Williams: How the Pirates Can Add to the Pitching Staff on a Tight Budget

Yesterday I looked at the payroll situations involving the offense, noting that the Pirates have a lot of scenarios where they could shed payroll and go with a younger or cheaper option, in order to spend in another area.

The pitching side is a bit different. There aren’t a lot of big contracts on the pitching staff, and since you can never have too much depth, it is difficult to say that you can remove one contract and find another guy who can put up the same value for a cheaper price. That might be true, but you also need to make sure you’re not just counting on five starters.

Fortunately for the Pirates, they have a lot of depth. If the season started today, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes, and Tyler Eppler would be either in Triple-A, or in the MLB bullpen. They’ve also shown an ability to find cheap pitching talent with reclamation projects.

The downsides here are that their pitching depth consists of mostly back of the rotation starters at best, with Tyler Glasnow being the one exception if he ever figures it all out. And while they’ve been good with reclamation projects, that route isn’t always a guarantee, and even when it works out, the changes those reclamation projects made don’t always last in the long run.

The Pirates have some good pitching depth, but they’re going to need to find a top of the rotation starter or two. They have some options internally, but might need to focus on getting an external starter. In the bullpen, they need an eighth inning guy to help shut down the games earlier, pairing with Felipe Rivero.

This is where I feel most of their offseason money should go, as we’ve seen the Pirates win in the past with a poor offense and good pitching. Just like with the offense, I feel the Pirates will need to shed some salary before they make any additions (and they could shed offensive salary to help the pitching staff). Here are my thoughts on the limited ways they could do this with the pitching staff.

Starting Pitchers

The Pirates will return all of their starters next year, which isn’t a bad thing. Their rotation ranked 12th in fWAR, 13th in ERA, and 10th in xFIP. They didn’t have a bad rotation at all.

The problem the Pirates had was they didn’t have a great rotation. It couldn’t make up for the lack of offense, and the reason for this was that all of their starters were around average.

The MLB average this year saw a 4.49 ERA and a 4.41 xFIP. All five of the regular starters this year were under the ERA requirements, and only Chad Kuhl was above the xFIP number, with a 4.61 mark. He did have a 4.24 FIP, which matches the MLB average, and his xFIP was inflated due to a 10.8% HR/FB rate in a year where the league average was 13.5%.

The Pirates needed a great starter or two, and they didn’t get that. Their best ERA was Trevor Williams at 3.96. The best FIP was Jameson Taillon at 3.48. The best xFIP was Gerrit Cole at 3.81.

They needed numbers like Cole put up in previous years. From 2013-2015, Cole combined for a 3.07 ERA, a 2.89 FIP, and a 3.18 xFIP. If the Pirates had two starters with those numbers, this might be a different season that we’re recapping, and we might not even be doing the recaps right now.

I don’t think Ivan Nova is going to be putting up those numbers. He can put up numbers as a reliable starter. The problem is that the Pirates have plenty of options who can put up around league average numbers, and they’re holding some of those options back. Steven Brault could have a shot at league average numbers, but right now he’s relegated to either the bullpen or Triple-A.

Nova is making $8.5 M in 2018. That made sense if he could have come close to his 2016 numbers with the Pirates, or if the Pirates didn’t have other, cheaper starters who could put up similar numbers. He had a 4.14 ERA and a 4.19 xFIP in 187 innings, and faded in the second half. This led to a 1.9 fWAR, which more than justifies his contract. However, this is a case where his $8.5 M would probably be put to better use elsewhere.

The only other player in the rotation making big money is Gerrit Cole. I have him projected for $6 M in his second year of arbitration, which really isn’t that much. Cole was one of the top pitchers in baseball from 2013-2015, but injuries and home run issues have derailed him the last two years. At $6 M, he’s worth keeping, since the Pirates aren’t going to get a shot at a top of the rotation pitcher for that price elsewhere. It would only make sense to trade him if the Pirates went for a rebuild.

The Bullpen

The Pirates added a bit of salary in the bullpen when they added George Kontos. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to see if they could trade him this offseason, although the savings would be minimal.

The big issue in the bullpen is Daniel Hudson and his $5.5 M in 2018. The Pirates didn’t get what they were expecting with Hudson, hoping for a set-up man, and getting a replacement level reliever. It’s doubtful that they will be able to deal him and shed his salary this offseason. That creates a problem, because they still need a setup man to pair with Felipe Rivero.

This might be a case where they just need to eat Hudson’s salary, hope for the best from him, and add someone else who can be counted on for the eighth inning.

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.

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Here’s the best way to maximize both bull pen and rotation – piggybacking/bullpenning. Cole, Nova, Taillon, Kuhl, Glasnow, Williams, Brault, Kingham never pitch to the opposing line up a third time. Get 3-4 innings per guy. Have Neverauskas, Kontos, Rivero in pen also. All have ability to pitch multiple innings. No more 5 man rotation. No more pitching every 5th day. Some team is going to be 1st to do it. With their depth, but none of it top of the rotation talent, there is no better team to do it than this one.


by “eat his salary”, you mean banish him to mop up duty, right? Eating salary usually refers to shit canning someone.

Joseph D

This organization is a joke. I’m done being an apologist. If they go into opening day with Sean Rodriguez as anything other than the last man off the bench, Nutting should be strung up.

Colin O

Wily Peralta DFA’d and elected Free Agency today…classic Searage reclamation project?


he’d be kinda fun

Francis G

Move Kuhl to the bullpen. Have him take incremental steps until he’s ready to take over as the closer, when Rivero becomes too expensive.

Bruce G

I would like to see a lefty in the rotation. I think it’s good to have different styles of pitchers giving teams different looks during a series. I would like to see the Pirates insert Brault into the rotation just to give a lefty look. Williams doesn’t get enough credit for the season he had. I get that he doesn’t have the “stuff” the other guys have, but he may have been the best starter on the staff the second half of the season.


I like Brault in the rotation as well.

joe s

Why bother with all this when the Pirates will not spend a sufficient amount of money to improve the team. With that being the case they should play the kids and see what they have.


What I learned today..

The monthly business model for this site should be stopped or make the monthly subscription more expensive during the baseball season.

It is necessary to raise the yearly price by a few dollars.

It makes no sense to give free or reduced rates to students or teachers.

This site is called Pirates Prospects or maybe Pirates Payroll.

We are not going to change the Pirates business model since the owner, manager and executives are making a nice buck. Live with it. Complain to the Pirates not Tim and his staff.

Tim you site is excellent. Get some free or inexpensive objective marketing advice. You are too close to the product. Maybe work with college marketing/public relations class as project.

I have been reading the site since way before the subscription model started. I would suggest making the articles shorter in length and being more objective about the skill levels of the young prospects.

David N

Also, maybe you need a vacation. You’ve built something great here by going hard at it, 24/7, for years. (Your staff is great too, but you’re the decision-maker). Now we’re at a point where serious fans (and apparently some who aren’t so serious) see the weaknesses in The PBC’s business model. They’re fed up, and you’re caught in the blowback.

Take Cabbo80’s excellent advice from another thread. Re-evaluate your business model — ruthlessly. Some other posters have suggested re-structuring your offerings and raising your prices. You may have to do both; and you may have to stop doing some things you enjoy doing now. But first, take some time off (and I don’t mean to go to Arizona to cover the AFL). Grab a beer or two — or three — kick back, and clear your head. The vast majority of your subscribers love the effort you’ve put into developing your product, and they know you’re not responsible for the Pirates’ failures on the field or in management (well, the ones with any sense do)! Both you and The Pirates have long futures in front of you. Don’t let yourself get burned out.


Personally, I would not waste time trying to improve the pitching staff. But I would alter the approach that the pitchers take. Pitching to contact is looking like a very bad idea in the current scheme of baseball.

The bullpen, post Watson and Hudson getting pressure innings, really wasn’t bad. Rivero, Kontos, Neverauskas, Hudson, Schugel, Kuhl and Glasnow would be pretty good.

Fix the offense, and there isn’t enough savings to be found in the pitching staff to do that.


This makes sense. While our pitching could be better, any improvement will come from within unless a reclamation project turns magical. This team cannot compete for even a WC as constructed and everyone other than Bell and Rivero is fair game to trade.


Kontos as setup?


sure put up a nice two months with the Pirates. I’d prefer something flashier, but beggars can’t be choosers.


Is there a version that can keep the K’s but not the dingerz? If so, maybe.

Regardless, pens have morphed into behemoths in this era. They need at least two additional high-quality arms to pair with Rivero. The middle relievers are covered, what they need is upside.

Scott K

TG is most obvious choice to be moved to pen to start season. Build confidence by pitching clean one inning stints could be his meal ticket to eventual success as either a SP or Closer down the road.


Do you think HRs will increase next year? This was a record setting year.


Slightly, yes, but not at this pace.

The ball has clearly contributed heavily and that impact shouldn’t continue at an equal pace – it’s here, that’s it – but the league will continue to adjust by trying to cultivate more power leading to slight comparative increases.


The bullpen as I see it is Rivero, Kontos, Hudson( Hopefully he has a bounce back season) Schugel, Neverauska as locks. Santana penciled in as the 6th guy and Brault ? as long man. Maybe use any saved money from trades to sign a good starter


Hudson is a waste of time. What you saw this past season is what he is.


I very seriously doubt that Brault is going to the bull pen, except to warm up for his starting appearances.


It just a suggestion based on him being a lefty. Figured besides Rivero there was no other lefties. Brault should be considered for rotation though


This feels like the first time in the Huntington Era where *real* asset management will come into play.

With a plug of backend starters and an extremely shallow pen, the opportunity for conversion is ripe.

Thomas H

I 100% agree. If the Pirates were in a position to simply add players without subtracting salary, adding one legitimate top-of-the-line starter and one good third baseman capable of hitting 25 to 35 homeruns, they would be a force next year. That would be hard to do but possible if they’re willing to spend $20-$25 million more than they are. They need to add at least two star players. Right now they are nothing but bit parts.


Maybe it’s too optimistic and maybe it’s not immediate, but I think that 8th inning guy is already in the system.

Between Kuhl, Glas, and Holmes I think you could absolutely get two high-quality relievers. Kuhl showed enough to dream on a sweet spot where his stuff remains and command improves to stay a starter for another year, I just worry none of them has the command to be better than a #4 in the rotation but would thrive in the pen. Not altogether different from Rivero’s path, really.


Now somebody is speaking my language ! Particularly in regards to Kuhl. He should have been moved there in June.

michael schalke

I also think this would be a good idea. He throws hard and for an inning or two could be very effective.


You can add Neverauskas and Santana to those starters too. The bullpen looks bleak now but it’s future looks pretty bright.


Hopefully they get better as they were a combined “meh” this season.


This is a total yinzer thing to say, and it kinda hurts to type it out for that reason… but we all know they aren’t going to acquire a top of rotation guy that causes that kind of cascade effect.


He declined because its a garbage stat that has no reliability benchmark. I hate Cervelli, but blaming him for his pitch framing declining is like blaming your lottery ticket for not having the winning numbers that you choose yourself.


huh? what did i do wrong?

i said it’s weird that he declined a lot in the framing stats from 2015. not sure what “blaming Cervelli” you are saying i did.

can we at least agree that Glasnow could probably use a good framer instead of a bad one? that was the main point…


lol, you did nothing wrong! There is no such thing as a “good framer” which is my point. God himself isn’t going to help Glasnow get the close pitches when he has no history of having good control and is going to 3 ball counts on every 3rd batter.


here, i was thinking that Glasnow gets pinched by umps a lot. shows how useful the ole eye test is when it comes to two fans talking at each other haha.

and i guess we will agree to disagree on if pitch framing is a thing.


Yeah- I mean I’ll admit that there are a few catchers where its probably a consistent skill that adds value, but most advanced metrics guys will admit that quantifying it is nearly impossible. The current stat to capture it isn’t useful in the least, and I don’t have any better way of doing it. If you see a catcher that has a pitch framing score that is 1) the same or close from year to year and 2) the same after switching teams THEN its probably reliable. Otherwise, its just random distribution


Trading Nova would be a no-brainer with all the promising pitching depth.

However, it might be bad form to trade a guy who took less to sign with you and who has two years left on a deal.

then again, it’s not like the Pirates dig through Free Agency too often anyway, so who really cares what anybody thinks.

and then again *again*, i suppose Nova could recapture his 2016 form

and then again again *again*, maybe a team would factor that possible upside and his trade value would reflect some grey area between his 2016 and 2017 self.


“promising pitching depth” = Where? Mitch Keller maybe? 2018 looks to be a mountainous backslide where pitcher injuries catchup and balance out the 2017 campaign…..


i mean… i was talking about the safe major league ready guys that are also #4 type SPs like Nova.

Brault, Kuhl, Williams, Kingham, Holmes, etc.

Obviously, Keller and Glasnow are the only guys who are PROMISING in the top of rotation manner. But i just mean guys who can replace Nova’s upside for 1/10 of the price.


“However, it might be bad form to trade a guy who ***allegedly*** took less to sign with you and who has two years left on a deal.”


I can see the argument, but remain skeptical of the post-hoc rationalization after his agent floated the 5/$70m number early on and not a peep was heard during the months-long wait. Also suspect there was an extremely weak AL market for his services given the reason for his success during his short time in Pittsburgh was untenable, as eventually played out.


good point. i forget if there are any real quotes about this or if people just connected dots.

Regardless, I guess Nova doesnt have a no trade clause. I guess that’s his fault, not the Pirates’.


got ya.

so yeah i just wonder *a little* if it’s bad form to deal a guy like Nova.

i lean toward “tough luck, buddy” if they trade him, but i’m curious if that could hurt in future negotiations with guys.

David N

IIRC there was a time in the not too distant past when The Pirates’ franchise was a dumpster fire to which it was difficult to attract free agents (e.g., the First Baseman who we traded for, was injured, then chose retirement rather than re-sign with us; or J.J. Hardy, who, iirc, chose to sign with the O’s over the Pirates). This situation was reversed by a combination of finding or fixing undervalued players and giving them a chance to rebuild their value and their careers; and living up to any express or implied promises we made during negotiations (which in Nova’s case we know nothing about, afaik. Yes, Baseball is a business (See “Moneyball”) but no business can afford to get the rep of dealing in bad faith, or even shading things too close to a line that few want to be seen crossing. Not disagreeing with anything you said, Tim. It’s all a matter of perception. They’re hard to change, just like the perception that Nutting refuses to spend enough money to make The Pirates consistently competitive.


That was all well said, but the elephant in the room is how their “ability to attract free agents” completely coincided – step by step – with their increase in payroll…

I’m still skeptical that all the platitudes in the world make much of a difference for 95% of free agents compared to cold, hard cash.

David N

Hahahaha! You’re probably right! Again, see “Moneyball” Also, SeanRod in the 2016-17 off-season.


Trade Nova to free up that salary. A team like the Twins would love to have him. We have more than enough depth to cover him.


I agree that they need top end pitching help and it would do much to compensate for their shortcomings on offense. I didn’t see any answers in the article. Even if Nova and his entire salary were removed, it wouldn’t allow them to get what they need. They are really stuck unless they do some kind of 2-fer deal (2 of our #4 young pitchers for one good older one of yours) or something else creative in the way of trades. Might be their best plan is to hope that Cole recovers something; Tallion continues to improve and plug Glasnow in and hope he finally figures it out b/c those three present high-end potential. I don’t see reclamation project pitchers as helpful. Their ceilings are typically what we already have.


Shohei Otani duh.


I’ve been wondering why the Pirates haven’t been linked to him at all. Given that he’s by most accounts theoretically giving up 100 million by not waiting two years to be declared a free agent this is probably the only chance the Pirates have to get a high caliber free agent talent within their budget. Let him play left field twice a week and start every fifth day. Helps solidify the rotation and doubles as a 4th outfielder to allow Luplow a half season of further development in Indy. Why not?

David N

Tell us more.


Sad state of the Pirates when 6 million is considered big money for a starter.


Well-said!!! I could not agree more. You look at the teams in the post-season now, there is no comparison to their level of talent and that of the Pirates. To me, it all boils down to what the Nutting ownership is willing, or more to the point, not willing, to pay.
I am totally, thoroughly, and completely fed up with this on-going analysis, year in and year out, July 31st trading deadline in, and July 31st trading deadline out, about how the Pirates are cash strapped and how they have to trade off salary before they can add salary and how Neal can’t make a trade because he can’t find the right fit and how “we think that we have the talent here and that we can fix the wrongs” with the Ike Davis’s and Ryan Vogelsong’s of the world (just to name a couple of the long list of reclamation projects of recent vintage), and on, and on, and on.
I am not asking this ownership to spend $150 or $200 million on payroll. However, I am not only asking, but frankly, expecting, this ownership to spend the going rate in this day and age, in order to be competitive. THAT RATE IS NOT $100 MILLION DOLLARS. I just have to laugh when we are told, in what is implied that, “wow, the Pirates payroll will be $100 million or $102, or perhaps higher unless they trade this guy or that guy. SERIOUSLY?!?!?!!??! YOU GOTTA BE FREAKING KIDDING ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
For the most part, the farm system has been re-built and greatly improved. They need to focus on sustaining that. But the farm system alone is not going to keep the Pirates, or any other team, competitive. Ownership has to be willing to supplement the home grown talent with trades and free agents. THAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH THE NUTTING REGIME. The 2017 edition of the Pirates hung in there without Kang and without Marte. Nothing was done through trades or free agency to replace either one of those two players. On July 21st, this team was one game over .500 and 2.5 games out of first place. Nothing was done on the trade front. On August 11th (I think) this team was at .500 and three games out of first place. Nothing was done on the trade front except reacquiring S-Rod, which was a nice deal, but not nearly enough.

Joseph D


Scott K

Unfortunately, I think this comment is representative of a lot of Pirates fans feelings right now.


Yes, right now, and frankly, ever since Sid Bream slid across home plate in Atlanta on that fateful night back in 1992. One could even argue before then, too. Even with the brief respite/tease of the “Freak Show” in 1997, and even with the success of 2013, 2014, and 2015, regardless of who owned the team–McClatchy or Nutting–it is just a constant claim of not having enough money to compete, and on, and on, and on, it goes.
Like you, and everyone else who takes the time to participate in this forum, I am a passionate, devoted fan. I expect mlb players, especially in this day and age of guaranteed $$ in the multi-millions, to play fundamentally sound baseball and to bust their butts all of the time. I also expect ownership, especially ones that reap great benefit from ornate stadiums that were funded in large part with tax payer dollars, to be 100% committed to putting a competitive product on the field.
From 2013 through 2015, the Pirates showed that they don’t have to spend with the Dodgers, Red Sox, Nats., Cubs, etc., to compete. And I don’t expect them to either. But there comes a point when you have to live up to your claim of having champagne tastes by providing a champagne budget instead of paying lip service to having champagne tastes but only providing a beer budget.




whoa nothing; I am tired of this crap. The only thing that changes is the calendar. Everything else stays the same, from one winter meetings period to the next, and from one July 31st trade deadline to the next.
The front office pays lip service to wanting to be competitive. They told us a few years ago that if the fans support the team, they would spend the necessary $$ to be competitive. Pittsburgh fans have always supported a good product. If Nutting is really sincere about wanting to win, then he needs to spend the $$ that it is going to take in this era to do so.
With their farm system, as long as they can keep it strong and productive, I would think that anywhere from $112 to $120 million just might be enough. Is that too much to ask? if it is, then please, Mr. Nutting, sell to someone who will not fleece and bamboozal the fans. Enough already!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


agree……..while i’m not nearly as frustrated, there is no reason why we need to be held captive by our payroll. if you are at 100 million and you are logistically an average team and upgrades are out there to make you a legit contender by adding two pieces that push you up to 120 million (for a year or two, not 5-7) then……you do it, period.


Nice line. The only thing that changes is the calendar.


it was just an impressively large block of text haha. Marvelling at it with a “whoa” was all i could muster.


The $6m underperforming reliever is the sad story


Don’t know if Hudson is underperforpming. He may just not be what we thought he could be.

John W

PIrates rotation was decent this year. Have to wonder if PIrates finally catch on that having their starters throw 65% fastballs, pitch to contact isn’t real bright in 2017-18. Have to think other staffs would probably get more out of Cole and Taillon.

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