PITTSBURGH — The 2015-16 off-season is barely 12 hours old for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but it’s looking like it will be a busy time. Apart from losing A.J. Burnett and Aramis Ramirez to retirement, the Pirates will see a lot of free agents depart their team. Antonio Bastardo and Sean Rodriguez are two players who the Pirates acquired last off-season for one-year help in the bullpen and on the bench. J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria, and Joe Blanton were three more free agents added at the trade deadline. You could add Corey Hart to the pending free agent list, but the reality is that the Pirates have basically already parted ways with him.
Typically, the Pirates don’t spend big on right-handed relievers in the off-season, which is why I’d be surprised if they tried to bring back Soria or Blanton. But the other three free agents play at a position of need for the Pirates, and it would make sense for the Pirates to bring any of them back, depending on the terms of course.
Fortunately for the Pirates, all three said they were open to returning after last night’s Wild Card game loss. That’s not a big surprise, since the Pirates had the second best record in baseball, and they’re going to be an attractive place for any free agent. You’re also not going to get any free agent limiting his market by shutting out a team that potentially wants to sign him. But beyond just expressing a desire to return, all three spoke highly of the organization.
The biggest need for the Pirates will be starting pitching, as they will need someone to replace Burnett in the rotation, and fill a spot until Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are ready. They traded for Happ at the deadline in order to replace Burnett in the short-term, and adding him again this off-season to replace Burnett again would make sense after the success he had in Pittsburgh.
“[I felt] all good things about being a Pittsburgh Pirate,” Happ said, when describing his time and whether he’d want to return. “I had good experiences here with the front office so far. Obviously the Pirates have been great. It was nice to come over here, and within a few days, felt pretty comfortable. So we’ll see what the future holds. But all good things coming from here.”
Happ noted that he’d have to see where the interest is, talk with his family, and do all the typical things a free agent does. There’s also the interesting factor of how his two month stretch will be valued. He was one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball down the stretch, which probably isn’t sustainable going forward. But it’s not out of the question that he could be a good starting pitcher in the future. My prediction has been that he receives an Edinson Volquez-like two-year, $20 M offer, which would be affordable for the Pirates. This all depends on how teams value his turnaround this year.
“The market will play out the way it’s going to,” Happ said. “But I certainly feel good, where I was at, with the way I felt up there on the mound, that I know that I can help a lot of teams. So we’ll see what happens there.”
One factor going in Pittsburgh’s favor is Ray Searage, who helped Happ with an adjustment to keep him more in line to the plate, which led to better command. By sticking with Searage, Happ could not only get paid, but also ensure that he stays on track to continue pitching well. His comments about Searage last night were very encouraging in terms of whether he might consider returning.
“Ray’s been great,” Happ said. “I’ve really enjoyed working with him. Sad to just have to say bye to him here tonight. But maybe I won’t have to.”
There was a great article written by Matthew Trueblood at Baseball Prospectus last week, detailing Happ’s turnaround, and noting that the change started last season for Happ. Last night I talked with Happ about those early changes, and how that work, plus his work with Searage, ended up combining to lead to his second half results.
“The physical work is always going to be there,” Happ said of the need to make adjustments. “Taking care of myself and trying to get the mechanics right. And then I think the mental side of it was huge. When you have some success, you get some more confidence, and those things play off each other. That’s how I felt. I feel confident out there, being able to throw the ball. Nobody is perfect, but for the most part [if you can throw the ball] where you’re trying to put it, it’s a good feeling, and that’s kind of where I was at. And I had lost that for a short period of the season, and was glad to regain it.”
The fact that Happ’s turnaround wasn’t just an overnight change, but an ongoing process that finally clicked gives hope that he will be a strong pitcher going forward. It’s hard to see how the market shapes out, and the Pirates have certainly gotten a ton of value with starting pitchers and don’t need to chain themselves to one particular starter. But Happ makes a lot of sense for this team. He fits their philosophy of pitching off the fastball to both sides of the plate. He’s a lefty at PNC Park. He’s open to coaching and has worked well with Searage. And he might just be a value if it turns out that the 2015 numbers with the Pirates were legit.
As for Bastardo and Rodriguez, they’re both in situations where they fill easy to replace roles. Rodriguez is a bench player who played a big role with the Pirates this year, serving as a super utility player and a defensive replacement in the late innings. He wasn’t a favorite among Pirates fans, mostly due to disagreements about the priority of defense over offense, and that came to a head yesterday when he started over Pedro Alvarez (in a move that didn’t matter, because he was removed after three innings of defense and no at-bats, and then Alvarez struck out the entire night). Rodriguez gave more of a canned answer, but was open to returning.
If the Pirates want me back, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be an option,” Rodriguez said. “I just want to win.”
Rodriguez would make sense to return on a smaller deal, similar to his one-year deal through arbitration in 2015, just to provide that versatile option off the bench. Of course, this all depends on the makeup of the team. If the Pirates keep Pedro Alvarez around, it would make sense to have that defensive replacement. If they find a better defender at first base, then the biggest role for Rodriguez would be gone, lowering his value to the team.
The Pirates will once again need a second left-hander in the bullpen once Bastardo leaves. That’s the situation they were in last off-season when they traded for Bastardo, who replaced Justin Wilson after the Pirates traded Wilson for Francisco Cervelli. Bastardo praised the team, but ultimately said he’s going with the team who makes the best offer, which isn’t groundbreaking.
“I’m open to every team. It’s how it is,” Bastardo said. “Whoever has the best offer, I’m going to be choosing them. I like it here. I like this team, I like this clubhouse. Everything is good here, so I’ll never say no.”
The Pirates got great results from Bastardo, especially in the second half. But this is a team that hasn’t struggled to find bullpen help at a low price. I’d be surprised if they went with Bastardo, who should get a multi-year deal, over someone they can get on a one-year deal, or someone they can get via trade like last off-season.
The free agents are only part of an interesting off-season that is coming up for the Pirates. Happ looks to be the best option if the Pirates want to bring him back, and would fill the biggest need. The Pirates would have needs for the bench and bullpen that Rodriguez and Bastardo could fill, although those spots are easier to fill on the open market than a starting role. All three players are open to returning, and in due time we’ll find out whether the Pirates would also be open to bringing them back.