First Pitch: The Pirates Continue to Find Success With Low Budget Moves

Over the weekend, Jeff Sullivan wrote about the perfect off-season the Pittsburgh Pirates had, noting that a lot of their budget-minded moves have paid off in a big way. He noted that A.J. Burnett, Francisco Cervelli, and Jung-ho Kang are working out well in big roles, while smaller additions like Arquimedes Caminero and Rob Scahill have also provided good value.

Burnett currently ranks 22nd among 111 qualified starters in xFIP. Cervelli ranks 6th in WAR out of 22 catchers with 130+ plate appearances. That’s even more impressive when you consider that he ranks as the best pitch framer, adding more value. Russell Martin is a full win better than him so far, but also costs about $15.5 M more than Cervelli on average. Kang has pretty much won the shortstop job from Jordy Mercer, and has a 1.3 WAR. At $6 M per win, he’s almost half a win away from justifying his entire four-year, $11 M contract.

The Pirates paid about $20.5 M for those three players, and they are currently getting a combined 4.1 WAR (granted, Burnett came at a special discount for them). That doesn’t count Cervelli’s framing value, and it doesn’t count Kang’s next three years under contract. Through two months, they’ve already received the value of what they spent for those players.

Granted, the Pirates haven’t been exactly perfect. They missed on Radhames Liz, and Corey Hart hasn’t been hitting in a small sample, outside of his other small sample as a pinch hitter. But the majority of their moves have worked out, and this isn’t a new trend. They’ve found budget additions the last few years, whether it was through free agency, or in the trade market at the deadline.

In free agency, they have landed a lot of low-cost reclamation pitchers who have gone on to put up some impressive numbers. Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, and Edinson Volquez are just a few from the starting side. And before they had to find a way to replace Russell Martin on a budget, there was the fact that Russell Martin was one of their budget signings in the past, providing value well beyond his two-year, $17.5 M deal.

They’ve gotten value at the deadline without giving up much of significance over the long-term. Last year they didn’t make any deadline moves, which was criticized. However, they filled their biggest need in the bullpen with the mid-season signing of John Holdzkom, and saw their patience rewarded with some of their struggling players who stepped up down the stretch. The year before they made a big splash by landing Marlon Byrd. They dealt away Dilson Herrera, but saved their best prospects.

Every year there are complaints that the Pirates don’t spend enough. Their payroll has gone up over the last few years, and I don’t expect that to stop. But they are never going to be a team that sees a massive spike in payroll, nor are they going to be a team constantly dealing away top prospects for short-term help. And based on the results, that might not be a bad thing. They continue to find value, and they remain competitive, despite the “tight-budget” and “prospect-hoarding” approaches. And it’s that ability to continue finding value that will keep them competitive for the long run, rather than falling into the downward trend that the Reds and Brewers are currently in.

**Prospect Watch: Sever and Brewer Combine For 18 Strikeouts. Big night for the West Virginia pitchers. Also, two live reports, including my recap of Luis Heredia.

**The Draft Picks Associated With the Pirates Most Often. Only one week to go until the draft.

**Yeudy Garcia is the Pirates Prospects Pitcher of the Month for May. You’re going to want to remember this name.

**Alen Hanson is the Pirates Prospects Player of the Month For May. He doesn’t really have a path to the majors this year, unless the Pirates see a few injuries.

**Jaff Decker Quit Trying to Hit For Power, and the Results Have Been Great. Ryan Palencer reports on the off-season change for Decker that led to his strong start this year.

**Morning Report: In the Minors, No One Gets On Base More Often Than the Pirates. Good information from John Dreker about a trend that exists throughout the system.

  • The portion that stuck out for me from Jeff Sullivan’s piece was, Of course, there’s always that other side of any celebration of budget behavior — owners can generally afford to spend more than they do. Celebrating efficiency only enables lesser spending.

    Considering the front office continues to do well give the economic restraints, I’m always left wondering what could be accomplished with another $5-10 million in payroll.

    • Depends on how badly you want those last few wins.

    • Scott Kliesen
      June 2, 2015 2:29 pm

      Who could be on the roster that isn’t for $5-10 million? Certainly not Martin. Not Lester. Not Scherzer. No true difference maker who was FA last winter could be had for that low of a figure.

      Biggest holes are #5 SP and relief depth. Pirates are in just about most enviable position in all of MLB. They have deep and talented ML roster and one of best farm systems, too.

      I would suggest you sit back and be grateful for the product we have now and will have for foreseeable future, and stop worrying about payroll. It’s way down the list of what is needed to have a winning organization.

      • You wouldn’t rather have Jason Hammel starting over Jeff Locke? Pat Neshek or Brandon Morrow in the pen?

        *Payroll* isn’t what is being worried about. A better baseball team is. And for what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure complaining is the opposite of what Andrew is doing.

        • Scott Kliesen
          June 2, 2015 9:52 pm

          No team is perfect, even the Dodgers with their $300 million payroll. Pirates have a deep and talented roster and a loaded farm system. Why do they need to spend more money? Just to spend more money and make fans happy? If it was your business you wouldn’t do it.

          Not every signing works out the way you want it to no matter how much was spent.

          • Your point of view is so incredibly distorted on this that there really isn’t any point of discussing.

            • Distorted? It couldn’t be any more accurate. There’s no guarantee that extra money spent would generate those couple of extra wins.
              A timely hit by any one of our better players, in at least a half a dozen games during the first 6 weeks, could’ve been those extra wins you keep harping about. It wasn’t like we didn’t have RISP countless times.
              I’m with Scott, I’m happy to have entertaining and competitive ball to look forward to each and every game and for the forseeable future. Beats the alternative.

              • Guys like you were saying the same stuff in 2013 when the Pirates were winning with a $70m payroll. Does that mean you’d rather have seen them not resign Liriano last winter? Or Burnett and Kang? Take your pick.

                From a fans perspective, what could possibly be wrong with using the resources the team has to put the best club on the field?

                • Wrong. I didn’t expect them to stay at $70 million in 2014 or 2015. The team indicated a willingness to increase payroll and they have. The signings of the above mention players prove just that.
                  They have become a competitive team that’s made the playoffs and anything can happen when you’re in.

                  • The Pirates have the 5th best performance with men in scoring position in the NL.

                    • As of today. I’m not sure what they were ranked during the first 6 weeks of the season, which I was referring to, but it’s irrelevant. They did not come up with a well timed hit in at least a half a dozen games. They have been doing so with regularity these last 3-4 weeks.

              • Well stated, Tom.

            • Rose colored glasses.

        • Perhaps I missed it, but where did Scott say Andrew was complaining? I believe he said to “stop worrying about payroll” and “sit back and be grateful”.

      • Also doubt there are many Cub fans itching to swap Montero for Cervelli.

        • Scott Kliesen
          June 2, 2015 9:54 pm

          Yeah Cervelli with his .395 OBP and top tier defense is a real problem for the Pirates.

          • One is doing it without a .400 BABIP and with more power than a pitcher. Who would that be?

            • Fair enough, but one is the backstop for a top 2 Pitching Club and the other isn’t. Defense at that position is vastly more important anyways.

      • What accelerant did you use, because you torched that straw-man. A team spends $25 million well, what is wrong with asking if they could preform better spending $30 million or $35 million?

        Don’t fixate on the dollar amount consider the marginal gains, what does Huntington always cite payroll flexibility. Maybe the additional flexibility allows for a better RHH 1B to be signed/traded for than Hart. Maybe Pirates trade for Ben Zobrist instead of Sean Rodriguez, I don’t mind Bastardo but there are better relievers.

        • Scott Kliesen
          June 2, 2015 9:48 pm

          Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing. Hart hasn’t worked out yet as well as hoped, but no guarantee a more expensive signing would’ve done any better. Same goes for Bastardo.

          Spending more money doesn’t guarantee more wins!

          • When was the last time *anybody* actually said that spending more money *does* guarantee you more wins?

            Seriously. Tell me.

            Fact is, if you like the 2015 Pittsburgh Baseball Club, you owe money a big thanks. No other Huntington club has been deeper in the rotation, bullpen, or bench; and the only reason that is the case is because they spent more on payroll than they ever have.

            Without that additional money, there is simply no way this club is on the field.

            • When people say that we need to get Hamels, it’s implied that spending that money will get you those wins. It doesn’t have to be spelled out in huge letters.
              It’s quite possible Hamels could suffer from a lack of run support, despite his abilities to pitch well.

          • Do some research on the outcomes for microfracture surgery for the knee. Bastardo is a high K, high walk reliever, who doesn’t get ground balls, not the best fit. As for hindsight, notice how I sighted Zobrist over Sean Rodriguez despite current performance.

            You continue to not see the argument I’m making, which isn’t some Nutting is cheap trope, and have responded with some boilerplate platitudes.

            The correlation between payroll and wins is currently small, (this could be an aberration or trend time will tell) but it is not zero. All I’m asking is what could the front office have done with 4-8% more in payroll flexibility. I’m not looking for a guarantee, just to increase the projected range of performance.

            • Its sounds like you’re suggesting that the Pirates didn’t due their due diligence when it comes to SRod, Hart and Bastardo. Anything is possible, but I believe they make decisions based on the best information available, which the general public doesn’t have full access to, and what fits their needs inside their parameters.

            • I trust the people Pirates are paying to identify best options available to fill holes in roster. They have demonstrated their competency year after year.

              Now do I believe Bastardo is an ideal fit? No, but I trust they thought he was best fit for them this off-season.

              • This was key to my original premise, the Pirates are have been good, but no means infallible, at bringing in outside talent, so image what could be accomplished with a marginal increase in resources.

                • Scott Kliesen
                  June 5, 2015 8:10 am

                  Ok, and my premis is they spend enough to put together a playoff roster. Any playoff team is potentially a championship team.

                  Personally, I’m more concerned with them paying to keep guys like Jim Benedict in the organization than spending 10X that amount on a perceived better player, who may or may not live up to his projection. Guys like Jim Benedict don’t go into slumps or lose their confidence or see their production dip due to injury.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    June 2, 2015 9:26 am

    OTOH, guys like Liz, Hart, Rodriguez all have shown to be less than adequate signings to date. The jury is still out on Caminero – he’s been up and down. although a trade, Bastardo has been mostly bad so far.

    • I disagree on Rodriquez, he does not get enough playing time. He always runs hard and is a contact line driver gap type hitter.

      • Christopher B
        June 2, 2015 2:21 pm

        Go-go’s been great. He’s contributed offensively when called upon, and he’s been good defensively wherever he’s been placed. He’s filling his role beautifully.

    • Rodriguez has been good, i can’t agree with you here.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    June 2, 2015 9:24 am

    Based on his contract and impact to date, Kang has been one of the best value signings in all of baseball this season.

    Cervelli has exceeded my rather low expectations with the bat (average wise, not power). His pitch framing may be good (how is that measured?), but his throwing has not been. Again, its only 2 months – but, so far, I have been pleasantly surprised. I’d still rather have Martin, and I still think Diaz is our best catcher for the near future. Stewart has actually hit ell for average – last year and this year – in his limited playing time. But, again, he offers no power and his defense has been disappointing.

    I thought Burnett would bounce back this year, but he has been better than what I expected. Given his age, I just hope he doesn’t break down as the season continues. He’s been a huge pickup.

    • Christopher B
      June 2, 2015 2:20 pm

      Stewart is throwing out 39% (well above average) of runners this season, Cervelli’s at 27% (roughly average), and we have two starters who are easy to steal on in Cole and Burnett. Both have been very good blocking, especially considering they have to handle a lot of hard throwers and whatever nastiness Frankie’s tossing that day, and their receiving has combined for the best in the game so far this year. I really don’t see any way to be disappointed in our catching tandem defensively.

      • I don’t think anyone was hoping for average caught stealing numbers from Cervelli though…..we had higher expectations. 30-35% I think was where most of us were thinking he could be. ….and maybe by the end of the year he will be if Hamilton is on the bench or injured lol

    • I agree with almost everything here. Cervelli’s throwing hasn’t been all that bad, just not great. I’m with you on the questionable value of pitch framing, but his blocking is good. Average from both catchers and no power, I can live with that.

  • This is all well and good, and I am happy that we’ve been successful finding talent one a budget. I can’t help but think, though, how awesome Cole Hamels would look into black&yellow…two of the three best lefties in the NL one the same rotation? Added to Gerrit Cole? The coat would be there in both prospects and money but it may just win you a world series, or two. I would imagine that Amaro will have to take less than his crazy demands to move any of his players so maybe you can pull it off without giving up any of the top 4.

    • I’m with you on the Hamels “movement”, but, it is what it is.

      I’m just happy that we are a winning franchise again.

    • Btw, we are on Hamels’ “No trade” list.

      • I talked to my friend this weekend who writes for the Phillies basically busting his chops saying who is Cole Hamels to turn down the Pirates? He told me flat out (and I think it’s been said on here too) it’s nothing but a bargaining tool. Most likely he would waive his no trade clause if the Pirates picked up the option year. I don’t see it happening though. Ruben wants top prospects and teams to take all his salary. He’s a punch line here to every joke.

        • I would give him prospects, just not the top four. I would be more than happy to give him Hanson (replaces Utley), Diaz (Replaces Chooch), and two additional prospects for Hamels. You have to think about it this way: we are “stocked” at certain positions throughout the system and can afford some attrition and also some trades from that depth. Cole Hamels immediately changes the rotation. Even if you just look at xfip the Pirates would have three starters with sub 3 xfip and two more starters below 3.50 xfip. The addition of Hamels not only give us, potentially, the best rotation in the National League (yes, one to compete with the Nationals in talent) but also give us the best options for the stretch toward the post-season: you won’t worry about not having Cole be able to pitch in a potential wild card game because you have Liriano, Burnett, or Hamels. Plus two of the three best lefties in the NL! It is worth some top 20 prospects and some cash.

          • Oh don’t get me wrong. For the right price I’m in. I saw him pitch the other day and thought holy %$#& would he be great for the Bucs. AJ is gone next year. Loved the Liriano signing but you never know when he’s going to go south and as much as I salivate over Taillon and Glasnow they’re not going to be AllStars in their rookie years. Postpone Kingham a year and you definitely have an opening this year and a couple next year. Besides 3rd and SS eventually the Phillies have holes literally everywhere. But I don’t think we get Hamels without 2 of the top 4 prospects unless the Phillies take on some significant salary which they’d be wise to do. It’ll be interesting though. Amaro asked for the moon and got shot down last summer. He may be more humble this time around but I’m a skeptic.

            • I think that if they don’t include money the asking price in terms of prospects would be substantially lower. I don’t think they get top prospects without throwing in money and, honestly, I don think we NEED the money to make the deal work. I would give them Alen Hanson, Elias Diaz, Barrett Barnes, and Casey Sadler. Two of our top 10 prospects, and two other top 25 players. If they threw in money I would give them someone better than Barnes. Most importantly they get three ML-Ready players with Hanson, Diaz, and Sadler…and a prospect in Barnes.

            • Nobody from philly has ever been accused of being humble, but hey there is a first time for everything.: )

          • I like Hamels, but never at his pay and he isn’t all that durable. consistent arm troubles throughout his career, but nothing “major”. I’d maybe give him Hanson and Diaz along with maybe Barrett Barnes if the phils took half the salary. That would be my best offer

      • Everybody is on hamels no trade list, he has to approve any trade.

    • In what alternate universe are Hamels and Liriano better than Kershaw and MadBum? And I’m sure Cubs fans will be screaming and stomping their feet for Lester, too.

      Hamels isn’t ever pitching for Pirates. He doesn’t want to be here, and Pirates don’t want his albatross for a contract either.

      • Probably. They seemed to be very interested in Price last July but I would think that’s because his contract is up after this year.

      • So, maybe I should have said 2 of the best 4/5 lefties in the NL? Regardless, we certainly would end up with, arguably, the best rotation not in Washington DC in the NL.

        I agree with you that it probably won’t happen. I didn’t say it would…I just argued that it would be nice if it did and that I think it could work. Hamels wouldn’t want to pitch for a team with young talent who is a contender?

        • Scott Kliesen
          June 2, 2015 2:19 pm

          Liriano is our Hamels. We don’t need another, more expensive, version of the same Pitcher from a results standpoint. Now I can definitely get on board with bringing Taillon up to pitch last couple months of season if he pitches like a stud over the next couple months. He’s the real wildcard in the SP mix, not Hamels.

          Let some other shortsighted organization overpay for Hamels.

      • Lester isn’t even close…….not even in the top 20 honestly.

  • ROI – Return on Investment is key. We are good at that.

  • There’s no denying the Pirates are extremely adept at identifying bounce back candidates and under-appreciated talent. Are they perfect? No. Are they better at it than everybody else? I would say so.

    I believe CH and his staff need to be acknowledged, too. From all accounts they are masters at restoring lost confidence in misfit ball players.

  • The Pirates made a bold move to get Francisco Cervelli, who was not really needed by the Yankees. Sean Rodriguez had probably his worst year at the plate last year for TB, and the Pirates moved boldly to get him also. And Kang – did we see this potential this soon, or did all the other MLB teams step back and leave the Pirates out there with the highest bid? Either way, the Pirates got a real sleeper who has been a very clutch player in the first two months.

    AJ went to the Philly bandbox in 2014 and had a deja vu all over again experience – just like pitching in the Yankee bandbox that he left to come to the Pirates a few years ago. Now he is throwing easily and confidently again in PNC Park. NH >

    • I used to watch TBay games on Direct TV and I gained an appreciation of Serpico. I just hope they sign him after this year.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      June 2, 2015 9:18 am

      I don’t think you can blame all of Burnett’s problems last year on the Phillies stadium. He did also pitch on the road last year, didn’t he? Guys like Halliday, Lee, Hamels, etc. have all pitched pretty well in that stadium?

      I think it was a combination of factors, including being on a bad team and Burnett just pitching very well. I am happy to see how he is pitching this year, I just hope he can continue it all season.

    • All true, I think Sean Rodriguez has been a big asset. Alvarez’s defense is just painful to watch though I guess his batting average and production is a little better.

      • Pedro d at first is not nearly as painful to watch as his d at third, at least not to the fans behind him.

        • well throwing…..not defense. I choose to seperate those in my mind although I know they are lumped together for things like DWAR

          • I will be sooooo glad when sabre fades into the sunset, it’s a child of the steroid era based on steroid era power numbers now that baseball is getting back to normal the sabre numbers are on increasingly shaky ground. Can’t say I’ll be sad to see it go.

          • If for no other reason than I won’t have to listen to brian kenney’s idiotic arse anymore while he looks down his nose at era,pitcher wins, rbi’s, bunts ect.

        • Right. He didn’t throw the last one into the OF. If the guy’s helmet wasn’t in the way, it would’ve been right in Mercer’s glove!

  • Granted, he was signed last year, but need to put a word in for Stewie. Playing every 4th or 5th day, he’s compiled a better WAR than at least 7 other starting catchers. Right now, with Phlegley, he’s perhaps the best backup catcher out there. And now becoming a doubles machine!

    And boy, I was calling for Bucs to sign Rene Rivera. Whew… good thing I’m not the GM.

    • jamminjoe66
      June 2, 2015 7:20 am

      1st couple of months last year I wanted him on the 1st greyhound bus out of town. Then I started to slowly change my mind a little last year, but this year you can officially call me a fan of him in a backup roll

  • Sounds like a plan to me.