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.
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 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.