It now appears as if A.J. Burnett will not be back with the Pirates next season. The veteran right hander is contemplating retirement. Even if he decides he wants to pitch in 2014, he may not be a fit within in the Pirates budgeted payroll. GM Neal Huntington did not extend Burnett a qualifying offer due to budget concerns. Now Huntington must look to how to best address the hole in the starting rotation left by Burnett’s departure. The Pirates do have sizable depth in their system. They could go to Spring Training and allow Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, Stolmy Pimentel, Phil Irwin, and others to compete for the opening. That seems risky for a team coming off 94 wins in 2013 and has legitimate aspirations of contending for the NL Central Division crown. Burnett was a solid and durable pitcher that could be counted on to make 30+ starts and log close to 200 innings. It would be a tall task for any of the internal options to replace that kind of production. And if one of the other starting pitchers that the Bucs are counting on goes down for an extended period of time the season could be lost. It would probably be in the best interests of the Pirates to bring in a veteran starting pitcher they could plug into the middle of the rotation to eat some of the innings lost by Burnett’s departure. The Pirates have had success finding undervalued struggling starting pitchers and reaping the benefits of a bounce back season. That will likely be the strategy the Bucs use to replace Burnett if they can’t get him to re-sign at a discount. They’ll be looking for pitchers that can be inked to a 1 year contract at a salary significantly lower than the $14 qualifying offer. I suspect the Pirates would not be willing to go more than $9 million with such an offer. Here are the free agent starting pitcher candidates that might fit the criteria of 1 year at less than $9 million:
Tim Hudson: Just prior to the start of free agency I thought Hudson would make a great plan B if the Bucs lost Burnett. I don’t think it is very likely to happen. The market for Hudson appears stronger than I first thought. It has been reported that as many as 10 teams are interested in Hudson. The Red Sox and the Giants have shown particularly strong interest. Hudson would also prefer more than a 1 year deal. With the number of teams interested I suspect he will get a two year contract or a 1 year deal beyond $10 million.
Josh Johnson: Johnson had a hugely disappointing season in 2013 posting a horrific 6.20 ERA. His peripherals were much better. His xFIP was 3.58. A .356 BABIP and 18.5% HR/FB indicate he suffered from some rather poor luck. He looks like a prime bounce back candidate. He is very much like the type of undervalued pitcher the Pirates have had success acquiring and fixing in the past. Despite his 2013 struggle it appears Johnson has quite the demand. He is only 30 years old and it wasn’t that long ago that he was a dominating pitcher. The Yankees, Mets, and Rangers are among the teams interested in signing Josh Johnson. Those are teams with deep pockets. However, he may still be a fit for the Pirates. Johnson is said to be seeking a 1 year contract so he can rebuild value and hit the free agent market again next offseason. If that is truly the case he might be willing to sacrifice some dollars for the situation that he thinks he could most thrive in. Pittsburgh would be an ideal place for a pitcher like Johnson to rebuild his value. PNC Park is among the most pitcher friendly stadiums in the league and the Pirates would field an excellent defense behind him. The Pirate coaching staff also has a track record of fixing talented pitchers like Josh Johnson. He profiles very much like Francisco Liriano last off season and A.J. Burnett prior to the 2012 season.
Phil Hughes: Hughes also had a disastrous 2013. Unlike Johnson, Hughes’ peripherals were less kind. Hughes is only 27 years old but he hasn’t been a very good pitcher over the last 3 seasons. There might not be enough of a market for him to get a multi-year contract offer. He may fit the Pirate’s budget. I don’t think he is fit for the team. The Pirates covet ground ball pitchers. Hughes has never had a ground ball rate greater than 37%.
Dan Haren: In 2013 Dan Haren had a 4.67 ERA which was a full point higher than his 3.67 xFIP. He got off to a terrible start to the season but posted some good numbers in the second half. He was also victimized by a rather high HR/FB rate. His ground ball rate dropped to just 36%. That was the worst GB% of his career. In recent seasons Haren has relied heavily on his cutter and that pitch failed him in 2013. Hitters abused Haren’s cutter this season to the tune of a .329 Avg. Emphasizing his 2 seam fastball instead of the cutter would likely raise his GB% and could make a big difference in his effectiveness. The Pirates have had success with other pitchers by having them deemphasize a less effective pitch in favor of more sinkers or 2 seam fastballs. Baseball insiders are predicting Haren will receive a 1 year contract in the $7-8 million range. This looks like a very good fit for Pittsburgh.
Roberto Hernandez: Formerly known as Fausto Carmona, Hernandez is the cheapest of the pitchers I’m profiling. He earned a modest $3.2 million with the Rays last season and did little to warrant a much larger investment from any team in 2014. He still could be a fit for the Pirates for one reason: he is an extreme ground ball pitcher. Hernandez posted a 53.2% ground ball rate in 2013. His career GB% is 57.8%. Despite keeping the ball on the ground Hernandez tends to get hit really hard when hitters do elevate his pitches. He has sported two straight seasons with HR/FB rates above 20%. Pitching in the cavernous PNC Park would certainly help him suppress the home runs.