Over the last few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have gotten a lot of value on the pitching market. They added A.J. Burnett for two years, Francisco Liriano for two years, Edinson Volquez for a year, Vance Worley for the 2014 season plus four more years of control, and several other relievers for small costs.
The combined cost for Burnett, Liriano, Volquez, and Worley was just under $30 M. The four pitchers combined for 164 starts with the Pirates. If 32 starts is a full season, then the Pirates got 5.125 seasons out of those four pitchers. They combined for 1020 innings, which is an average of 6.22 innings per start. And the combined ERA of the group was 3.21.
That means the Pirates have been paying, on average, about $5.85 M for a full season of a 3.21 ERA and just over six innings per start. Based on the prices normally paid for that expected production, the Pirates have been getting a massive discount.
I did base that on ERA, and normally a better focus for pitchers should be xFIP. However, in this case I think ERA is more appropriate, as it considers all of the outside factors that are helping a pitcher. The Pirates get a huge boost from Ray Searage and Jim Benedict with all of their reclamation projects. But their pitchers also get a boost from a focus on advanced catching metrics behind the plate, advanced metrics with defensive shifts in the field, and their park factors.
I mentioned several times this season that the Pirates ended up being right about their choice of Edinson Volquez over A.J. Burnett. I cited the ERA, while noting that the xFIP numbers were the same most of the year. The argument from the other side of that debate was that Burnett could have had the same results if he was with the Pirates, benefitting from Russell Martin’s pitch framing, their defensive shifts, and the park factors.
Some of that is definitely correct. Burnett did not have a good pitch framer in Philadelphia, with Carlos Ruiz contributing -3 runs due to his framing. Meanwhile, Russell Martin contributed 19.3 runs of positive value on the season. You can imagine how Burnett’s ERA might have jumped higher, and how Volquez’s ERA would have dropped, had they switched catchers. As for the park factors and the defense, Burnett had a slightly lower BABIP this year than he did last year, showing that the defense didn’t hurt him. He also matched his career average in HR/FB, so the new park didn’t add many extra homers.
Overall, if you’re arguing that the Pirates could have brought back Burnett to have the same type of success as Volquez, then you’re probably right. Burnett would have done much better from an ERA standpoint if he benefitted from the Pirates’ catchers and defense. But here’s my question: why would you want to bring back Burnett?
This whole argument is based on the idea that a guy like Burnett would benefit from outside factors that any pitcher would benefit from. In this situation, the pitcher is the variable, and Russell Martin, PNC Park, and the defense are the constants. If you can get an ERA in the low 3.00 range from either Burnett or Volquez because of those constants, then why would you ever think about paying Burnett $16 M when you could get the same results from Volquez for $5 M?
And that brings us to this off-season. The Pirates need two starting pitchers to open the season. Their internal options are Gerrit Cole, Vance Worley, and Charlie Morton, and Morton might not be ready for the start of the season. Jeff Locke or Brandon Cumpton could cover for him until he is ready to return, but that still leaves the need for two additional starters (and before you note the prospects set to arrive by mid-season, remember that the Pirates used 12 different starters in 2013 and 8 in 2014).
There will be a call to go the comfortable route and spend big money to bring back Francisco Liriano. There will be a call to make a trade for an established pitcher, or to try and get another big name or big money guy. But why should the Pirates do that? They’ve shown an ability to find value with starting pitchers, and it’s not just dumb luck. It’s an established system that scouts for the best reclamation projects, uses great coaches and in-depth scouting history to get those pitchers back to their best form, and then uses advanced metrics behind the plate and on the field to maximize the results. The Pirates have established themselves as the place to go for reclamation projects. Why would they even want to spend money like other teams, when they’ve shown the ability to get value from starting pitchers?
Last year I looked at some of the potential reclamation projects, although the Pirates didn’t sign any of the ones I brought up. That said, most of those guys received around $8-11 M per year, while the Pirates got Volquez for $5 M. Obviously I don’t have the resources they have (although with enough Prospect Guide sales, maybe we can one day add a vast scouting department to the site). With that disclaimer, here are some of my thoughts on potential reclamation projects for the 2015 season. These don’t include potential trade targets, since I don’t know who is actually available at this point. I tried to avoid players who projected to receive big contracts.
Gavin Floyd – He has always been a guy whose name has been bigger than the results. That probably stems from his 3.84 ERA in 206 innings in 2008. Since then, he’s posted closer to league average numbers, followed by a few injuries that shortened his 2013 and 2014 seasons. The 2014 injury was a broken elbow, which wasn’t Tommy John related. He’s expected to be fine for Spring Training. Last year he put up a 2.65 ERA in 54.1 innings, along with a 3.47 xFIP. Floyd might not be a reclamation project, but he might come cheaper than normal due to health concerns over the fact that he pitched just 78.2 innings the last two seasons (not counting the 24 innings rehabbing in the minors). He’s 32 years old, so there’s no guarantee that he remains healthy after recovering from his currently injury. But he’s exactly the type of pitcher the Pirates go after, with a great ground ball rate (above 47% in four of the last five years), and good advanced metrics (3.47-3.73 xFIP range in five of the last six years).
Jason Hammel – He was on my list last year, and the Pirates were linked to him at one point in the off-season. I liked him better than Volquez going into the year. He ended up signing with the Cubs, putting up a 2.98 ERA and a 3.21 xFIP, then getting traded to the Athletics. There, he put up a 4.26 ERA and a 4.15 xFIP. Those results weren’t bad, although the perception that he was a horrible pitcher in the second half might prevent his value from soaring. He got $6 M for one year last year.
Colby Lewis – He’s coming off a year where he posted a 5.18 ERA and a 4.36 xFIP. The ERA might drive down his value, although the advanced metrics suggest he wasn’t that bad. He pitched 170 innings, which is the third time in the last five years that he has pitched 170+ innings (he missed some of 2012 and all of 2013 with an injury). Lewis had good numbers before his injury. His ratios were fine this year, and his velocity was normal. The Rangers are trying to re-sign him after he finished the season strong, so he might not even be an option as a free agent, much less a reclamation project.
Justin Masterson – He’s my pick for the top comeback player. Masterson posted a 5.88 ERA, but a 4.08 xFIP. That followed three seasons where he pitched 193+ innings per year, posting an ERA below 3.50 in two of those years. He fits every check mark of a Pirates’ reclamation project. He’s got one of the best ground ball ratios in baseball, at 58% the last two years. He strikes out a lot of batters, with an 8.1 K/9 in 2014. His main issues was his walk rate being elevated in 2014, at 4.8 BB/9. The main concern here is that his velocity dropped from 93.1 MPH in 2013 to 90.3 MPH in 2014 (and 89.6 MPH with the Cardinals). The numbers look good, but the velocity could point to an injury. If he is healthy, he’d be a great reclamation project, and a guy who could end up being an ace again.
Carlos Villanueva – He’s been a bit under-rated, despite posting some league average numbers the last few years, and better xFIP numbers. Last year he had a 4.64 ERA, but a 3.97 xFIP. That followed three years in a row where he had an ERA in the 4.04-4.16 range. He strikes out a good amount of people, with a career 7.8 K/9, and an 8.3 K/9 last year. He also doesn’t walk many people. Villanueva is coming off a two-year, $10 M deal. He wouldn’t be a bad signing as a guy who could start the year in the rotation, then finish the year in the bullpen after some of the prospects arrive.
Edinson Volquez – He’s already been a reclamation project, posting a 3.04 ERA in 192.2 innings this past year, along with a 4.20 xFIP. This is the opposite of the situations above. Volquez had fantastic numbers, but the advanced metrics suggest he won’t repeat that success. But what if there is more to Volquez that the advanced metrics aren’t showing? At the start of the month, I wrote about how Volquez has some of the best stuff in baseball. What if the Pirates could continue to refine his stuff, and turn him into a true top of the rotation guy, rather than someone who gets those numbers due to his defense and other factors? He got $5 M last year, and should be in line for more this year. If the price is $8-10 M per year, then that wouldn’t be bad if they believe that Searage and Benedict can take the next step and turn his top stuff into a top pitcher.
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