BRADENTON, Fla. – Every year it seems like Ray Searage gets a bigger challenge with his reclamation projects. Francisco Liriano had injury and control issues that plagued his career. Edinson Volquez had one good season that happened a long time before joining the Pirates. J.A. Happ had no good seasons. And all of these made the A.J. Burnett situation — both of them in fact — look incredibly easy.
This year, Searage has one of his biggest challenges yet — making Ryan Vogelsong a productive pitcher again.
Vogelsong is coming off a 4.67 ERA/4.55 xFIP in 2015 over 135 innings, which was a replacement level performance. He’s not far removed from success, with a 4.00 ERA/3.96 xFIP in 184.2 innings in 2014, and a 3.37/4.15 combo in 189.2 innings in 2012. But he’s also in his age 38 season, and turning 39 by the middle of the year. So there should be concerns about whether he has anything left in the tank.
But the Pirates still saw something they liked in Vogelsong, enough to bring him in with a near guarantee for a starting role (and it’s only “near guaranteed” because of the success Juan Nicasio is having).
“In Vogelsong, we still saw stuff,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “We saw another guy who had a strong first half. Struggled a little bit in the second half. Bounced between roles, and our scouts still saw stuff. We still saw some indicators. We see a guy that’s hungry, a guy that’s coming back to a place and didn’t leave on the best of terms, and is fired up to come back here and help this team win, most importantly, and help us continue to move forward.”
Normally there would be some kind of story about what the Pirates saw beneath the numbers, and that usually involves Ray Searage fixing something with Vogelsong. That appears to be the case here, but all sides are quiet on the work that is being done. Searage declined to comment on specific changes, stating that it was a personal conversation with Vogelsong. And we’ll just say that Vogelsong took a different approach when asked about the specifics.
“I can tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” Vogelsong joked, hopefully. “We have our stuff that we are working on for sure. It is simple stuff and it is up to me now, just to repeat it. That is all that I am really trying to do. I am getting good results, so it is making it a lot easier to go forward. It is a little difficult sometimes when it doesn’t work. We are going in a really, really good direction right now. I am excited about it.”
That comment came after his most recent start, where he showed some good stuff going up against Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, and Jung-ho Kang. The lone mistake was a cutter to Joyce, which was crushed, in a situation where he’d never throw a cutter to a lefty during the regular season.
One thing the Pirates have been very vocal about has been Vogelsong’s work last year, bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen. The idea is that this was detrimental to his results last year.
“For me, moving back and forth from the pen to the rotation to the pen, that can mess with you and also ruin your routine,” Searage said.
Neal Huntington has mentioned many times that Vogelsong had a good first half, then struggled when he was moved back and forth. The first half numbers don’t really hold up. He had a 4.23 ERA versus a 5.72 ERA in the second half. The advanced metrics don’t do these splits any favors. The monthly splits show a good stretch from May (when he entered the rotation) through July (when he started moving to the bullpen). But those are arbitrary end points, and ignore that he moved to the bullpen and had success in a relief role initially.
The one argument you might be able to make is that a starter role could be easier on Vogelsong than a reliever role, since it would allow him to maintain a better structure at his age.
“It will definitely be a lot easier on me, especially physically,” Vogelsong said. “It took its toll on be physically and mentally, bouncing back and forth. It is going to be good. I am excited and I am looking forward to it and it is going to be a good year I think.”
Realistically, the Pirates would only need Vogelsong as a starter for the first half of the 2016 season. At that point, Tyler Glasnow and/or Jameson Taillon could arrive and take over. Until that point, it’s not out of the question that Vogelsong could be a productive member of the rotation. The “he’s better staying in one role” isn’t the strongest analysis, but there could be some basis to it. The work he’s doing with Ray Searage is a mystery. This combo doesn’t give a lot of hope that Vogelsong will have a strong year.
Then again, there wasn’t much hope for the previous guys, until they actually started showing results. I don’t think Vogelsong has a huge upside like the previous reclamation projects, and I don’t think he’s got the upside of a Juan Nicasio. But it’s not out of the question that he could put up league-average numbers and eat up some innings, getting a boost by some quick hooks and a strong bullpen. This has a better chance of happening if he shows the command and movement he showed in his last start. This won’t be enough to make him the next great Ray Searage reclamation project, but it could be enough to bridge the gap until the top pitching prospects arrive.