Welcome to 2012, Pirate fans! Hopefully this year will be better than the last. I spent the last few days of 2011 and the first couple days of 2012 turning over post ideas and discussion points in my head, so the long holiday break here at WHYGAVS is over. Let’s start with what’s the Pirates’ most pressing current need for what’s left of the off-season: the starting rotation.
The Pirates still need more innings from their starting rotation if they want it to be anywhere near as useful in 2012 as it was in the early part of 2011, before things got derailed, went flying off of the bridge and into the ravine, and exploded in a huge fireball of devastation. Bedard is a nice start and Morton and McDonald aren’t terrible options, but questions about Bedard’s health and Morton’s health and the huge margins of error around what we’re hoping for from Morton and McDonald and what we might get, plus the volatility of Jeff Karstens and Brad Lincoln, plus what looks from here like a lack of depth from Locke, Owens, Morris, Wilson, etc., all means that the rotation could be a huge liability next year. So what should the Pirates do?
There’s been some scuttlebutt around the internet of late that Edwin Jackson’s availability on the market could mean that he’ll fall into the Pirates’ range. I don’t think there’s anything officially linking the Pirates to Jackson at this point, but given that he’s only 28, that he’s a hard thrower occasionally capable of good strikeout numbers, and that the Pirates seem to have forged a pretty decent relationship with his agent — a Mr. Scott Boras — in recent years, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Pirates were interested. Still, Wallace Matthews at ESPN New York says that Boras wants five years and $60 million for Jackson (via MLBTR), which is pretty steep.
Let’s assume, for a second, that this is what it would take for the Pirates to sign Jackson (I’m guessing Jackson ends up signing with a non-Pirate team for maybe four years/$40 million, but it would probably take the Pirates being the only team willing to hit Boras’s price to actually bring Jackson to Pittsburgh). They could probably afford this in 2012 and they could maybe afford it down the road, though it’d likely require some belt-tightening towards the end of the deal as Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez (well, hopefully Alvarez will be good enough to create this problem, at least) head towards arbitration and get pricier. Jackson’s young enough and seems durable enough (200+ innings in 2009 and 2010, 199 2/3 last year) that five years for him right now might not be disastrous, even if $12 million per year seems a bit pricey.
The question, though, is whether that would really be the best use of the Pirates’ limited resources. Read Dave Cameron’s piece at FanGraphs about the remaining value on the market, and the Pirates’ interest in a guy like Jeff Francis makes some sense, if they can get him on a one-year deal. Consider this: Jackson was a 3-4 win pitcher last year (3.1 bbrefWAR, 3.8 fangraphsWAR) while Francis was a 1.5-2.5 win pitcher (1.4 bbrefWAR, 2.6 fangraphsWAR). Let’s say that the Pirates could sign Francis for a one-year deal worth $5 million, plus a team option for 2013 that costs $8 million with a $1 million buyout (literally, I’m throwing crap at the wall here). And let’s say that Jackson maintains his level of performance, while a move to the NL and lefty-friendly PNC, plus another year away from injury makes Francis a 2-3 win pitcher in 2012 (not entirely improbable, though not a sure thing, either). Isn’t Francis a smarter signing for the Pirates, even if he’s not quite as good as Jackson in 2012 or down the road? He could still be a better value option in the short-term, while giving them more payroll flexibility in the long-term and buying some more time to both figure out what they have in Lincoln, Locke, Owens, Morris, and Wilson while figuring out an arrival schedule for Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.
It’s not cut-and-dried, of course. Jackson could be a late bloomer that really blossoms as he approaches 30, Francis could get hurt again and be a disaster in 2012. Jackson’s been traded six times already in his career and he’s exactly the sort of player that teams will always be willing to take a chance on, if he’s healthy, so the Pirates could sign him to a five-year deal and probably not have much trouble trading him after three if the need arises, especially if he pitches well. Still, the Pirates can’t do anything at this point without an eye on the future and one of their biggest future assets at this point is that they simply don’t have a lot of whole lot of payroll obligation beyond the present. Signing Jackson to a long-term deal would threaten that, and it might not even give them a huge short-term advantage over some of the lesser names on the free agent market.