Earlier this week Pirates GM Neal Huntington stunned baseball insiders by choosing not to offer A.J. Burnett a $14 million qualifying offer. In 2013 Burnett contributed a 4.0 WAR and led National League pitchers in K/9. That equates to a $20 million value on the open market. Most felt it was a lock that the Pirates would extend Burnett a qualifying offer. Today Huntington elaborated on the decision to David Todd of 970ESPN. Huntington said that $14 million for one player was too steep of a price for the Pirates and that it would eat up too big of a chunk of their budgeted payroll. He did not say how big their budget is. Huntington went on to add that the Pirates will continue to look for free agent bargains. The team found success last year by signing the undervalued Francisco Liriano and reaping the benefits of his huge bounce back season. The Pirates have shown a knack for identifying talented yet struggling pitchers such as Liriano and fixing them.
I find the response from Huntington hugely disheartening. The price of pitching on the free agent market is skyrocketing. Even undervalued pitchers coming off bad seasons will see inflated contract offers. If the Pirates can’t afford a $14 million qualifying offer for A.J. Burnett they probably won’t be able to afford the most talented “fixable” undervalued pitchers either. Many of the best bounce back candidate starting pitchers are expected to see contract offers not far below that of the $14 million qualifying offer. Pittsburgh fans are enamored with the idea of the Pirates signing Josh Johnson and allowing pitching gurus Jim Benedict and Ray Searage to turn him into the next reclamation project success story like they did with Liriano. However, most baseball insiders are predicting Johnson will get offers in excess of $10 million per season. I don’t think that is what Huntington has in mind when says he is looking for bargains. Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of this. Is Burnett truly beyond the team’s budget or do they just not want him back and this is the excuse to get rid of him? At what cost would Huntington sign A.J. Burnett? I hope we find out.
The Pirates have developed a reputation lately as a place where pitchers can come to rehabilitate their careers. A big reason for that is Jim Benedict. He was the mastermind behind the revamped delivery of Charlie Morton that saved Morton’s career. Benedict was also a big key to the success of Francisco Liriano this season. Liriano spent an extra month in extended spring training this year working with Jim Benedict. Given the great work Benedict has done at fixing pitchers, it came at no surprise to me that he emerged as a leading candidate for the Phillies vacant pitching coach position. According to Phillies beat writer Todd Zolecki, Benedict has chosen to remain with the Pirates.
This is great news for the Bucs. Jim Benedict has been an integral part of the Pirates success at developing pitchers. For the past two years Benedict has served as a Special Assistant to GM Neal Huntington. In this role he can freely work on special pitching projects. Some people refer to Benedict as a pitching guru. I consider him more of an engineer. He breaks down a struggling pitcher’s mechanics and reengineers their delivery. Prior to his current position he held the title of Pitching Coordinator. The current Pitching Coordinator is Scott Mitchell. Mitchell is a protege of Jim Benedict and was hired by the Bucs on Benedict’s recommendation.
MLB Free Agency is under way and A.J. Burnett is free to sign with any team without the hinderance of a lost draft pick because The Pirates refused to extend Burnett a $14.1 qualifying offer. General Manager Neal Huntington insists The Pirates still intend on retaining Burnett. A.J. himself has stated he will only pitch for the Pirates or retire. However, the decision not to extend a qualifying offer to Burnett is a curious one. He is well worth $14.1 million on the open market. If Burnett has a change of heart and opens his services up to other teams he’ll have little trouble finding suitors. Burnett and his family make their home in Maryland. The Baltimore Orioles are right in his back yard and they are desperately searching for a top end starting pitcher. I believe not offering Burnett the qualifying offer was a mistake. I don’t think he would have accepted the offer anyway. Burnett would not risk signing a deal in which there was any chance he could be traded in season. The Bucs could have negotiated lower than the $14.1 million qualifying offer by dangling an ironclad no trade clause as part of the deal. By not making the qualifying offer the Pirates risk losing Burnett to another team like the Orioles without even receiving a compensatory draft pick.
The Pirates now begin their off season search to fill holes at first base, right field, and starting pitcher. The Pirates are interested in re-signing RF Marlon Byrd. If Pittsburgh can’t re-sign Byrd they likely will turn to internal options. Highly rated prospect Gregory Polanco is likely to be called up by midseason. They could use Jose Tabata as a placeholder in right field until Polanco is ready.
Resolving first base is a murkier dilemma. The Pirates have used a platoon at first base for the past several seasons with declining results and there is no high end prospect on the cusp at 1B in the farm system. The best options for an upgrade from the free agent market are Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales. Both were given qualifying offers and are probably beyond the Pirate’s price range. The other free agent options would be James Loney or re-signing Justin Morneau and hoping he is more like the player he was for the Twins in August than the one that hit zero home runs in September after the Bucs acquired him.
The Pirates would only be in the market for a starting pitcher if A.J. Burnett retires or signs elsewhere. The Pirates have a lot of starting pitching depth but most of it comes with question marks. Burnett provides stability to the rotation. He can be counted on to pitch effectively over 30+ starts. Josh Johnson or Tim Hudson are free agents the Bucs could turn to as replacements for Burnett but they come with more risk at only a slightly lesser cost. More likely the Bucs will go shopping for a starter on the bargain rack. The Pirates covet ground ball pitchers so Roberto Hernandez and his 57.8% career GB% could be a fit. Other options include left handers Joe Saunders, Chris Capuano, and our old friend Paul Maholm.
The top priority for the Pittsburgh Pirates this off season is to re-sign A.J. Burnett. Burnett is a big personality. He is brash and outspoken. He may have rocked the boat a little too much in 2013, but he is a damn fine pitcher. He is the first right handed pitcher in Pirate team history to record 200 strikeouts in a season. In his two seasons in Pittsburgh he has posted a 26-21 record and 3.41 ERA. Last year he posted the second highest ground ball % and fourth highest K/9 rate among all qualified pitchers. Despite being 37 years old next season he is still a good bet to make 30+ starts and pitch close to 200 innings. This is not a pitcher that can easily be replaced. Losing Burnett would be a big blow and that is the reason The Pirates appear willing to make an unprecedented qualifying offer to Burnett. To some teams the $14.1 million qualifying offer is no big deal. For the small market/low revenue Pirates it is a very big deal. Right now he is General Manager Neal Huntington’s main focus. But he can’t be his only focus. Burnett is considering retirement. He has said repeatedly Pittsburgh is the only team he will pitch for and that he is 50/50 on whether or not he is coming back. Huntington can only wait on Burnett’s decision for so long. The Bucs have other holes to fill and if AJ chooses to retire they’ll have a hole in the rotation to fill too. They don’t want to be left without a dance partner because AJ Burnett couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to go to the prom. They need a Plan B.
Tim Hudson would make a perfect Plan B for the Pirates. Hudson is no spring chicken either, but the 38 year old right hander has a track record of durability. He has 8 seasons of 30+ starts and 200+ innings. He did miss the last two months of this season due to a horrific ankle injury suffered while covering a play at first base. But Hudson’s arm is fine and his ankle is nearly healed. He should be ready to go for Spring Training. The Pirates covet ground ball pitchers and Hudson is an extreme ground ball pitcher. He has not had a season with a GB% of less than 55% and his career rate is 58%. He is also a proven winner. With a stellar career record of 205-111, Hudson is borderline hall of fame pitcher. The Braves are said to be interested in re-signing Hudson, but they do not appear willing to extend him a qualifying offer. So signing him would not cost the Pirates a draft pick. At this stage of his career Hudson would only be interested in signing with a contender. A Pirate team coming off 94 wins that calls the very pitcher friendly PNC Park its home should be a situation that Hudson would consider a fit. The dollars should also match up. It is hard to envision Hudson getting an offer as large as the qualifying offer the Pirates are likely to give to Burnett. MLBTradeRumors.com has estimated Hudson will receive a 1 year, $9 million contract. Personally I’d prefer the Pirates land AJ Burnett. However, if I were Neal Huntington I’d have a call into Tim Hudson’s agent as soon free agency begins on November 5th to gauge his interest in joining the Pirates. If AJ Burnett drags his feet too long they can quickly switch to Plan B.
The Pirates have used a platoon at first base for the better part of the past two seasons. They’ve also often gone to a platoon in right field. Many people have been critical with the of lack consistent production from Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez against left handed pitchers. These critics have suggested they too should be platooned at their respective positions. All this platoon talk is madness! The Pirates only faced a left handed starting pitcher 31 times in 2013. There just isn’t a whole lot of left handed starting pitchers in the NL Central and it doesn’t appear that will change much in 2014. Tony Cingrani will take over a slot in the Reds rotation full time. He should make more than the 18 starts he made in 2013. If Jaime Garcia proves healthy he could be an added southpaw to the Cardinals rotation. The only other left handed starter of note within the division is the Cubs’ Travis Wood. It is possible one of these teams will make an addition in the offseason, but right now that doesn’t seem too likely.
At what point and at what cost does the right handed bat in a platoon see such little playing time that it is no longer cost effective to warrant keeping that player? League wide 28.8% of all plate appearances were against a left handed pitcher. Pirate hitters faced a left hander just 20.1% of their plate appearances. Had the Pirates seen the same distribution of left handed pitching as the rest of the league they would have faced right handers 536 less times. That is close to one full time player worth of ABs. Carrying a player simply because he rakes against southpaws should be less valuable to the Pirates. Good right handed bats on the bench are needed to counter left handed specialists. But if those right handed bench bats don’t provide much position flexibility it is hard to justify paying them a premium. This is the case with Gaby Sanchez. If Sanchez is tendered arbitration he could make in excess of $3 million next season. He hits southpaws well but he provides little in the way of roster flexibility and the Pirates simply won’t face enough left handed pitching to warrant the salary he will make in 2014. The Pirates should search hard for a full time first base option this offseason and reallocate the money spent on Sanchez to help the roster in another area. I’ve advocated trying to acquire Angels 1B Mark Trumbo, but even a left handed option with less than ideal splits like free agent James Loney could work. You wouldn’t want to expose Loney to a lot of left handed pitching but the Bucs are set to face such few left handed starters that it shouldn’t be that much of a concern.