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.

“Established” Starters

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.

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71 COMMENTS

  1. I’m now thinking Michael Pineda might be the best trade target. NYY not expected to be strong in 2017 and he is a free agent at the end of next season. Has good strikeout numbers, unrealistically high BABIP and prior to last year had good BB/9 numbers. He might be had affordably for two lower tier prospects like Nova was.

  2. I’m all in with Nova .. no one else has the age, arm, results to be AJ/Liriano/Volquez type. At this point I’m hoping for Nova-Cole-Kuhl-Taillon-rebound/reclamation project. Guys I see as options, only if the money is right … Bret Anderson (29-L), Cashner (30), Doug Fister (33), Jason Hammel (34 if option not exercised by Cubs), Jeremy Hellickson (30), & Derek Holland (30-L if option not exercised by Tx). These aren’t great names but have had some success and aren’t too old to regain that success. They would have to be low money, maybe incentive-based deals, to compete with Hutchison out of ST. Anderson and Holland are lefty which plays up at PNC and fit the injury-caused-flaw-in-mechanics MO the Bucs like. Cashner has been good out of the pen which could play for Clint. Hammel pitched well this year but not in same league as his Cub brethren. Fister and Hellickson are good, value options but will likely command too much.

    • Hellickson would be my top choice if he isn’t tagged with a QO. I like Hammel as more of a possible mentor to Glasnow, a fellow tall pitcher, but the Cubs are extremely likely to pick up his option. He’s not a high upside starter, but Fister might be the best fit for the PBC price wise.

      Can’t say I envy NH at all with the offseason he faces.

  3. These guys are all pretty much horrible, given the money they’ll command. Trading quality for quality is the only path.

  4. I think I like Cashner the best of those guys, honestly. Just get him back in the strike zone and most of his problems will take care of themselves. He can miss bats, and he’s only one year removed from a stretch of three consecutive 2+ WAR seasons.

    Rich Hill is also really interesting, though. He’s the best pitcher of them when healthy, and if our prospects take a step forward, we might not need him to be healthy all year.

    • Yup.

      Cashner, I think, has the best longterm potential and Hill the best short.

      The latter will be out of the Pirates price range. Cashner, though…will be out of the Pirates price range.

      As a fan, I’d love to see the Pirates take a Josh Bell approach and break the system by giving Cashner a chunk. Instead of offering 1/8, and watch while someone signs him for 2/20, blow all the other teams out of the market for a mid-range guy who’s a reclamation project and hope for the best. If the team has faith in it’s ability to fix, toss 4/52 at him.

      If it pans out, he’s an absolute steal in today’s market. If it doesn’t, you hope the new CBA and television money makes the deal less painful.

  5. QO is to be around 17.2 this year…Word is Philly might offer it to Hellickson. Either way, he’s probably the top FA pitcher this year and will be way out of the Pirates range.

  6. The trade front looks almost as week when you consider pitchers the Pirates “can” get in a trade. They’ll never give up what they need to get an Archer, Gray or Quintana. They’d most likely go after an Ervin Santana, Eovaldi or if we are lucky Severino. Whoever they sign or trade for they’ll have to overpay and hope for the upside. Let’s just hope they do pay and overpay and go all in for 2017.

  7. If this is what is available then it is not much. I would see what Volquez wants but not much interested in the others. anyway NH will not spend the 18 million that he saved on Liariano on another (better) pitcher. It will go to offset raises given in arbitration and the freese signing.

  8. Wade Davis may be available. One year at $10M for a top of the line closer. What would it take? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

    • He had 3 years of Team Options and I think for 2017 the Royals have a $10 mil option or a buyout of $2.5 mil. With the size of that buyout, I doubt he is going anywhere. IMO, one of the best late inning guys in MLB.

  9. I’d like 2 of the 3 of Nova, Cashner, and Hill. I know Hill might not even get to 150 innings but you gotta think either Kingham or Glasnow will be become a legit rotation option at some point.

  10. Speaking of pitching, what do you think about singing Mark M. If the Pirates could get him for 3/36? I would like to see Watson go back to the eighth inning, and the rest of our internal options look questionable for closer. I am also not interested in signing some free agent who will put up a 3.00 ERA while we scream about what a great year he is having.

    The Pirates could also see if one of their young flame throwers could do the job. The Reds won a World Series in 75 doing that. The Pirates traded for a starter by the name of Rich Gossage before the 77 season, and he was amazing that year in the bullpen. The Pirates also converted Roy Face and Dave Giusti into relievers. Face could throw hard as a starter, but did not have 9 inning stamina which was important back in the fifties. Giusti got off to a slow start in 70 after being aquired from the Cardinals in the Carl Taylor trade. The Pirates put him in the bullpen, and the results were amazing.

      • I admit that it would be risky. I also think that spending even more money for a longer duration of time for Nova is risky as well.

        Personally, I would like to try some of our “Hunter Strickland” power arms in the bullpen.

    • I would love to get MM back. I think the pirates thought Watson would be a seamless transition to closer. That did not happen! We definitely need to bolster our bullpen.

      • Resigning Mark Melancon would probably be the most effective way we can address our pitching needs without rolling dice. I’d prefer to put it into starting pitching, but we may have to go the way of the royals here. The starting pitching isn’t there, and isn’t going to be there this year, so strengthen around it.

  11. Starting to make a little more sense why Huntington would overpay for Hutchinson with only these options on the market. Of course Hutchinson has yet to actually show himself to be worth something…

    • clemo83- If Liriano was on the above list where would he be placed? I truly hope Hutchinson awakens and blossoms into his potential.

      • Liriano would be a top free agent for sure, although I’d be more than a little wary of him. If he never had a history as a Pirate, he would probably look like the best candidate for us to sign. I did say “starting to make a little more sense” which means it still doesn’t make sense – haha. I’m sure the weak free agent market played into Huntington’s decision.

    • Seriously though, they could do a lot worse than to slot Morton into the mix as rotation depth/multi-inning guy out of the pen.

      • I was in the distinct minority on Morton. I liked him. More as a professional then as a performer but I agree with the bullpen option. I have know clue about what re-hab issues exist.

      • You can put him in the Brett Anderson category…good, but can’t seem to stay healthy.

        No idea if the Phils will exercise their half of the option…He’d be a nice veteran presence with upside at the backend of a young rotation for them. Maybe Philly pulls the triggering if they Hellickson won’t return.

        No idea whether Morton will exercise his half if they do. I can’t see him getting more than 2 years…so, is 2/13 better than 1/9.5 at this stage of his career?

        I’ve read speculation that he’s bound for Atlanta.

        Is he a good fit for the Pirates? I don’t know…it depends on what the team’s goals are next season. Are they going to try to compete? If so, yeah, Charlie would be a decent option at the back end…But this team has so many rotation questions, it may be just as well they answer them by testing out the young arms and seeing what happens.

        • The team’s goals cannot be in question, in my opinion. Punting two years in a row is halfway to wasting as many years as a damn full rebuild, except they’ve lost more organizational assets than they’ve gained. Coming off a true talent 90+ win club with a core of controllable players, that should be a fireable offense.

          Tim had to pick somebody, but I really don’t see how any of those three “established” starters are realistic; Hellickson probably isn’t actually very good at all, and the other two won’t be in the budget. I don’t have any delusions of Morton being a 30-start guy at this point, but I think he can absolutely rip off a good run in the rotation as we’ve seen him do before and then settle into a Joe Blanton role in the pen once Glasnow or Kingham press the issue.

          It was only four starts, but the Phillies made significant changes to Morton’s delivery and pitch selection. Dude was averaging almost 95mph on his sinker and running it up to 97 while throwing way more splitters/changeups and adding a really nice cutter around 90mph against lefties.

          • I’m not sold on the competitiveness of the team next season.

            Cole, I think, will be fine. He’s a solid #2 and, when he’s on, a #1. Taillon? Love the kid and he had a heck of a season, we’ll see how hitters adjust to him next season and how he adjusts to their adjustments. He may be fine, but he’ll probably have some growing pains.

            After that? Zheeeeesh. Rebuilds and guys coming off of rough rookie outings. Oh, and Locke.

            So…yeah…unless everything breaks the right way…which would entail the best of the rookies, Kuhl, stepping up, picking the right reclamation lottery ticket, another of 2016 rookies pitching well, good health, and strong contributions from AAA…unless all that happens, I’m tempering my expectations.

            • Boy, that sure begs the question of what exactly *is* the direction of this team if true. 2015 was supposed to be, understandably, the bridge year. Fine.

              But a second losing campaign with more of the core sure to soon be sent packing and I sure as hell don’t think Huntington deserves to be the one doing the rebuilding at that point. Enough is enough.

              I’m not expecting to beat the Cubs, but they absolutely should be returning to the playoffs next year and I think they will with quality work done this winter.

              • I agree.

                Up-the-middle infield is nothing special, but Altuve and Correa didn’t exactly lead the Astros to a playoff berth. But the team is solid around the likes of Mercer and Harrison and they’re average players, maybe a hair better.

                The OF is fine…even if New Cutch isn’t Old Cutch, the corners make this a solid trio.

                If Kang stays out of jail and Bell is at first…they’ll be the best corner infield hitting tandem the Pirates have had since….? ’79 Madlock/Stargell?

                Catcher is meh, Cervelli calls a good game and gets on base…no power, but I’d take a healthy him over an average catcher any day.

                Not upset about the BP…it doesn’t look great now, but they’ve got enough internal options that I think it will be fine.

                All the makings of a playoff team…until you get to that rotation. Dear lord, had I told you this time last season that the 2017 opening day rotation would be: “Cole and Taillon…”

                …you’d be all excited waiting for the next name to drop…

                Then I’d quickly mumble: “Hutchison, a reclamation project, and Kuhl…”

                …and you’d shit your pants, call me an idiot, and say there’s no way that would happen just one season after a 98 win campaign.

                I’m not slamming NH just yet…this off-season is going to be huge…if he pulls this off, extend him until the end of time. But the Pirates constant limited resources and a very shallow free agent market means there really isn’t a lot of room for failure….that’s why I wouldn’t be shocked if they put the 4-5 and, maybe 3-5 spots in the rotation up for grabs to the best internal candidates and hope to compete if they can catch lightning in a bottle with a guy or two…(pssst, hey, Glasnow, everyone is looking at you).

                We’ll see how it all shakes out…way too early to tell now…

      • OH, PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I hope that you are referring to former Cowboys, Broncos, and Giants quarterback Craig Morton instead of the poster child for inconsistency, Charlie Morton. In fact, the only thing he did consistently is have one melt down inning per start that resulted in giving up a crocked number of runs. If not, you are either on drugs, or you need to be!!!!!!!
        What on God’s green earth do you want with Charlie Morton again? CAN WE PLEASE GET PAST THE RECLAMATION PROJECT/REUNION OF PAST PIRATES (Can you say Ryan Vogelsong?), and finally get some solid, reliable, stating pitching that will enable us to compete legitimately with the Cubs, Cards., Nats., Giants, Dodgers, and Mets?!?!?!?! I AM SOOOOO SICK OF THIS CRAP EVERY YEAR!!!!!!!!!!!!! And if the Bucs re-sign Vogelsong and Locke, and Neal Huntington comes out with the spin of “well, they’ve both done some great things for us in the past, and we feel that our people can get them both to perform more consistently”, I SWEAR SOMEONE IS GOING TO HAVE TO CALL THE SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE ON MY BEHALF!!!!!!!!!!!!! I HAVE HAD IT, HAD IT, AND THEN SOME, WITH THE RECLAMATION PROJECT APPROACH TO TRYING TO BUILD A COMPETITIVE PITCHING STAFF. PLEASE, STOP THE MADNESS!!!!!!!!! I am not expecting the Bucs to sign or trade for the likes of Zach Greinke or David Price. That said, attempting to be a contender while building with the likes of Kyle Lobstein, Cory Lubke, Ryan Vogelsong, etc., etc., etc., has got to stop!!!!!!!!!!

          • Thanks, I will put it on speed dial. Hopefully, Bob Nutting, Neil Huntington, and his staff, all learned a valuable enough lesson this past off-season and during the 2016 season that I won’t need that number. Said lesson being that you cannot expect champagne results on a beer budget. Translation: If you want to compete, LEGITEMATELY COMPETE, then Bob Nutting is going to have to increase the operating budget that Neal Huntington has to work with. Not so much so to be able to sign the likes of Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw, but at least enough to sign the likes of J.A. Happ and Ivan Nova.

  12. Yes the Pirates need SP, but the names listed above are not worth the time or money that would be required to sign them unless someone is looking for a new whipping post…..

  13. That’s one uninspiring list when you consider the Pirates needs. I’d immediately remove any of the injury prone guys from the list. The Pirates need someone who they can rely on to pitch 180+ innings in the worst way.

    I suppose Nova would be #1 and Volquez #2, but I have no illusion they’ll end up signing both. Be happy if they got one of these two.

  14. If recent history tells us anything, it’s that Huntington’s wish list probably includes a number of guys already signed elsewhere. I’d be very surprised if the Bucs ink a guy like Hill. More likely that they will look to bolster the rotation through trade.

    • I agree 100%. That’s in part b/c of what’s available in FA and the Pirates’ aversion at overspending their cash. They don’t seem to have quite the same aversion for overspending with their prospects. If they decide to retain their prospects, everyone should be prepared for another lackluster offseason.

    • Id prefer the trade route. Im dreaming of chris archer or jose quintana but realistically i could see huntington targeting someone like jake odorizzi or trevor bauer.

      • Any of those four would be stabilizing. I like your thoughts on them, especially Odorizzi. Easn’t there some friction between Bauer and Cole as amateurs?

  15. Me personally, I would go hard at Volquez over Nova!! Bet on the fact he has been here, he’s comfortable here, he knows the players here!! Plus he would be cheaper than Nova!! I really feel we can get a 2/12 out of him!!

    • I was thinking similar things prior to reading BHW’s comment.
      If we sign someone with some risk and get someone who
      is willing to be coached, that would increase their likelihood
      of success.

      On a similar note, I am predicting a “most improved” rating for
      Bastardo in in BP in 2017 because now he wants to be here and
      is willing to work “with the system.” He had some nice moments
      this year when he returned. When he had a bad moment,
      you could just see it wasn’t about him as much but instead.
      “darn, I let these guys down and they believe in me.”
      I liked that.

      One other thing, I posted this before. For the short term,
      maybe, we should sign the fat guy. We can’t hit him and we
      can’t beat him. Either that or see if AJ is tired of sitting at
      home yet. We need help in the clubhouse.

  16. The biggest problem with all the available starters this offseason is that every option has red, flashing “buyer beware” lights involved. I wouldnt feel good about seeing the pirates sign any free agent starter to more than a two year deal. Best case scenario is they make a big trade for a solid #2 or #3 then add another pitcher on a one year deal to compete with the young guys for a spot at the back of the rotation.

    • The way the market is or had headed it will be awfully hard to trade for a #2-3 without crippling the team not just moving forward, but perhaps weakening the 2017 season as well. Nova was fun, and I know I’m nitpicking, but I don’t recalled him dominating a good team down the stretch (Astros maybe) he is going to get pay because he dominated teams like the Brewers and Reds. That’s said, I would love him to comeback not only as our #3, but with a arsenal similar to Taillon, perhaps a mentor. Cashner is similar to Samardhizarethdujnhtj! Lots of potential, but not much result, but again, I will not be upset it he was a Pirates.

      • My concern is that signing any pitcher from this market is going to be crippling for future seasons anyhow, so why not blow the farm and compete for the World series for a few seasons by making a big trade for a starter instead of competing for a wild card and trying to dump dead weight in 2 or 3 seasons? Besides the Pirates have a few seasons of having the starting 8 pretty much set so aside from a few exceptions (meadows, newman) most position player talent isnt going to have a regular role with the MLB team until 2019 at the earliest, AKA disposable assets.

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