First Pitch: Which Mistake Will the Pirates Try to Avoid This Off-Season?

The Pirates didn’t have a good off-season last year when it came to pitching. You could argue that one of their biggest mistakes was watching J.A. Happ sign elsewhere for an affordable three years and $36 M. They received a lot of criticism after trading for Happ, and then took even more criticism when they saw him walk.

The criticism at the time of the trade might have been a bit justified when you consider Happ’s track record prior to the deal, although that required ignoring the Pirates’ track record of turning pitchers around. The criticism after the deal was a bit ironic, as it came from a lot of the same people who criticized the initial move, although I’m not sure it was unjustified.

When the Pirates added Happ, they said they had been trying to get him for a long time. They got him, made some changes, and he saw a lot of success. He didn’t fully repeat that success in year one of his contract, but he did put up some good numbers, and was worth a 3.2 fWAR with the Blue Jays in 2016. That would have made him the top pitcher on the Pirates’ staff this year, finishing 0.7 WAR ahead of Gerrit Cole.

The Pirates believed in Happ enough to make him their primary upgrade at the deadline, but weren’t aggressive enough to sign him to his affordable deal after he made their belief in him look smart. Instead, they traded for Jon Niese, who didn’t have the same upside, but if all went well, would have been paid $30 M over three years, which isn’t far off what Happ received (although most of that wasn’t guaranteed, making it a safer contract).

You can’t really say that the Pirates never take a risk like Happ though. Just the year before, they signed Francisco Liriano to a three year, $39 M deal. This was after he put up impressive numbers in 2013 and 2014, and he returned with a 3.6 fWAR in 2015, looking like he justified the deal.

We all know the story from here. Liriano struggled in year two, looking like a replacement level pitcher with the Pirates. They didn’t trust that he would bounce back with them, and didn’t want to risk $18 M on that happening, so they traded him and traded prospects away to complete the deal, which is a bad move that we’ve discussed enough over the last few months, and won’t be discussing further in this article.

The Pirates had two scenarios with reclamation starters-turned-free agents. They signed Liriano, and that deal didn’t look good after the second year. They didn’t sign Happ, and that deal is looking good after year one, just like Liriano’s deal.

So which one was the mistake?

You’ve got a sample size of one in each case, and they aren’t even equal in the comparisons. We’ve seen two years from Liriano, and only one from Happ. After one year from Liriano, the signing looked great. The same is true from Happ. Will the same be true about a downturn for Happ in year two? Or maybe year three? What is the expiration date on a reclamation project? That’s a huge question, and the answer would help answer the question: Were the Pirates right in signing Liriano and wrong in not signing Happ? Or were they right in passing on Happ and wrong in signing Liriano?

All of this is very relevant this off-season, as they’re posed with the same situation. They need pitching, and just turned Ivan Nova around. He has offers in the J.A. Happ area of three years, $36 M, according to his agent. Some predictions this off-season have been in the four year, $50 M range. He and his agent were shooting higher than that when the Pirates tried to extend him during the year, asking for five years and $70 M.

By comparison, the Happ deal looks great for Nova when looking at the other predictions and asking prices. But also by comparison, the Happ deal looks appropriate, as Nova’s situation is very similar to Happ. The one thing that could drive up Nova’s value is being in a weak starting market, which could get him a fourth year guaranteed.

But the big question here is whether the Pirates should take the risk. I think the answer to the question above is that you can expect a certain amount of risk with a multi-year deal for a pitcher. We saw it with Liriano, and I believe we will see it with Happ in either year two or three. If Nova ends up signing for three years and $36 M, or something in that range, I think it’s a price that the Pirates could justify, and he would be a good pitcher to sign. At the same time, there would be risk, and you could make a reasonable prediction that one of those years would be wasted due to injury or poor performance.

The flip side is that the Pirates could avoid multi-year deals and stick with the reclamation project approach, adding one or two guys per year as bounce back candidates. If they don’t bounce back, you’re not on the hook beyond that season. If they do bounce back, you get the production you wanted out of Nova, and don’t have to worry about whether that production can be sustained for a long period of time. In order for this to happen, the Pirates would have to stick with the approach that works best, going for reclamation projects with upside. They didn’t do this last year with Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong, but they did it with Nova. I think signing someone like Derek Holland would be closer to the Niese/Vogelsong type reclamation project, while signing an Andrew Cashner or Edinson Volquez would be closer to Nova and the other successful reclamation projects.

Another way of looking at it would be to consider the expectations from Nova. You’d hope that you would get two good seasons from him on a three year deal of around $40 M total. For that price, you could get 4-5 reclamation projects over that three year span. I would think with the Pirates’ track record, they could get at least two good years from that group, giving them the same production as Nova in the end, with the potential for more upside.

The more I think about this upcoming off-season, the more I think the reclamation approach is the way to go. It’s easy to understand why fans would want to move to a pitcher that seems more like a guarantee, as the Pirates saw their pitching struggle last year with the reclamation approach. But that reclamation approach wasn’t the same as the approach they’ve had in the past, and it wasn’t the same as the approach that brought them Nova. The mistake they need to avoid this off-season is going for lower upside pitchers, rather than the high reward reclamation projects they’ve been so successful with in the past.

I’m sure this approach would lead to controversy, even though the Pirates would be spending the same amount of money. It kind of seems hypocritical to say they shouldn’t take this approach,┬ásince the argument against the approach points to Nova and Happ — two successful reclamation projects who caused controversy when they were added.

But ultimately, the choice is about financial risk. I think Nova could be a good pitcher for the majority of the next few years, and I think there are some good reclamation projects out there who can provide the same value. As long as the Pirates sign one of these guys and go for upside, rather than their low-ceiling approach from last year, then any approach they take to add pitching will be a good plan.

**AFL: Eric Wood Drives In Four Runs, As Saguaros Move Closer to Possible Division Title. Eric Wood keeps making more noise, and Surprise gets closer to the division title.

**Alex McRae Working on a New Changeup Following Successful Switch to the Sinker. My feature on McRae, who is pitching out of the bullpen in the AFL.

  • Tim… doesn’t the pick up of Hutchison indicate that they are no longer focusing on the high ceiling pitchers.

  • I’d like to see a 3 team trade with the Marlins, Rays. Give the Marlins Cutch, send him home to Florida, the Buccos get Alex Cobb, and The Rays get some prospects from the Marlins and a prospect from the Pirates, maybe Cole Tucker or/and a middle level pitching prospect like Yeudy Garcia or Tyler Eppler. That would give us a big 3 of Cole,Taillon, and Cobb with Kuhl, and the wild card of Glasnow if he puts it together. Hutchinson is in the mix plus we can sign Cashner.

    • This makes no sense at all. The Marlin’s have 4 outfielders that produced a higher fWAR than McCutchen last season. 3 of which are younger than him. All reports indicate they are willing to trade an outfielder for pitching. They are probably the worst fit in all of baseball for McCutchen.

      • How many games did that outfield play together? Stanton is consistently hurt and Osuna is erratic. If Cutch plays in between his MVP type years and last year it would be a boost to an already good outfield. Plus he would be a great clubhouse presence for that team. They have the money also. Cutch had one bad year, If you asked the marlins Front Office they’d say they’d love to have mccutchen for prospects. And I’d love to have Alex Cobb in our rotation.

        • I would love Alex Cobb too but there is no reason for the Marlins to get involved in the deal you proposed. They would be more likely to want Cobb for themselves.

          Considering 3 of the 4 OFers played 143 or more games last season I would say they played about 143 games together, Stanton played 119, so yeah he got hurt but he still played basically 2/3 of a normal season. Also I didn’t mention this before but the Marlins have no prospects. Their farm system is unbelievably bad. They had 1 guy in the BA midseason top 100 and he ranked 100 and was traded to San Diego.

  • Why the worry about pitchers and reclamation projects, remember that they got Hutchinson in that trade and I am sure they are expecting him to win at least 12 to 15 games this year and for years to come. So put your fears away. The Bucs have already got it covered.

    • Well worded Joe. One year from now you can point to this post and say either, “Look, I told you so,” or “of course I was being sarcastic.”

  • This article presents an interesting question after the obvious answer — avoid financial risk. That’s “mistake to avoid” number 1 through 10 on their top 10 list. I get it but that’s the kind of stinking thinking that got them Neise vs. Happ. I wonder how the cost equation of that trade off stacks up now? What benefit do teams enjoy with consistency vs. constantly churning members of the pitching staff? Isn’t conventional wisdom that consistency is usually associated with success?

  • Honestly, I’m completely fine with either approach. I think Cutch has to be traded for anything to really happen substantial for us anyways. I think payroll will go down this year–and NH has already hinted as much. I’m more tHan happy with Nova back at 3-$36/39 or even 4-$48. Remember, part of the concern with Happ was his age (34) whereas Nova is 29. You’ve already got a pitcher 5 years younger than Happ. Also, 3 years younger than Liriano. I would have preferred us to keep Liriano and bring back Nova and go with that approach–Liriano bouncing back and continued progress from Nova. But that didn’t happen.

    With all of that said, I am also OK with bringing in TWO pitchers on one or 2 year or option deals. Cashner and Volquez would be my preferences.

    Now, I don’t care which approach they use…I just want them to get something done sooner rather than later. Waiting this thing out, like last year, will only see us lose out on talent and end up with few choices and low-upside pitchers and, thus, no chance at improvement. I don’t care which approach they take…just take one and go with it. Soon.

    • I would be OK with Holland too. “Soft tosser” or not he has upside over what he produced last year and would be a good 5th starter at minimum if he bounced back

    • They are actually in a good spot financially right now. Especially if they trade Cutch. They would actually have a little bit of wiggle room to take a risk on a bigger FA than they usually go after. No one in this year’s class impresses me enough for that though.

      • Yes, IF they trade Cutch they would be. As for without that trade? It would depend on how much payroll goes down bc of attendance dip.

        • Payroll won’t drop that much because of attendance. They will still have the capability of going to 100MM. If they trade Cutch that drops their commitments into the 60MMs which give you 40+MM to work with.

  • Nova gets a lot of innings in very few pitches, avoiding long atbats and high leverage pitches. His approach keeps fielders on their toes and gives hitters few opportunities to time his pitches. With this approach I think he avoids excessive wear on his body and he provides an example to the young pitchers who are finding there way. These reasons support a longer contract for him.

  • I would rather sign 2 of the Cashner, Hammel, Volquez, than sign Nova. I would really like to see a trade for Tyson Ross or Alex Cobb.

  • I think the bigger question is who have the Pirates identified as their future? Marte and Polanco are locked up to long term deals, and basically everyone else is here through 2018. To the decision comes down to who the Pirates trade this off season and who they extended? It’s either going to be Cutch or Cole. One will get a deal and the other will be traded for prospects, hopefully like the Cubs did w Jeff S when they got Russell. I could see them giving a player like Kang or maybe Jay Hay an extension. But most likely the Pirates won’t do anything and see if Cutch and Colebiunce back. Because let’s be honest if Cutch hit .295 last year and not .250 we make the playoffs, if Cole would of stayed healthy and been a 15-20 game winner we make the playoffs.

    They won’t sign a big name relief pitcher, or starting pitcher. They will go with the young guys they currently have, which is smart Taillon, Williams, Brault and Kulh could be very good. I would really like them to keep Joyca and S Rod over Nova. The biggest area the Pirates need to improve on is fundamentals. Clean up their base running, hit the cut off man, and moving guys over. Runner on 2nd w 0 or 1 outs lay down the bunt.

    • Give Harrison an extension ? Are you serious ?

      • I think he is based on the fact that he also condones the sacrifice bunt.

        • You have to do all the little things right. Casual fans just fall in love with HR and high lights. If you want to win more games, and be winner every year like the Cards. Be more like them, and spend $130 mil a year on salary. They don’t make many errors, they move the runner over with less than 2 outs. And look at the Cubs motto this year respect 90. Then look at the Pirates this past year, base running mistakes, errors, how many times did we have a guy on 2nd with less than 2 outs. At the end of that inning he was still standing @2nd?!

      • It’s what they do, Jay Hay is signed through 2018. If they want to keep him long term maybe through 2020. Now would be the time to do it. Same w Kang

        • Why would they? The Bucs are loaded with middle infield prospects. I like J-Hay but he’s not a core piece.

    • Well considering Harrison is already extended I don’t think they will be tacking any years onto the end of that.

    • No way Cole signs an extension, he is represented by Boras. I would be surprised if he signs a contract buying out his ARB years. i expect him to go to ARB or sign one year deals the rest of the way. Why sign Cutch? You don’t give a guy an extension off his worst career year. Plus his replacement is already in Indy. there are not many options to sign to an extension at this point. But if they think Watson can rebound, maybe you try and sign him to an extension.

      • There was a report a little while back that said he would negotiate buying out his arbitration years but the Pirates wanted to buy out at least one FA year and they declined that and talks broke down.

    • Why would you bunt a guy to third with one out?

  • I’m envious of the Braves, who just inked 400 innings of Colon and Dickey. Even if the duo doesn’t repeat to combine for 25 wins next year, that veteran presence in the clubhouse with all the young pitchers the Bucs have would have been terrific. Not every pitching success story has to be about turning around another arm.

  • Just saw a report that the A’s would be open to trading Sonny Gray. He was hurt and bad last year but had 2 great years prior to that. He is arb1 this year. Great trade target. Price probably high though. Glasnow and someone else?

    • Glasnow no. But Mitch Keller and company I’d entertain. The problem though is Grey’s value is at his lowest of his career, however with the free agent market this off-season teams may overspend for him. NH won’t move Glasnow, Bell, Meadows for him and I wouldn’t either.

  • I would like to see us take on a good pitcher long term (such as Nova)

    however based on what took place this year we are probably better off going the reclamation route. Its clear ownership will not tolerate long term or short term underperforming contracts and is willing to trade talent to get from under what is considered a bad contract. If thats the case there really is no point taking risk that can hurt us long term.

  • With the thin FA SP market, I still don’t understand why they didn’t just keep Liriano (and McGuire…and Ramirez!!). Frankie at $13M totally fits within their budget this year. And I’d bank on him being an impact player before I’d bank on Cashner, Holland, or Nova.

    Still one of the worst trades ever.

    • This. 100% this

    • Why is it that the Pirates can make magic with reclamation projects and not sustain production with guys like Liriano? Isn’t Liriano someone else’s high-upside reclamation project now? They are just so financially risk averse and the extent showed in the Liriano dump. No confidence in their ability to right his ship. Disappointing.

    • Ok, I’ll play devils advocate. Who knows better than Pirates management the issues which caused Liriano to be ineffective last season? Furthermore, they also have the expertise to gauge the chances of rebounding next season, too.

      As for McGuire and Ramirez, their value is inflated by us fans because we are trained by the great writing on this site to project prospects ceiling. The fact is McGuire’s bat may never be the caliber of even an average starting ML Catcher. And Ramirez is a good bet to become Tabata 2.0. And that’s assuming he ever makes it to the major leagues at all.

      And lastly, Hutchison may become a valuable cost controlled SP who exceeds expectations after spending some time being fixed by Searage.

      This may end up being the worst trade ever, but at this point it’s premature to call it as such.

      • I don’t think it’s worst trade ever. I think it was premature to trade Liriano, especially to trade him at a net loss of prospects too.

      • My only problem with the trade is that the Pirates hold onto prospects when it comes time to acquire short term talent at the deadline. But then the time they do trade them it is to dump salary.

  • Good, Well thought out article Tim. I’m inclined to agree with you. I’d rather have a year of Hammel or Cashner (may be too expensive) than Nova. Just say no to Holland-just what we need: a soft-tosser. They grow on trees!

  • Which Mistake Will the Pirates Try to Avoid This Off-Season?…..for me it should be more Have to than Try to, and the answer is signing Nova to a multi year contract at any price…..

    • Yeah, because that’s always a smart way to operate a business …

    • The Pirates should really try to add a Heywardesque contract this off season.

      • I am assuming this is sarcasm but on the off chance it isn’t there is no one worth that kind of contract out there.

        • In all seriousness I would be all in for a David Price type it is a pipedream. I have a hard time getting excited about this year’s free agents. If the pirates can land Volquez or Cashner (or both!!!) I would call the off season a success. I don’t want the pirates shacking up with Hellickson(sp) for the next 5 years.

          • Well Hellickson is accepting the qualifying offer so you won’t have to worry about that. As for the Price type of deal, I don’t wish them to commit 25-30 million dollars a year on one pitcher. I would be ok with one for a position player, but the circumstances have to be almost perfect

      • Perhaps you all missed my meaning with my post….or maybe not in plain terms….the Pirates need to avoid….signing Nova to a multi year contract at any price…..

  • I don’t think this is really the year to be going the reclamation route. NH has been preaching of being a consistent championship caliber team for many years, and not shooting for a window to try to win one. However, every year for the last 3 years, he has traded away prospects at the deadline to bolster the major league roster/dump salary. We now have a mid level minor league system, and a major league team with holes and that is aging. IMO, this year, even more than last year, they need to sign some major league talent, because in reality, this time next year we are going to be discussing if this is the right time to trade Gerritt Cole.

    • I agree they are in heart of the proverbial window of contention, but I don’t think it will cause NH to change his process.
      First off, bringing in major league talent to pitching staff is no guarantee of success. Sure it worked out great for Cubs, but Dbacks went even more all in on pitching last winter, and it cost Stewart his job.

      Second, and more importantly, the pool of high quality SP’s is very thin this year. Thus the likelihood of teams having bidding wars for the few available arms is quite high. And we all know Pirates aren’t winning a bidding war.

    • I think now is THE time to discuss trading Gerrit Cole. His stuff can be mesmorizing, but he has never had a dominant year at any level. Never. With the weak starting pitching market, I would see if someone will give up the boat load of prospects that other elite pitchers with three years of control would deliver. As a Boras client, he’s not staying, and if he did consider, he is going to want Strasburg dollars, which regardless of market size, is insanity for any pitcher not named Kershaw (who also missed half the season). I am not a hater, but he just isn’t the guy we have been sold, just look at the numbers and be honest. Let’s see what we can get

      • Currently, at worst, he is a #2 starter, being paid like a long relief guy. There is no way you could trade him and expect anyone to believe you were doing it to make the team better. Next offseason, he would still be a #2 starter, but would be making #3 starter money. There is still plenty of value there, and fans could be sold on the fact that he is a Boras client and wouldn’t negotiate a team friendly deal.

  • I completely agree that they need to sign somebody with upside, with Vogelsong if everything went right he was a #5 SP. I still really like Jered Weaver, his upside is very similar to Clayton Kershaw and I feel that he can be had for a reasonable price after struggling in 2015 and 2016. The one thing that I don’t want to see the team do is make a stupid trade such as Glasnow and Bell/Meadows for Tanner Roark, I feel that a similar upside pitcher can be had without giving up possible elite talent.

    • Weaver and his 84 MPH four seamer?

      • I have read he was pitching injured so I am thinking an incentive heavy contract would make him a low risk high reward signing ( now if he wants $18million per year guaranteed I am the first person to say forget it but maybe $7 million guaranteed and if he pitches the way he did a few years back can make up to $15 million I say it is the kind up high upside reclamation project the team needs.)

        • Even at his very best, Weaver is not in the same stratosphere as Clayton Kershaw. Even if he was injured, his 4 seamer at best is probably 87, I have zero interest in him.

    • You are comparing an aging soft tossing righty to the guy who leads the MLB in pitcher fWAR since his debut in 2008 by over 7 wins.

  • I just don’t see Pirates being the team Nova chooses in the end. Some other organization is going to pony up for a 4th year and deal with the consequences of doing so when the time comes.

    What Pirates really need is for Cole, Taillon, and Glasnow to pitch like the studs they are next season. This will have a bigger impact than any of the names being discussed in the hot stove league.

    • I agree with you, but I would not be surprised to see Glasnow in minors all year. He still needs work on his control.

      • If Glasnow is pitching in Indy instead of Pittsburgh then the Pirates season is going to be another disappointing one.

        • Next year might be disappointing. We have to see what transpires in the off season. Since the Pirates try to remain competitive and don’t like windows, I’d use the term waves. The team that went to 3 straight Wild Card games I would call wave 1. Wave two started this past year. I could envision Cutch, Watson (mentioned in today;s article) and Cole all being gone in the next year. This would end wave 1 and put us into wave 2. The core of wave 2 should be Marte, Polanco, Meadows, Bell, Newman, Tallion, Kuhl and Glasnow (plus that young LH reliever we got from that Nationals). The success of wave 2 will depend solely on the Pirates ability to develop pitching in house. These young guns got to be good.

          • Next year’s success is reliant on Pirates best players playing up to their capabilities. I don’t see Glasnow as an ace next season, but if Pirates make playoffs, he will be a strong #3. I just don’t see any other SP who can fill that role on the roster or availabile in FA.

  • The Pirates have a lot of pitchers hitting the triple A level at this point. Some at least should be as good as Nova or others like him. I would think they would be better served going the reclamation project route where they can make a short term commitment — they don’t need someone for three or four years, they need someone for one or two.

  • Tim: As usual, the Pirates will go with the approach that minimizes their financial risk. That is dictated by their status as a relatively small-market/low-revenue team. I can see them pursuing Nova until his price gets to the four-year, greater than $50 million range. At that point, they’re out. I like the idea of bringing Cashner in and Volquez back, but they also still have the option of pursuing a trade.

  • I think we’re currently estimating $81 million payroll. So if they don’t trade Cutch, they should have about $25 million. (I would say more like $30 mil since they were under this year’s budget by at least $5 million and the budget probably went up.) That amount should be enough to get Nova, a Volquez, plus a reliever.

    • SufferinBuccotash
      November 15, 2016 1:45 pm

      I wouldn’t assume a $106 million dollar payroll.

      Attendance dropped by about 250k last season. I personally would expect a corresponding drop in opening day payroll.