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

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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