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.

Tim Williams

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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  • skliesen

    Another reason the Pirates will continue to be able to sign bounce back candidates will be reputation. Pitchers will believe Searge can help get them back to where they were, or even make them better than they ever were. Not to mention, guys like AJ Burnett genuinely like playing for the Pirates, which hasn’t always been the case.

  • pirateradio

    I’ve been saying for a few years that we’ll know that the Pirates are a good team when players perform better for the Pirates than they do for other teams. It’s great to see that starting to happen around 2010 (Jones, McKenry) and now happening fairly consistently. I think that getting all of the coaches & managers on the same page, philosophically, top to bottom was a good start. The Dominican Academy fit in well with that, too. Now, it seems that the scouts and the guys who employ the shifts are getting on the same page, too, because they’ve managed to successfully identify what types of players will fit in best with their system (at least in terms of pitching and defense).

    That said, I agree that Searage is one of the keys to this system. I’ve also been looking at articles on pitchers coming into the system to see if Searage changed anything that they did…and it seems like the tweaks he makes are almost always for the better.

    I think another key of success for the Pirates will be trading established players for prospects. If they do this and have the ability to know when their own players have hit a ceiling and to be able to accurately assess the players to trade for…then they’ll have the 2nd part of being able to continue having a very good franchise. They won’t succeed every time, but if they have more Hanrahan, Nady, & McLouth trades than Bay trades, they’ll do very well.

  • tbart213

    or it’s a combination of Searage AND the Major league scouts working in tandem, with good communication between them. What they see, what they expect, etc.

    Let’s face it, we all know the Bucs have had their share of bad luck, even being totally snake bit. But the really frustrating thing for the fans was the total lack of direction the old regimes (who shall remain nameless) had.

    This group seems to have consistent things they look for, and has everyone in the system singing out of the same hymn book.

    Personally, I think a lot of GM’s would love to have the freedom and extended honeymoon that Huntington had inheritng such a mess, but you are what your record says you are, and ours is looking up.

  • steelpro

    So who is the next bounce back candidate the Bucs should target for Ray The Sage Rage to fix? Phil Hughes? Dan Haren? Josh Johnson?

    • Andrew

      Find some guys with high unsustainable HR/FB ratios; Burnett 2011 17.0%, Melancon 2012, 22.2%, Gomez 2012, 14.9%, and have starters decrease fourseamer usage in favor of sinker. Obviously there is more to the performance turn around than that, but clearly Pirates have identified candidates and have a strategy that has produced returns. Lets hope its continues, because teams can never have enough pitching depth.

      • emjayinTN

        The Pirates have had the most success with pitchers out of the American League, who already have an edge going against 8 hitters + a pitcher in the NL as opposed to 9 strong hitters in the AL – 1/9 x 100 = 11.1% edge.

  • https://profiles.google.com/107500598404660809214 Kerry Writtenhouse

    If josh johnson is healthy and doesn’t cost a draft pick, that’s who I’d go after.

    • BostonsCommon

      Johnson is definitely the first choice of those 3 names, but I don’t know how his health can be guaranteed, and the Blue Jays are almost certainly going to make a qualifying offer. Considering that, he’s probably not realistic. The stuff is definitely still there though, he’s averaging almost 93 mph on his FB.

      Hughes is another interesting name. His FB is still averaging 92.4, so I think the stuff is probably fine there too. He always had good strike out rates in the minors, and even had a 10.05 K:9 with the Yanks in 2009, even though that was mainly out of the bullpen. I don’t know what they have lined up for starters next year, but it wouldn’t suprise me if they made a qualifying offer, so the point is probably moot.

      I’d like no part of Dan Haren and his BP fastball.

  • leadoff

    I think pitching is how we are going to be successful moving on and it is at the top of the list for sure.
    IMO, there are many good stories in the Pirate system from pitchers to coaches. You could say Searage, you could say Benedict, Leva, Huntington and so on.
    I guess I would have to say the guy most responsible for their continued success would have to be Nutting, he put the management team in place that put guys like Hurdle and Searage in place.
    I think the system is built strong enough to sustain the loss of say a Searage or Hurdle.

  • Kozy21

    I think pitching is key but this minor system as a whole is what will give the Bucs continued success especially with the outfield depth they have. If even half the guys are successful, NH will be able to trade other guys at peak value to either help the big league club or trade someone established to even more reload the system. Come 2015/16 their offense will catch up with the pitching. It’s gonna be exciting.

  • BostonsCommon

    Can we ride a hot GM like a hot Pedro or a hot Cutch? Can a GMs hot streak last years?

  • moose7195

    First offseason move: extend Uncle Ray Searage. The way he’s coached, I wouldn’t be surprised if other teams were courting him. He’s the common denominator in the pitching staff’s sudden improvement, and he should be the guy that ushers Cole and Taillon into the baseball world. After Searage is locked down, then yes maybe another starter is in order, but I wouldn’t spend the whole budget on one with all of the holes in the lineup.

  • smurph

    No question Searage gets a ton of credit. But back to the story. I believe it is the only option to go for the bouce back candidates. When you are giving guys like Edwin Jackson 32 million or Greinke 147 nmillion, that is just not realistic. Sure it did not work out with Sanchez and Contreras, but the success rate is close to what you would get for all those overpaid starters. Heck Locke has been better than Edwin Jackson, I would bet there are two or three other kids in Indy who could have done as well as Jackson without that huge outlay of money.

  • leadoff

    Baseball these days has so much parity that paying big money is just stupid in many cases, sometimes all you have to do is open your cupboard door and the right ingredients are right there, we have the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence mentality in sports.

    Cano will be on the market after the season and he already priced himself out of most of the teams in baseballs price range, of course there will be fans calling the Pirates cheap for not getting into the 200mil+ bidding war for this guy. I think I would go as high as 12mil a year for him, the reason being that you can find a 2nd basemen for that kind of money that can be an intricate part of a team. Cano is probably the best 2nd basemen in baseball, but not necessarily a franchise player.

    • smurph

      I would say Cano can expect more than 12 million per. As you said, it just would not be worth the risk for the Pirates.

      • BostonsCommon

        Cano will be a $100M man. I don’t have a problem with giving Cano that type of cash, just because he is a premium player that puts up elite numbers (I wouldn’t have paid Pedroia $100M). I would have tried to do it earlier, but whatever, he’s probably going to get at least 5 years @ $20M. He might even get 7 years, with the idea of a team moving him off 2B toward the latter stages.

        My only issue is with the idea of paying a 2B $100M. It would be easier on me if Cano played 3B, or SS, or even 1B. It just seems to me that you should be able to fill 2B for less than premium dollars.

  • mam995

    Tim, I loved this article and also the one about rating a pitcher from being a number one starter on down. Your writings are far more than mere musings. They are wonderful didactic analyses about the rational approach to the business of baseball. And beyond semantics, it IS a business. The statical qualifiers that you use to rate and justify player worth (like WAR) make perfect sense in what has been up to now an imperfect business model with high failure rates. Throwing money up against the wall to get players like the Yankees did for years no longer guarantees success. Especially in the post Steroid Era. The “too” rational Bob Nutting might be on to something. In a very classic sense, he’s forcing Huntington to be business thorough in his management approach. It might actually work. For example, most business models in other industries are copies of successful outcomes in their industry. I mean, look at what the Cardinals are doing well overall, look at what the A’s are doing in finding quality pitching prospects as a constant. . Look at what the Twins and Angels are doing in constantly finding quality outfield prospects and copy them. One thing of note* Jonathan Sanchez openly said that he would change the way he was pitching, so his failure was on HIM. I also think that James McDonald might need a sports shrink the same way that Charlie Morton did. In your article about a number one starter having “plus” pitches, you also mentioned that number one starters have “plus” mentalities as well. Perhaps a shrink can help James as well. It’s gotten to the point that McDonald’s confidence is so bad that he can’t even get out rookies who were in high school a few weeks ago. He needs mental help (I think).

    Marc

  • mam995

    I meant to say that Jonathan Sanchez openly said that he WOULD NOT change the way that he was pitching

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Excellent and thought provoking article. Getting guys like Burnett, Liriano, and Rodriguez has been a tremendous improvement for the team, and has enabled the Pirates to bring on a few youngsters to blend in. Searage has been very strong, and getting Russell Martin this year has really tipped the scales in favor of the Pirates. But, the “sleepers” the Pirates have gotten in the recent drafts show the depth of scouting expertise – SP’s like Brandon Cumpton, Nick Kingham, and Tyler Glasnow and other SP’s who have been converted to the BP such as Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, and 5 or 6 others. Guys like Cole, Taillon, and Heredia are locks and obvious to just about any baseball fan, but the “sleepers” are the guys who will help this team turn the corner. A few others I like are Vic Black and Zac Fuesser who has turned into a fairly reliable LHRP.

    Right now, Charlie Morton has been very solid for the past 3 or 4 starts and has provided a solid SP at a time when it is needed most. I still see parts of his approach I would hope he changes, like overthrowing his two seamer by about 2 or 3 mph, and falling into a habit of elevating pitches when he is under stress – all things that come with rehabbing from TJ surgery.