The Pirates didn’t have a good off-season last year when it came to pitching. You could argue that one of their biggest mistakes was watching J.A. Happ sign elsewhere for an affordable three years and $36 M. They received a lot of criticism after trading for Happ, and then took even more criticism when they saw him walk.
The criticism at the time of the trade might have been a bit justified when you consider Happ’s track record prior to the deal, although that required ignoring the Pirates’ track record of turning pitchers around. The criticism after the deal was a bit ironic, as it came from a lot of the same people who criticized the initial move, although I’m not sure it was unjustified.
When the Pirates added Happ, they said they had been trying to get him for a long time. They got him, made some changes, and he saw a lot of success. He didn’t fully repeat that success in year one of his contract, but he did put up some good numbers, and was worth a 3.2 fWAR with the Blue Jays in 2016. That would have made him the top pitcher on the Pirates’ staff this year, finishing 0.7 WAR ahead of Gerrit Cole.
The Pirates believed in Happ enough to make him their primary upgrade at the deadline, but weren’t aggressive enough to sign him to his affordable deal after he made their belief in him look smart. Instead, they traded for Jon Niese, who didn’t have the same upside, but if all went well, would have been paid $30 M over three years, which isn’t far off what Happ received (although most of that wasn’t guaranteed, making it a safer contract).
You can’t really say that the Pirates never take a risk like Happ though. Just the year before, they signed Francisco Liriano to a three year, $39 M deal. This was after he put up impressive numbers in 2013 and 2014, and he returned with a 3.6 fWAR in 2015, looking like he justified the deal.
We all know the story from here. Liriano struggled in year two, looking like a replacement level pitcher with the Pirates. They didn’t trust that he would bounce back with them, and didn’t want to risk $18 M on that happening, so they traded him and traded prospects away to complete the deal, which is a bad move that we’ve discussed enough over the last few months, and won’t be discussing further in this article.
The Pirates had two scenarios with reclamation starters-turned-free agents. They signed Liriano, and that deal didn’t look good after the second year. They didn’t sign Happ, and that deal is looking good after year one, just like Liriano’s deal.
So which one was the mistake?
You’ve got a sample size of one in each case, and they aren’t even equal in the comparisons. We’ve seen two years from Liriano, and only one from Happ. After one year from Liriano, the signing looked great. The same is true from Happ. Will the same be true about a downturn for Happ in year two? Or maybe year three? What is the expiration date on a reclamation project? That’s a huge question, and the answer would help answer the question: Were the Pirates right in signing Liriano and wrong in not signing Happ? Or were they right in passing on Happ and wrong in signing Liriano?
All of this is very relevant this off-season, as they’re posed with the same situation. They need pitching, and just turned Ivan Nova around. He has offers in the J.A. Happ area of three years, $36 M, according to his agent. Some predictions this off-season have been in the four year, $50 M range. He and his agent were shooting higher than that when the Pirates tried to extend him during the year, asking for five years and $70 M.
By comparison, the Happ deal looks great for Nova when looking at the other predictions and asking prices. But also by comparison, the Happ deal looks appropriate, as Nova’s situation is very similar to Happ. The one thing that could drive up Nova’s value is being in a weak starting market, which could get him a fourth year guaranteed.
But the big question here is whether the Pirates should take the risk. I think the answer to the question above is that you can expect a certain amount of risk with a multi-year deal for a pitcher. We saw it with Liriano, and I believe we will see it with Happ in either year two or three. If Nova ends up signing for three years and $36 M, or something in that range, I think it’s a price that the Pirates could justify, and he would be a good pitcher to sign. At the same time, there would be risk, and you could make a reasonable prediction that one of those years would be wasted due to injury or poor performance.
The flip side is that the Pirates could avoid multi-year deals and stick with the reclamation project approach, adding one or two guys per year as bounce back candidates. If they don’t bounce back, you’re not on the hook beyond that season. If they do bounce back, you get the production you wanted out of Nova, and don’t have to worry about whether that production can be sustained for a long period of time. In order for this to happen, the Pirates would have to stick with the approach that works best, going for reclamation projects with upside. They didn’t do this last year with Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong, but they did it with Nova. I think signing someone like Derek Holland would be closer to the Niese/Vogelsong type reclamation project, while signing an Andrew Cashner or Edinson Volquez would be closer to Nova and the other successful reclamation projects.
Another way of looking at it would be to consider the expectations from Nova. You’d hope that you would get two good seasons from him on a three year deal of around $40 M total. For that price, you could get 4-5 reclamation projects over that three year span. I would think with the Pirates’ track record, they could get at least two good years from that group, giving them the same production as Nova in the end, with the potential for more upside.
The more I think about this upcoming off-season, the more I think the reclamation approach is the way to go. It’s easy to understand why fans would want to move to a pitcher that seems more like a guarantee, as the Pirates saw their pitching struggle last year with the reclamation approach. But that reclamation approach wasn’t the same as the approach they’ve had in the past, and it wasn’t the same as the approach that brought them Nova. The mistake they need to avoid this off-season is going for lower upside pitchers, rather than the high reward reclamation projects they’ve been so successful with in the past.
I’m sure this approach would lead to controversy, even though the Pirates would be spending the same amount of money. It kind of seems hypocritical to say they shouldn’t take this approach, since the argument against the approach points to Nova and Happ — two successful reclamation projects who caused controversy when they were added.
But ultimately, the choice is about financial risk. I think Nova could be a good pitcher for the majority of the next few years, and I think there are some good reclamation projects out there who can provide the same value. As long as the Pirates sign one of these guys and go for upside, rather than their low-ceiling approach from last year, then any approach they take to add pitching will be a good plan.
**AFL: Eric Wood Drives In Four Runs, As Saguaros Move Closer to Possible Division Title. Eric Wood keeps making more noise, and Surprise gets closer to the division title.
**Alex McRae Working on a New Changeup Following Successful Switch to the Sinker. My feature on McRae, who is pitching out of the bullpen in the AFL.