I’m not entirely certain that the Pirates are done making moves this winter; as has been discussed in plenty of places, they’ve still got some payroll maneuverability, they need a left-handed reliever, and their off-season reliever stockpiling (which is what we’re going to talk about here) has made a Mark Melancon trade conceivable, so it’s possible that there’s one big move looming on the horizon that will change the way we view this off-season quite a bit. It’s mid-January now, though, and minicamp is happening, and that means that it’s probably time to look at the off-season and think about what the Pirates did and what it means for them in 2016.
There is an easy impulse to look at what the Pirates did with their rotation — they lost JA Happ to free agency, AJ Burnett to retirement, and traded Charlie Morton to the Phillies while only acquiring Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong — and assume that they’ve made themselves quite a bit worse. Whether through budgetary concerns, hubris as it relates to their ability to rehab pitchers, or plain old misjudgment, the Pirates now have a rotation made up of a burgeoning ace and a good #2 guy, one solid-looking Ray Searage project (Niese), one veteran obviously on the downslope of his career, and Jeff Locke.
It’s similarly easy to look at the rotation and be angry about it. 2016 was simultaneously the best year for the Pirates in a generation and one of the hardest years to be a Pirate fan that I can remember. The Pirates won 98 games and were arguably baseball’s best team after May 20th, which is an awfully significant amount of time to be baseball’s best team. They got one playoff game and went home, which was a horrifying reminder that simply being good enough to win a World Series is not enough to do the thing, you also have to be extremely lucky on top of it all. That dawning realization coupled with Andrew McCutchen’s early-season knee injury wrote out an ultimatum in 100-foot high letters of fire on the side of Mount Washington: THE CLOCK IS TICKING ON ANDREW MCCUTCHEN’S CHANCES TO WIN A WORLD SERIES AS A PIRATE. And with those words burning in our brains, the Pirates go out and get Niese and Vogelsong.
We can save the emotion of this ticking clock for a different post, because there’s one problem with this equation: this Pirate front office rarely does things for no reason. The larger question of the budget aside*, this off-season resembles the last couple in that the Pirates have made a few moves that address their biggest needs and loosely fit into a general theme, they’ve done less than most fans would like them to have done, and they’ve come in ~$5-10 million shy of what everyone guessed they would spend before the winter started.
I mention the part about the theme because I think it’s important; each of the three Pirate playoff teams have “whole greater than the sum of their parts” type teams, and they’ve been so because of the Pirate front office’s ability to manipulate factors that we previously hadn’t considered (defensive shifts, the ability of a good framing catcher to help a pitcher with poor command, and so on) to their benefit. It’s easy to look at the Pirates’ off-season and say it happened because they’re cheap, but I sincerely doubt that’s the entirety of the logic behind the actions of the front office.
At the trade deadline last year, the Pirate acquired three pitchers. Everyone remembers JA Happ, of course, while Joakim Soria was a bit maligned because of his role in a late-inning meltdown against the Cubs, and Joe Blanton was forgotten because he was Joe Blanton. Blanton and Soria were reasonably big parts of the bullpen after their acquisition, though; they combined to pitch 61 innings. Blanton was the club’s most-used reliever, by innings, in August and September, and in September Blanton and Soria both got more innings than any other Pirate reliever (though, to be clear, it’s the difference between about 16 innings for Blanton and 10 innings for Jared Hughes in September, so it’s not a ton here). Those two ended up being huge additions to the Pirate bullpen, because the Pirates couldn’t shore things up behind Cole, Liriano, and Happ. Jeff Locke had an ERA of 5.01 after August 1st, Charlie Morton was at 5.06, and AJ Burnett was at 3.77 after returning from his injury in September.
What’s striking to me, though, is this: those three pitchers finished the seventh inning a total of two times in those 26 August and September starts, and the Pirates won every single no-decision of Locke’s and Morton’s, while losing two of Burnett’s (his first two starts back). On the whole, the Pirates went 6-5 in games started by Morton, 5-5 in games started by Locke, and 1-4 in games started by Burnett, so 12-14 overall in games started by the back half of their rotation, despite two of those pitchers pitching terribly and one of them pitching nowhere near his early-season levels. As a whole, the Pirates were 38-22 in August and September/October, which is a .633 winning percentage and was good for the NL’s second best record after the deadline (ahead of both the Mets and Royals, who had much-celebrated deadlines).
A lot of those numbers are obviously small sample sizes and counting wins in no-decisions is inefficient for a lot of reasons, but the end result is that Morton, Locke, and (to a lesser extent) Burnett pitched poorly down the stretch, but the Pirates didn’t let them pitch deep into games, and they managed to win a lot of games that they pitched poorly in. Even with those three inhabiting the last two spots of the rotation, the Pirates won games at a higher clip than the did over the full season, and they did so because the bullpen was, for the most part, able to bail Morton and Locke in particular out of bad games before they got awful.
Viewed in that light, the Pirates didn’t replace Happ, but they did certainly replace Soria and Blanton and then some; they’ve added Juan Nicasio, Yoervis Medina, and Neftali Feliz who all look like relatively good bets to be be good relievers (Jeff Sullivan wrote everything I was thinking about Feliz last week before I had a chance to write it, which is why I ended up not posting about Feliz), and they’re giving chances to Daniel Bard, Curtis Partch, Trey Haley, and a few others. The Rays in particular and a few other teams found success last year with basically a revolving door between their bullpen and their Triple-A bullpen, cycling guys through high usage periods on their roster and then sending them back down for rest in the minors. Even if the Pirates don’t have enough pitchers pan out to try something like that, they only need to hit on one or two of these guys total to have a really good bullpen in 2016.
There are both obvious and non-obvious reasons for the Pirates to go this route. It’s clear that while the Pirates might be able to afford one (or even two) years of JA Happ or Scott Kazmir, there’s no way to know if they will want or need a pitcher like that in 2018, especially given the number of pitching prospects they have in the upper minors. Paying a multi-year premium for up-front performance is the sort of thing that’s gotten even big market teams into trouble in the past; the effect it could have on a team like the Pirates is vast. In the less-obvious-but-more-immediate column, any combination of Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, and Nick Kingham (all of whom we can reasonably expect will pitch for the Pirates in 2016) will require some signficant bullpen support, as two are coming off of injuries, one is very young, and all three are talented enough to be part of the post-season equation.
What the Pirates have done with their pitching staff makes some sense, I think, if you look at it through that lens: they’re going to need a of bullpen support once their young pitchers come up to control their innings, so why not spend the winter focusing on building a very deep and talented bullpen to support a less-than-ideal back of the rotation in the first half of the season as well? It certainly worked in 2015’s last two months. If Niese can be a solid mid-rotation inning-eater and the bullpen can keep Locke and Vogelsong afloat until June or so, there’s no reason to think that this Pirate team can’t win a bunch of games and be right in the NL Central/Wild Card races in 2016.
Of course, that leaves quite a few “ifs.” It assumes that Searage will, in fact, be able to fix Niese and least one or two of the pitchers they’ve acquired. It assumes that Locke and Vogelsong will only be pretty bad, and not disastrously and unsalvageably bad. It leans on Glasnow, Taillon, and Kingham quite a bit to prevent the team, in turn, from leaning on Locke and Vogelsong all year. And it all comes at a time when that big ticking clock is seared in everyone’s minds.
This might work, and I’m willing to concede the benefit of the doubt to a front office that’s earned it, but having so many moving parts with the pitching staff feels at least a little bit to me like playing with fire at a point in the team’s general progression towards [whatever they’re progressing towards] that I’d hoped they’d be past this. The National League is not sitting idly by, either; the Cubs are poised to set the world on fire in 2016, and the Giants and Nationals were both more or less playoff afterthoughts by September and it’s a safe bet to figure that one or both of them will be back in the mix in 2016. I think that a lot of reaction to this Pirate off-season has probably been a bit overwrought and I think it’s possible that the 2016 Pirates will more or less pick up where the 2015 Pirates left off, but I’m not sure about that and I’ve also got a sense of unease about the team (and the rotation in particular) that I’d rather not have right now.
*I put it aside because it’s so complex; there’s the question of how much the Pirates should be spending, how much the front office chooses to spend to spend or not spend, how they spend during the season, how the whole picture compares with league trends, etc. etc. In general I tend to think of the over-arching team finances as one issue and the decisions of the front office within the budgetary restraints given to them by the ownership as a separate one. In fewer words, I think the Pirates should be spending at least a little bit more money, but this post is not about that and is instead about how the front office has chosen to spend the money that they do have.
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