First Pitch: Why Should the Pirates Target High Cost Players?

There have been a few trends that have taken place every off-season when it comes to adding players for the Pittsburgh Pirates. There’s the demand for a big splash and an impact move. There’s the revolt and criticism when the Pirates instead opt to make a value move. And then there’s the memory wipe that seems to take place when those value moves work out, but complaints about value moves still persist.

Today I started the 2015 position recaps by looking at Francisco Cervelli, who was one of the biggest value moves the Pirates made last off-season. Rather than spending big on Russell Martin, they got Cervelli for two years and a very low cost.

On the same day, the Pirates got high praise from Jayson Stark for being the best franchise at getting value moves. And that’s not counting the fact that they’re getting a lot of production from guys out of the farm system for very little money. Instead, it’s referencing how they keep getting great deals on the trade and free agent markets.

The combo of articles today on the value moves bring me to a question I’ve been wondering for a long time: Why would the Pirates ever spend big money on an individual free agent or make a big trade for an established player when value moves have worked so well for them?

The lazy responses here are that they can spend the money, so they should; you don’t get a trophy for having the lowest cost per win; and you’re not serious about winning unless you make a big move. But the reality is that the Pirates have a limited budget, they have the third most wins during the regular season over the last three years, and these results with that budget are because of their value moves.

This isn’t just a one year thing, either. This is something that is happening year after year, and happening more frequently as the Pirates have access to better talent. A rundown of the values each year shows that this is something the Pirates can probably bank on at this point.


Francisco Cervelli – The Pirates got Cervelli in a trade for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. They went on to replace Wilson with Antonio Bastardo, who was acquired for Double-A left-hander Joely Rodriguez. As I wrote today, Cervelli ended up being the second best catcher in the majors in WAR, and was ahead of Russell Martin. He has one year of control remaining, and based on his projected arbitration cost this year, he will be making a combined $3.5 M for his two years with the team. That’s $79 M less than what Russell Martin was guaranteed, and so far the Pirates have gotten better production.

Jung-ho Kang – Kang was the first hitter to come out of the KBO, and the Pirates ended up getting a huge steal as a result of their aggressive jump into the new market. He signed a four-year deal that guaranteed him $11 M, and has an option for a fifth year at a very low price of $5.5 M. He ended up being the second best position player on the team before his injury, and was just as impactful as Andrew McCutchen in the second half. It’s hard to say how he’ll return from his knee injury, but he’s already been worth more than double what the Pirates paid for him.

A.J. Burnett – This one technically shouldn’t count as much as the other two, since the Pirates got a discount from Burnett, who said he wanted to end his career in Pittsburgh. They ended up paying $8.5 M for a 2.8 WAR, getting 164 innings of a 3.18 ERA and a 3.55 xFIP. While the value aspect is discounted due to the unique circumstance, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pirates get other values in the future from pitchers who only want to pitch for them, especially with their growing track record.

The 2015 Deadline – Right after the deadline, I wrote that the moves the Pirates made were “potentially brilliant“. I think it’s safe to remove the “potentially” from that statement. At a time when buyers were paying huge prices for additions, the Pirates got a ton of talent for very little. They got one of the best starters in baseball over the final two months in J.A. Happ, sending out Adrian Sampson. They upgraded their bullpen by getting Joe Blanton off waivers. I’d include Joakim Soria, but that wasn’t exactly a value move. They got Michael Morse for Jose Tabata for reasons I can’t understand at all, and now Morse could be an option for them at first base next year, while Tabata would have been dead money in Triple-A. The addition of Happ alone made it a great deadline, but the fact that the Pirates added key upgrades to the bullpen and bench, and didn’t give up anything in the process, made it all even better.

Honorable Mention – I’m not including the Francisco Liriano deal here, because that was a three-year, $39 M deal. However, I will note that the Pirates got a 3.6 WAR in year one, which well exceeds what they paid for the lefty. They also managed to sign him to just a three-year deal, and at a price that was a value in comparison to his production the previous two years. The fact that he continued with that same production in 2015 shows that they might end up with a value move here, even when they spent money.


Edinson Volquez – The Pirates let A.J. Burnett walk during the off-season, and signed Edinson Volquez for $5 M. Despite success stories from Burnett and Liriano, no one expected Volquez to put up similar results. He ended up posting a 3.04 ERA in 192.2 innings, and while the advanced metrics had him putting up a 4.20 xFIP, the results were what they were. Volquez parlayed his one year deal into a two-year, $20 M deal with the Royals, where he put up a 3.55 ERA and a 4.26 xFIP in 200.1 innings.

Vance Worley – The Pirates got Vance Worley for cash considerations in Spring Training, after the Twins saw him as a reliever. The Pirates wanted to give him a chance to start, and after working with Jim Benedict during Spring Training, they called him up as a mid-season replacement and saw him put up a 2.85 ERA in 110.2 innings, good for a 1.6 WAR.

Honorable Mention – I’d mention Josh Harrison and his 5.0 WAR this season, but he falls under the category of guys who were mostly developed in the farm system. Harrison only spent one year in the Cubs’ system, then was acquired as the final piece in the deal that sent Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow to Chicago for Kevin Hart, Jose Asciano, and Harrison.


Russell Martin – The Pirates were way out in front of every other team in regards to pitch framing, signing Martin to a two-year, $17 M deal. After two great years from Martin, and everyone else realizing the value of his defense, he went on to sign a massive five-year, $85 M deal. At the time, Martin’s deal was heavily criticized, and he was seen as nothing more than a .211 hitter. The Pirates saw much more value than that, and made a deal that helped get them back to the playoffs.

Francisco Liriano – The Pirates got Liriano for two years and around $12 M total, following up on their successful reclamation of Burnett the year before. Despite having an ERA over 5.00 in three of his previous four years, the Pirates were able to get a 3.02 ERA in 161 innings in 2013, followed by a 3.38 ERA in 162.1 innings in 2014. Since joining the Pirates, Liriano ranks 23rd out of 122 qualified starting pitchers with a 3.22 xFIP. His 3.26 ERA ranks 31st in that group. And his 8.8 WAR ranks 28th.

Mark Melancon – The Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt, and received four players, with the key guy being Melancon. He has since gone on to be one of the best relievers in the game over the last three seasons, including having the top ranks in WPA and shutdowns during that time. Instead of paying Hanrahan $7 M for one more season, the Pirates ended up paying a much better reliever $8.5 M over the next three years. The deal was hated at the time, with the narrative that the Pirates got quantity, and were only interested in saving money. Those savings led to Liriano.

Honorable Mention – In two minor deals, the Pirates added Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez to their bullpen. Mazzaro put up a 2.81 ERA in 73.2 innings, while Gomez served as a “utility pitcher”, posting a 3.35 ERA in 80.2 innings, and filling a lot of key roles in an injury filled year for the pitching staff. Gomez also helped fill in for Jonathan Sanchez, who was one of the value moves that didn’t work out.

Other Notable Values

A.J. Burnett – The Pirates acquired Burnett from the Yankees in exchange for low-level minor leaguers Exicardo Cayonez and Diego Moreno, with the Yankees picking up about half of Burnett’s salary. The result was that the Pirates ended up paying Burnett about $8.5 M per year, and ended up getting a combined 7.2 WAR from him during his two-year span, along with 393.1 innings total. They had smaller scale reclamation projects in the past, but this was the first guy with top of the rotation stuff who they turned into a top of the rotation pitcher, watching Burnett post a 3.51 ERA in 2012 and a 3.30 ERA in 2013.

Jason Grilli – Any team could have added Grilli in the summer of 2011. The Pirates ended up signing him out of Philadelphia’s minor league system, and watched him turn into one of the most dominant relievers from mid-2011 through 2013. He struggled in 2014, and unfortunately managed to put it back together after an unsuccessful trade away from Pittsburgh. But the Pirates got two and a half years of a dominant reliever and closer, all for less than $6 M total.

Joel Hanrahan – Back before he was traded for Melancon, the Pirates acquired Hanrahan when his value was low, sending out Sean Burnett. The interesting thing about this 2009 deal was that the main part of the trade was Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge. The Hanrahan/Burnett swap was supposed to even out the deal for Washington, with Burnett being the higher rated reliever. It ended up that Hanrahan was the best player in the deal, with Burnett going on to have a good career as a lefty reliever.

The Nate McLouth Trade – This one might not be popular, because Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke aren’t number one starters and some days it seems that this means they don’t belong in the majors, but Morton and Locke have given the Pirates some great results in the back of the rotation the last few years. Morton has been worth 3.9 WAR over the last three seasons, while Locke has been worth 3.2 WAR. Morton has made $14 M over this span, while Locke has made just $1.5 M. Both pitchers have seen their values exceed the prices.

Value Moves

In every single above case, the move was either hated, or was regarded as something that probably wouldn’t help the team much. The exception might have been the Burnett and Kang moves last year, although no one expected Kang to be as good as he was, and there was skepticism that Burnett could be as good as he was.

We’ll probably see the same thing this off-season, although maybe it will be closer to last off-season in terms of reactions. The Pirates will have spots to upgrade, primarily their number three starting spot, first base, and second base. They won’t be going out and getting guys like David Price. But based on their track record, they’ll get a good upgrade, and it won’t cost nearly as much as what other teams spent for similar production. With those results, it makes no sense to spend big on the best free agents.

**2015 Catcher Recap: Pirates Found a Steal in Francisco Cervelli. As usual, these recaps also take a look at the future of the position, with this one focusing on Elias Diaz and Reese McGuire in the future.

**AFL: Austin Meadows Contributes in Comeback Win For Glendale. The AFL kicked off, and John Dreker starts our nightly recaps of the games. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time today setting up travel plans to provide some live coverage of the AFL in November.

**Pirates Ranked the Eighth Best Franchise in Sports by ESPN Magazine. Interesting ranking, although it isn’t specifically focused on the best on-field teams.

  • The reason the Cubs have all of these young stars is a result of making big splash spending. It didn’t work out initially because it wasn’t the right time for them to spend money. They ended up trading those big splashes for top prospects. You could say without those splashes they wouldn’t have the players they have today. Once they had a good young base team together this past year the spending paid off.
    The Pirates are now in a position they are ready for a splash player. If he doesn’t help the team as expected or someone is ready to move up trade him for a mother load like the Cubs did.

  • I’ll be watching the next WC game from my couch instead of at PNC. I don’t want to hear about another “blackout” when almost 20% of PNC’s lower deck is Cubs fans. The first time was great. The last two, I consider myself out about $500 in potential profit.

    • Other teams have good fans as well, idk why the fact that Cubs fans show up well when that team is contending is a reason to boycott big games for your team. Its not a lack of passion from PGH fans, its Cubs fans also showing their passion.

      Much like how you can go to a big game late in the season in STL and see PGH fans around. Good fans abound in the Central.

  • Not to mention the fact that most of the big name free agents do not become available until after their prime. Giving 7-10 year deals to guys like Lester and the enormous deal the Nationals gave to Scherzer can often create a smaller “window” for teams to win. The Pirates ate built for the long term, and should be in contention year after year. Anyone advocating for big money deals just needs to look to Philadelphia or Washington to know that it doesn’t always work out.

  • I think it is relevant to this thread – just watched the Blue Jays gut out a big win over the Rangers – very exciting game…

    1. Joey Bats hit a game winning home run
    2. The Blue Jays closer is a 20 year old coming off of TJ from Mexico – they signed for $1.5M in 2011. Never pitched above high A. We baby a guy with 95+ fastball – won’t see him in a Pirate uniform until July next year – mostly to add years of control and save money. Wonder if he is a better 4 or 5 starter than Locke or Morton – but we will never know.

    The Jays went out and added big – Tulo and Price – and it paid off – and took a young talent and did not worry about preserving his super two status.

    And they have a catcher that used to be a favorite in Pittsburgh – cue the “Cervelli had a higher WAR comments1” – and threw out 40+% of runners versus the 20% Cervelli managed.

    The Pirates play to make money for the owner – that is their right as it is my right to not buy tickets or merchandise until they show they really are serious about trying to win a World Series.

    • You said nothing anyone should complain about. Speaking of Joey Bats as good as NH has been that may go down as one of the worst trades in baseball history. I do agree no one saw it coming but just looking at what we got and what they have its top five. We sure could have used Joey bats the last couple of years playing somewhere (he can play almost anywhere). You are correct that the Pirates will never rush a player to the league. It is all about value. I get it but I don’t have to like it.

      • The Bautista trade fault lies squarely with coaching and player development.

        The trade itself most certainly was not a bad one.

        The fact that a superstar player was relegated to a slap hitting utility guy by Pirate coaches was a fire-able offense.

  • I just read an article on bleacher report suggesting Mat Latos. That might not be a bad move. If he’s coachable, he could be a great project for Uncle Ray.

    • I want to believe in the talent of Latos, but his attitude throws up a ton of red flags. I was a person that felt AJ’s “reputation” was a bit overblown in NY, but im not a believer in Latos.

      He complained about having to do an extra rehab start once for the Reds, and then ripped the team after leaving about “rushing” him back from injury a different time. his pure stuff is there, but his attitude in both SD and CIN seem like plenty of reason to avoid him.

      • piraterican21
        October 14, 2015 5:07 pm

        The Pirates reclamation projects normally had success at some point before getting here, my dark and I mean dark horse is pitching in relief for the Cubs…….. Cahill. As a starter of course.

    • Latos, by reputation, might be the least coachable SP in the league, other than maybe Trevor Bauer. But I agree, he would be a great project to work on.

      I’ve also seen Doug Fister mentioned, but the loss of velocity does not play into what the Pirates do. Gavin Floyd fits the profile pretty well.

      • Can you really define “what the Pirates do” at this point?

        I think the variation in the types of pitchers they’ve turned around is their most impressive trait. High K/high BB guys (Burnett/Liriano), big arms (Volquez), command/deception guys (Worley/Happ).

        If Fister’s velocity drop is due to injury then that’s obviously something the Pirates can’t control, but if it’s due to mechanics then I don’t see why he’d be outside of their target range. Glad I don’t get paid to make those calls.

        • I am defining “what they do” more narrowly. The guys they plugged right into the rotation (Burnett, Liriano, Volquez, Happ) have/had above average FB velocity among SP’s (Burnett was 26th in 2011, Liriano was 11th in 2012, Volquez was 27th in 2013, Happ was 44th this year, out of ~ 90-95 qualified SPs).

          The command guys they signed (Worley, Richard), were free talent. As good as Worley was in 2014, let’s not forget he only got his shot when Wandy Rodriguez was released, and Cole and Liriano both went on the DL in the span of 10 days. He could very easily have gone the way of Clayton Richard last year had the injuries stacked differently.

          Maybe this just looks like a pattern to me, and the next guy they sign for the rotation is a soft-tossing lefty, sure. But if I’m playing the “who is Neal H going to sign (that will make Pirate fans groan)” game, I’m putting my bet on the guy with the power arm whose results, for whatever reason, are less than the sum of their parts.

  • I really don’t like these articles directed at nebulous internet arguments because they’re ripe for straw men.

    Sure, there’s a small corner of the Pirate fandom that always call for the “big popper” or “ace” to be signed or traded for, but the much larger crowd – from my perspective – has long wanted an increase in payroll made up of smart investments. And guess what, that’s exactly what the Pirates have done.

    I can remember conversations from a few years ago where guys argued that the Pirates didn’t need to spend $100m because they were winning with $75m. Take away $25m from last year’s club and see where they’re at.

    The 2016 club will potentially feature five players making >$10m, none of which are bad contracts. That’s a ton of production, and it would be a monumental if not impossible task to make that up with “value moves”.

    The Pirates deserve a ton of credit for successfully finding value throughout the past four years, but that doesn’t come close to meaning that increased payroll hasn’t also significantly helped.

    • Cole made 531k last year. In two years, at his current track, he’ll probably make 30 to 40 times that. No one’s smart or dumb because of it. It’s just the system that was setup. As you said, the situation is dynamic. A few years ago, the talent and payroll had nowhere to go but up. One of the many reasons I find this offseason so fascinating, the circumstances have changed. Success changes expectations.

      • Yes, and Cole will be playing on the West Coast. Believe that…just sayin

        • Cutch wont ever sign an extension, we wont ever re sign a big arm (Liriano), etc etc.

          Maybe we dont resign Cole in a few years, but the days of assuming the worst should really be over. They’ve proven themselves at being willing to spend on the right player.

          • Not even close to being the same situations.

            • It never is. You rarely get 2 players reaching FA in the same situation. If we had a great hitter with a great comparison to Cole someone would argue “they havent done it with a pitcher.” Since we did it with a pitcher but Liriano isnt a perfect comparison we assume it’ll be different.

              Cole is different, but not all that different. We’ve resigned big time players on multiple occasions, and been very willing to always discuss it with guys who walked (Martin). Yes, if Cole wants market value over a long deal he’ll walk. I see nothing that shows that is clearly the case as of now, so my point was it seems odd to reflexively go “he’ll leave, trust me”.

              • If he repeats his 2015 performance, in 2016, he will break Howards 1st time arbitration record easily. I’m really interested how this progresses. Pretty sure he’ll become the Pirates first 20 million dollar annual player the later he gets in arbitration. The question is where the team is at that point. He could be dealt before a long term contract is even a consideration. In a few years, barring injury, I agree with Chuck. He’s a 200 million dollar arm.

                Forget a big external move that everyone wants. The Pirates own is about to become much more costly.

    • Now you do understand that the new TV contract and additional revenues for all the teams almost guaranteed that salaries would increase to $100 million. We are still proportionately lower then almost all other franchises. Its awesome that we can compete at such a high level and I am happy that we do seem to spend at the trade deadline ( I worry more about giving up talent at the deadline ), but lets not fool ourselves into believing that our team is really competing in FA. That said I am impressed with what this management team does within the limitations they have. They certainly have been the best over the last 3 years but losing in the WC game and having a winning record may soon not be enough to fill the stands at PNC. When that happens what next?

      • Wake me on any of this payroll argument stuff WHEN the Pirates LOCAL TV DEAL is renegotiated. Until then, they are pretty much spending in line with their revenues, and yes indeed, the recent increases have been generally supported with increased revenues. That said, there are other teams that spend less so it could be way worse. But Nutting is pretty much putting the increased revenues into the payroll and the real move or analysis need be done on a new TV deal and what happens with that money. As it is, Pirates bottom few teams in revenue and bottom few teams in payroll. Stars aligned.

      • So your theory is that winning 90+ games and “only” making the playoffs is going to result in….fans not showing up if they dont win a WS? Empty seats while fans boycott because “we dont win it all”?

        Good luck with that. You might do that, but it’ll be a packed house many many nights.

        • I actually think it’s quite possible that attendance takes a slight downturn if the Pirates don’t continue advancing.

          Fans are fickle. The type of person you need to attract in order to surpass 2.5m frankly doesn’t give a shit about your logic. They come because there’s excitement, and new success is exciting.

          You’ve seen it happen to the Penguins, and I see no reason we shouldn’t expect the same with the Pirates.

          • I agree with slight downturn, just not that they wont fill the stands. I assumed he meant fill the stands at all, and i dont see any sustained winning causing them to fail to sellout most Friday+Saturday night games at home.

            It’d be foolish to assume they’ll keep breaking attendance records at all, but more than a slight downtick from that seems odd. Yanks havent won a WS for roughly 5 years, but they are still bringing in 40+ per game. Stadium size varies for team, but PGH (assuming they dont suddenly become sub .500 again) seems likely to keep posting 2,000,000-2,200,000 per year total.

            • I think for the Yankees city size matters as well. How many people live in the metropolitan NYC area vs Western PA? There’s a stark difference. It takes a lot smaller percentage of the population for the Yankees to sell out than it does the Pirates. It would take less than 1.5% of the NYC population to sell out both the Mets AND Yankees whereas it takes somewhere north of 5% of the Western PA population to sell out a Bucs game.

            • Yanks are a bad example the amount of people in that Metropolitan area dwarfs the Pittsburgh area. Look at Atlanta they had sustained success but attend drop every year after their one WS even though they made the playoffs every year(in a time when you got a 5 game series when you were in). Fans are fickle and they want what they want. The honey moon will end when Cutch walks in two years hopefully by then something special will have happened.

              • Scott Kliesen
                October 14, 2015 8:56 pm

                Atlanta is a better example. But still not a good one. Demographics are much different and size isn’t comparable either. Plus the location of Turner Field was not conducive to a great fan experience. Whereas, PNC and surrounding area is one of the best in the game. Lastly, Pittsburgh is a professional sports team primarily, whereas Atlanta is a college sports town before anything else.

      • I made absolutely no attempt to complement the Pirates for increasing their payroll to $100m, and in fact did the opposite if anything.

        • Scott Kliesen
          October 14, 2015 8:45 pm

          Nutting is operating this team like a very astute business man. He has managed to put together an outstanding organization that is on the forefront of some of the biggest changes in the game, which has produced a consistent winning club. As a result, he has reintroduced the game of baseball to a whole new generation of fans in the city of Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. And he has done it while producing a sustainable window of both profitability and competitive excellence.

          I say great job Mr. Nutting on all fronts!

          • Now this is a perspective ground in reality IMO, something in short supply amongst Pirate fans.

      • Scott Kliesen
        October 14, 2015 8:40 pm

        Can you believe these bums only won 95 games?!!!!! I’m never coming back until their as good as they were in ’15!

        Just stop it!

        As a fan, I want my team to be relevant and competitive. And if they get lucky win in the post-season, too.

  • They need to sign quality players regardless of cost. Finishing high in the standings results in not getting high end talent in the draft and they refuse to sign any high priced international players. After a few years the talent in the minors will start to dry up and the window for winning will close. Look at what the Astros have done with picking first in the draft. They turned around the franchise in a few short years by spending on quality talent in the draft. The Pirates when given the chance over the past 20 years of losing picked up 3rd rate talent to save a buck and as a result they continued to lose. When they decided to spend in the draft baseball changed the draft rules to screw them again. They have to win now. cubs and cards are better than them. Spend some money and get a number one starter so that they can win now. Value is good but winning is better.

  • I love playing armchair GM. I wonder if a package of Melancon, Polanco, Bell, and 2 C+ pitchers would be enough to pry Goldy from AZ. Put J-Hay or Garcia in right. Goldy would make the lineup lethal and Cutch could probably hit .325+ batting in front of Goldy.
    My totally fictitious lineup:
    1. J-Hay RF
    2. Marte LF
    3. Cutch CF
    4. Goldy 1B
    5. Kang 3B
    6. Cervelli C
    7. Walker 2B
    8. Mercer SS

    • No.

      • Do tell. Don’t completely suck the fun out of it.

        • I do not believe that would be enough to get a player of Goldschmidt’s caliber and contract. If, as a fan, you’re comfortable with whatever you suggest giving up in order to acquire one of the five most valuable players in the sport, you’re almost certainly low.

          If Polanco had already broken out and Melancon wasn’t in a contract year, subbing Glasnow for one of those C+ pitchers would probably get you close.

          There could always be exceptions; I’m fairly certain there wasn’t much separation anxiety involved when the Blue Jays got Josh Donaldson last winter. But even then Donaldson wasn’t in the same tier of value Goldschmidt is in now.

          • How about Taillon, Tarpley, AND Kuhl? I can’t part with Glasnow though. He could completely tank but his talent level & potential is “best in the game” worthy. I love my Buccos and they’ve made some great moves the last few years, I’d just love to see them make an out of character move and go big.

        • zombie sluggo
          October 14, 2015 4:31 pm

          Start with Cutch and then start adding.

    • Freddy Freeman might me a more realistic get since the Braves are farther away than the Dbacks and Freeman is not a top 5 player, be willing to give up Polanco and maybe Glasnow with Bell moving to RF.

      • That’s not a bad idea. I just think the Bucs terribly need a middle of the order bat that can hit homers and actually get on base at a decent clip and not just hit inconsequential solo homers. With Kang down, everyone pitched around Cutch the last few games cause no one batting behind him was scary.

      • The Braves are targeting 2017 for contention. Freeman is signed through 2021, and since they moved every other big contract on the club EXCEPT Freeman’s, you have to think the plan is to build around him.

        Not to mention, the Braves have good young pitching in the bigs and more in the upper minors, and a couple of OF they like in Mallex Smith and Dustin Peterson (both of whom they picked up in the first Upton deal with SD). What they don’t have is a guy to replace Freeman.

    • Dear God, AGAIN with the pipedreams about Goldschmidt? Arizona is trying to compete and keep their fan base… Goldy is the golden ticket… fan favorite, GREAT PLAYER, and inexpensive contract. That is what franchises build around, not deal away. AZ ownership also ready to invest to this club, trade for Chapman and go for playoffs in 2016. Let’s just make a pact to STOP WITH THE PACKAGE DEALS for Goldy. There is NO DEAL the AZ team will consider that doesn’t include Mike Trout or 2 of the Mets young pitchers, or say, three of the top Cubs position players. WE don’t have enough, and AZ fans would revolt at any deal that didnt return a top young player of Goldy’s status in return. We don’t have ANY of those.

      • Apparently my tongue wasn’t firmly enough in cheek. Although, I do recall Stewart making a few odd trades in the last 2 years. Freddie Freeman might be more realistic but it’s still fun to think of a lineup with Goldschmidt in the middle of it.

        • I live in Atl and Freeman is untouchable along with Simmons. The Braves would probably give any of the rest of the bunch away for a bag of baseballs.

  • The Pirates didn’t pioneer pitching reclamations, infield shifts, overslot drafting or undervalued free agent signings. They just improved their ability to do so, aka got better at it.

    I give Huntington and the BMTIB a lot of credit for what theyve accomplished the last few years. But i cant help but wonder at the end of the day, the smartest guy in the room “all the right moves” luck runs out. As your team enjoys more success, it gets more expensive. Teams catch on to what you are doing, unique success becomes the trend, becomes the norm. And the cycle resets.

    Andrew Friedman and Billy Beane both got further up the mountain than Huntington with limited resources, and eventually they found out, money still talks.

  • I don’t think the Pirates should “target high cost players.” However I think they should target players that would make them a World Series contender. Cost should be one consideration, but not the ONLY one. Would the Pirates season have gone differently if they had signed someone like Lester AND AJ last offseason? Would they have gotten further if they had traded for Cueto AND Happ? Either move would would have put their payroll at the end of the year around $125 million, which is right around the Cubs payroll now. Who knows? They weren’t all that far away from being where the Cubs are now. I’d like to see them take their shot and I don’t think they’ve really done that.

    The Pirates have done a great job in identifying “value moves” and they have gone from a perpetual loser to a wild card team. But they don’t “hit” on every value move. Did Ike Davis work out? What about Lambo? Corey Hart? Playing the “value” game can be very effective, but in the end MOST World Series Champions spend above the mean. The Pirates have never been above 25th out of 30th in spending. In my opinion, they haven’t really been World Series contenders either despite their successes.

    I don’t think they should spend their money foolishly, however, the cost of doing business in baseball is a high cost, especially if you want to win it all. It just is. In my opinion, if their primary concern in player acquisition continues to be “finding values” then, at best, they will be a NL version of what the A’s used to be. Perpetual also rans.

    • The Pirates have been WS contenders the last three seasons.

      • I suppose it depends upon what you mean by “contender.” To me a contender has a realistic shot of winning it all. I think you could say that the Pirates were contenders in 2015. If they beat the Cubs I think they would have had a great chance. But no. They weren’t contenders last year or in 2013. Fun to watch and all but they just weren’t contenders for it all. Just saying.

        • If Marte’s 113 MPH line drive in the 6th inning goes 2 feet in either direction, we may be watching the Bucs get ready for the NLCS right now. Baseball is random and the Bucs are legit WS contenders and will be again next year.

        • Just sayin two WC teams played in WS last year, and another one just locked up their spot in NLCS this year. With all due respect, you’re 100% wrong.

          • Yep. And all 3 of those teams spent over $125 million to compete. The Giants payroll last year was $187 million, more than twice the Pirates 2014 opening day payroll.

            Look. I am a season ticket holder and I love the Pirates. I respect what they’ve done and I will root for them no matter what. I also think the front office could have done more to win THIS year because it very well may have been their best shot in a while. I don’t think anyone would argue that it makes sense to “target” overvalued players in acquiring talent but I do think that they will have to pay fair market value to someone sooner or later if they want to win it all. Nature of the beast.

            That’s all I am saying.

            • Scott Kliesen
              October 14, 2015 5:24 pm

              If you think the Royals made it to WS last year and Cubs made it to NLCS this year because of their payroll budget than you are belittling the work of a whole bunch of people in the management, scouting, coaching and support staff departments.

              The Giants are primarily a 3-time WS winner due to their ability to draft, develop and coach, too. However, they did have more key players acquired because of their ability to spend. Certainly played a part in their success, but most of their core talent was developed not bought for market value.

              Arbitrary payroll budgets like $125 million are simply irrelevant in comparison to having a good plan executed well by all members of the organization. That’s all I’m saying.

              • I don’t think he’s at all arguing those teams were built on money alone. Not even close.

                I think all he’s saying is that it sure doesn’t seem coincidental that even teams like the Giants that do all those things you list well *still* end up running payrolls over $125m.

                Of course it’s *possible* to win with less, and I generally agree with you about playoffs and contenders, but your “good plan executed well” argument is a bit disingenuous when that good plan inherently included spending 25% more than the Pirates, at least.

                • Scott Kliesen
                  October 14, 2015 8:25 pm

                  Fans can complain about payroll being lower than other “contenders” all they want, but until Pirates create a larger revenue stream by increasing prices and/or a new more lucrative local tv deal, don’t expect the business model to change.

                  I understand the sentiment you and Thomas are sharing, and it certainly has some validity, but it’s not the end all be all of turning a legit contender into a sure fire championship team.

              • Money doesn’t buy championships, but it’s not like Andrew Friedman showed up in LA and said, “Nah guys, I’m good with $70m.”

              • Why wouldn’t a “good plan executed by all members of the organization” include paying fair market value for players when it made sense to do so? I would argue to you that the Royals, Cubs and Giants have all done so to great effect. I would also argue to you that the Pirates, with a few exceptions, have not. If you think otherwise, with all due respect, you just aren’t paying attention.

                • Id argue KC actually hasnt paid fair market value to many guys, they trade for them for 1-2 years of market value and then almost always refuse to actually keep them around. They’ve built most of their success on young players, resigning guys (like Gordon) to friendly deals and taking on big salaries for short term before letting them walk when they want a long term, market value deal.

                  KC isnt much different than PGH in how they pay players, apart from making big splash trades for 1-2 rentals at market value.

            • The classic pessimist trying to act like he’s “just keeping it real” by acting like spending=success. Gotta pay market value to win, even though that logic is inherently flawed.

              Thats all im saying.

    • I could not have said it better myself. If our goal is to be the World Series champs of value I think we ahve accomplished it. I want a team that can win it all. I think the GM has done an unbelievable job considering the limitations. That said the window is narrow just ask the Rays and the A’s. You cannot count on the GM to continue to out perform every GM on value moves. Additionally it would be nice to address a short comings with some known talent.

      • Known talent fails just as often as unknown talent. CHC had a good deal of unknowns coming into the year due to many rookies and unproven options. The Mets rotation is built off of young, unproven talent.

        Every future great is unknown at some point, and trading the moon for “known” talent can still get you kicked out of the playoffs. Fans love the big move for the known name, but its always overpriced and doesnt guarantee anything.

        • And then they supplemented those unknowns with Lester, Hammel, Fowler, and Montero.

          This isn’t a black and white argument.

          • No one argued it was, i refuted his idea that we need known talent to win more games.

            It is grey, but the idea that you need more knowns on any team is void of the context of the talent of the known vs unknown. David Price helps any team, but a middle rotation arm could be no better than a Glasnow over a full season. PGH does fine finding “known” talent, its just not the high priced flashy known that above fans think.

            With the difference in budget in mind, PGH finds “known” talent to supplant its young unknowns well. Fans just assume “known”=big name knowns. AJ, Liriano, and Martin were known but not valued appropriately.

            • That last line is complete, utter bullshit.

              • Its really not. Us adding those names literally never resulted in big fanfare and appreciation, but us adding David Price would be loved. But as far as “knowns”, all those names are clearly established. Difference being the guys PGH targets are known talents who are undervalued, and adding Price costs what his reputation says it does.

        • I never said trade the moon I just want us to add a FA. It would cost us nothing in picks in most cases

    • Thomas H: Very well stated. And as pointed out in another thread, for all the emphasis on prospects, we have as yet very little to show for it. How is it that the Cards, Cubs, and now Mets and Royals have seen young players rocket through their systems to play productive roles on their big league clubs. Something seems to be missing there. Taking nothing away from the BMTIB, the cost of doing business at the highest level in baseball is, as you point out, a high cost. If the Pirates don’t want to. or can’t, incur that cost, they should consider changing their business model or getting out of the business.

      • Do Marte and Polanco and Harrison and Cole just not count or ? No doubt the Pirates have prioritized pitching in the drafts and that leaves noticeable gaps in offense and especially power, but seems everyone who talks this prospect stuff just makes it sound like the Pirates system has NEVER produced any prospects. It just isn’t true.

        • They only drafted one of those players.

          • So now “prospects” has become “drafted prospects”. Thats changing the argument a bit. It also ignores key areas of context like who we draft (a ton of HS players) and where they are in relation to the majors.

            Cole is legit, Harrison is a contributor, our ability to sign latin players has been insanely successful, and our HS drafted arms are very much near the bigs. A year ago, half the Cubs were highly touted but unproven prospects waiting for a chance. Our system is doing fine and may promote 2 big time arms.

            Criticizing the draft is one thing (i still think thats lazy since it ignores the age of who we draft and why it takes longer to see ML results) but our system and “prospects” arent weak. I could look at the Cubs rotation and go “that system is weak at developing pitchers” but they make up for it. Much like we have made up for our HS drafted pitchers by excelling at finding undervalued arms.

            • “Insanely successful” for Latin American players and “big time” HS arms.

              Okay, Dejan.

              • Totally a valid comparison. Its crazy of me to assume one of the best OFs in baseball being 2/3rds the product of that system means we are wildly successful.

                Our prospect do kinda suck, we are only operating with about 10 of them playing key roles.

                Our prospects, both latin american and american draft, dont really lack in many areas. Great depth in the OF, at C, and now in the middle IF. Many raw, some with questions of their ability to reach their upside, but talent abounds.

                • I believe the blog world gives the Pirates entirely too much credit in Latin America for what amounts to one All Star caliber player in Starling Marte, and a bunch of potentially good, but still unproven players like Polanco, Hanson, Diaz, Ramirez on down.

                  Other teams do this too.

                  • Seems rather unfair to call Polanco unproven. Hasnt reached his ceiling yet, but if its not a win for the development and scouting teams when the guys reaches the majors and puts up 2 WAR in his first full season, maybe im not the one skewing the credit scale. I consider Polanco, right now, a success of the Latin American scouting team.

                    Not many teams have that OF due to Latin American scouting success.

                    • There it is again. “Latin American scouting success”.

                      You’re acting like the Pirates discovered fire. Truth is, dozens of franchises have been doing this for decades. All of a sudden the Pirates find a couple of guys that dont suck, and you’re labeling them geniuses.

                      Luke, you’re a smart guy. I respect your opinion right up there with NMRs, Andrew Lanes and Darkstones. But stop giving the Bucs participation awards.

                    • Im giving them credit for doing it better than many teams do. No, they didnt literally invent scouting in that area of the world. But they employ one of the best guys at doing it currently, and the success is proof positive of that.

                      They didnt discover fire, but they are using it to do things a bit better than many many other teams with less liter fluid.

            • Scott Kliesen
              October 14, 2015 8:32 pm

              Well said Luke.

      • Scott Kliesen
        October 14, 2015 8:30 pm

        You’re suggesting Nutting should consider selling the team because he’s not willing to spend his profits? You do realize under his leadership this team has won more games than all but two teams in all of MLB the last 3 years!

        David, take this however you want, but you need to re-examine your thinking.

    • Any team who makes it into the post-season is a WS contender. Need look no further than the Cubs of this season, Giants and Royals of last season for proof.

      The notion a team will be WS champs if it only spends more money is pure fiction. If it were that simple, the Yankees and Dodgers would be playing for the title each year.

      In truth, money provides options, not guaranteed results. The Pirates philosophy is to identify undervalued talent, sign them for below market value, rinse and repeat. This philosophy has turned this franchise from the biggest losers to what many smart people believe is the premiere franchise in MLB.

      • You sure the the Cubs, Giants and Royals prove your point? I kind of think those teams prove mine. The payroll for the 2015 Cubs is $134 million. The payroll for the 2014 Giants was $187 million, and the payroll for the Royals was $125 million in 2014. All three of the teams you have mentioned spent at least $25 million more than the Pirates did this year to contend.

        I agree that money isn’t everything but you get what you pay for. A team in the bottom half in payroll hasn’t won the WS in more than 15 years.

        The only team left in the playoffs with a payroll lower than the Pirates is the Astros. By your definition they are “contenders.” I think they are not. We can agree to disagree. Time will tell if they win anything.

        It isn’t a black and white issue. The Pirates have certainly increased their payroll over the past three years and the quality of the team has improved. I didn’t say spending more money guaranteed anything. I didn’t say the Pirates should spend money unwisely. I did say that in my opinion the Pirates focus more on “value” than “winning,” I think to their detriment. I did say that winning a WS is an expensive proposition. It is. Whoever wins this year will almost certainly spend more than the 2015 Pirates.

        • PS: As of this morning the Astros are out. There are now 0 teams who’s payrolls fall below the mean “contending” for a WS championship. The team with the lowest payroll left is the Mets who had the 15th highest payroll in MLB, $120 million.

          So … It’s an absolute certainty that this year’s WS champ won’t be a “value move” based team. Just like last year’s team. And the year before that … And every WS champ for the past two decades or so.

          I guess we can all take comfort in knowing that whoever wins it all won’t be as shrewd as the Pirates front office was in 2015 or have had a”well executed plan” implemented by the entire organization. At least we have that.

  • Pirates have implemented a system designed for sustained success. The management team continues to identify innovative methods to create value where others see none. Yet, the vocal minority will scream Nutting is cheap from the highest mountain top until they win a WS. Even then, they’ll say they should have more titles if the Owner wasn’t so cheap!

  • I think our front office is phenomenal, and will continue to make the right moves. My question is, will it be enough to beat the Cubs? They have built a better core of young talent and can play the value move game and the big market free agent game. I heard a rumor that they may get David Price. Arrieta, Lester, Price- ouch. Seems like a dominant rotation of Cole, Glasnow, and Taillon is our best hope for the future…

    • This is what terrifies me, the fact that the Cubs have built a solid young core (arguably better than ours) AND they have the deep pockets to go out and get the 25 million dollar free agent starter. I see a real possibility of the Pirates finishing fourth next year in this division. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I think it could happen. Personally I believe next year’s wild card game will be the Pirates @ the Cards.

      • I fear that the Cubs may have passed us by already. I do think the Cards finish 3rd next year. I think next year the Bucs and Cubs pass the Cards.

      • Absolutely agree. Even though we haven’t managed to catch the Cards, I feel like we’re basically equals. The Cubs are a different animal altogether- doesn’t even feel like they’ve scratched the surface yet of their talent – and they can go get David Price or whoever they want. And if they miss on a big free agent they can absorb the blow. How can we beat them consistently over the next 5 years? Dominant pitching is the equalizer- hopefully our young studs all pan out

        • “Just scratched the surface” is that really accurate?

          They got a major contribution from Arrieta the last two years, paid for Lester, and nearly every rookie exceeded expectations. Either we assume half that roster is going to improve and be mostly all stars, or they are what they are.

          Guys like Soler and Schwarber are prime for setbacks. Both K heavy and prone to being streaky. Not out of the question to think this is about where CHC may be. Thats still scary, but i dont see them magically getting a ton better. They add a TOR arm, they improve. But multiple members of that team can easily regress a bit and not be lifetime 30-40 HR hitters that overcome large K issues.

          CHC is here and is good, but i think their impressive success this year is making some think they are unstoppable going forward. Cubs have the ability to be unstoppable, but really do STL and PGH. Much depends on improved play/health/key contributions from depth players.

          • Hope you are right, it’s just hard to shake the feeling that they’ve passed us already, especially when you consider their financial resources. I think a team full of talented rookies can either regress or continue to steadily get better- here’s hoping for the regression.

            • They *have* passed Pittsburgh already by just about any objective measure.

              But that does *not* mean the margin is anywhere near insurmountable in any given season. It’s completely fine to acknowledge what the Cubs are while still having plenty of hope for the Pirates future.

              • I have plenty of hope, we have a great team and prospects coming. But I want that division crown. This just feels like more wild card games coming our way for the foreseeable future.

  • I think the thought is that if they get pitchers that aren’t highly regarded and turn them into something very good, what could they do with a guy who seemingly is already better than guys they have acquired? I think that would point to a guy like Samardzija who would cost more than JA Happ, but has had the better career numbers and who would most likely cost more to acquire than Happ, but what type of magic could Ray Searage work with better source materials?

    • Silky: The Pirates have that RHSP pump primed and ready at AAA in 2016 with guys like Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, who are both potential 1/2 guys in a Rotation. I also think they have another solid RHSP in Chad Kuhl who has a 24-10 record in the past two years at Hi A and AA. All throw in the mid to high 90’s, and Kuhl is also a GB machine. And, we already have one of the best 5 RHSP’s in MLB in Gerrit Cole. Why overpay for “alphabet man”?

      Happ is another story. Although heading into his age 33 season, if you look at his history, he does not have a lot of innings on his arm. With Liriano already in place for 2 more years, Happ could give the Pirates 2 very strong LHSP’s for the Rotation with Jeff Locke as a solid No. 5 or a long man in the BP.

      • I keep hearing Locke is a solid #5, but reality is he had 10 quality starts out of 30. That means he stunk 2 out of every 3 starts. How’s that solid. He gave his team a chance to win 1 out of 3. That’s horrible in my book.

        • Lots of fallacies in this line of reasoning. First, take a look at the QS % among 5th starters league-wide, and you’ll see 1 out of 3 is pretty good. More than that, taking the mound 30 times as a 5th starter is excellent – it means you didn’t have to dig into the 6th, 7th and 8th starters, whose QS% is even lower.

          You are misinterpreting what QS statistic means. It has little to do with “giving one’s team a chance to win” – the Pirates, after all, went 16-14 in Jeff Locke’s starts, and he has his share of tough luck losses.

          • You can’t look at #5’s league wide. Cincinnati was starting 5 rookies the second half just an example. Look at the #5’s on winning teams, I bet you’ll see better then 30% QS. Locke would be 8th or 9th starter in St. Louis. Which is the team they were chasing.

            • Dan Haren on the Cubs. You would crap your pants if you had to watch Dan Haren throw for your team, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball this year. R.A Dickey and Marco Estrada also both were top 5 in xFIP, and yet since ERA wasnt matching their periphs its okay they likely sucked.

              Plenty of winning teams have an arm that throws like crap most of the year. You hope the ERA luck is in your favor and that the defense masks the reality of his pitching. Colby Lewis was also bad. All examples of arms that threw a ton for winning teams that were bad.

            • If you extend it to just winning teams, Locke is right in the middle at 33%. St. Louis, the Mets and Nats were better. Chicago, the Dodgers and Giants were worse, all clocking in the low to mid 20’s.

              Comparing Locke to the 3rd best run prevention staff in baseball history (relative to league context) is a bit unfair.

      • Just making the point that if you start with a better base you would hope to get better results. Pointed to Samardzija because it’s a name mentioned on social media and is a guy who over his career has been a better pitcher than Happ. It may not produce better results, but then again it might.

  • Great article—so who do you think are “gettable” for the pirates in those three categories?

    • It’s hard to say. No one would have predicted J.A. Happ would be as good as he was, or Volquez before him, or Liriano and Burnett before them. I’d say Happ would be a great guy to bring back, even if he will cost more, as I think he’ll still come at a value if he pitches like he did over the final two months.

      Second base will have to come via trade if they want an upgrade, and I’m not sure who would be available.

      I think Michael Morse would be a good stopgap at first base until Josh Bell arrives.

      • I’m leery of having a stopgap. A big reason the Pirates were in the positions they were in the last 2 years is because of slow starts. The Bucs need to get out of the gate faster.

        • Which “stopgap” on the 98-win 2015 Pirates was responsible for the 2 games they fell short?

          • Idk, its fair to be leery of a stopgap. Could work out, could result in awful production for a month.

            Our production from 1B certainly could have cost us 1-2 games. Thats not the only reason we lost the division race, but it certainly contributed. Getting nearly replacement level 1B production hurts.

            • Considering Alvarez was worth 0.2 WAR for the year, a Mitch Moreland (2.1 WAR) or Adam Lind (2.2 WAR) could’ve been the difference in the Pirates winning an extra 2 games.

              • Now THAT comment is the height of hypocrisy.

                I wouldn’t believe you for a second if you told me that eight months ago Mitch Moreland or Adam Lind themselves were anything mroe than stop gaps.

                • I wouldn’t have either. I’m just saying that those were 2 guys worth 2 wins more than Alvarez and neither are really considered that much better than Alvarez. That could’ve been the difference in hosting an NLDS game 1 instead of the wild card game.

          • I wasn’t implying that stopgaps were the reason for their slow start this year, I was just implying that they had a slow and they if they start the season with a stopgap next year that it could contribute to a slow start. I’d just like to see the Bucs come out guns ablazin next year and not dig themselves an early hole.

            • As would we all. My point was, even if you have all 8 of your starting position players healthy, and 4 of your 5 SPs (Worley pitched April & May while Morton rehabbed), you can still start slowly. The team hit poorly, even Cutch, and the Melancon-and-Watson-led bullpen lost 5 games in April alone.

              Even on 100-win teams, there are stopgaps and weak links. There are a lot fewer franchise players than there are job openings, and teams win (and lose) anyway.

              • Absolutely. If I’m NH and CH though, I’m trying to come up with any solution I can to start faster out of the gate than 18-22. The Pirates finished with 98 wins but they spent the entire season climbing out of the hole they dug them selves. It 2014, they were 74-70 before ending the season on a 14-4 run.

          • Cutch he is down 2.5 WAR over that last two years.

  • I very much enjoyed reading this article as I watch the Cubs! the Royals! and the Astros! even the Mets! compete in the playoffs this week.

    • And yet the Cardinals! got eliminated, despite being the best team in baseball this year. The Dodgers! are a game away from elimination, despite having seemingly endless money to spend. So maybe the playoffs are random, and reaching the playoffs is the goal, just to give you a shot at the lottery.

      • I see your point. To be sure, things are so much better than they were in the 20 years before Bob Nutting and his management team took over at the end of 2007. And of course so much has changed in baseball since I started following the Pirates in 1947. We’ve had good owners and bad owners; good and bad management, scouting, development, players, etc. And baseball is, IMO, the most complex game, on so many levels, ever devised by the mind of man; and all organizations pretty much have to play by the same rules with the same chips, except for the large market/high revenue teams and until recently, friends of Bud. I’m not criticizing specific strategies adopted by Nutting & Co., because (1) They know so much more about it than I do, and (2) It’s not my money. Still, I wonder from time to time how teams like the Cards and Cubs, to take just two examples, can seem to rocket young, productive players through their systems while we seem to have to rely on “value moves.” The Mets, Royals and Astros, to take a few more examples, were bad when we were bad. They’re still playing — maybe not for long, but still. Is there something we’re missing? Does it all just boil down to a shot at a lottery ticket or is there something else we could or should be doing? What am I missing? Tim, thanks for your response. I appreciate everything you’ve done on this site. Let’s get ’em next year.

        • “Still, I wonder from time to time how teams like the Cards and Cubs, to take just two examples, can seem to rocket young, productive players through their systems while we seem to have to rely on “value moves.””

          Seven of the eight regular starters at the beginning of the year came up through the system (Alvarez, Walker, Mercer, Harrison, Marte, McCutchen, Polanco). Their best starter, Gerrit Cole, also came up through the system. Jeff Locke was acquired via trade, but was largely developed in the system. Tony Watson and Jared Hughes came through the system. And next year they’ve got Glasnow, Taillon, Bell, Hanson, and Diaz as guys who could arrive.

          No team wins through just one avenue of talent. You mention the Cubs and Cardinals, and both of those teams have gone out and spent big money on players, or made big trades to complement the guys coming up through the system. The Pirates have done this as well. But they can’t spend the money that the Cubs and Cardinals spend, which means they need to find value moves to get the same impact.