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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.