The Pirates have been buyers for several years now, both at the trade deadline and in the off-season. Each year there is a call from most Pirates fans to make a big splash, add a big name, spend a lot of money, and send some sort of message that the team is going for it all that year. And each year the Pirates go with moves aimed at value.
Sometimes the value comes in the form of money saved. Sometimes it’s getting good trade value. Sometimes it’s both. And it seems like every time the Pirates make an under the radar move, they get criticized for not trying to win.
That same thing happened during the most recent deadline. The Pirates went for a lot of risky but potentially rewarding moves, with none of the moves really hurting them for the long-term. They gave up some legit prospects (JaCoby Jones, Adrian Sampson) and they added the most money of any team at the deadline, but they didn’t lose anyone they’d miss, and they didn’t spend an amount that would impact future spending. The big criticism was that they didn’t add any big names, or guys that make you feel comfortable about a move.
I wrote that this strategy was potentially brilliant, pointing out the ridiculous prices on the market this year, along with the fact that the Pirates seemingly bought low on a lot of guys who have had success in the not too distant past. I wouldn’t say the moves have been brilliant yet, but so far they are working out.
Let’s start with the bullpen, where the Pirates were tied for 9th in baseball with a 2.3 fWAR in the first half. Most of that was due to Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes, who combined for 1.8 fWAR in the first half, but were all being over-worked due to inconsistent performances from the middle innings. The Pirates claimed Joe Blanton off waivers and added Joakim Soria for JaCoby Jones. So far in the month of August, the bullpen has a 1.2 fWAR, which is tied for first in baseball (not counting tonight’s outing, which will probably bump them up a bit). Blanton and Soria have combined for half of that.
There were also two additions to the offense, with Aramis Ramirez and Michael Morse being picked up. Ramirez had a slow start at the plate, but is really heating up at the plate lately. His defense has been poor at third base, but he might end up being valuable off the bench down the stretch when Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer return. Morse has an extremely small sample size, and has primarily gone up against lefties, but has a .308 average with no power yet, but a good .438 OBP. Once again, this could provide the Pirates with a strong bat off the bench, which was a bit of a weakness in the first half.
Finally, there’s J.A. Happ, who looks like a reclamation project mid-season, which is kind of a risky thing to do. However, as we wrote last week, Happ doesn’t seem to have much to change in order to be a good pitcher, and the first results after his work with Ray Searage were encouraging. He will make the start tomorrow in Pittsburgh, and the hope would be that the last outing wasn’t a fluke.
The Pirates received some criticism for their approach at the deadline, and so far that approach has boosted the bullpen, while also potentially adding some bats to the bench and a solid short-term replacement for A.J. Burnett.
And this shouldn’t be surprising. The Pirates had a similar approach over the off-season. Yes, they added Francisco Liriano, who was formerly one of their value additions, but turned into a somewhat big free agent after his two years in Pittsburgh. Even with that success, Liriano came at a bit of a value.
But their other moves? They added A.J. Burnett, who was coming off a horrible season where he dealt with a big injury. They added Jung-ho Kang, not knowing how his power or bat would translate over to the US. A lot of the bench and bullpen guys they added haven’t worked out well, but the one exception has been Arquimedes Caminero, who was added for cash considerations.
Then there’s the big move, trading for Francisco Cervelli to replace Russell Martin. Cervelli now has a 3.1 fWAR, which ranks second among catchers in baseball. He has also been one of the best pitch framers in the game. The only guy ahead of him right now is Buster Posey. And right behind him is Martin, with a 2.8 fWAR. Toronto paid $82 M over five years for Martin, potentially getting him for $20 M a year in his decline years. The Pirates got Cervelli for Justin Wilson, and will end up paying him much less, while having him under team control for two years in his age 29 and 30 seasons.
Once again, there was a ton of criticism for this set of moves, with the belief that the Pirates couldn’t win without Martin, and would be sunk by going the value route with Cervelli. It was almost similar to the criticism two years earlier when they added Martin in the first place. You can only imagine how it will be at the end of the 2016 season when Cervelli departs.
All of this raises a question: what’s wrong with value?
Specifically, what’s wrong with taking risks that could potentially pay off in a big way, especially if you get the results the Pirates get? At this point, if the Pirates add a pitcher, I don’t question it and trust that they’re smarter than anyone on the outside. They’ve put together some of the best bullpens the last few years without spending on those bullpens, and they’ve turned the worst statistical starting pitchers into guys putting up top of the rotation numbers.
They haven’t had the same success offensively, although that might be due to the fact that most of their offense is home grown. In fact, pretty much every key player on the offense came up through the farm system. The only two guys who didn’t spend a good amount of time in the system were Kang and Cervelli.
Every single time the Pirates opt for value over paying big dollars and selling the farm, they get criticized. The claims are that they aren’t serious about winning, or that they are focusing too much on getting value, or that they just don’t know what they’re doing. And you’d think that after so many success stories, there would be some trust that they, in fact, know what they’re doing, and they don’t really need to spend big or sell the farm to get results.
The proof is in the results. The Pirates are the third best team in baseball this year, in large part to all of those value moves. And it’s not just this year. Over the last three years, only two teams have won more games to date than the Pirates: The Dodgers and the Cardinals.
Maybe this off-season it will be different. Perhaps when the Pirates go without a big splash, it will be accepted that they don’t need that big splash to be successful. Then again, they didn’t get the benefit of the doubt at the trade deadline, and this was less than a year after they hit big on value moves like Cervelli, Kang, and Burnett. So maybe that trust won’t be there for everyone, and that’s fine, so long as the results still stick around.
**Pirates’ Offense Continues to Pick-Up Starting Rotation in Win Over Arizona. Pete Ellis with the live game report from PNC Park tonight, noting how the offense has been picking up the rotation this month.
**Prospect Watch: Chad Kuhl Hits 97 MPH in Latest Gem. Live reports from Ryan Palencer in Indianapolis and Sean McCool in Altoona, with interesting notes on Josh Bell’s defense and Chad Kuhl’s stuff.
**Alen Hanson Continues to Struggle in the Second Half. Ryan Palencer breaks down the continued struggles from Hanson lately.
**Morning Report: The Difference Between Two High-Bonus Players. John Dreker takes a look at Michael de la Cruz and Julio de la Cruz, who were the top international bonus guys signed by the Pirates in 2012.