The Pittsburgh Pirates have shown a lot of interest in the starting pitching market so far this off-season. The bulk of their reported interest has been in bounce back candidates and injury risks like Brandon Webb, Jeff Francis, and Justin Duchscherer. That’s similar to the approach they took last season. Last year the Pirates had shown interest in bounce back options like Duchscherer, J.J. Putz, Noah Lowry, Jamey Wright, and Kameron Loe all by the beginning of December.
If there’s one big difference in their off-season approach this year, it’s how the Pirates are pursuing former Colorado Rockies pitcher Jorge De La Rosa. The Pirates aren’t just showing an interest in De La Rosa. He is their top target, and they are said to be one of the most aggressive teams pursuing the left handed starter, along with the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.
Last year the Pirates expressed interest in the injury risks and bounce back guys, but it was more in the form of “we’ll be interested if you’re still on the market in January”. They weren’t aggressively pursuing anyone around this time, and they didn’t have anyone named as a top target. That’s what makes their pursuit of De La Rosa is different.
None of that provides any guarantees. The Pirates aren’t guaranteed to sign De La Rosa, regardless of how hard they try to sign him, or how much they actually want him. The pursuit does raise questions as to whether De La Rosa is the right fit. The Pirates are a small market team, and while they have money to spend this off-season, they’re limited with those funds, and can’t afford to make a mistake. Teams like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox can sign a free agent, and if he doesn’t fully live up to the contract, those teams can sign someone to replace him. If the Pirates sign someone and he doesn’t live up to his contract, they’re stuck with him.
So is De La Rosa the right guy to pursue? To decide that we need to know what kind of value he brings, and what the cost could be. The specific cost is unknown, and might not take shape until the Cliff Lee bidding is complete. There is speculation that De La Rosa could see an increase in value once Lee is off the market, although Troy Renck of the Denver Post reports that the left hander might not wait on Lee if the right deal comes along. The Rockies have drawn a line of three years for their former pitcher, which means that the Pirates will likely need to offer him four years to sign, and possibly five, depending on what other teams are offering. If the right teams are involved in the bidding (i.e: contenders), the Pirates could be looking at a 4-5 year deal at $11-12 M a year. De La Rosa is also a Type A free agent, which means the Pirates would have to give up their second round pick in the 2011 draft.
So would De La Rosa be worth around $11-12 M a year for 4-5 years, plus the 2011 2nd round pick of the Pirates?
Analyzing the left handed starter isn’t as easy as looking at his career numbers. De La Rosa has a career 5.02 ERA in 710.2 innings, although he didn’t start making strides with his career until the last three seasons. He had a 4.92 ERA in 130 innings in 2008, although his xFIP was 4.06, mostly due to poor defense behind him. In 2009 he put up a 4.38 ERA, with a 3.76 xFIP. In 2010 he had a 4.22 ERA, although his xFIP was 3.77.
De La Rosa’s ERA with the Rockies has looked mediocre, although his xFIP (what his ERA would have been after removing the effects of his defense, and with a normalized home run rate) was good. In fact, of all Major League starters over the past three seasons with 100+ innings, De La Rosa had the following xFIP rankings:
2008: 37th out of 133 pitchers
2009: 24th out of 123 pitchers
2010: 27th out of 140 pitchers
De La Rosa finished in the top 30 in xFIP during each of the last two seasons. Only 19 other pitchers can make the same claim. Those pitchers are:
Adam Wainwright, Brett Anderson, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Dan Haren, Felix Hernandez, Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Lester, Josh Johnson, Justin Verlander, Ricky Nolasco, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wandy Rodriguez, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke
That’s a great group of pitchers to be included in. De La Rosa was also one of only 16 pitchers finished in the top 40 in xFIP during each of the last three seasons. The others were:
CC Sabathia, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Dan Haren, Felix Hernandez, Hiroki Kuroda, James Shields, Ricky Nolasco, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Tim Lincecum, Wandy Rodriguez, Zack Greinke
Again, a good group of pitchers to be associated with. So what makes De La Rosa so good, and why should we ignore his combined 4.49 ERA over the last three seasons?
First of all, De La Rosa misses bats. In each of the last three seasons his K/9 rate has finished in the top 25 of all starters with 100+ innings. He has combined for an 8.9 K/9 ratio during those years. The Pirates haven’t had a starter put up that type of strikeout rate since Oliver Perez in 2004. De La Rosa also has a decent ground ball ratio, with a 45.7% in 2008 and a 44.7% in 2009, then a huge jump to 52.3% in 2010.
His big issue has been walks. In 2008 he had a 4.29 BB/9 ratio. In 2009 that dropped to 4.04 and stayed in that area in 2010, with a 4.07 BB/9. De La Rosa only hit the strike zone with 43.8% of his pitches in 2010, which was down from the 46.5% league average. However, he got swings on 31.2% of his pitches outside of the zone, which was above the 29.3% league average, and despite seeing more swings outside the zone, he saw a 56.4% contact rate on swings outside of the zone, which was way down from the 66.5% league average. So while De La Rosa is outside of the strike zone at an above average rate, he also gets more swings outside of the zone, and a lot more misses than average.
His biggest problem, and the biggest contributor to the difference between his ERA and xFIP over the last three years, has been the team behind him. The Rockies had the worst team UZR in the majors in 2008, which led to the big difference between De La Rosa’s 4.92 ERA and his 4.06 xFIP. Six of the nine starters who made five or more starts in the 2008 rotation had an xFIP lower than their ERA.
The Rockies weren’t much better in 2009, finishing 20th in the majors in team UZR. De La Rosa was hurt by his performance at home. He had a 3.76 xFIP at home and a 3.75 xFIP on the road in 2009. However, he had a 5.21 ERA at home and a 3.32 ERA on the road. His road numbers were a little lucky, due to an above average stand rate (76.7%, above the usual average of 70%). His home numbers were very unlucky, with a .330 BABIP, a 68% stand rate, and a 12.6% HR/FB rate (averages are .300/70%/10%).
The Rockies again had a poor defense in 2010, ranking 24th in the majors in team UZR. De La Rosa also had a poor HR/FB rate of 15.8%. Part of that was due to struggles on the road, with an extremely bad 18.8% rate away from Coors Field, compared to a 12.8% rate at home. De La Rosa was strong on the road in 2008 and 2009, with a 4.10 xFIP in 2008 and a 3.75 xFIP in 2009, so I wouldn’t read much in to his 2010 season (which was a 4.56 xFIP).
Charlie at Bucs Dugout has talked a lot this off-season about how the biggest need for the team is to improve the defense, and points out that De La Rosa might not mesh well with the current defense. I couldn’t agree more. The Pirates had the worst defense in the league in 2010, according to team UZR. If the defense doesn’t improve, then De La Rosa would experience the same problems he’s seen in Colorado the last three years, with good numbers, but a poor ERA due to his defense.
I would guess that if the Pirates were willing to spend what it takes to land De La Rosa, they’d also protect their investment by upgrading the defense. That could be achieved without spending a lot of money. The main areas of concern are shortstop, and moving Pedro Alvarez from third to first base. An advantage to signing De La Rosa is that he would require a multi-year commitment, which means the Pirates have time to build a defense around him (as well as the other pitchers on the roster). The team will be hurting until they upgrade the defense, but that doesn’t mean they should pass on talented pitchers until they’ve made those upgrades, as long as the upgrades come shortly after the pitching additions.
Again, the Pirates are far from being a guarantee to sign De La Rosa, even if they are one of the most aggressive bidders for his services. As for the question of whether he’s worth it, I definitely think so. He’s a very talented pitcher who has been victimized by a poor defense over the last three seasons. His performance with the effects of his defense removed has been on par with the top pitchers in the league. He turns 30 in April, which means he would be signed through the ages of 33-34, depending on the length of the deal. That reduces the risk of the Pirates seeing the downside of his career.
As for the Type A status, and the second round pick the Pirates would have to give up, that’s not a bad investment. The Pirates did get Stetson Allie with their second round pick in 2010, although that was rare. The 2011 draft also might be the last year for teams to go over-slot on draft picks, although the Pirates have focused the bulk of their over-slot spending after the third round, so the loss of the second round pick wouldn’t necessarily prevent that approach. De La Rosa would also return that value in the long run, either by bringing the Pirates free agents when he leaves as a free agent, or the more likely scenario, by bringing prospects in a trade a few years from now (assuming the internal options push him out of the rotation by sometime in 2013 or 2014).
The Pirates would have a tough time turning that 2nd round pick in to a player of De La Rosa’s talents. They also might get the same quality of player in a trade return once De La Rosa departs. The second round pick would be a waste if the Pirates used it on a reliever or a one year signing. When the pick is used on a guy like De La Rosa, for a multi-year deal, it’s more of an investment.
De La Rosa is a talented pitcher who is worth the potential price the Pirates would have to pay to get him. That said, he’s not the perfect option, and not without flaws. However, beggars can’t be choosers. This isn’t the New York Yankees. This is the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates don’t have their choice of their perfect option. If they have a legit shot at a talented pitcher like De La Rosa, they can’t pass on him because he’s not the perfect pitcher. As long as he’s deserving of a deal, and I think he is, then they have to take a shot on him. Whether they can actually sign him is a totally different story.