First Pitch: Spend on Hitting, Save on Pitching

If you look at what the Pittsburgh Pirates have done the last few years, you start to notice a few trends. The trend of saving on pitching has been pretty well established. At first they were doing this with the bullpen, and then they started getting more out of starting pitchers. The approach with pitchers has gotten to the point where it looks like the Pirates would rather go with a new bounce back candidate, rather than taking the easy road and spending $14 M on A.J. Burnett. Based on recent history, that might not be a bad plan. However, it does bring out the anger in people who want the Pirates to spend money.

The Pirates went above market price to spend on Russell Martin last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates went above market price to spend on Russell Martin last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The people who want to see the payroll increase might want to look at the recent trend with hitters. Last year the Pirates spent a little more to get Russell Martin under contract. The Yankees were bidding about $3 M less, and were holding firm on that price. The Pirates beat out their offer, and ended up getting one of the best valued free agents on the market.

It was a similar story with different results the previous off-season. The Pirates spent $4 M on Rod Barajas, which was a raise over his previous year’s salary. They gave Clint Barmes a two-year, $10.5 M deal, giving him the second year to get him to sign early. Barajas ended up a disaster. Barmes provided strong defense and no bat at shortstop, which was good, but wasn’t worth the full $10.5 M.

In both years the Pirates were willing to spend more than market rate to get the hitters they wanted. None of these moves were massive deals, but the Pirates can’t really afford massive free agent deals. And what did they do on the pitching side? They signed Erik Bedard to an incentive laden deal, traded next to nothing for A.J. Burnett at a reduced salary, and signed Francisco Liriano to a two-year deal that looks like a massive value after only one season.

The trend for pitchers has been to go for value, while the trend for hitters has been to pay above market rate prices to get the guy they want.

This approach makes sense. For one, the Pirates spent a ton of money in the draft on pitching. That pitching is starting to arrive in the majors. Gerrit Cole arrived this past season. Phil Irwin and Brandon Cumpton both made starts in the majors in 2013, and should both start the 2014 season as depth options. Jameson Taillon is on track to arrive in mid-season 2014, just like Cole did in 2013. Nick Kingham and Casey Sadler could be up as early as the end of the 2014 season, and definitely look like options for the 2015 rotation.

Then you look at the trend of the Pirates getting value from their pitchers. Sure, Erik Bedard didn’t work, but they got aces in Liriano and Burnett while paying middle to back of the rotation prices. Jonathan Sanchez was a bust, but they turned around the career of Charlie Morton, got great production out of Jeff Karstens, and made Kevin Correia look like an All-Star. Not all of the rotation moves have worked, but there have been much more success stories the last few years. If you look at the bullpen, it has been mostly success stories, to the point where Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro can go from being unwanted by their former teams, to solid relievers with the Pirates.

The flip side to all of this is that hitting has been ignored. I won’t say that the Pirates can’t find hitters. That would be odd to say since this group just signed Russell Martin last year, and drafted Pedro Alvarez and Jordy Mercer. But the extreme focus on pitching in the draft meant there weren’t many hitters being taken. One of the better hitters from the early drafts, Robbie Grossman, was traded away for Wandy Rodriguez. There’s also the fact that the Pirates haven’t been as effective with bounce back hitters as they have been with the similar pitchers. Not every move has gone bad, but most of the reclamation projects haven’t worked, which is pretty much the opposite of the pitching situation.

That leads us to this off-season. All of the early speculation suggests the Pirates will go for value in the rotation, might be open to trading from their bullpen, and will look to fill holes at first base, right field, and possibly upgrade other areas such as shortstop. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we see them once again going market rate or better to get those hitters. That seems to be the emerging trend, and it makes a lot of sense considering the success rate the Pirates have had with value pitching, and the lack of success with value position players. We’ll see if the trend continues this off-season.

Links and Notes

**Thanks to everyone who voted yesterday for the Chase Mission Main Street grant. We got more than enough votes for consideration. From this point forward there’s nothing to do but wait. Honestly, I don’t think the chances of winning are strong, and I’m not counting on anything. It’s kind of like signing a minor league free agent and hoping he turns into a star player. The odds are slim, but you keep signing them because the unlikely reward is worth the shot. I use the minor league reference, only because I feel like we’re days away from the Pirates making their first minor league signing, followed by the usual over-reaction to the first minor league signing as if the Pirates are the only team that makes those types of moves. I guess what I’m saying is thanks for voting, and I hope you enjoy the many stages of the off-season as much as I do.

**Pre-Order the 2014 Prospect Guide

**Non-Pirates Rumors: Ike Davis, Mark Trumbo

**Winter Leagues: Polanco Leads Team to Win Over Contreras

**AFL: Dickerson Reaches Base Twice, Drives In Run In Loss

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.

Share This Post On
  • http://allmyforeparents.blogspot.com Israel P.

    Let us not forget that Liriano “looks like a massive value” largely because he injured himself last winter, resulting in a significant drop in salary.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ian.rothermund Ian Rothermund

      I’m not sure if that’s entirely accurate. His deal just went from guaranteed money to an incentive laden deal. Considering he was a cy young candidate and didn’t miss a start once he got into the rotation, I’m found to guess he ended up making just about the same amount of money.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

        You’re both right. We never knew the breakdown of bonus, year 1 and year 2 salaries in Frankie’s original 2 year/$12.75M deal – terms were never released. Best guess is it was something around $5 – $7M, depending on the size of the bonus.

        Liriano made $3.125M in ’13, which is less than he would have if he hit all his incentives under the new contract ($4.75M) and less than he would have made under the original terms ($5-7M).

        But even at $5-7M he would have been the biggest value in the free agent pool, hands down. The fair market value for his 3-WAR season would be $15+M. Liriano could be a replacement level pitcher in 2014 and he still would have been a massive value to the Bucs over the length of the deal.

  • https://www.facebook.com/motown2217 Mike MO Morgan

    Johnny Peralta and then go from there. Signing him would provide flexibility when looking at other holes. I’m on the Peralta bandwagon.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

      I like Peralta too but would you pay him the $10-12M he’s going to make if you knew he would give you his career average season? .270BA/.330 OBA/.425 SLG/.755 OPS? That’s basically Jordy Mercer.

  • stickyweb

    Ian, I think you’re exactly right. If I remember correctly, with the injury, the contract switched from guaranteed to more incentives, with the actual difference he earned being about $200K. Now that’s a lot to me, but to someone who’s earned over $13 million in his career, and after the gubment and his agent take their cuts, it’s not a whole lot. Since the injury costs him 8 or 9 starts, it could be argued that the injury lessened his value to the Bucs significantly. Of course nobody knows if he would have been as sharp in Sept. and Oct. if he had pitched those extra starts in April and May, so I guess we should just be happy with how it all turned out.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

      Actually he fall short of his incentives by $1.625M. If he makes 25 starts next year, that’s all he will miss out on.

  • http://atung.net/ Steve Zielinski

    The Pirates set the market rate for players like Martin and Barmes when they offered them contracts which they signed. The monetary value of those contracts were the market price or rate for those players. Jf a buyer were confronted with a fixed-price good and insisted on paying more for the good than the fixed price requires, then one can speak of paying more than the market rate or price for a good. But Martin and Barmes did not come to the market with prices stamped on their foreheads.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      The Pirates had situations in the previous two years where they made offers for pitchers that were equal to what other teams were offering. They went after Edwin Jackson and Jorge de la Rosa, offering around $10 M. With Martin and Barmes they were willing to out-bid other teams. With the pitchers, they held firm to their price, even though a few million more might have gotten one of those players. In DLR’s case, they didn’t want to give him a player option, which ended up being the big difference between their offer and the offer made by the Rockies.

      The point is that they have spent amounts on Martin and Barmes that have been seen as an overpayment to get the guys they want. That hasn’t been the case with pitchers.

      • http://atung.net/ Steve Zielinski

        I did know what you were trying to say. But what you actually said made little sense. Outbidding others does not mean that one overpays for a player. It means the actual market price increases because of the transaction.

        One can compare projected WAR values and salaries among similar players to evaluate market to baseball value equivalences. It may appear that one or another contract exceeds the market price for WAR for that player. But, even in this case, the market price may reflect a trend in which the price per WAR may be changing. So, even WAR does not provide a solid benchmark for salaries.

        Thanks to new television monies, we will surely see salary inflation in the coming years.

  • SufferinBuccotash

    Interesting points, Tim, but I’m not sure I agree.

    Just going from last season, you could say Liriano, Sanchez and Karstens were 3 bounce back candidates, and they hit on one. Which was great, don’t get me wrong.

    But I don’t think anyone looked at the Pirates as potential contenders going into last season, except maybe the most hopeful and optimistic of fans. You had Burnett and Wandy as locks for the rotation, and a whole lot of question marks after that.

    The situation is totally different this year. The Pirates ARE looked at now as contenders, and I don’t think you want to go into a season as a contender with a top 3 of Liriano, Cole, & Morton, with Locke and several bounce back candidates & prospects looking to fill in the 4 & 5 slots.

    I would rather they spend the $12 – $14 million on Burnett for one more year, and let Locke, Crumpton, Pimentel, and a bounce back candidate compete for the #5 slot.

    Sure you COULD get another Liriano on a bounce back flyer, but if you’re a contender, do you really want to start the season on coulds, maybes and hopes? You’re not going to sign the NL Comeback Player of the Year every year.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I don’t know if you can classify Sanchez and Karstens as bounce back guys. Liriano was a guarantee to be in the rotation due to the price they offered him. Karstens was an injury risk, and the only question was how long he could stay healthy. Sanchez was a typical minor league signing that every team makes, but he wasn’t expected to be in the rotation when signed.

      So if the Pirates sign a bounce back guy this off-season, they will be looking at that player in the way they looked at Liriano and Burnett. They committed money to those guys because they expected them to be starters who could play big roles in the rotation, and that would be the same case for a future bounce back guy. They might also sign some NRI guys. Those guys would be comparable to Karstens and Sanchez, since the odds are much lower, and there are small expectations that those players would make an impact with the team.

      Finally, it doesn’t matter how people looked at the team from the outside. What matters is how the Pirates looked at themselves. I don’t think they had the same view as the fans. They looked at themselves as contenders. So their approach this off-season shouldn’t change from last year, since they would have been planning to contend each year.

      • Mr. Goodkat

        Great points Tim.

        If I remember correctly, Karstens was signed to be a swingman/rotation depth.

        I don’t classify him or Sanchez in the same “class” of bounce-back candidates as a Liriano, a Tim Hudson, or a Josh Johnson. Those are guys who you’re still going to spend a decent amount of money on, and expect to make the rotation.

  • leadoff

    If I recall at the time, the Pirates did not want to go 4 years with Jackson and if I remember correctly he was not one of those players that desired to come to Pittsburgh.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Jackson was asking for a lot, and ended up taking a one year deal to re-enter the market the following year. The Pirates offered him a three year deal and a one year deal, but he opted to sign elsewhere at a similar price.

  • leadoff

    The Pirates wanted to sign Byrd, but if Byrd performs well and meets some incentive clauses in his contract with the Phillies they will have have Byrd for a 3rd year, his option. That means they would be paying him when he is 40. The Pirates have to make deals with their rising minor league stars in mind and years is something that is tougher for them to negotiate than money most of the time.
    An example this year is that they have 2 of their young stars expected by June, a pitcher and an outfielder, that means they would not want to sign at least 2 big name free agent spots on their roster, since there is a possibility that they will lose A.J. that is one spot, they need a right fielder that is the 2nd spot. The only place they might spend some money is 1st base IMO, the rest of the moves probably will be minor league moves, possibly a Karstens to a minor league deal or someone else or a reclamation move.
    Having said all this, the Pirates will probably do the opposite.
    The possibility is there for the Pirates to make a huge trade also.

    • emjayinTN

      L: Every day we hear more good news from the DR regarding Gregory Polanco – I like the average. the power, the RBI’s, but what is really big is the fact that his W/K is excellent. Defensively, the guy is a monster, and I would not look for anything in RF this off-season. Other than re-signing AJ Burnett, I would not look for anything along pitching lines because Jameson Taillon is going to be riding that same bus to PNC as Polanco. There are not a lot of guys available that play 1B, so I see the Pirates signing Loney or Morneau for a few years. IMO, Morneau fits better and has a larger upside, and his rep in the clubhouse and the community makes it a no-brainer. What will Karstens give us that we do not already have with younger and stronger pitchers already on the 40 man roster? Our emphasis has to be on young first basemen in other systems who are blocked, therefore their present teams would be willing to trade them. Two I like are Matt Skole, 24, of the Nationals – he is playing in the AFL after missing all of 2013 with an elbow injury on his non-throwing arm, and Dan Vogelbach, 20, of the Cubs who played at Lo A/Hi A in 2013. Both are LH hitters, RH throwers and are above average to excellent fielders.

      • Mr. Goodkat

        I don’t think they NEED to spend big money on a pitcher, but I would not stand pat. I like the idea of adding a bounce back candidate or at least a back-end, MLB-caliber pitcher on the cheap.

        Taillon SHOULD be up in June/July next year, but I don’t think you count on that, and have him penciled in to the plans already. He might open the season pitching dreadful for some reason. He could get hurt. Some part of his game could be exposed, and the Pirates may want him to work it out in AAA a bit longer, etc…

        Also, injuries in the rotation happen. How many starting pitchers did we go through last year? Burnett, Wandy, Gomez, Sanchez, Locke, Morton, Frankie, Cole, Cumpton, Johnson…that’s 10 and I’m sure I’m missing at least one.

        Sanchez is gone. Gomez is your ideal swingman. With question marks surrounding Taillon, Wandy, and Locke’s performances, and the possible departures of Burnett and Johnson…you could definitely argue there is a need for an MLB arm.

        And that’s not even considering the idea that one of these guys could get dealt.

  • WTM

    “we’re days away from the Pirates making their first minor league signing”

    WHY ARE THEY LOOKING AT MINOR LEAGUE GUYS WHEN THEY NEED A FIRST BASEMAN??!!

    Just thought I’d get that out of the way.

  • Andrew

    Tim, does the Pirates not willing to give a qualifying to Burnett affect the likelihood that they will make an offer to Liriano next year? Is so, doesn’t he become less valuable to the Pirates which would further support your trade propositions? There are a lot of assumptions here, but it is a question I have had ever since Burnett was not given a QO.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I doubt that. Liriano would most likely turn down the offer and sign a much bigger deal. $14 M for one year would make more sense for Burnett to accept.

  • jon6er

    Things everyone already know! While H&H did a great job overall with the team, when it came to Sanchez, Inge and John McDonald they stuck with them way too long and Sanchez put them out of games so early it was very hard to come back. The division was lost by 3 games and sticking with that experiment so long was really bad. And we all know as long as Inge and McDonald were on the bench it was a waste of space.
    We won’t have these high draft picks we had in the past, hopefully if we do it will be through trades and not because we are losing again. So we can’t be tossing out our best prospects for iffy trades. Lets not forget where the team was at the break after a horrible start with a just a few key additions but mostly a homegrown line up.

    • http://atung.net/ Steve Zielinski

      Sanchez, Inge and McDonald compiled a 1.6 fWAR last year. Add in Jones, McKenry, Pie and Snider to that trio and one exceeds 3 fWAR.