First Pitch: It’s Time to Trust the Pirates When They Make Value Moves

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.

  • Time to trust the process and quit complaining about everything…

    Good summation.

  • Even in the face of all available performance metrics, I still believe there’s something of a “black art” involved in roster construction. And on balance, NH has done a pretty good job of figuring that out. IMO, the value of guys in very specific limited roles and how they fit/perform in those roles compared to their peers is something that advanced metrics has not quite figured out yet.

    What is the value of a Blanton pitching three low/medium leverage innings while concurrently bailing out a bad start and saving the rest of the pen from overuse? IMO, it’s more than what can be interpreted from a stat line.

    If you look at team WAR – and I’m taking liberties here in interpreting the data, but follow along – the Giants, Dodgers and DBacks should be 1/2/3 in the NL with Cards/Cubs/Bucs 4/5/6. SF and LAD are 1/2 in wRC+ (Bucs are 3rd at 100). LAD and Cubs are 1/2 in xFIP (Bucs 3rd again). Of the eight NL teams at or above .500, the Bucs are clearly behind 6 or 7 of the others, using dWAR, DRS or UZR/150.

    The Cards are 4th in NL in Team WAR, wRC+, 5th in xFIP and UZR/150 and 2nd in DRS (AZ is 1st). Yet the Cards have become the Soviet Red Army team while the Dodgers are viewed as underachievers and the Giants and DBacks are outside looking in.

    This is not a diatribe against advanced metrics. It’s more a nod to Neal’s (and by extension Mozeliak’s) ability to read between the lines. Not to mention “The Cardinal Way” (or the Pirates Way if you want) in how the FO, minors, data dept., manager and coaches all work according to a consistent plan and identify the players/assets needed to execute that plan.

    • Tim,
      This article provoked the spirited and informed discussion I enjoy on this site. I also had a concern about balance when I read the title. In reading the article again after seeing all the comments, insertion of “in some circles” or “by a segment of fans” after the word “criticized” in your second paragraph might have headed off some of the point-counterpoint. A couple of thoughts. I am old enough to have become a fan before talk radio and the internet. Management criticism in my youth was limited to writing letters to the sports editor of the newspapers, or booing at the games. Rare was the sportswriter who had the guts to criticize ownership or management. Today, we all have a voice. Now, more than ever, a very small vocal minority can publish strident criticism. Does everybody remember three years ago after another second half collapse when “the critics” were so loud that Nutting announced he was doing a complete review of everybody? I believe the silent majority believed the Bucs were improving and it would be disaster to start over. The Grilli trade and the Hart signing did not work out. Many other moves look brilliant in hindsight. What I increasingly appreciate is the candor of GM Neal Huntington when he admits a mistake. To paraphrase he has said he is trying to consistently win more than he loses when making deals. Not all deals have a winner, not all winter signings contribute. To my point, weigh the Kang and Hart deals on a scale…….Bucs come out ahead.

  • Once again, top notch points made, but that’s hardly new for the top Pirates site on the Web.

    I think they have shown a propensity to chase guys that fit a mold and have fixable issues. I’ve also been impressed with how Bastardo and Cameniro have come along since the break. Little concerned about Hughes.

    The pen seems to have a good mix of arms coming at you with both hard and soft stuff. I just wish the starters could go deeper, cause it feels like Melancon and Co. are racking up the IP and appearances.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 19, 2015 9:03 am

    I think the title of this article is kind of odd – sounds like a propaganda piece.

    Overall, this front office has done a good job over the past few years – no argument there. However, if “trusting” means always agreeing with their moves and expecting that every move will come up roses, that seems silly. They do make mistakes and have made mistakes. I still contend that if the roster was better managed last year, they would have won the division. Stubbornly hanging on to guys like Pimentel and Frieri, trading Morris away, and actually trading any asset for Ike Davis. All were bad moves, and there were a couple more.

    Now, on the flip side – since so many think and assume I am always negative – they made some great and some good moves this year. The Kang signing was genius. The Cervelli trade, which I was not sold on at the time, has turned out to be a very good trade – really for both teams actually. Getting Caminero and Bastardo on the cheap have turned out to be fair to good moves, although 2-3 weeks ago both of these guys looked like they were pitching themselves into being let go. Rodriguez has contributed here and there, although long-term we may regret that trade as Borden looks like a good young pitcher. The Snider trade looks like it will end up being a slam dunk for the Pirates, assuming that at least one of the pitchers acquired makes it to Pittsburgh and contributes. These were all good to very good moves in their favor.

    More recently, the Morse and Happ moves are still to be determined – Morse hasn’t done much of anything, Happ has one bad start and one good start. I still don’t get why Ishikawa is on the roster, especially when they don’t even use him consistently as a late inning defensive replacement. Offensively, he is of little value. As I said earlier this week, the Blanton signing is looking like their best deadline move of all of them – and I mocked them at the time they picked him up.

    I still think the Pirates are way too slow to promote their own players – they seemingly will explore every other external option, before trusting one of their own prospects. I think they are also too slow in promoting certain players to the next level in the minors – the ones who are dominating a level and already at an age that is typically older for that level. Guys like Sever, DeRapau, and Suiter come to mind, and there are a handful of others I could cite.

    • In aggregate the moves look good so far. The best one probably being Blanton who shored up a weakness all year, long man out of pen. It’s too early to make declarations to simply “trust” the front office. They are quite good, not infallible(nor is any front office). The jury is very much out on J. A. Happ and it wasn’t long ago Sampson was really talked up on this site. Let’s hope he is as good tonight as he was last Friday. Soria has been good so far but his FIP was very poor in Detroit. Let’s see if he can hold down the 7th inning job for next 6 weeks. Fact remains that Aramis has been -.6 WAR since he has been acquired.

      • The acquisition of JA Happ was done on an emergency basis because of Burnett’s injury. Less than a week before NH was saying that he had no plans to add a SP. So whether Happ works out or not shouldn’t reflect much on the front office’s strategic planning.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        August 19, 2015 10:34 am

        I did overlook Soria…he’s been okay to above average….I haven’t been blown away by him. In a couple of his appearances he was hit hard, but fortunately for him right at people. I think he makes our overall bullpen stronger, but I don’t think he’s a difference maker. I did not like that we traded JaCoby Jones to get him, time will tell how that turns out.

    • Regarding last year, I really think they would have won the division if they had made a concerted effort to upgrade the bullpen early in summer. I think that was a very big strategic mistake and ultimately we ended season with an almost full 2 game differential in bullpen WAR to the Cardinals. The bullpen was fantastic in September with the emergence of Holdzkom but rated as one of worst pens in MLB up until September. For quite awhile your 5-7 options were guys like Pimental(scared to use him) Jeanmar(awful last year) or Cumpton. I think NH learned his lesson and made an effort to upgrade the pen at this deadline. Frieri was another huge mistake.

      • The Pirates ‘pen had a lower ERA than the Cardinals in every month of 2014 but June.

        • Why would you ever use ERA to evaluate bullpen? Let’s look at win probability added or FIP.

          FIP was about the same for both clubs around 3.6, 3.7. Problem is while we were strong at backend(Mark, TonY), we were horrible 5-7 and not great with our 3-4 options. Any time we had to reach deep into pen we are at major disadvantage as evidenced by win probability added.

          By WPA added Cards pen was good for about 2 more wins than Bucs in 2014.

          In August in particular they had WPA of .5 while we had WPA of -1.49.

          Should not have been a surprise as Hughes isn’t a 7th inning guy and Stolmy/Jeanmar/Cumpton simply aren’t good options.

          • Because we are talking about past events that actually happened, not interpretations of what “should” have happened, and reliever WAR is inherently poor given the massive differences in fWAR (RA/9) and bWAR (FIP).

            I’m far from the biggest Jared Hughes fan, but any metric that says he was *below* replacement level last year should be highly telling. The difference in his WAR valuation along (+/-1.2) makes up about 50% of the difference in your argument. Throw it out the window.

            • Tim is using fWAR talking about bullpen performance this August. Hughes was decent last year but was horrible last August. Walking almost 5 per 9 and he was basically our 7th inning option at the point of season. Solid fireman but not meant to be 7th inning guy. Should have upgraded the pen last summer. ERA is useless stat to me as far as relievers and inherited runners not being charged to them.

          • BTW, ERA most certainly isn’t the best stat for analyzing relievers, either, but your point is that Pirate bullpen – and precisely, middle relief – was the difference between winning and losing the division.

            It wasn’t.

            • By win probability added…. it was

              • Now formulate an argument where you can make up a 2-win difference through *only* middle relief over a two-month span.

                • WPA added or lost last August

                  Jared Hughes -.64
                  Justijn Wilson -.46
                  Cumpton -.3
                  Stolmy -.18
                  Jeanmar ..06

                  Middle relief Bucs -1.64

                  Seth Maness .58
                  Freeman .15
                  Greenwood .12
                  Lyon .04
                  Choate -.51
                  Siegrist -.54

                  Cards -.15

                  So about 1.4 game difference in August alone

                  • That didn’t answer my question.

                    Your point is that failure to address middle relief cost the Pirates the division.

                    I asked you to formulate an argument where you can make up a 2-win difference. And remember, your original point was based on WAR.

                    • Can’t “prove” who we could have replaced but I think it’s pretty apparent middle relief was major weakness. If Hughes doesn’t blow that game vs Cards last August that Liriano started you’re talking a 2 game swing right there. I simply think we should have upgraded the pen last year.

                    • Appreciate the response and argument, thanks for the conversation. I actually do agree that middle relief should’ve been upgraded sooner than it was last year, but don’t think it’s really practical to believe THAT big of a difference would’ve resulted from anything other than chance.

                  • One consideration about middle relief last year was that the struggles were coming from guys who were expected to do well. For example, Justin Wilson struggled most of the year. But they couldn’t just get rid of him. They had to wait it out with guys like that. Eventually Wilson bounced back (and was then traded for Cervelli).

                    In hindsight (and something I said many times last summer), their usage of Pimentel was questionable. They treated him like a Rule 5 pick, even though they needed to give him a shot to see what he could do, since he was out of options. The way they’re using Caminero this year is the way they should have used Pimentel last year. Maybe he fails in that role and they get rid of him. Maybe he succeeds. But if they didn’t trust him enough to pitch him more than once a week, he shouldn’t have been on the roster, and should have been upgraded over.

                    Also, they did try to upgrade the bullpen with the Grilli/Frieri trade, which looked like a classic buy low/sell high move at the time. In hindsight, the better move would have been to keep Grilli (although there’s no guarantee he immediately turns it around with the Pirates like he did after the trade).

                    • I’m not arguing they should have got rid of Justin Wilson. I am arguing they probably should have got rid of Stolmy and either Jeanmar or possibly Cumpton. They should have added a legitimate 7th inning option (like Soria this year but perhaps better) and push Justin and Hughes back to the 5th or 6th inning and added a better longman. I honestly think they learned from last year in doing what they did this year(adding Blanton as long man) and getting Soria to push Caminero/Hughes back into lower leverage 5th, 6th innings.

            • You honestly didn’t think our middle relief last year was a major weakness until HOldzkom came up and bumped every one back a notch in terms of leverage?

              • I absolutely did!

                But it most certainly WASN’T the difference between winning and losing the Division.

    • My goodness. THAT was your takeaway from this article? That Tim believes every fan should trust EVERY move the Pirates make? Because clearly it’s easier to attack the author than argue his point, I suppose.

      Read the article again. Tim very clearly is focusing on the reflexive reactions from a certain segment of the fanbase that believes Nutting is either too cheap or Huntington has too small of testicles to make an “all-in” “big splash” move that “winners” make, or whatever trite cliche they trot out as logic.

      If sound knowledge of the game isn’t enough to let one understand the Pirates have been making smart moves, maybe looking at the results for proof is. THAT was the message I took from Tim’s article.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        August 19, 2015 10:31 am

        Reading comprehension is lacking at times…I was commenting on the TITLE of the article, and what it infers…and then pointed out that the front office has made some good moves, and some not so good moves.

    • Leave it to you to try and refute this piece. You are the 1st person I thought of when I saw Tim’s headline, thinking ” good luck persuading some of the boneheads I see commenting here ” recently. 23 games over .500 and you still think you are smarter than this Front Office and it’s scouting department……hilarious.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        August 19, 2015 10:47 am

        Grow up Leo…leave your childish name calling for your FB posts.

        So, according to your “illogic”, you can only criticize or question a coach, manager, player, front office executive if you are more qualified than that person? If we followed that silly thinking, there wouldn’t be sports talk shows, message boards, or sites like this one. I assume you have NEVER criticized or questioned anyone?

        • Again, *you* are the one using absolutes in this conversation. Leo himself criticizes and questions the Pirate folks who get paid to do their jobs.

          But what he doesn’t do is *habitually* question them, despite ending up incorrect far more often than not. This goes back to the point of Tim’s article, which you still don’t seem to get, despite that “just commenting on the title” balogna.

          Speaking for myself, I really enjoy you posting here. Makes for good conversation, and almost always not of the trolling variety. But I’m not wired in a way that you are; I see, very clearly, that habitually questioning the moves of this Front Office is going to leave me in the wrong most of the time, and I try to learn what I can from that.

        • You don’t like it ? Sorry if I hurt your feelings. ” Silly thinking ” ? Do you ever go back and read some of your comments ? Don’t you think that some of your comments are found to be as ridiculous as one can find here ? I won’t even begin to tear apart your premise regarding criticizing Front Office evaluators. But, no, I never ” criticize ” those people in the manner you do. I may be skeptical once in a while, but they know a whole hell of a lot more about the players involved than I know, which also means you don’t have a clue as to any back story either.

    • “However, if “trusting” means always agreeing with their moves and expecting that every move will come up roses, that seems silly.”

      It doesn’t mean that at all. It actually means maybe we shouldn’t automatically disagree with the moves and think they’re doomed for failure. Instead, trust that they know what they’re doing, and wait and see how the moves play out.

    • I fell asleep. Sorry. Can you repeat?

  • Great article Tim. Heck, I’m still upset that we traded Dilson Herrera for one month of Marlon Byrd. 🙂

  • Only move I didn’t like & still don’t is signing AJ for 1 year in stead of bringing Volquez back for 2 or even 3 years.

    • I’m a big EV fan. Sometimes pitchers out perform their peripheals.

      Of course, they were possibly counting on Taillon and Kingham to be ready?

      • The second para pretty much sums it up, and signing a 32 year old pitcher for 2 or 3 seasons as he was requesting, was a gamble they did not want to take. I think they have set the Rotation with Cole and Liriano, and then from there, the other 3 pieces can be replaced by the young turks like Taillon, Glasnow, and Kuhl/Kingham. Kuhl is the breakout guy of 2015.

    • In hindsight I wish Volquez was still around as well, but that’s the risk of a one year deal.

      The flipside to that is someone like McCarthy whom they had interest. Sometimes the best signings are the ones you don’t make.

    • Wabbit_Season
      August 19, 2015 9:32 am

      jammin.

      I feel ya. But I really think the Pirates are getting the reputation around baseball of being right with the players. What they have going in the pitching department is the secret sauce that makes teams great.

      So Volquez gets a great deal and the Pirates say thanks for a good year and Volquez can look back and say thanks for helping me get to that huge contract.

      When the Pirates call the management of a guy like Blanton or Caminero or Liriano of Edinson, NOW, those agents are priority dialing their clients going, “Guess What???”

      The only thing that bugs me is that other teams have got to catch on and start replicating what the Bucs are doing. Hopefully that takes 10 years before our advantage evaporates.
      —————————————
      “For shame, Doc! Hunting a rabbit with an elephant gun! Why don’t you go hunt an elephant?”
      -Wabbit

  • For some, positive hype/reputation ➡ low risk.

    Nevertheless, I scratched my head when they took Blanton.

    • I think most fans scratched their head over that move….lol.

      • Wabbit_Season
        August 19, 2015 9:24 am

        Not me.

        I saw his extra innings performance against us a few weeks earlier, right? When I saw they released him and the Bucs grabbed him up, I had only one thought: SAVE THE BULLPEN.

        And he’s doing just that. Last night’s game will be the norm for Blanton. He’s gonna come in late and be solid.

        And while I’m at it, I don’t know what the Pitch Whisperer said to Caminero, but he’s suddenly gotten pretty solid. Between he and Blanton it is hard to suggest anyone else was a bigger hero last night.

        AND ANOTHER THING: I’ve always said if Pedro Alvarez hits .250 we’re winning the world series. Well. I’m looking at the box after last night and Pedro is (*gasp*) hitting .255!!! I sure as hell hope this holds up and Pedro has finally figured it out. Because if he hits at that clip, the Cards are going down.
        —————————————-
        “Don’t think it hasn’t been a little slice of heaven… ‘Cause it hasn’t!!”
        -Wabbit

    • piraterican21
      August 19, 2015 10:24 am

      He has been this month pitching mvp

    • I normally would have too IF I didn’t see how he pitched against us about a week before we acquired him.

      • I consider Blanton’s recent game against the Pirates. I then thought about his struggles in recent years. I’m happy he has helped the cause.

        I wonder if the FO got lucky or if Blanton took the miracle cure on his flight to Pittsburgh.

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