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.
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.