First Pitch: How Much Do You Trust Ray Searage?

Several weeks ago I wrote an article titled “Why I Trust Neal Huntington“. In the article I pointed out that I don’t agree with all of the moves Huntington makes. I give my own opinion, then I try to put that opinion aside to try and see the logic from the other side of a deal. For the most part I accept that I have limited information and that Huntington has an entire organization working to provide him with tons of information not made available to the public. That process led from the Pirates going from a horrible all around organization in 2008 to a contender with a top farm system in 2013. Huntington and the Pirates have earned trust after watching how they’ve built up the entire organization.

Today is one of those days where that trust comes into play. I said that I would have given A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer. The truth is that we don’t know if Burnett would have accepted this. It’s possible that he could retire. But that’s the deal I would have made. I’m also not a big fan of Edinson Volquez, who the Pirates have agreed to sign on a one year deal for $5 M. He’s got some appeal with his stuff, his ground balls, his strikeouts, and his advanced metrics being better than the results. However, he’s a bigger risk than guys like Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett due to his poor career walk rate. This is one of those times where I don’t agree with the move, but I’m willing to trust the pitching system the Pirates have used to turn so many pitchers around.

How you feel about the risks surrounding Volquez is one thing. How much trust you put in Ray Searage is another. Searage, Jim Benedict, the Pirates’ scouts, and the rest of the pitching staff in the majors and minors have revived or created a lot of careers. The two notable examples are Liriano and Burnett. There was also Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez last year. Charlie Morton was the original reclamation project. Guys like Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens played over their heads while with the Pirates. The minor leagues saw improved fastball command by Jeff Locke, who was stalling in A-ball when the Pirates got him. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon both made big strides to make their fastballs less hittable. The latter three have more to do with Benedict, although he works alongside Searage in the major league process.

So how much do you trust the process?

People will bring up Jonathan Sanchez. I don’t view Sanchez in the same boat as guys like Liriano or Burnett. The Pirates made a big investment in those pitchers. They pretty much guaranteed them rotation spots. Sanchez was your typical non-roster invitee signing that every team makes. He got a one month trial out of Spring Training as the fifth starter. The odds of him working out were much worse than Liriano and Burnett, and I think that was reflected in the price. A big reason why Sanchez didn’t work out is because he wasn’t willing to make any adjustments. Liriano and Burnett saw their numbers improve with the Pirates because of the adjustments made by Searage and company. Sanchez refused that. While adjustments might not have led to him posting strong numbers, it was a guarantee that he wasn’t going to improve doing the same thing that obviously wasn’t working.

The Pirates would have talked with Volquez before signing him. They would have been able to get a feel on whether he was open to adjustments, or whatever plan they had for him. That’s what happened last year before they signed Liriano. It’s total speculation here with Volquez, but I don’t think the Pirates would give him $5 M if they didn’t have a plan in place that they knew he would accept — just like that Liriano situation.

From there you’ve got a lot of questions. How much would working with Searage, Benedict and company help Volquez? How much will the defensive shifts help? How much will Russell Martin’s pitch framing help? I could take a guess at all of this. I’d imagine the Pirates have a prediction of their own. And in this case I’m just a guy looking at stats on FanGraphs, while they’re working with a lot more information. That’s why I’d trust they would have a better read on the situation. But I also think Searage and company have done an impressive job, and if they think Volquez is worth a $5 M investment, then that probably means they think he’s worth the risk. Think about it this way: they’ve only made this type of monetary investment with four other pitchers. Burnett, Liriano, Erik Bedard, and Kevin Correia were those guys. Burnett and Liriano ended up great. Correia played above his head and wasn’t really that bad from a performance standpoint. Bedard didn’t work out, although it should be noted that he did have strong numbers up until an injury in his second start in May. From that point forward he struggled. Overall, Volquez is in good company with this group.

I trust the system the Pirates have employed. I trust Searage to work his magic, even if I only believe the best case scenario would be leave average numbers over 180 innings. That would be worth the $5 M that Volquez received, but it would probably put him more in the Kevin Correia category rather than the next Liriano or Burnett.

First Base Rumors

The first base market saw a major change today when Seattle signed Corey Hart, and acquired Logan Morrison. Between the Mark Trumbo trade yesterday, and Morrison being added as an outfielder, that really reduced the options for Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Tampa Bay. The top choices now are James Loney, Ike Davis, and Mitch Moreland.

The Pirates are in the mix for Ike Davis. However, Adam Rubin of ESPN New York said tonight that he doesn’t feel they’re as high on Davis as an alternative to Loney, compared to the Rays and Brewers.

I’d say that Loney has more bargaining power right now than he did two days ago. He has been seeking $9-10 M per year for three years. The rumors as of Wednesday evening were that most teams only wanted two years. Rob Biertempfel reported that a three year deal wouldn’t be a deterrent for the Pirates.

Justin Smoak could be an option on the first base market, although the Mariners were saying they would use Hart and Morrison in the outfield, with Smoak at first base. That’s what I’d say if I’m trying to preserve trade value. You should know by now that I prefer Loney. I’d rather go with Andrew Lambo as a platoon at first over trading for any of the other options. The appeal with everyone else (former top prospect, still young, might figure it out) is the same as the appeal with Lambo. The difference is that Lambo hasn’t had a shot in the majors, and doesn’t have the limited success that some guys have had at times. So it’s not a perfect situation, but I don’t think the alternatives to Lambo are considerably better.

As for Loney, I think we still need to consider that the teams going after him are Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Tampa Bay. All three have said or indicated that he’s too expensive at his demands. It’s not like we’re about to see a bidding war between the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers. There might be a chance that his price comes down from the $9-10 M range. However, I wouldn’t expect him to sign anytime soon if teams are waiting him out. It’s not like the season begins anytime soon, and it would be in his best interest to wait it out and hope one team meets his demands.

Transactions

Aside from Edinson Volquez, the Pirates made two other moves today. The biggest move was giving Charlie Morton a three year extension. That’s not really a move that impacts the 2014 season, as Morton was already under team control. The bigger impact here is on the 2015-2016 seasons, and maybe 2017 if his option is picked up. Earlier in the off-season I suggested the Pirates should sign Morton to an extension, pointing out how he’s comparable to Brandon Webb and Derek Lowe. So I guess you could say that I like the move to extend Morton, and if you’re looking for reasons, click those two links.

The Pirates also sent Kyle Haynes to the Yankees in the Chris Stewart trade. Click that link for a scouting report on Haynes, taken from the 2014 Prospect Guide (Haynes won’t be in the book now, but I already had the report written). This seems like appropriate trade value for a good defensive backup like Stewart.

Other Rumors and Notes

**Pirates Unlikely to Make Rule 5 Pick; Could Lose Zack Thornton. The Rule 5 draft takes place tomorrow morning and is usually the last big thing from the Winter Meetings. As usual, we’ll have all of the coverage on the site.

**I’m hoping to have the 2014 Prospect Guide finished tomorrow evening. Usually the Rule 5 draft is the last set of transactions that goes into the book, although I don’t have to submit things until Friday, so I’ll be leaving it open for any last minute changes. You can pre-order your copy here to make sure it goes out with the first shipment. I’m hoping to receive the first group of books and ship them out next Thursday or Friday.

**Edinson Volquez Player Page.

**MLB to Ban Home Plate Collisions. I don’t really have a strong opinion on this.

**Pirates Requested Medicals on Johan Santana. I wonder if they’ll continue pursuing him now that they have Volquez. You’d have to think that Santana would only require an NRI deal. I’m skeptical about him returning, since he has had shoulder problems, which is usually a career killer.

**In the Winter Leagues, Gregory Polanco returns to action. He missed some time over the last week with a stomach virus. There has been talk lately that Polanco won’t start the season in Pittsburgh, which shouldn’t be news. I’d still expect to see him in the majors by the end of the year, unless one of the right fielders has a huge breakout season.

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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