First Pitch: The Next Liriano and The Left-Handed First Baseman

We’re through day two of four of the 2013 Winter Meetings. There have been a lot of rumors surrounding the Pirates so far, specifically focused on first base and starting pitching. It’s to the point where we can get an idea of what the Pirates are going to do, and the only question that remains is “when will the moves take place?” I decided to break it down further for each position below.

The Next Francisco Liriano

Jayson Stark had a tweet tonight saying that the Pirates were looking for the next Francisco Liriano.

That’s not news, since we’ve heard all off-season that the Pirates would be looking at bounce back pitchers. Neal Huntington has said that signing another pitcher wouldn’t impact their ability to re-sign A.J. Burnett. However, with the indecision from Burnett it seems like the Pirates might have to settle for a bounce back candidate as a replacement.

How you feel about that approach probably depends on how you feel about the previous success. If you think Burnett and Liriano were just lucky, then you might not be comfortable going with a bounce back candidate. If you feel that the success of those two starters was due to a combined system that involved Ray Searage and the Pirates pitching coaches, good scouting, and defensive shifts, then you might be comfortable with the idea of a bounce back starter.

A month ago I took a look at some of the best bounce back starting pitchers on the market. Most of the top guys from that list are gone (and it didn’t include Stark’s idea of Edinson Volquez). One of the players I mentioned was Jason Hammel. Today we heard that the Pirates were one of four teams showing interest in Hammel. Jon Heyman had Hammel projected for $6-8 M per year.

Obviously I still like Hammel as a bounce back guy. He’s not as obvious or as “safe” as Josh Johnson. But I think there’s a lot to like about his chances of bouncing back, especially if you’re a believer in the Pirates’ system. To run through a list of some of the top reasons why he’s a bounce back candidate:

**A lot of the success the Pirates have had involves generating ground balls. Hammel has been league average in his career, but switched to a two-seam fastball in 2012 and had a career best 53% ground ball rate. He also had the best numbers of his career that year. In 2013 his ground ball rate dropped to 40%, even with the two-seamer. If the Pirates can get that pitch generating ground balls, it could go a long way to Hammel returning to his 2012 numbers.

**Hammel has some great stuff, with his arsenal being better than the numbers. He averages 92.7 MPH with his fastball, and has some nice breaking stuff which gets him a decent amount of strikeouts. We’re not talking Gerrit Cole’s arsenal here, but he’s no soft tosser. For reference, Hammel’s 92.7 MPH career velocity would rank fourth among 2013 Pirates starters, behind Gerrit Cole (95.5), Charlie Morton (93.4), Francisco Liriano (93.0), and just ahead of Burnett (92.4).

**In his entire career in the majors, Hammel has either pitched in the AL East or with the Rockies, pitching half of his games at Coor’s Field. He has also underperformed his advanced metrics on an annual basis, which could be due to the park factors. From 2009-2011 he had a 4.95 ERA in Coor’s Field, and a 4.30 ERA on the road. The latter isn’t spectacular, but this was also before his two-seam fastball.

I’m not about to say that Hammel is the only option available, or that he’s the best option. I will say that he’s a good candidate to have a surprise season. He’s already got the two-seam fastball and it has shown the ability to generate ground balls. His arsenal is pretty strong, with the ability to generate some strikeouts and velocity that is just as good as Burnett or Liriano. That’s a good starting point for Ray Searage, Jim Benedict, and the rest of the Pirates pitching coaches. Add in the fact that for the first time in his career he wouldn’t be playing in the AL East or playing half of his games in Coor’s Field and he gets another boost. I wouldn’t project Hammel to be “the next Liriano”, as that would be lofty for any pitcher. I do think he can be a good starting pitching option. He wouldn’t be a sexy signing at all, and would leave a lot of people questioning what the Pirates are doing (and those questions existed last year with Liriano). But at the end of the day he’s got the chance to be a good sleeper who can put up good results once the Pirates work their magic. That’s all that matters.

The Left-Handed First Baseman

Neal Huntington told reporters today that they would be comfortable going with Gaby Sanchez as their starting first baseman. I personally don’t put any stock into these types of statements, since actions speak louder than words. The actions we’ve seen so far this week involve the Pirates looking at several first base options. I believe if they were truly comfortable with Sanchez, they wouldn’t be looking elsewhere.

If you fear that Sanchez will be the starting first baseman, you’re not paying attention to what is happening with the first base market. There aren’t many teams who currently need a first baseman. There are more first baseman than teams, to be exact. Today we heard that the Pirates were looking at James Loney again. He is asking for three years and $9-10 M per year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up signing for about $7-7.5 M per year. Three of the teams who need a first baseman can’t afford what he is currently asking for. That list includes the Pirates, Rays, and the Brewers.

Milwaukee looks to be waiting on Corey Hart, who could be signing soon. The Rays and the Pirates have been going after the same first basemen. Seattle is the only other team in need of a first baseman. Former Mariner Kendrys Morales is available, and hasn’t been getting many offers, mostly because he would cost a draft pick in addition to a ton of money. Seattle would make the most sense for him, since they wouldn’t have to give up the pick. If Milwaukee gets Hart, and Seattle gets Morales, that leaves Loney to the Rays or the Pirates. The alternative would be Logan Morrison. There was another rumor today that the Pirates were one of the most active teams going after Morrison. It seems that they’re keeping their options open, waiting for prices to drop.

In all of this I’m not even mentioning Mitch Moreland, Adam Lind, or Ike Davis. Everything I’ve seen on Davis involves Mets writers wondering when teams will start asking about him. There was a rumor tonight that New York is asking for young, controllable pitching for him. The rumor mentioned Tyler Thornburg, who has less than a year of service time and had a 2.03 ERA in 66 innings with Milwaukee this season, with some of that coming in the rotation. Considering all of the options on the market, and considering that Davis is largely unproven and is entering his arbitration years, I’d say those demands are a bit too much.

You can pretty much bank on the fact that the Pirates will have a new first baseman heading into the 2014 season. They might sign/trade for that first baseman this week, or the move might come later in the off-season. It’s not really a question of “if” they will add a new first base option. It’s just a matter of “when” and “which one of the many available first basemen will they get?”

Other Rumors and Notes

**I heard a rumor today that the proof copy of the 2014 Prospect Guide would be arriving at my house by Friday. If you haven’t placed your pre-order, you can do so here to ensure that your book goes out in the first shipment. By getting the proof on Friday, I will have enough time to make sure everything printed correctly, followed by placing the order for the first shipment before the end of the day on Friday. Based on the shipment time of the proof copy, I’m anticipating that I should be shipping the books out sometime late next week. In the past when I’ve shipped books out on Friday, they have arrived on Monday or Tuesday of the following week. It’s harder to project all of this with weather and holiday shipping delays. I’m going to do everything I can to try to get the books to you guys by the 23rd or the 24th. That includes leaving the 80 degree weather down here in Bradenton and driving up to freezing cold Virginia a week early so that I can get the books 1-2 days earlier (VA is closer to the publisher). Hey, we all have to make sacrifices. Again, you can place your pre-orders for the Prospect Guide here.

**Pirates Overwhelmed by Trade Interest for Justin Wilson. If you’ve read my work for any amount of time, you’ll know that I’m always up for trading relievers. A guy like Wilson should fetch a big return, or could be a big trade chip for a big return. Personally I wouldn’t mind seeing Wilson converted to a starter, where I feel he has more value. I’d also like to see that same switch from Stolmy Pimentel, although the Pirates have limited rotation space. Personally I think that the best return for Wilson would be prospects. People won’t like that, but the reality is that anyone trading for a lefty reliever is probably a contender who isn’t looking to deal from the major league team. The Pirates could get the best return in that situation if they trade for prospects, since the team acquiring Wilson would probably care more about the immediate future. The Pirates have had a lot of success finding relievers, so they shouldn’t be too hurt by the loss of Wilson. I think if I had a choice though, I’d deal Tony Watson instead of Wilson.

**Pirates are Probably Out on Bronson Arroyo. Scratch one possible starting pitcher off the list. I’m glad about this. I think Arroyo’s upside is limited, and his value is mostly fueled by the amount of innings he can eat. I’d rather see Wilson or Pimentel in the rotation.

**Pirates Have Shown Interest in Eric Chavez. He’s old, but he wouldn’t be a bad option off the bench. A few people asked whether he would be a platoon option at first. The splits match up, but I’d be concerned about the age and his injury history. That’s not a combination that you want to trust with the bulk of your starting first base duties, unless you think Andrew Lambo can be the backup if (when?) Chavez goes down. Or unless you really do trust Gaby Sanchez to be the full-time starter. Chavez also isn’t a platoon option at third, but he does hit lefties better than Pedro Alvarez, and he would provide the Pirates with depth at third if Alvarez went down.

**Speaking of Lambo, he has been playing a lot of first base lately in the Winter Leagues.

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, 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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