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.

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://@gwbicster gwbicster

    I think if they have any kind of belief in Lambo, Chavez isn’t a bad sign. Play him until he gets hurt, giving time for Lambo to get work at AAA at the position.

    Not sure if that is wise, and I think they’ll probably go for a full-time platoon option without as much of an injury risk. But it’s yet another option which allows Neal to be conservative in his offers and play out the market without overreacting.

    • piraterican21

      Here is an outside the box trade idea, Locke for Dominic Brown, Brown becomes our 1b. Sign Hammel to fill Locke spot.

      • Cato the Elder

        It would be hard to compete for the division from a jail cell after so brazenly stealing for another team like that.

        • Mr. Goodkat

          Yeah…

          The reason you’re willing to trade a guy is the exact reason other teams wont want him.

          Locke is certainly “young, controllable pitching,” but they would be crazy to take that deal.

  • Jared

    Stark is crazy…Edinson Volquez would be a nightmare. He does have great ground ball % over his career…but the HUGE BB/9 has led to his downfall and I just don’t see that changing. His BB/9 is a full 1 more on average for his career than Liriano and his k/9 is .60 average less add in that his FIP and xFIP almost are always on par with his actual ERA and he proves to be a quite troubling option.

    • jaygray007

      Volquez, while it isn’t ever pretty, is perfectly capable of an ERA in the low 4s and 180 innings. Has thrown over 170 in ’08, ’11, ’12, ’13.

      Not sexy now, but definite sexy potential with Uncle Ray at the helm.

    • jaygray007

      His high ERAs in his Reds years were caused by homeritis, as evidenced by his lower xFIPs than FIPs. This makes sense because of the ballpark.

      his years with the padres showed a lower FIP than xFIP. This makes sense because of the ballpark.

      I don’t know what my point here is. maybe that PNC would generate better results than GABP, but worst than PETCO? i dunno.

      like that wasn’t obvious… facepalm.

      i’d be okay with him being brought in. he has frontline stuff and could be special on the off chance that Searage fixes his control a little bit (but he probably won’t be special!).

      • Mr. Goodkat

        If you’re going to “fix” a guy, why wouldn’t you pick someone with HIGH upside?

        I don’t feel nearly as confident with Volquez as I did with Frankie, but my opinion isn’t the one who’s matters.

        I care MUCH more about upside than I do career numbers when it comes to pitching with this team. As long as they can fix the guy they pick, the worse numbers the better! That means he’ll cost less.

        Upside, upside, upside.

        • jaygray007

          i don’t think anybody thought Burnett and Liriano were going to put up the numbers of Aces/number 2s.

          Burnett hadn’t put up an ERA under 3.75 since 2005 before he was acquired by the pirates in 2012. He was acquired for nearly nothing to be a horse and a leader who could possibly throw a high 3s ERA, IMO. I can’t imagine anybody saw the upside of the elite numbers he put up in 2012 and especially 2013.

          The super high upside guys are gone. If they can get a mid upside guy like Volquez or Hammel for cheap (allowing them to sign a 1b), i think they should do it.

          • Jared

            I think plenty of people saw really good futures for both AJ and Frankie. I am more than willing to raise my hand. Their peripheral numbers were good and they were coming over from the AL. Volquez has sucked in our division and within our league and doesn’t have the peripheral numbers to make it make sense for me. He’s a 5 BB/9 guy. That’s terrible. He hasn’t had an FIP or xFIP under 4.00 since 2010 and hasn’t had an FIP or xFIP that I would want on our team or see as a good fit since 2008 (PED suspension)…when I look at pitchers I hate walks and walks lead to a ton of trouble more often than not…a guy who walks 5 men per 9 innings each year (2013 the exception) since 2008 is not a guy I am hugely interested in.

          • jaygray007

            I agree that that we all saw good futures for Burnett and Liriano! absolutely!

            what we saw was Burnett’s 5.15 ERA, 4.77 FIP, and 3.86 xFIP. i think 3.86 is the upside that we saw, and not the 2.92 xFIP he posted this year. Expecting a bounce back into relevance and good player territory was definitely expected by most of us!

            When we saw Liriano and Burnett as good bargains/gambles, i think the upside we saw was something more in the mold of a 3, and not in the mold of a 1/2. NH has admitted that he didn’t think Liriano was going to be an ace.

            Also, Liriano put up BB/9 of 5 in 2011 and 2012. Better track record overall though. Liriano’s FIP AND xFIP hadn’t been below 4.1 since his great 2010.

            I’m not saying Volquez is the next Burnett or Liriano, but he’s not as different as many are making it seem.

            The point that you bring up that i can’t argue is that he WAS in the NL and won’t get that boost from switching from the AL.

            I’m not saying he’s going to be an ace! I’m saying he’s a solid bet for a cheap 4 ERA and 180 innings. which is just a little worse than what we shouldve been expecting from Burnett when he came here.

  • https://www.facebook.com/john.sample.049 John

    Are the Red Sox looking to cut bait with dempster?

    • Jared

      This is a move I have been in favor of and think compares more to the AJ trade as well.

  • SportOMania

    No to Volquez. He has shown no ability to pitch since his PED supension.

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

    Speaking of high upside, we haven’t fixed Andy Oliver and couldn’t fix Jon Sanchez, so, just because Liriano got fixed doesn’t mean we can fix Volquez.

    Remember that Liriano has never had back to back good/great seasons, so, there’s that. Even going into a contract year, he’s stunk.

    I like the idea of Hammel, but only for a coupla years at most.

    Hey!!! Did anyone sign Karstens yet? smile

  • Hank

    Justin Wilson would be this years Liriano if they gave him a shot at starting. Not exactly the same path, but it would be a pitcher coming from nowhere to be a strong starter.

    • bucyeah90

      I agree, Id love to see them try Wilson as a starter. Of course, his control issues would be harder for him to deal with as a starter, but I still think they should try. If that doesn’t work out they still have a dominant lefty reliever.

  • jaygray007

    Does Volquez really need to be THAAAAT fixed? every single year, his FIP, xFIP are in the high threes to low fours.

    I’m not suggesting he’d be the next Liriano or Burnett, but his stats (other than a BABIP-Fueled ERA in 2013 and a Homeritis-Fueled ERA in 2011) show that he’s useful and durable.

    I’m not even THAATTT pro-Volquez, but he isn’t trash. He does share some of the same characteristics of the other pitchers the Pirates have acquired. The stats don’t indicate a potential ace, but they sure make him like like a useful arm worth taking a chance on for a few million dollars.

    I wonder if Stark’s tweet was more rumor or speculation.

  • duckwoes

    I like the idea of receiving the prospect guide on the 23rd, as it is my birthday :):)

  • jaygray007

    Never thought i’d wake up one day be such an ardent Edinson Volquez supporter

  • piratemike

    Don’t have to think about LOMO any more, he went to the Mariners along with Cory Hart/

  • buster09

    Colon for $ 10 mil per gives u an idea of AJs value. Bowden says the Pirates can’t afford it.