Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates Should Double Down on Reclamation Pitchers

For the third year in a row a starting pitcher flew the coop as a free agent after his struggling career was revived in Pittsburgh under the tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage. Following the 2013 season A.J. Burnett cashed in with the Philadelphia Phillies. Last offseason Edinson Volquez signed a two year $20 million deal with the Kansas City Royals. J.A. Happ has become the latest Pirates’ reclamation project to get his big pay day from another team. Happ was able turn a great two month stretch into $36 million over 3 years from the Blue Jays. It is a pretty powerful indicator of the Pirates’ reputation at fixing pitchers that a guy with a 4.13 ERA and 4.20 FIP over 9 seasons can land $36 million guaranteed dollars off of the success of two months of quality pitching with the Pittsburgh Pirates after so many years of mediocrity. It is time for the Pirates to start better using their reputation as a destination for pitchers that want to revive their career.
I really wanted the Pirates to retain J.A. Happ. But if the Pirates handed out multi-year contracts worth $36 million to every pitcher that strung together a good ten start stretch for them then they would have a bunch of bad pitchers on their payroll. Jeff Locke has the same 4.20 career FIP as Happ, and Locke once pitched well enough over three months to earn an All-Star bid. How silly does it sound to offer Jeff Locke $36 million? Timing is everything and a bounce back season leading into free agency is the kind of timing that can land a pitcher a lot of money. The Pirates have a great track record of helping pitchers like that cash in.
Instead of fighting the obvious it is time to embrace the strategy fully. The Pirates should double down on reclamation projects. I’m not saying the Pirates should get more of them. I think one free agent project signing at a time is perfect. But the Pirates should tweak their strategy by aiming either for higher quality pitchers or exert pressure to lock these kind of reclamation project pitchers into a second year with the club. Both strategies would take a little more money. Here are two examples:
Example 1: Pirates attempt to convince Jeff Samardzija that a year in Pittsburgh could get him an even bigger payday next offseason. Two years ago it looked as if Samardzija was headed for a monster free agent deal. But a poorly timed rough season with the White Sox during his walk year killed a lot of his value. Samardzija is still going to get a nice payday…just not the $150 million multi-year deal he would have gotten had he continued to pitch well in 2015. But if Samardzija were to have a great bounce back season with a team on a 1 year deal he could still get that monster contract. There is no better place to attempt that than Pittsburgh. Samardzija has a much higher ceiling than the typical reclamation signing, but of course this would cost more money than the Pirates typically pay for a reclamation pitcher. No matter how appealing the scenario Jeff Samardzija isn’t signing anywhere for $8 million. But would $20 million for one season and another shot at a huge payday next offseason pique his interest? The Pirates need to find out.
Example 2: Secure a second year club option with your reclamation projects. For the sake of argument let’s say the Pirates sign Trevor Cahill who they have been rumored to have interest in. Cahill fits the mold of a reclamation project bounce back candidate. Instead of signing him for a single year and then watching him walk via free agency after as solid season pitching at PNC Park, the Pirates should double down by demanding the deal include a second year club option. The appeal to these kind of deals to a pitcher like Cahill is the opportunity to get to free agency again with rebuilt value. So if he is going to consider losing an additional year of control he will need to be compensated well for it. The club option year would have to be significant money, probably in the vicinity of $12 million with a healthy $3 million buyout if not exercised. No matter how Cahill were to pitch the Pirates would end up paying him significantly more than what it would take to control him for just one season. But if Cahill pitches as well as the other recent reclamation signings that the Bucs have made then that second year could be great value.
Either of these strategies would be a gamble for the Pirates. But if the Pirates believe in their success with fixing pitchers then these are gambles worth taking. So my advice to GM Neal Huntington is simple….Double Down on your next reclamation project starting pitcher free agent signing.

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