Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Category – Hot Stove

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.
 

Frankie Goes to Pittsburgh – Part II

The Pirates made it clear they intended on keeping Francisco Liriano when they extended him a qualifying offer. Today they got their man. The Pirates and Liriano agreed to a new 3 year contract worth $39 million dollars. This was a rare spending splurge for the Pirates. Never before had the franchise spent so much on a free agent. It is a positive sign that the Pirates were willing to pay market value for a solid middle of the rotation pitcher. However, let’s put things in perspective just a bit. Retaining Liriano means keeping the status quo. This is not an actual upgrade to the team that walked off the field after losing the N.L. Wild Card Game to the Giants on October 1st. Liriano had an up and down year in 2014. And it should not be forgotten that it was just two years ago that the Pirates were criticized for overpaying Liriano when they signed him the first time. Now the Pirates are committing 3 times as much money to re-sign the same pitcher. For the Pirates to get real value from this contract Liriano will need to pitch more like the guy that dominated the National League in his first season with the Bucs in 2013. That has kind of been the theme of this offseason for GM Neal Huntington as he has attempted to the put the band back together from the team that won 94 games in 2013. Last month he also signed A.J. Burnett. Burnett, Liriano, and Gerrit Cole make up the same 1, 2, 3 punch in the starting rotation that the Pirates rolled with down the stretch in 2013. Now they will try to replicate that success in 2015.
 

GM Neal Huntington Not Wasting Time This Offseason

We are barely two weeks into the MLB Hot Stove Season and Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington has already pulled the trigger on two major moves. On November 12th the Pirates acquired catcher Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Justin Wilson. Cervelli and backup catcher Chris Stewart make for a decent tandem that should give the Pirates at least a competent performance behind the dish in 2015. Although Cervelli won’t entirely make up for the loss of Russell Martin, he will make up for some of it. Cervelli rates well defensively. He is an above average pitch framer and the pitchers he has worked with in the past have raved about his game calling skills. He is not at Martin’s level when it comes to throwing out base stealers, but few catchers are. Cervelli can also hit a little bit. He has a career OPS of .729. Last season he posted a triple slash line of .301/.370/.432 in 49 games with New York. Solid numbers for a catcher for sure, albeit in a small sample. The biggest concern with Cervelli is staying on the field. He has missed games with a variety of ailments, most notably a broken hand and a hamstring strain. He also served a 50 game suspension for being linked to PEDs in the Biogenesis scandal. Cervelli has some warts, but he is a much better option for the Pirates than being stuck with no alternative than to hand the job to Tony Sanchez.
 
A few days after trading for Cervelli the Pirates then were reunited with an old friend when they signed free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett to a 1 year $8.5 million contract. Burnett signed with Philadelphia last off season after two years with the Pirates in which he posted a 26-21 record and a 3.41 ERA. A.J. found that the grass wasn’t as green on the other side of the state. The Phillies were a bad team and Burnett struggled as he pitched through a hernia all season. Burnett decided he didn’t want to finish his career on a team with no playoff hopes, so he declined his $12.75 million option to return to the Phillies in 2015. Burnett essentially took a $4 million pay cut because he wanted to return to the Pirates. I’m sure that went a long way in repairing any bridges that had been burned from his spat with manager Clint Hurdle over being passed up to pitch in Game 5 of the 2013 N.L.D.S against the Cardinals and from his indecision over whether or not to retire. Both Burnett and the Pirates had some differences that needed to be reconciled to pave the way for his return. That it happened at all is surprising. That it happened so quickly is almost unfathomable.
 
That is really the story of both of these moves from the past week. Neal Huntington is not wasting any time to improve the club. He is not allowing other players/teams to dictate the timing of his moves. This is a huge departure from how he approached things last year. Last off season Huntington allowed himself to be hamstrung waiting on A.J Burnett to decide if he was going to retire or not. Instead of aggressively pursuing a Plan B and a Plan C he kept money aside to sign A.J. Burnett. That money never got spent. This offseason has been the complete opposite. Although Huntington would like to resign Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano he wasn’t going to allow their decisions to leave him empty handed. He got a replacement catcher and a replacement for the starting rotation that make for good Plan B’s. And he still has money available and plenty of time left in the offseason to make more moves to improve the club.
 

Getting Defensive Over Catchers

It is less than a week into free agency and it is clear that the suitors for former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin are wasting no time in lining up. Martin has already met with the Cubs, and he has plans to meet with the Blue Jays and the Dodgers later this week. With all of these large market clubs that are flush with clash coveting the 31 year old backstop, the hopes that the Pirates can retain him are dwindling. Martin is going to get a huge pay day from some team. That team should not be the Pirates.
 
Russell Martin had an impressive season offensively in 2014. To a large degree that was a mirage. Martin is a smart professional hitter. But he is not a hitter that can be counted on to post an OPS of over .750, let alone reproducing the .832 OPS he had in 2014. That was largely the result of a ridiculously high BABIP of .336 that will surely regress next season. Martin will still be a solid hitter as far as catchers go, but only because the bar is very low for the position. League average OPS for catchers was just .701 in 2014. Going forward Martin is more likely to hit like he did from 2011 thru 2013. His OPS over that period was just .716. It is not Martin’s offensive projections that creates value in the eyes of the teams chasing him. It is his steady defensive production that has teams salivating over their chances of signing him. But is Martin’s defensive value something a team like the Pirates should be committing upwards of $60 million to?

 
Take a look at the following career totals of defensive stats for three current major league catchers in their early 30′s:
 

CS% Framing Runs per 7000 Blocking Runs per 7000
Catcher A 32% 17.9 1.4
Catcher B 38% 19.1 2.7
Catcher C 31% 21.3 1.1

 
These are three comparable defensive catchers. All three are well above average at throwing out base stealers, framing pitches, and blocking balls in the dirt. Two of the three were acquired last off season in trades. Two of the three have have salaries of less than $5 million. The other is Russell Martin.
 
Player A is Russell Martin
Player B is Ryan Hanigan
Player C is Chris Stewart.
 
Clearly a quality defensive catcher can be found without handing out an enormous multi-year contract. The Rays and Pirates did not have to trade any high end prospects to obtain Hanigan and Stewart last winter. So if defense is what you desire from your catcher why pay a premium for it on the free agent market? Martin does produce more offense than Hanigan and Stewart. But how significant is that boost in offense? It might be less than you think. In fact, over his career Hanigan has an on base percentage only slightly less than Russell Martin. Ryan Hanigan has a .353 career OBP versus .354 OBP for Russell Martin. If Martin were to hit like he did in 2014 then of course he would be much more valuable. However, we know that to be a pipe dream….just like the Pirates chances of ever signing a 31 year old catcher to a 4 year $60 million contract. It was never going to happen, so let’s not get defensive about it.
 

Gather Around the Hot Stove Pirates Fans

Now that a new World Series Champion has been crowned we can put the 2014 MLB season in the books and officially begin the Hot Stove season. What is in store for the Pittsburgh Pirates this offseason? Will it be quiet like last year, or does GM Neal Huntington have some surprises up his sleeve? Let’s get started with the questions the Pirates must answer before Spring Training begins in February.
 

First Order of Business – Will they extend qualifying offers to Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano? The Pirates have until November 3rd to extend qualifying offers to their pending free agents. The qualifying offer this year is worth $15.3 million. Martin is a lock to be offered a QO. Liriano is a bit more iffy, but I’m already on the record as saying the Pirates should extend the QO to him as well.
 

Biggest question of the offseason – How aggressively will the Pirates push to retain Russell Martin and will it be enough to sign him? The Pirates would really like to bring Martin back, but as the only quality catcher on the free agent market the bidding for his services will be fierce. If the Pirates are going to sign Martin it will likely take in the neighborhood of $60 million over 4 years to do it.
 

Second biggest question of the offseason – What to do at the 1B position? Who’s on first seems like an annual question every winter for the Bucs. The Pirates have used a platoon at 1B for several seasons, and that probably won’t change in 2015. Pedro Alvarez‘s throwing issues at 3B in 2014 forced the team to try him out at 1B. If he is going to have a future with the Pirates it will be as the left-handed hitter in the 1B platoon. However, the Pirates still have Ike Davis to occupy that role. It is hard to foresee the Pirates retaining both Ike and Pedro. One of them is likely to be dealt this offseason. Pedro has refused to play Winter Ball in the past. I think he should play Winter Ball this year to work on learning how to play 1B. If he refuses that could impact the Pirates decision.
 

Everything else….

Which arbitration eligible players will the Pirates tender? John Axford and Jeanmar Gomez have already been let go leaving the following list of arbitration eligible players the Pirates must decide if they will tender: Neil Walker, Mark Melancon, Ike Davis, Pedro Alvarez, Tony Watson, Josh Harrison, Vance Worley, Chris Stewart, Jared Hughes, Gaby Sanchez. The Pirates are likely to tender all of these players, although they may try to shop one or two of them in trades.
 

What bounce back candidate free agent starting pitcher will they sign? It seems like the Pirates sign a bounce back candidate starting pitcher every off season. Last year it was Edinson Volquez. The year before that it was Francisco Liriano. Who will it be this year? The hot name being suggested is Justin Masterson. Masterson is a ground ball pitcher with an ERA that was significantly higher than his FIP this season. So yes, he fits the profile.
 

Might they perhaps make a bigger free agency splash this year? According to GM Neal Huntington the Pirates had close to $20 million in their budget to shop for free agents last offseason. They were unable to find the right players and left most of that money on the table. It is unlikely they will expand their budget enough to do any shopping outside of the bargain bins, but this is a contending team ready to win. If there ever was a time for this organization to open the purse strings and make a run at signing an impact player it is now.
 

What about the possibility of a major trade? Huntington has flirted with trading for an impact player over the last several years. He tried to land Jon Lester and David Price at the trade deadline. The Pirates have also been attached to Mike Stanton rumors. Eventually Huntington is going to pull the trigger on a huge deal. Perhaps it will be this year at the Winter Meetings.
 

What about bench and depth signings? They certainly could use a backup middle infielder to replace Clint Barmes. Or maybe they will bring Barmes back again. Neal Huntington loves to collect AAAA players, so I am sure we will see several AAAA type players invited to Spring Training.

 

Francisco Lirian-QO

In roughly two weeks the Pittsburgh Pirates will have to make their first big decisions of the offseason – which pending free agents they should extend a qualifying offer (QO) to. The exact deadline will not be determined until the World Series has ended. Teams have five days after the conclusion of the World Series to make their qualifying offers. The QO this year is $15.3 million. That is no small sum for a team with a payroll budget of around $90 million like the Pirates. There are two pending free agents the Pirates will consider extending a QO. One is a no-brainer. The Pirates have already indicated they will make a qualifying offer to Russell Martin. There is no risk to doing so. He is practically guaranteed not to sign it, and if he does the Pirates will retain a player that is well worth the cost of the QO. As much as Pirate fans want Martin to be resigned the most likely scenario is he will turn down the QO from the Pirates and sign a multi-year extension with a larger market club. Under that scenario the Pirates would at least collect a draft pick in 2015 sandwiched between Rounds 1 and 2. The second player the Pirate will contemplate extending a qualifying offer to is Francisco Liriano. That decision is a little less clear cut, but I believe it is one the Pirates should make.
 

There is an outside chance that if the Pirates do make a QO to Liriano he might sign it. Although no player has yet to accept a QO, there were several players last offseason that probably wish they had. Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Ervin Santana, and Stephen Drew all found their market significantly impacted when their services were attached to the loss of a 1st round draft pick. Cruz, Morales, and Drew all signed 1 year deals for less than the qualifying offer. Santana signed a 1 year contract with the Braves for essentially the same amount as the QO. Eventually a player is going to end up just taking the QO instead of gambling on finding a longer term deal while their value is being suppressed by the signing penalty of a lost 1st round pick. Liriano profiles as the type of player that is most hurt by a QO. He is going to be 31 years old next season, he has thrown close to 1200 career innings, and he has an injury history. He also is too inconsistent to be considered a bonafide top of the rotation starting pitcher. Liriano is a better bet as a mid-rotation starter. For these reasons he likely would not fetch an enormous long term free agent contract even under the best of circumstances. He is inline for something like a 3 or 4 year deal in the $12-$14 million annual average value (AAV) range. The QO could really drag his market down further, which might make the $15.3 million 1 year salary that comes with a QO look like an attractive option to him.
 

If Liriano does accept a QO that isn’t such a terrible outcome for the Pirates. $15.3 million is some what of an overpay for Liriano, but it comes with no long term risk and he offers at least a fair chance at performing up to that level. Liriano can be maddeningly inconsistent at times, but he is also capable of being dominant. He is not a true ace but he is capable of pitching like one in stretches. In 2013 he pitched like an ace all season. He had some struggles in 2014, but there are signs Liriano can still be an elite pitcher. His K/9 rate of 9.70 and ground ball rate of 54.4% this season were even better than his 2013 numbers. Good luck trying to find another ground ball pitcher with those type of strikeout rates.
 

An even better outcome for the Pirates than Liriano outright accepting the QO is that it could lead to a discounted multi-year contract. If Liriano declines the QO the Pirates would still be in position to capitalize on his suppressed market. A 2 year/$25 million contract could be a win-win for all parties. The Pirates would retain Liriano at a lower AAV than the cost of the qualifying offer, while Liriano would get $10 million additional in guaranteed money above the QO. Either way the goal should be for the Pirates to retain Francisco Liriano. The best chance of that happening is by extending him a qualifying offer.
 

Sizing Up the Market for Russell Martin

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin will be a free agent in a few short weeks. He is the best available catcher in this free agent class and will be highly sought after. Although Martin is on the wrong side of 30 he should still find several teams willing to offer him a multi-year contract in the neighborhood of $15 million Annual Average Value (AAV). At a minimum it will take a 3 year contract to ink him, and it is very likely it will take 4 or more guaranteed years to get a deal done. So here are the potential landing spots to sign Russell Martin.
 


The Incumbent

 

Pittsburgh Pirates
Why he makes sense for the Pirates: Martin is well respected by his teammates, adored by the fans, and the front office has already said signing him is a priority. Pitch framing and strong defense are two attributes the Pirates really value, and Martin is elite in both those aspects. He has been a prefect fit for the organization since he joined them two years ago. The Pirates intend to extend him a qualifying offer.

 
Why he doesn’t make sense for the Pirates: Money, Money, Money. The largest free agent contract the Pirates have ever handed out was the $17 million contract they gave Martin two years ago. It will take triple that to sign him now. The Pirates are a frugal organization that avoids risky long term signings. Catchers do not age gracefully. Martin will be 32 next season. Signing him comes with a significant risk that his play will regress and he will underperform the backend of the contract.
 


Strong Suitors

 
Red Sox
Why he makes sense for the Red Sox: The Red Sox ended up really missing Jarrod Saltalamacchia who left the Sox for the Marlins as a free agent last winter. Boston’s catchers combined for just 0.9 fWAR in 2014. Young Christian Vazquez has some talent, but the Red Sox are a team that aspires to be contenders every season. They probably won’t be comfortable just handing over the bulk of the catching duties to Vazquez. The Red Sox have a protected 1st round draft pick, so the qualifying offer that will be attached to Martin will not deter them. The Red Sox are a cash rich organization that is financially capable of bidding on the best available free agent talent.

 
Why he doesn’t make sense for the Red Sox: In the past few seasons the Red Sox have to stayed away from deals longer than 3 years. The Red Sox covet the roster flexibility that shorter contracts provide.
 

Cubs
Why he makes sense for the Cubs: The Cubs are a team on the come with numerous young position player talent. They might be ready to contend if they can get the most out of their pitching staff. What better way to do that than by adding a catcher like Martin that is great at handling a pitching staff and helps steal strikes for pitchers with his exceptional framing skills? The Cubs’ brass has also spoken of the need to add some veteran presence and leadership to the squad. As an added bonus signing Martin would also be taking away a player from a strong division rival. Much like the Red Sox, the Cubs have a protected 1st round pick and plenty of money in the coffers to sign a free agent of Martin’s ilk.

 
Why he doesn’t make sense for the Cubs: The Cubs actually have a fair catcher in Welington Castillo. Martin might also not believe the Cubs are as close to contending as they think. Would he take an offer from the Cubs if stronger contenders are beckoning?
 

Tigers
Why he makes sense for the Tigers: The Tigers are team in a win now mode and their catcher Alex Avila has suffered from several recent concussions. They are also not shy about chasing top notch free agents.

 
Why he doesn’t make sense for the Tigers: The Tigers have really expanded their payroll beyond a comfortable level, and their farm system has been left with a dearth of talent due to numerous trades in recent seasons. Signing Martin would continue to hurt them on both fronts as signing him will not be cheap and the Tigers would lose their 2015 1st round draft pick.

 

Rangers
Why he makes sense for the Rangers: The Rangers had an abysmal season in 2014 and the catcher position was part of the problem. Martin could really solidify a position in which the Rangers produced less than 1 fWAR. The Rangers also have a track record as being players in the free agent market. They also have a protected 1st round draft pick.

 
Why he doesn’t make sense for the Rangers: The Rangers have had a bloated payroll for years and they have hinted that they need to trim their budget. They had so many problems last season and catcher is probably not their biggest issue. They might be closer to going the rebuilding route than making a run at another expensive free agent.
 

Dodgers
Why he makes sense for the Dodgers: The Dodgers are a team that is in a win now mode and got underwhelming performances this season from catchers A.J. Ellis and Drew Butera. New GM Andrew Friedman has a reputation from his tenure with the Rays for valuing more advanced defensive catcher skill sets like pitch framing and blocking. Martin fits the bill. The Dodgers look like the favorites to land him.

 
Why he doesn’t make sense for the Dodgers: Even with subpar performance from their catchers the Dodgers still had the best record in the National League. The Dodgers have the highest payroll in baseball. How much higher can they go? At some point the escalators on the payroll luxury tax will be problematic for the Dodgers. It is also unclear how Friedman will handle having such a large budget. Although Martin would be affordable to the Dodgers I don’t expect they would make him an insane offer far beyond what other clubs would be willing to pay. Friedman is too smart to saddle himself with too much sunk cost at the end of any contract. Signing Martin would also cost the Dodgers their 2015 1st round draft pick.

 


Dark Horses

Blue Jays, Rockies, White Sox, Mariners, Mets, Braves
Why he makes sense for these clubs: These clubs have varying needs for a catcher. Among this group the White Sox and Rockies appear to have the biggest need for a good backstop.

 
Why he doesn’t make sense for these clubs: The Mariners have Mike Zunino and the Mets have Travis d’Arnaud. Both are younger catchers with upside, so unless these clubs absolutely love Russell Martin they probably will stick with what they have for now. Dioner Navarro did an adequate job for the Blue Jays last season. Although he profiles more as a backup, the Blue Jays will probably be inclined to stick with him instead of spending lavishly on Martin. The Braves have Evan Gattis who can mash, but defensively is a liability. Cost and the loss of a 1st round pick would probably dissuade them from getting involved in the market for Russell Martin. The Blue Jays, Mets, and Mariners would also lose a 1st round pick if they were to sign a free agent attached to a qualifying offer. The Rockies could really use a catcher, but Martin is likely out of their price range. The White Sox would be a good fit, but they are not likely to contend next season and that could affect their willingness to sink money into an aging veteran catcher.

 

Farewell A.J. Burnett

I said it was a mistake when the Pirates declined to offer A.J Burnett the $14.1 million qualifying offer. The Pirates were going to look foolish if Burnett changed his mind and signed with another team after saying he would retire or only pitch for the Bucs. Yesterday, that happened. Burnett signed a 1 year, $16 million deal with the Phillies. Jon Heyman later reported the Pirates best offer to A.J. was a “very fair” $12 million contract.


 
This brings the A.J. Burnett contract saga to an end. I’m disappointed in Burnett. I would like to think that a guy with the career earnings that he has would rather pitch in front of a fan base that already adores him, and for a team better positioned to win. To pass up a better situation at this stage of his career for a relatively paltry amount of money is just sad. However, the botched handling of this whole negotiation by the Pirates is even more sad. If the Pirates were willing to go as high as $12 million for Burnett they should have been willing to go to $14 million with the qualifying offer. I do not think Burnett would have signed the offer. A QO does not offer trade protection and for that reason I believe AJ would have declined it. I think had the Pirates offered Burnett a QO it is very likely they would have eventually settled on a contract at right around $12 million. The Pirates grossly miscalculated the free agent market and Burnett’s motivations. By not offering A.J. the QO they dared him to listen to other offers. He did and now he is gone.
 
Burnett’s short two year stay in Pittsburgh should not be tainted by his exit. I will personally remember him fondly. He brought a moxie to the mound at PNC Park that had been missing since the day the park opened. Burnett was brash and his personality sometimes explosive. His ego was huge. Towards the end of the 2013 season it got a little too big. But he also became a mentor to younger pitchers on the staff. James McDonald and Jeff Locke were especially affected by Burnett’s presence. Gerrit Cole cited A.J. for helping him to develop his breaking ball. And the guy could certainly pitch. Burnett also leaves his mark in the Pittsburgh record books. He was the first and only right handed pitcher in team history to register a 200 strikeout season. In 2013 he led all qualified National League pitchers in K/9 and GB%.
 
As a final tribute to A.J. Burnett, let us relive one of his greatest moments as a Pirate. This was on September 21, 2013. It was his last home start as a Pirate. He tossed a gem in this game, picking up the win while whiffing 12 Reds, including this 6th inning K of Joey Votto on a beautiful knucklecurve for his 200th strikeout of the season.
 

 

The A.J. Burnett Fiasco

After months of contemplating retirement it appears A.J. Burnett has decided he isn’t quite ready to give up being a major league pitcher. Yesterday Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review broke the news that Burnett plans on returning to the mound in 2014. This would be great news for the Pirates if it meant he intended on coming back to Pittsburgh. It now seems A.J. has reversed course and is making himself available to other teams.

 
This is bad news, but not at all unexpected. I said it was a mistake months ago when the Pirates decided not to extend Burnett a qualifying offer. I believed that Burnett was not going to retire, and I believed he would eventually choose to listen to offers from teams near his home such as the Orioles, Nationals, and Phillies. Now it appears likely the Pirates will lose a very good pitcher. And because they did not extend a qualifying offer they won’t gain a compensatory draft pick either.
 
This A.J. Burnett situation has been entirely mishandled by the Pirates’ Front Office. It feels like they never really wanted him and were daring him to listen to other teams. I believe Burnett was being truthful when he said he would only pitch for the Pirates or he would retire. But I don’t blame AJ one bit for souring on the team after the Pirates’ brass showed a complete lack of appreciation by saying they could not afford to give him market value and attempted to negotiate through the media with implied low ball offers. And there was absolutely no reason not to offer Burnett the $14.1 million qualifying offer. Even if the Pirates felt the offer was a little too rich for what they were willing to pay, there was no risk Burnett would sign it. A qualifying offer does not come with a no trade clause. Burnett would never agree to a deal that would risk him being moved in a trade to a team outside the Mid-Atlantic Region. Just making a qualifying offer does not mean the Pirates would be boxed into that $14.1 salary figure. They could have used an iron clad no trade clause to negotiate a salary lower than the qualifying offer.
 
Futhermore, not having Burnett weakens the team. Edinson Volquez appears to be Burnett’s likely replacement. Burnett is projected to be worth around two more wins than Volquez. Where the Pirates sit on the win curve indicates that two wins can make a very big difference. Frankly, given the value in increased revenue for additional wins in the upper 80′s the difference in salary between Volquez and Burnett would nearly pay for itself. This is a major SNAFU by the Pirates. They need to make it right by extending a fair offer to AJ that will convince him that they really do want him and that he should continue his career in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, we Pirate fans will be left crossing our fingers that Wandy Rodriguez returns to health and Jim Benedict can work his magic on Volquez like he did with Francisco Liriano.
 

Win Curve Not Motivating The Pirates

Had the Pirates won 3 more games in 2011 they would finished with 75 wins. Had The Pirates won 3 more games in 2012 they would have broken the longest consecutive losing season streak in North American professional sports one year earlier. Had the Pirates won three more games in 2013 they would have tied the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central. As you can see not all wins are equal. The further up the standings a team goes the more meaningful each extra win becomes. The wins that make the difference between missing the playoffs or making the playoffs are not just the most meaningful, they are also the most valuable. A team’s 90th win generates significantly more revenue than their 81st win. This concept is known as the win curve.
 
Where a team sits on the win curve has a big impact on how much they are willing to spend for additional wins. ZiPS is projecting the Pirates as an 84 win team in 2014. Marginal upgrades can bring big returns for teams that sit where the Pirates do on the win curve. Including the Pirates, eleven teams are projected by ZiPS to have between 83-85 wins next season. Here is a look at the spending done by these eleven teams this off season:
 

      1) Yankees – 83 Projected Wins – $471 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Brain McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Masahiro Tanaka

      2) Rangers – 85 Projected Wins – $137 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Shin-Soo Choo

      3) Royals – 84 Projected Wins – $62 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Jason Vargas, Omar Infante

      4) Giants – 85 Projected Wins – $47 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Tim Hudson, Michael Morse

      5) Rays- 84 Projected Wins – $39 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: James Loney, Grant Balfour

      6) Athletics- 84 Projected Wins – $32 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Scott Kazmir, Eric O’Flaherty

      7) Angels- 84 Projected Wins – $18.5 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Joe Smith, Raul Ibanez

      8) Indians- 84 Projected Wins – $16.5 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: David Murphy, John Axford

      9) Nationals- 83 Projected Wins – $11 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Nate McLouth

      10) Pirates- 84 Projected Wins – $7 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Edinson Volquez

      11) Braves- 84 Projected Wins – $4 million committed to Free Agents
      Key Acquisitions: Gavin Floyd

 
Obviously, the Yankees are a completely different animal. Win curves vary from team to team. Some have flat win curves while other have very steep win curves. The Yankees have a very steep win curve. The fan expectations of the franchise are enormous and revenues for the Yankees fall considerably if they don’t contend. To some degree that explains the heavy spending the Yankees do every year. Teams like the Royals, Rays, and A’s have win curves that are much more comparable to the Pirates. Those teams have decided that given their positioning on the win curve the opportunity warranted extending their payroll commitments a little further than they other wise would have. Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman recently echoed that position.

“I think it’s an unaffordable figure for our franchise,” Friedman said. “But I think it’s something that Stu has been very steadfast and doing everything he can and putting our best foot forward to win as many games as we possibly can as we continue to build a foundation and fan base in this area.
“But it’s certainly not a sustainable number in terms of where we are revenue-wise, but we felt like we had a really good chance to be great next year, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, The Pirates’ actions this offseason give the appearance that they are motivated very little by the win curve. They have chosen not to strike while the iron is hot. The Bucs are coming off a 94 win season and reached the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. They are positioned solidly to contend for the playoffs again in 2014. The Pirates have targeted free agents such as James Loney, Josh Johnson, and Eric Chavez, but for one reason or another have not been able to seal the deal with any of those players. Perhaps if the Pirates were treating the win curve as seriously as the Rays and A’s they would have pushed harder and landed one of them.
 

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