First Pitch: The Reason the Pirates Could Be Successful For Many Years

Baseball teams pay ridiculous prices for pitching. The Texas Rangers just traded a top 50 prospect and three Grade B pitching prospects a month ago for two months of Matt Garza. Zack Greinke got $147 M over six years over the off-season. Anibal Sanchez got $80 M for five years, while Edwin Jackson got $52 M for four years. Even a 36-year-old starter like Ryan Dempster landed $13 M a year on the free agent market.

The Pirates have offered some big money in the past on the free agent market. They were turned down when they offered multiple years for Jorge de la Rosa and Edwin Jackson, with each rumored to be around $10 M a year. And perhaps it was a good thing they were turned down, because it looks like the better route for them was going with the bounce back candidates.

In the last two years the Pirates have added Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, and Wandy Rodriguez to their pitching staff. All three looked like bounce back candidates when they were signed, and none of them really cost a lot in prospects or in dollars. That’s incredible when you look at how almost every other team is paying both money and prospects for pitching. Is this just coincidence and a few successful moves? Or is this something the Pirates can continue to repeat? To try and figure it out, let’s look at the situation with each pitcher.

Francisco Liriano is looking like a Cy Young contender this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Francisco Liriano is looking like a Cy Young contender this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Francisco Liriano

The left-hander had some good numbers, pre-2011. In 2011 and 2012 he combined for a 5.23 ERA in 291 innings, with an 8.6 K/9 and a 5.0 BB/9 ratio. He was still dominant with the strikeouts, but the walks were a huge concern. Liriano looked like a good bounce back candidate when he was signed, but I don’t think anyone was expecting this.

The walks have dropped with the Pirates, going down to a 3.5 BB/9 after tonight’s start. He has also improved the strikeouts, with a 9.4 K/9. What has been more impressive is that Liriano has a .217 BAA, which is his lowest number since his 2006 season. He’s also got a .287 BABIP, so it’s not like his numbers are going to regress. After tonight’s outing he has a 2.53 ERA and a 2.66 FIP. He is looking like a legitimate top of the rotation starter, and serving as the ace by coming up huge in big games. The Pirates have needed him six times this year to stop a losing streak. In those starts he has an 0.41 ERA in 44 IP, with an 0.82 WHIP and 47 strikeouts.

A.J. Burnett is pitching like he's in his prime. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

A.J. Burnett is pitching like he’s in his prime. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

A.J. Burnett

The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees in a trade that sent Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno, and brought back a lot of cash. In fact, the Pirates received $20 M from the Yankees, which was more than enough to sign Russell Martin away from the Yankees the following season. Burnett looked like one of the top pitchers in the game pre-2009, which landed him his big deal. In 2010 and 2011 he combined for a 5.20 ERA in 377 innings, with a 7.6 K/9 and a 3.8 BB/9 ratio, playing himself out of New York. All of the signs were there for a rebound, with his advanced metrics indicating he was the victim of bad luck.

Pirates fans won’t be high on Burnett right now after he blew two big leads in his last two starts. But in his entire time with the Pirates he has been excellent. He has a 3.38 ERA in 341 innings, with an 8.8 K/9 and a 3.0 BB/9 ratio. He didn’t just bounce back to his 2006-2009 numbers. He has been better than that, putting up numbers that rival what he was doing in his prime around the 2005 season.

Wandy Rodriguez has missed some time with injuries, but he's been good when healthy. (Photo by: David Hague)

Wandy Rodriguez has missed some time with injuries, but he’s been good when healthy. (Photo by: David Hague)

Wandy Rodriguez

Rodriguez didn’t have two years of slumping like Liriano and Burnett. Instead, he had two months of slumping. In the two months leading up to his trade out of Houston, Rodriguez had a 5.54 ERA in 63.1 innings, with a 44:17 K/BB ratio. His strikeouts had been on the decline every year since 2008, and he no longer looked like the old Wandy Rodriguez. Out of the three deals, this was the one that I liked the least, as it looked like Rodriguez was quickly declining with age, and the Pirates actually had to give up something of value, trading Robbie Grossman, Rudy Owens, and Colton Cain.

Rodriguez has missed time with injuries this year, but his overall numbers with the Pirates have been good. He has a 3.66 ERA in 137.2 innings, with a 6.3 K/9 and a 2.4 BB/9 ratio. The strikeouts are still down, but Rodriguez is still effective, which is a change from his final months with the Astros. Even better, the Pirates are receiving $5 M this year from Houston, and they might get Rodriguez back next year if he exercises his player option, with $5.5 M paid by the Astros. The injury this year might work out well for the Pirates, since Rodriguez has playoff experience, and could be back in time for the post-season to step up as the number three starter behind Liriano and Burnett. The Pirates aren’t exactly missing any of the prospects they traded away, as Gregory Polanco should emerge soon as the third outfielder in Pittsburgh, and all of the pitching depth this year makes you forget about Owens and Cain, who have both suffered injuries in Houston’s system.

The Dollars

Here is what the Pirates are paying for the above production.

A.J. Burnett – 2 years, $13 M

That’s two years of Burnett for the price of one year of Ryan Dempster.

Wandy Rodriguez – 2 years, 2 months, $17.1 M

I’m assuming he will pick up his player option. Otherwise it’s 1 year, 2 months, $12.1 M and the Pirates likely get a compensation pick.

Francisco Liriano – 2 years, $11.625 M

He’ll make $1 M guaranteed this year, plus $2.125 M in roster bonuses. Next year he’ll make $6 M guaranteed, with $2.5 M in potential performance bonuses. I’m assuming he reaches all of those if he pitches the way he has this year.

Total Spent: $41.725 M for six years and two months, plus Robbie Grossman, Rudy Owens, Colton Cain, Exicardo Cayones, and Diego Moreno.

Combined Stats: 3.27 ERA in 599.2 IP, with a combined two years and three months remaining.

The Ray Searage Factor?

There have been a few pitching coaches in baseball who just seem to be able to take anyone off the street and turn them into quality starters or relievers. Leo Mazzone had that reputation in Atlanta for years. Dave Duncan was doing it in St. Louis. Is Ray Searage doing the same in Pittsburgh?

There aren’t a lot of common threads between the three pitchers above, outside of the fact that they all have been successful in the past. Burnett and Liriano are strikeout pitchers. Liriano and Rodriguez are lefties. They all had different reasons for their struggles, and all have had different reasons for their bounce back years.

In James Santelli’s recap of tonight’s start, he notes that Liriano raised his arm slot to better control his fastball, and that Searage helped him with those mechanics.

“When I came here, I told [pitching coach Ray Searage] what I wanted to do,” Liriano said. “And he agreed with me. He helped me out with my mechanics.”

It’s not just these three pitchers either. The Pirates got Jeanmar Gomez for Quincy Latimore, a fringe prospect with power but nothing else that could help him get beyond Double-A. Gomez had a 5.18 ERA in 206.2 innings with Cleveland before the trade. Now he has a 3.44 ERA in 65.1 innings with the Pirates, looking great both as a starter and as a reliever.

Then there’s Vin Mazzaro, who had a 5.22 ERA in 286 innings between the Athletics and the Royals in the American League. The Pirates got him for two pitchers who hadn’t even made the jump to the US from the Dominican Summer League. Mazzaro now has a 2.48 ERA in 58 innings, looking like a strong option this year in the final bullpen spots.

The success in finding bounce back pitchers isn't limited to the rotation. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The success in finding bounce back pitchers isn’t limited to the rotation. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Or we could go to Mark Melancon, who had some horrible numbers with Boston last year. Melancon looked like a bounce back candidate when he was acquired, and it looked like he already bounced back from June until the end of the 2012 season. But what we’ve seen this year has been beyond just a simple bounce back. Melancon went from a good reliever to a guy Boston didn’t want, and now he’s pitching like one of the best relievers in the game.

The Pirates can’t just take any pitcher off the street and turn him around (Jonathan Sanchez), but they’ve got a good track record going. You could credit a lot of that to Searage, and a lot to the major league scouts for finding these guys. Every team needs pitching, and teams are willing to pay a ton for that pitching. If you can find pitching without paying money or prospects, then you can use that money and prospects on hitters or other needs on the team. I think this is something the Pirates can repeat, since it’s happening way too often to be luck. They’ll have some good, young pitchers coming up through the system over the next few years, so they won’t need to fill too many spots. But you can never have too much pitching, and having a veteran starter in the rotation is always a good thing.

It’s hard to predict who could be a potential bounce back rotation candidate in the future, since the guys above weren’t exactly predictable themselves. But if the Pirates can continue this trend of finding sleeper pitchers, they’ll put themselves in position to be competitive for as long as they’ve got Searage and the group of scouts that are bringing in these reclamation projects.

Links and Notes

**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is out: P3 Episode 17: The Pirates Issues With RISP, Platoons, and Small Ball.

Prospects

**Top Performers: Gregory Polanco is Adjusting Well to Double-A.

**Top Performers: Is David Bromberg the Next Kris Johnson?

**Prospect Watch: Kingham Strikes Out Seven, Polanco Picks Up Three Hits.

**Minor League Schedule: Important Game For West Virginia Tonight In Playoff Race.

Pirates

**Cuban First Baseman Jose Abreu is the Perfect Pirates Off-Season Target.

**Liriano Dominates, Alvarez Scores Himself Twice in 3-1 Pirates Win.

**Pirates Notebook: West Coast Swing to Challenge Pirates Again.

**Ryan Reid Called Up from Triple-A, Kris Johnson Demoted.

**Injury Updates: McDonald Struggles in Rehab; Snider Joins Altoona.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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