The Pirates are in need of starting pitching this off-season. Unfortunately, the starting pitching market does not look good. In looking through the potential free agents, I found there were two categories. There were the “established” starters, with the quotes there because the guys in this category have only really been “established” with good numbers for one year or less. These guys have question marks, and in normal years might be the value class where you might be able to get a deal. This year, they’re the top of the weak market.
The next group is the bounce back group, and there are a lot of options here. There could be more, depending on who has their options declined this off-season. I didn’t include any of those players, with one key exception. I was also a bit picky when looking over the free agents, eliminating older veterans like Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, guys with lower upside like Bud Norris and Jhoulys Chacin, and guys who are a few years removed from good seasons, and have some warning signs, like Doug Fister and Jorge de la Rosa.
The end result is that I settled on three guys for each category, and then found myself explaining why the established starters had risk, and why there was upside with the bounce back guys, but how the Pirates shouldn’t make that their main addition this off-season. Here is the rundown of the guys I feel highlight the 2017 free agent starting pitching class for now.
Jeremy Hellickson – Hellickson has had an interesting career when you look at his advanced metrics. His first few years in pro ball saw him posting high ERAs and much lower xFIP numbers, yet he managed to avoid a regression each year. Then, the 2013 season came along, and he reversed the trend, starting a streak of high ERAs and low xFIP numbers. The 2016 season marks the first time that he posted an ERA and xFIP that were in the same ballpark, with a 3.71 ERA and a 3.99 xFIP. This also led to a 3.2 fWAR, which was greater than or equal to any two seasons previously in his career. He’s had better ERA numbers in the past, and the xFIP isn’t far off where he’s been the last few years. The problem he’s had is that he’s been inconsistent, and has largely been a back of the rotation starter who eats innings. Maybe he figured it all out at age 29, and the 2016 pitcher is the guy he’ll be going forward. Or maybe that big year will get him paid and he’ll revert back to an upside of a 1.7 fWAR and turn into a bad contract.
Rich Hill – Hill put up some great numbers this year when he was healthy, with a 2.12 ERA and a 3.36 xFIP. That’s similar to his limited performance last year in just four starts with the Red Sox. The problem is that he is rarely healthy. He pitched 110.1 innings this year, which was only the second time in his MLB career that he’s pitched 100+ innings, with the other one being way back in 2007 when he went 195 innings. This year, he missed time with a groin injury and blister problems. He’s entering his age 37 season, so it’s not like he can be counted on to be healthy going forward. He’s been a dominant starter, with one of the best strikeout rates in the game. Any team signing him could be getting a top of the rotation starter, although with the disclaimer that they might only get half a season of that production, at best.
Ivan Nova – Nova had a few good seasons with the Yankees, with a 3.70 ERA and 4.16 xFIP in 2011, and a 3.10 ERA and 3.68 xFIP in 2013. In his 2012 season he had a 3.92 xFIP, but a 5.02 ERA. Then he had Tommy John surgery and returned with poor numbers no matter how you look at it. He rebounded with the xFIP this year with the Yankees, but a high HR/FB rate led to a higher ERA. Then he came to the Pirates and put up the best numbers of his career, with a 3.06 ERA and a 3.13 xFIP in 64.2 innings. Alan Saunders wrote about what led to those changes, although it’s hard to say whether they will be long lasting. The risk here is obvious, as Nova’s contract will largely be based on two successful months, which are somewhat backed up by success he had three and five years ago. The fact that J.A. Happ was in a similar situation a year ago, then went on to put up good numbers this year, makes Nova look like a better bet. But just because Happ carried his success over doesn’t mean Nova will. Still, in this weak market, betting that his time with the Pirates is legit isn’t a bad call. I’d actually take that over betting that Hellickson continues pitching the way he did in 2016.
Bounce Back Candidates
Brett Anderson – It was just a year ago that Anderson had a 3.69 ERA and a 3.51 xFIP in 180.1 innings. He’s dealt with injury problems most of his career, after putting up a 3.5 and 2.5 fWAR in his first two seasons in the majors. The injuries continued in 2016, limiting him to 11.1 innings in the majors, with some poor results along the way. He’s still young, and will be in his age 29 season next year. He’s not a very dominant pitcher, with some average-to-below average strikeout rates the last few years, and getting success with an extreme ground ball rate. I don’t think there’s top of the rotation potential here, as his ability to return to 2009-10 numbers, and stay healthy, seem like a long shot. He could be a good back of the rotation option to compete with Drew Hutchison and the other prospects in Triple-A, but he’d probably get better offers than that.
Andrew Cashner – Cashner posted some good numbers from 2013-15, combining for a 3.43 ERA and a 3.68 xFIP, and averaging around a 2.5 fWAR per season. He had a down year in 2016, struggling with his control and seeing a slight drop in his velocity. Those problems only got worse after his trade to the Marlins. Perhaps there is something that can be fixed here, and the Pirates could get him back to the pitcher he was before this season. He wouldn’t be the number one option I’d go after, but would be a great second addition to the rotation, or a good option if they did go for adding two guys from the “bounce back” category.
Edison Volquez – I’m including Volquez only because there has been a lot of talk that the Royals will decline his option. When he was with the Pirates, he had a good ERA at 3.04, but his xFIP was lower at 4.20. He had a repeat of that with the Royals in 2015, with a 3.55 ERA and a 4.26 xFIP. This year he struggled with a 5.37 ERA and a 4.58 xFIP. His ground ball rate was still strong at 51.2%, but his walks were slightly up, and so were the home runs. His velocity was still solid, topping out at 97 MPH, and averaging 93, and he was still an innings eater with 189.1 innings. The Pirates got him back on track two years ago, and maybe they could do it again. He wouldn’t make sense as the main addition, but would be a good second option to strengthen the back of the rotation.
**2016 Rotation Recap: Almost Everything Went Wrong For the Pirates. A quick read of the 2016 rotation problems, and the future outlook show why the Pirates definitely need to add at least one starter this off-season.
**Four Pirates Among International League’s Top Ten Prospects. Some good results from the Pirates in a very strong league for prospects.
**AFL: Wood and Jhang Reach Base Three Times Each in Loss. John Dreker with the latest AFL recap.