First Pitch: Neal Huntington Had a Career Year With Value Moves

Last night when I was recapping each position for the 2015 Pirates, one thing stood out to me: Neal Huntington has gotten a ton of value this year.

I’m not talking about value in terms of finding A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, or Edinson Volquez and turning them into solid pitchers. I’m not talking about finding a reliever off the street and turning him into a solid member of the bullpen. I’m not even talking about spending $17 M on two years of Russell Martin, then watching everyone around the game start to appreciate his skills.

Huntington has found value in previous years. But the value that he has found this year could be considered his masterpiece.

Let’s start with that Russell Martin move. Huntington was fortunate to land Martin when he did. He out-bid the Yankees by a few million at a time when all people could see was Martin’s low batting average. The next season, everyone started to notice the previously hidden defensive values, including pitch framing. Martin’s value exploded, and he ended up signing an $82 M guaranteed deal this off-season. The Pirates couldn’t match that, and had to try and find a replacement.

They went with Francisco Cervelli, who has managed to put up better numbers this year than Martin. Cervelli has been worth a 3.9 WAR heading into the final weekend of the season, and he is only making $987,500. That means the Pirates are paying him about $250,000 per WAR. Toronto ended up paying Martin about $2.2 M per WAR this year, although that comes with the disclaimer that Martin’s salary was only $7 M, and the heavy lifting comes later in the deal. If you use the average of Martin’s deal, the amount goes to a little over $5 M per WAR.

The Pirates did trade Justin Wilson to get Cervelli, which factors into the mix. Wilson has been worth 1.4 WAR this year, and is making $600,000. This basically means that the Pirates upgraded from Wilson to Cervelli, adding 2.5 WAR in the process, and only spending an additional $387,500 in the process. That upgrade cost them $160,000 per WAR.

Then there was the addition of Jung-ho Kang, which looked like the steal of the off-season. Kang was worth 3.9 WAR before his injury, and was making $2.5 M this year. That’s a rate of $640,000 per WAR. Even if you include his $5 M posting fee into the Pirates’ costs, and use all of that this year, you get $1.92 M per WAR, which is well below the market rate.

What makes this better is that Cervelli is under team control for the 2016 season, while Kang still has four years of control on his deal, which would have a ton of value if he’s able to return from his injuries with no major drop off in production.

Fast forward to the trade deadline, and the Pirates found another steal. With A.J. Burnett injured and a sudden replacement needed, they traded for J.A. Happ, sending Adrian Sampson out in the process. Sampson was a Grade C pitcher, giving him a trade value of $2.5 M. Happ has been worth 2.0 WAR since the trade, and has cost the Pirates about $2.38 M. All things considered, the Pirates paid about $2.44 M per WAR for Happ at the deadline. That’s amazing when you consider what the two big name rentals ended up producing for their teams.

HappCostPerWAR

*I estimated the prospect values for Price and Cueto at $20 M, which was around the figure I had at the deadline before I deleted my spreadsheet like an idiot. The True Cost per WAR looks at what teams actually paid for each win, factoring in the prospects they gave up and the money they took on.

The Pirates had a few other value moves at the deadline. They added Joe Blanton on waivers, picking up his remaining $2.84 M and getting 0.6 WAR. That’s $4.74 M per WAR, which isn’t great, but is a solid addition mid-season when everyone is overpaying for pitching. On the flip side, the Pirates did overpay for another reliever, landing Joakim Soria for JaCoby Jones. Soria ended up costing the Pirates a rate of $11.41 M per WAR, which is about what you’d expect to pay on an inflated seller’s market.

On the hitting side, they had a good move and a bad move. The good move was adding Michael Morse and his 0.5 WAR down the stretch. It was difficult figuring out what they paid per WAR, since the details aren’t out for what the Dodgers sent along with Morse. But what it all boils down to is that the Pirates unloaded Jose Tabata, and got a productive player in the process. That’s a win.

The poor move from a value perspective was adding Aramis Ramirez. They traded Yhonathan Barrios, who was expendable and didn’t have a big trade value. However, Ramirez has been worth a -0.2 WAR since the trade, and cost about $3 M in the process. That said, this wasn’t a bad move from a need standpoint, since the Pirates needed depth at third base with Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer out, and they had a further need for depth when Kang went down. Ramirez was around replacement level, but the Pirates didn’t have an internal option that was close to that.

Overall, Huntington has made some outstanding moves this year. He did the impossible in replacing Russell Martin, and somehow got a better value with Cervelli than he got with Martin the first time around. He got in on the Korean market right before that market was about to take off in value, which led to an extremely affordable contract for Kang. And when every team was paying a ridiculous amount in prospects for pitching at the deadline, he managed to get one of the most productive pitchers down the stretch, and got him at a huge value.

The Pirates, as a small market team, need these types of results every year. The fact that they got so many value moves this year is a big reason why they’ve had such a successful season. The good news is that they have Kang at a low price next year, and Cervelli for one more season through arbitration. So they’ve already got a jump-start on next year’s value players.

**Pirates Close to Clinching Home Field in the Wild Card Game After Tonight’s Win

**Indianapolis Top 10 Led By Three Guys Who Could Be in Pittsburgh Next Year

**Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell Lead a Loaded Altoona Top 10 Prospect List

  • NH is God!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • Good illustration of the outstanding job NH and his staff have done in constructing this team. Have to give a good portion of credit to Searge and Benedict for helping the Pitchers get sorted out, too.

    I’m not sure exactly what Tim meant when he said the Pirates NEED these type results every year. It seems to me the Pirates NEED to keep developing talent internally a whole lot more than making the type of trades and FA signings referenced in this article.

    The big question going forward for NH is how he’s going to deal with productive players as they approach FA. His ability to successfully navigate this part of the job will determine the success of the franchise going forward even more than these buy low acquisitions.

    • Tim and his team probably know better than anybody here how hard it is develop talent internally. Look at all the arms that were hurt this year in the system.

      If I’ve learned anything the last few years watching the Pirates, it’s that a championship caliber team cannot be built entirely from within, or even 60/40. And as the article states the trick is finding value without overpaying for it.

      I feel things are entering the next phase for the club. NH has proven he can build a winner. Now can he maintain it, and put them in position for a championship. Without going # allin.

      • Arthur: It is very difficult, but the Pirates have to move some young SP’s to the majors next year. They have a strong reputation for correcting flaws in pitchers they trade for, but have yet to establish that they can draft and develop MLB-caliber SP’s on a continuing basis. Cole came up in 2013 after very little time in the minors. The only other SP’s developed by the Pirates are Morton and Locke. Because of the shortage the Pirates have had to turn to Wandy, AJ1, Liriano, Volquez, Worley, AJ2, JA Happ – if we cannot change this trend, the Pirates cannot survive, because the cost of pitching is going through the roof as a result of all of the TV monies.

        Taillon has to have a Pittsburgh address by mid-June, and possibly Tyler Glasnow right behind him. I would not be upset to see a kid like Chad Kuhl pushed faster than normal because he has had 3 years of pitching in college – if he comes in strong, I would have him in the Rotation in April.

        • I don’t know. I’m really curious how the next group of prospects fares.

          • We seem to be doing the same things, so it would be hard to imagine different results. The Pirates are extremely deliberate and conservative in their development of all prospects, and even more so with young pitchers. We had a plan for 2015 but injuries jumped up and bit 3 of our MLB-ready pitchers (Taillon, Kingham, and Cumpton).

  • Maybe this is why I scratch my head on WAR…

    ARam is a bad move? Coming into Friday’s game, 6 HR’s and 33 RB in 54 games. That translates into 18/99 over the course of a season.

    The Pirates are going to have 3 guys this year who top 18 HR’s. They might not have anyone who gets 99 RBI. I’m kinda thinking a lineup of 8 guys like that wouldn’t be the worst thing…even if it meant a -1.6 WAR.

    I’m old, forgive me, but it seems ARam’s numbers have flown under the radar.

    • Right. It’s hard to be down on ARam regarding “value” since NH had to go buy an IF given Mercer/Harrison. In that situation, you’re going to either overpay or you’re going to get Brandon Inge. NH did well, IMO.

    • Base running (grounding into double plays) and fielding matter, overall Ramirez has hit around league average with the Pirates, add that to abysmal base running and a below average glove and you have a replacement level WAR.

      WAR is also context independent, Ramirez has skillfully or luckily, distributed his better hitting performances with men on and more so with men is scoring. With bases empty he has hit .227/.253/.386, with men in scoring position .306/.392/.500.

      • Your second paragraph illustrates succinctly why WAR alone is a far from perfect way to reach a conclusion. Baseball is not a math equation, and the players are not programmable robots.

        • But, in your paragraph, you’re assuming that Ramirez has some type of control over when he hits and when he doesn’t. Furthermore, you’re implying that such a ‘skill’ (which doesn’t exists) is also predictive (which also isn’t true).

          Tim’s use of WAR – over a 2 month sample size – isn’t what WAR is designed to do or when it is used best. But, saying that because A-Ram hit some dingers and RBI doesn’t mean that he’s been an exceptional value. As Andrew said, defense/base running also matter, if not as obvious in results.

          A-Ram was a fine pick-up. But, he wasn’t – nor should we have expected – the guy that most people think when they think of A-Ram.

          • I am not assuming anything………….I am pointing out that WAR does not capture the context of A-Ram performance with men on base.
            Here’s another example of flawed WAR only conclusions….at another place on this site a poster defends the strength of the Pirates bench for the entire season based on WAR ranking. The GM and the manager publicly identified the early season weakness of the bench as a problem for the team performance and took steps to address it.

            • But looking at Win Probability Added and Run Expectancy Ramirez is still in the negative over his time with the Pirates.

            • His ‘clutch’ stats are negative as well. So, even attaching an importance to context, he hasn’t contextually been great either.

              • There’s no doubt that the Proven Cleanup Hitter (TM) narrative severely skewed people’s perception of Aramis Ramirez with the Pirates.

                Andrew McCutchen leads the Pirates with 19% of baserunners scored during one of his at bats. Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jung Ho Kang, and Starling Marte are all tied with Aramis Ramirez at 16%.

                Yes, the same percentage of baserunners have scored as a result of Pedro Alvarez’s at bats, the pariah of Pittsburgh Pirate clutch hitters.

            • Never did the GM publicly say at the start of the season or early in the season that the bench was a weakness. He said that mid way through the year when 2 of his 3 options on the left side went down for extended time. Its a credit to the depth that we didnt need multiple infielders or to start Sean Rodriguez full time.

              Without building a really deep infield bench, the injuries would have been a much larger factor. Without Kang, Mercer going down kills the SS spot. Good depth is what allows you to have 2 injuries to regular players at the same time and only need 1 part time stop gap.

              • It is well documented that Hart, Lambo, Decker and Tabata failed through performance or injury. Pinch hitting was a disaster early. Kang was not given the opportunity to play early. You are ignoring all the moves the NH made in season to strengthen team options. When Mercer and Harrison were hurt the bench was inadequate. Lacking a right handed bat he added Morse and Ramirez. You have a short memory Luke.

                • You are a joke, sorry but im not gonna be nice when you act like its a short memory to admit when the FO does well. Lord, its embarrassing.

                  Its DK level stupid. “oh Kang didnt start on day 1 so thats a big minus” ignoring that signing Kang is a massive plus. Its not even trolling, you actually believe it.

                  Yes, when half the infield was hurt the bench wasnt as good. If you think any team would be differently, enjoy the tinfoil. Why not enjoy it when the FO has a terrific offseason/deadline and supplies us with great depth rather than act like them not being 100% and stocking up enough to be 3 deep at every spot is worthy of constant “no, they really werent all that good blah blah blah”.

                  • Incoherent….again. Manufacturing quotations and attributing them to me is childish and flat out misrepresentation.

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