Last week I reviewed the off-season needs for the Pirates, noting that the team could use at least one starting pitcher among their needs on the external market. Yesterday I looked over the future payroll commitments to see what the Pirates could afford to spend on any external additions. The result was that the Pirates can afford to spend $8-10 M on two different players, without going over $50 M in payroll over the next few seasons. With that in mind, the important question to ask is who should they pursue? Here are some of the candidates in the starting pitching market.
The free agent market doesn’t always provide the best value for starting pitchers. The demand for starters is so high that the following usually happens:
-A big market team like the Yankees spends a ton ($15 M or more per year) on the rare Cliff Lee that makes it on to the market
-The best of the rest usually go to the contending teams, even if small market teams like the Pirates are willing to match the price
-At least one team over-spends on a starter, handing out a 4 year/$40-50 M contract to a guy like Jeff Suppan, Gil Meche, or Carlos Silva
It’s important for the Pirates to avoid that third possibility. Adding a starter should be a priority this off-season, but not at all costs. The free agent market doesn’t look deep, especially when you break it down:
Top of the Rotation Starters: Cliff Lee
Potentially Strong #2-3 Starters: Jorge De La Rosa, Javier Vazquez, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte
Injury Risks With Upside: Rich Harden, Erik Bedard, Brandon Webb, Chris Young, Jeff Francis, Brad Penny, Justin Duchscherer, Doug Davis
Bounce-Back Candidates: Aaron Harang, Kevin Correia, Javier Vazquez, Any of the Injury Risks
Innings Eaters: Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, Jon Garland, Carl Pavano
The Pirates don’t have a shot at guys like Lee, De La Rosa, or even Vazquez. They could roll the dice on an injury risk, although that’s far from a guaranteed upgrade. The same applies with the bounce back candidates. Their best bet would be an innings eater, although Westbrook is the only guy I’d give $8 M to from that group. The guys I prefer, who the Pirates could reasonably get:
Rich Harden: Harden has made Ryan Doumit look like the perfect bill of health at times in his career. When he’s been healthy, he’s been a fantastic pitcher, who is easily an ace. He probably can only be counted on for 140 innings a year, and would probably need a contract that guarantees him about $8 M a year over multiple seasons. That’s a huge risk if he gets injured, but the production when he’s healthy could be worth it.
Jeff Francis: Colorado Rockies beat writer Troy Renck wondered whether Pittsburgh would be a destination for Francis, considering the possible hiring of former Rockies’ manager Clint Hurdle. Francis had labrum surgery, which put him out for the 2009 season, and had shoulder soreness in August 2010, missing some time on the disabled list. Shoulder injuries are always a big concern. The upside with Francis is that he puts up strong ratios. He’s struggled over the last three years, but has still managed a 5.8 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9. In 2006-2007 he combined for a 4.19 ERA in 414.1 innings, with a 6.1 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9. He also wasn’t as bad as his numbers indicated in 2010, with a 3.94 xFIP. He turns 30 in January, and wouldn’t be a bad bounce back candidate, probably only costing around $3-5 M, with a lot of incentives, and a 2012 option.
Kevin Correia: Correia is a year removed from a strong season in the San Diego rotation, which saw him put up a 3.91 ERA in 198 innings, along with a 6.5 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9. He struggled in 2010, with a 5.40 ERA in 145 innings, along with increased walk and home run ratios. He managed a lot of ground balls (48.9%), and had a 4.19 xFIP, which was similar to his 2009 number (4.20). Correia is only 30 years old, and could be a good sleeper candidate to return to his 2009 totals. This marks the third off-season in a row that I’ve wanted the Pirates to add Correia.
Jake Westbrook: Westbrook has been a very reliable pitcher over the last few years, with an extreme ground ball rate (59.0% for his career), and decent ratios (5.7 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9 in 2010). He would probably be the hardest to sign out of this group, and would probably need a 3 year/$30 M contract. If he continues putting up the same numbers we’ve seen from him throughout his career, he’d easily be an upgrade to the rotation, potentially capable of filling 200+ innings per year, which would be a huge value.
The Trade Market
The trade market offers three options: bad contracts, rotations with excess depth, and non-tender candidates. The two teams that have depth, and might be looking to shed payroll, are Tampa Bay and Minnesota. Tampa Bay has a rotation that consists of David Price, James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson, with no current spot for Hellickson. A spot could be created by trading either Shields or Garza, while also shedding some salary, which is a priority for Tampa Bay this off-season.
The problem with either player would be the price. A pitcher like Shields or Garza would likely command a trade return consisting of Tony Sanchez and two of the Rudy Owens/Jeff Locke/Bryan Morris group. Would you trade the potential catcher of the future and two starters who could be in Pittsburgh by next summer, all for three years of Garza or Shields? You get a very good pitcher, but what you potentially lose could off-set the value of the pitcher you received. The Twins are another option, with someone like Scott Baker available, although the return would be similar.
One possibility would be trading Joel Hanrahan, if any team is interested. Hanrahan could be a late innings upgrade to a team with starting depth, and could off-set the value in prospects that the Pirates would have to give up. A deal involving Hanrahan might only require the Pirates to give up one of the Owens/Locke/Morris group, and perhaps a lower level prospect or two. The Pirates could use Evan Meek as the closer, and would have an easier time replacing Hanrahan in the bullpen than they would finding a pitcher for the rotation.
Another possibility for the Pirates would be taking on a big contract. MLBTR outlines some of the bad deals that could be available, although it would only be worth it for the Pirates if the deal was for more than one season. The only player of interest, without a no-trade clause, is Derek Lowe, although he might not be on the market. He’s owed $15 M a year over the next two seasons, and could be affordable if Atlanta picks up $5 M a year. Lowe is a potential Type A free agent, which would bring extra value.
The most likely possibility for the Pirates in a trade would be a non-tender candidate. MLBTR also has a list of potential non-tender candidates, with a few notable pitchers. Andrew Miller is the guy I like the most from that group. He was once a top pitching prospect in baseball, is in his first year of arbitration, and hasn’t lived up to his potential, with horrible control in his major league career. Despite that, Miller is a big left hander with a mid-90s fastball, and is only 25 years old, which gives him some value. It would be far from a guaranteed upgrade to the rotation, but it might be worth a risk.
Former Top Prospects
Let’s not forget the idea that got the Pirates two of their best pitchers. Ross Ohlendorf and James McDonald were former top prospects in their organizations, before being relegated to bullpen duty, and losing some of their appeal for no apparent reason. The Pirates traded for them, put them back in the rotation, and so far they have realized their potential. This path also wouldn’t be a guaranteed upgrade, but at the same time it could provide more value for the Pirates, as it could potentially land them a player who is under control for multiple seasons. A move like that might cost them Joel Hanrahan, but again, rotation help is more valuable to the Pirates than bullpen help, and harder to acquire on the free agent market.