Who Are the Best Bounce Back Free Agent Starting Pitchers?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have had a lot of success with starting pitchers the last few years. The highlights have been A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, who both had horrible surface numbers prior to joining the Pirates. Burnett had a 5.20 ERA in the two years prior to his trade, and Liriano combined for a 5.23 ERA in the two years before he signed as a free agent. Burnett has since posted a 3.41 ERA in two years with the Pirates, while Liriano had a 3.02 ERA in 2013.

There have been other starters who haven’t pitched like aces, but who performed better than expected with the Pirates. Kevin Correia went from a 5.40 ERA in his final year with San Diego to a 4.49 ERA in two years with the Pirates. He followed that up with a 4.18 ERA in his first year with the Twins. Jeff Karstens slowly turned into a reliable starter, posting a 3.59 ERA in 253 innings between 2011-12, after struggling the previous two years. Charlie Morton was converted to a sinkerball pitcher in 2011, and when healthy he has pitched like a strong middle of the rotation starter.

The Pirates have also had success with relievers. This past year they bought low on Mark Melancon, and got unexpected production from Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez. Their success with relievers goes further back, all the way to the 2009 season when they acquired Joel Hanrahan in a buy-low move. Other successful buy-low relievers include Jason Grilli, Chris Resop, and Javier Lopez.

It looks like the Pirates might be going back to the bargain bin, based on some of Neal Huntington’s comments last week. Huntington said that the Pirates couldn’t afford $14 M for A.J. Burnett. They could still get Burnett for less, but if he doesn’t return, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see them go for a buy low starting pitcher for the third year in a row. They could even go that route if Burnett does return.

I looked at a few of the potential bounce back candidates, also looking at Jon Heyman’s salary predictions, which include predictions from an unbiased GM, an unbiased agent, and Heyman. As expected with buy low options, most of these guys will have major flaws. The chances that they could bounce back would rely a lot on faith and things we can’t see with stats. I try to guess at some of those things, but the truth is we just don’t know what will happen. No one had answers last year for how Liriano could cut down his walks to become an ace. They just knew that his walks were a problem, and it would be hard to have success with that problem. Likewise, there are going to be some question marks with the players below, and the answers hopefully lie with the Pirates’ scouts and pitching coaches, just like with Liriano last year.

Before getting to the list, I also want to note that not all of the following pitchers are projected as top of the rotation guys if they bounce back. This also isn’t a complete list, as there are guys like Scott Baker, Mike Pelfrey, and Gavin Floyd who could be interesting starters on low-cost deals. I just tried to include some of the top options, along with some guys I’m constantly asked about. Now, let’s get to the list.

Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson is an obvious bounce back candidate, but that could also make him costly for a bounce back pitcher.

Josh Johnson is an obvious bounce back candidate, but that could also make him costly for a bounce back pitcher.

A month ago I wrote that Josh Johnson would be a prime bounce back candidate. He’s got everything that has worked for the Pirates in the past. His ERA in 2013 was 6.20, but his xFIP was 3.58. His strikeouts actually went up to a career best 9.18 K/9, and his walks didn’t increase that much to a 3.32 BB/9. The problem was his home runs and went way up. That was the result of an 18.5% HR/FB ratio. He also had a .356 BABIP and a 63.3% strand rate. The home runs should go down, while the BABIP should go way down, and Johnson should strand more runners.

As for the Pirates-specific trends, Johnson got an average amount of ground balls last year (45%). He also throws a two-seam fastball, but only throws it 13.3% of the time, compared to 45.7% with his four seam fastball. He throws a slider 20.6% of the time. The Pirates have had success with pitchers like Johnson by getting them to rely on their two-seam fastball more often to generate more ground balls.

The one downside to Johnson looking like such an obvious bounce back candidate is that he looks obvious to everyone. Jon Heyman had him getting $10-12 M on a one year deal. The Pirates paid Burnett $10 M per year, and they were originally set to pay Liriano $7 M per year. But if Johnson costs $10-12 M, and he’s only on a one-year deal, the Pirates might be better off going with Burnett on a one-year deal, even if it’s $14 M. For $2 M more, the Pirates can get someone who has been one of the top pitchers in the game the last two years, rather than a bounce back candidate. Basically, Johnson might be pricing himself out of bounce-back territory.

Bartolo Colon

He seems like a perfect pitcher for the Pirates’ approach. He pounds the strike zone with his fastball, throwing it 85.5% of the time last year. The Pirates love a guy who can be dominant with just his fastball. Colon throws two fastballs, throwing his two-seamer 46.9% of the time last year. He only had a 41.5% ground ball ratio last year, and he was 44-45% the previous years when relying on the two-seamer more often. The better numbers are league average, and I don’t know how Colon could improve on that at this point, unless some adjustment was made. Heyman has him anywhere from $8-13 M, and says that age and skepticism could drive his value down. He’s not a bounce back candidate, but if his price was around $8 M, he’d be an undervalued player on the market.

Tim Hudson

The Red Sox are interested in Hudson, and he’s interested in the Red Sox. That means it’s probably a waste of time to go into much detail on why he’s a bounce back candidate. The short version is that he’s a great pitcher when healthy, but he had an ankle injury last season and is turning 39 years old next summer. Heyman has him at $7-10 M, which would be a value, but I’m guessing Boston would gladly take him at that price. Or he could return to the Braves. He’s another guy like Johnson who will get a lot of offers, even if his value seems down.

Roy Halladay

The Pirates have used Halladay as a model for several pitchers when they’re watching video. The most notable pitcher was Charlie Morton, who pretty much copied Halladay’s delivery. The problem with Halladay is that he’s old (turns 37 in May), he has dealt with injuries the last two years, and his numbers have been dropping in each of the last two years. His ground ball rate dropped from 50% to 44% to 40%. That could be due to a drop in his velocity, from 92 MPH to 90.5 to 88.7. His season ended due to arm fatigue, and he’s dealt with a lot of arm problems the last two years. Heyman has him at $5-8 M and says he would be worth a flier on an incentive laden deal. He’d be a great bounce back candidate, but that would highly depend on how his stuff looked in the off-season, and whether his arm checked out.

Dan Haren

Haren went from 200+ innings seven years in a row to back-to-back down years. Haren has lost a bit of velocity the last two years, although he never had much. He went from a two-seamer in 2010-11 to a sinker in the last two years, so that could play an impact. I’m only basing this on an assumption, but I think Haren could be a candidate for a mechanical adjustment. It might just be a coincidence that he went from a two-seamer to a sinker. Those two pitches are similar, but something happened the last two years to get Pitch F/X to classify the pitch in a different way. Haren also had an xFIP that has been better than his ERA in the last two years. Haren has only been an average ground ball pitcher at his best, so he probably won’t turn into a ground ball specialist. No bounce back candidate is going to look perfect, and in a lot of cases there will be questions wondering if the decline is due to age. Heyman has Haren getting $6.5-8 M, so he’d be in a prime bounce back price range.

Jason Hammel

He had a down year in 2013, and there wasn’t room for much bounce-back as he had a 4.97 ERA and a 4.56 xFIP. In three of the last five years his xFIP has been in the 3.46-3.76 range. He also throws a two-seamer a lot, throws his slider about 20% of the time, and has a career 45% ground ball rate. That was 53.2% in 2012, and he had a 3.46 xFIP that year after throwing a career high 34.5% two-seamers. If he can return to his 2012 stuff, he might be worth a flier. Heyman has his price at $6-8 M per year.

Phil Hughes

A lot of people mention Hughes as a bounce back candidate, but I don’t think he fits in with the Pirates system. He’s a fly ball pitcher, with a career 33.6% ground ball ratio. He doesn’t throw a two-seam fastball, so the odds of him turning into a ground ball pitcher are slim. The Pirates have had successful fly ball pitchers, but a right-handed fly ball pitcher in PNC Park isn’t something you want to bank on. Hughes basically has a big name because he was a top Yankees prospect at one point, but he’s really no better of an option than Jeff Karstens.

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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  • http://hiddenvigorish.com Hidden Vigorish

    Dan Haren’s issue is he has leaned heavily on his cutter and it was beat to death last season. I think Josh Johnson will be too expense too. However, if he really is most concerned about rebuilding his value and making a run at a big payday next year then he might give the right team a discount. The Bucs might have the perfect situation that he’s looking for.

  • https://www.facebook.com/marty.leap Marty

    Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, and Dan Haren in that order is my wish list. Doc Halladay will cost too much, even coming off injury. Not high on Hammel, Hughes too much of a fly ball guy which leads to a lot of his issues, and Bartolo Colon’s AARP card should be coming in the mail any day now.

    • http://www.facebook.com/nicholas.a.capernicus Nick A. Capernicus

      What about tabby and wandy for scherzer or price

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

        Sounds like a great deal. Maybe throw in Snider and Detroit will give up Fielder too.

        • http://www.facebook.com/nicholas.a.capernicus Nick A. Capernicus

          Not a fan of fielder he had a down year an his bat speed looks slow. Probably would on cost rojas

          • https://www.facebook.com/marty.leap Marty

            Yeah dude, I’m with you. Fielder has reallllllly slowed down lately. I’d be all for moving Tabby, Wandy, and Snider for Miggy and Scherzer though. Might need the Tiger to throw in Iglesias to make it a fair deal, however…

            • http://www.facebook.com/nicholas.a.capernicus Nick A. Capernicus

              if i remember correctly our scouts last offseason said iglesias couldnt hit his way out of a paper bag. This was proven wrong this year.

            • Cato the Elder

              My sarcasm detector just exploded.

              • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

                Cato…and Nick still hasn’t caught on to it….lol

                Yeh…let’s give them garbage and get their stars. I’m all for THOSE kinds of trades!

        • Y2JGQ2

          they probably would for the ridiculous contact they gave him. He has zero worth making 20 million a year and hitting 28 homers

  • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

    How about we look really deep in the pool at Edinson Volquez. He generates a lot of ground balls, had an ugly 5.71 ERA this year with a better xFIP of 4.07. Looks like he has a sinker he likes to throw a good bit which I’m sure is what leads to the ground balls. Its been a long time since his strong 2008 campaign and he seemed to be a different pitcher back then relying on his fastball more but he was useful at least in 2012. Get the pitching team to work with him and improve his command and who knows?

    • https://profiles.google.com/116366873579930999690 Thom Kay

      He’s got the risk of guys like Liriano or Burnett, but I don’t think he has the ceiling. I’d prefer Roberto Hernandez if we’re looking at that sort of guy. Or, just trust the young guns.

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

        Roberto Hernandez is fine, but he’s not a candidate to reach the Burnett/Liriano levels – he just doesn’t strike enough guys out and never has. Probably has a higher floor than most of the guys on the list, but a lower ceiling than all but Hammel.

        Johan Santana is an obvious bounce back candidate, but as an extreme fly ball pitcher would be a poor fit for the Pirates – less poor than Hughes since he’s a lefty and would be pitching to the big part of the park, but I still don’t like him for this team. The Giants and A’s should really take a long look.

        • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

          I wouldn’t mind Johan here. Lefties are good. Cards have problems with them, so do the Reds.

          I do hope all the “let’s trade Liriano and go find the NEXT Liriano” are taking a good look at this post and the information within. Odds are good that there is no “next Liriano” available.

          • stickyweb

            Scott, even if there is no next Liriano, trading him should still be on the table. It just all depends on what the Bucs could receive in return, and obviously we won’t know that unless a trade is finalized.

            Consider last year’s opening day rotation: AJ, Wandy, JMac, Sanchez, and Locke. Yes the Bucs knew Frankie would arrive at some point to help out, but basically you’re looking at 2 “safe” options there and 3 ???s.

            Consider this year’s rotation if AJ resigns and Frankie is traded: Cole, AJ, Morton, + some combo of Wandy / Locke / Cumpton / Irwin / Kris Johnson / Jeanmar/ Pimentel. AJ’s still AJ, Cole is better than Wandy was, Locke is this year’s version of JMac (hoping for consistency after diametrically opposed half seasons) but he’s #4 or #5 where JMac was #3, Morton’s too good to have a comp from last year, though he’s probably comparable to where Wandy was, and you either have Wandy or Cumpton, etc. most of whom are more established than Locke was at the start of last year. Even without Frankie, they’d be well ahead of where they started last season, and like they had Liriano waiting in the wings, they have Taillon this year.

            Yes, they’d have a better rotation for one year by keeping Liriano, but if they could get 2 stellar prospects to build the pipeline up even more, I think they need to do it. Remember they won’t be picking top 5 again this year, or hopefully for the foreseeable future, so to stay relevant for years to come, they have to be creative.

          • Cato the Elder

            Including Liriano, hence the desire trade Liriano at a value corresponding to what he did last year and is unlikely to repeat next.

            • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

              Cato…agree…for some reason, I am expecting a Liriano regress.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116366873579930999690 Thom Kay

    Of the 98 SP from 2006-12 with 750+ IP, Josh Johnson has the lowest HR/9 in baseball with 0.59. His homerun problems are new. Injuries are the real question.

    I love Haren, too.

    • https://profiles.google.com/116366873579930999690 Thom Kay

      Side note: “(Johson’s) strikeouts actually went up” isn’t totally accurate. His K/9 was high, but his K% was just below his career average. Still a good K rate.

      • Cato the Elder

        Kudos. K% > K/9

  • leadoff

    I don’t think the Pirates are looking for a bounce back candidate as much as they are looking for a starting pitcher in their price range, one that can at least get them to June. The starter they get would be nothing more than insurance. The Pirates don’t like to start the season with pitchers from AAA very much, but if it were me, Cumpton looks like a much better option than most of these guys, gambling is gambling, why on gamble on one of your own, especially one that pitched well for the Pirates. The only guy on the list that appeals to me is Colon, even if you get a half year out of him, Taillon should be ready in June.

  • piraddict

    What about thinking of Karstens as the ultimate cheap bounce back candidate? The Pirates could probably sign him to a minor league deal, with big incentives if he makes the Major League roster out of spring training. because what other MLB team will be willing to take a risk with him? When he was healthy he was pitching real well. He is frail, and you could only count on him for half a season, but that’s okay as he would simply be a bridge to Taillion’s arrival in the Summer.

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

      Karstens would be an option as a non-roster invitee. The Pirates don’t have much room for those types this year. Their rotations project as:

      MLB: Liriano, Cole, Free Agent, Morton, Wandy
      AAA: Locke, Cumpton, Irwin, Taillon, Kingham
      AA: Sadler

      You could sign one NRI starter, but that means you’re keeping Kingham in Double-A for the start of the season. And that NRI starter, if he makes the Triple-A rotation, probably isn’t going to start ahead of Locke, Cumpton, or Irwin. Then you’ve got Taillon coming up in June. Kyle McPherson also returns around July, although he could get an option to pitch out of Triple-A.

      It’s possible they could sign an NRI and go this route. Kingham could still make it up by the end of the year if all goes well with his progression, even if he starts the season in Double-A. But I don’t think the Pirates have room for more than one NRI. And there are a lot of potential candidates for that one spot, some that might be better than Karstens.

      • stickyweb

        Tim, I think you’re putting too much stock in Wandy. Why not figure he won’t contribute and plan accordingly, then anything he gives is a bonus? That frees things up for an extra NRI like Karstens to stick at AAA for depth or as long man / spot starter in MLB bullpen. Keep in mind they may lose Jeanmar and/or Mazarro.

        As for the rest of this list, I don’t think many, if any, of them compare to AJ /Liriano’s situation, where literally nobody else in baseball wanted those guys. We sent a couple of rosin bags to the Yanks and they ate most of AJ’s salary to get rid of him. Liriano looked like a lost cause, with an ERA over 5.00 in half of his MLB years, including 3 of the last 4. Plus his control looked shot with 5BB/9 in each of the last 2 years. None of the pitchers you mentioned have been that low for that long. Plus the salaries referenced and the teams mentioned (BoSox, Atl, Yanks) indicate the Bucs might not have a chance even if they wanted to target one of them.

        My pick for bounce back project (and it would be a huge bounce back as nobody else in baseball seems to want him at this point) is Roy Oswalt. His FIP wasn’t too bad last year even though his glammer stats stunk. And he won’t command no $7 or $8 mil either after signing a minor league deal with the Rockies after this season started. We’re not going to get another Liriano 2 years in a row, it’d be nice to just uncover a solid #3 or 4 starter for the year, until Taillon and Kingham are up full time.

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

          “Why not figure he won’t contribute and plan accordingly, then anything he gives is a bonus?”

          This has been what I’ve been saying all off-season. If that happens, then Locke is the number five starter in the rotation.

  • @BuccoSharkTank

    If the Angels non-tender SP Tommy Hanson, he would be someone who has had past success that would be hard to ignore…if his arm is healthy.