and with each other. How the organization is led is attractive from an outsider. I think that’s what I’ve heard from everyone, and being at mini-camp you can see it first hand.”
Mini-camp also gave him the first opportunity to get to know pitching coaches Ray Searage and Jim Benedict. Richard said that this was important, as it opened up a line of communication, which will make things easier going forward.
Benedict and Searage typically get to work right away. They were working with Volquez last year at mini-camp, and Benedict spent a month with Vance Worley, re-discovering his mechanics, right after the team acquired him for cash last Spring. They already started the early work with Richard.
“We took a little bit of look at the comparison of 2010 and 2012 to see the differences, before injury and post-injury,” Richard said. “Saw where I was compensating, and what needed to be adjusted for. We kind of got a head start on that, and we’ll continue to work on that up until Spring and through Spring.”
The 2010 season saw Richard put up a 3.75 ERA in 201.2 innings, along with a 4.04 xFIP. It was the best season of his career. In the following season, he underwent season-ending surgery on his shoulder mid-season, limiting him to 99.2 innings on the year. After that, he wasn’t really the same. His strikeouts dropped every year, going from 12.4% in 2011 to 11.8% in 2012 and 10% in 2013. That’s a big difference from his 17.8% in 2010. The ERA was fine in some years after the injury, but that could have been due to the PETCO Park impact, as the xFIP numbers were lower.
Richard didn’t play in the majors in 2014, after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery last off-season, and AC joint surgery in the summer of 2013. He was limited to just 21 innings in the minors.
This story sounds very familiar to Vance Worley last year. Worley had success when he first came up in the majors, then suffered an injury that changed his mechanics. It also caused him to see a massive drop off in strikeouts. The Pirates immediately identified the change in his mechanics, worked with him to get back to his 2011 form, and the result was that he looked like the 2011 version once again, with the strikeouts going up, and the overall numbers going down.
The hope is that Richard can see the same type of transformation, and revert to the 2010 version, or better. He already has the approach that the Pirates seem to love. He works primarily off his fastball and changeup, with his fastball having some sink. That has led to a career 50% ground ball ratio. He has had some control issues, with a few seasons showing a walk rate in the 3.50 BB/9 range.
“When I’m pitching effectively, it’s pitching off the fastball,” Richard said. “Being able to command the strike zone with the fastball in and out, and down in the zone.”
The Pirates have had the most success with guys who pitch off the fastball, get ground balls, and have a good changeup. They have been able to improve the control numbers with pretty much every reclamation project they’ve added, possibly due to their focus on pitch framing, but also due to their approach on pounding the strike zone, and letting the defense and the defensive shifts behind the pitcher do the work. Richard’s approach seems to set up well for this.
There is plenty of pitching depth in the system, so if Richard is a successful reclamation project, it would take some time to get him up in the majors. The current rotation includes Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke. Charlie Morton will join the group when he’s healthy. The Triple-A rotation has Kingham, Sampson, Cumpton, and Sadler as early season possibilities.
Of course, the Pirates won’t just use 5-6 starters. They needed eight starters last year, and 12 starters in 2013, including ten starters who went four or more starts. At this point, Richard is about the ninth or tenth guy on the depth charts. If the Pirates can get him back to where he was in 2010, then they’ll have a solid number four starter as one of their many depth guys in Triple-A.
Unlike previous years, they’re not relying on reclamation projects for the Opening Day rotation this year. However, Richard is an example that they are still going this route, and if it continues to be successful, they will have some very strong depth for whenever the inevitable injuries take place.