Did the Pittsburgh Pirates Penny-Pinch Their Way Back Into Irrelevance?

The Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed a dream 2013 season full of walk-offs, celebratory hashtags, and Super Mario Brothers–themed Cutchy goodness, nabbing their first winning season and playoff berth in 21 years. And there was noooooo doubt about it.

The team and its fans hoped last season would be the start of something big. After all, plenty of small-market clubs had pulled off similar feats before. In 2002, Minnesota won its division for the first time in 11 years, then did so five more times over the next eight seasons. In 2008, Tampa Bay roared from worst to first, beginning a stretch that included four playoff berths in six years. In 1995, Cleveland ended 41 years of baseball misery by finally cracking the postseason, the first of five consecutive division titles and six in seven years. Those Indians teams masterfully built through the farm system and locked up their best players by leveraging the revenue gained from their sparkling new stadium, and then enjoyed a great run of success.

Though it’s still (relatively) early, the Pirates don’t seem to be headed in that direction. Even after winning three in a row, the Bucs remain two games under .500 and 6½ games behind the first-place Brewers, and they have the fourth-worst run differential in the National League. For that, they can thank some lousy evaluation of both the free-agent market and their own talent, specifically in the starting rotation. They can lament a couple of unlucky breaks. And, after two decades of holstering their wallets, they can blame their failure to progress on their unwillingness to spend.

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Getty Images

Saturday’s game at Dodger Stadium was the Pirates’ only loss in their past six contests. Taking the mound that day was Brandon Cumpton, a 25-year-old right-hander making just his ninth major league start. The Dodgers made him their personal piñata, tallying 11 hits and 10 runs in 3⅔ innings.

Needing Cumpton and his 6.85 ERA to take the ball every fifth day is, at least in part, a function of bad luck. The Pirates graduated their top pitching prospect, Gerrit Cole, to the big leagues last year. Their next-best young arm was 22-year-old right-hander Jameson Taillon, a Canadian blessed with a high-90s fastball and a wipeout curve. But Taillon became the 8,473rd pitcher (approximately) this year to undergo Tommy John surgery, depriving the Pirates of the kind of impact pitching call-up that helped them so much in the second half of 2013.

Bad luck played no part, however, in Pittsburgh hurting itself by failing to re-sign A.J. Burnett. Last year, the veteran owned the NL’s fourth-highest strikeout rate, trailing only flame-throwing young bucks Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, and Stephen Strasburg. Burnett also induced more ground balls than any other qualified starting pitcher in the league, and he was the senior circuit’s fifth-best starter by fielding independent pitching.

For the Pirates, however, electing to re-sign Burnett wasn’t as simple as evaluating the stats. Burnett turned 37 in January, and he’d earned a reputation as a pain in the ass, complaining about his team’s aggressive defensive shifts and even yelling at shortstop Clint Barmes once in the middle of a game because of the way Barmes was positioned. Then, on October 3, the Cardinals lambasted Burnett for seven runs in just two innings. While it was just one game, it happened to be Game 1 of the National League Division Series, and Burnett was so bad in the opener that manager Clint Hurdle tapped Cole to start the decisive fifth game in St. Louis. The Pirates lost, and Burnett threw a fit for not getting the nod. In February, after flirting with retirement, Burnett signed a one-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies (with a complicated mutual option for a second year), and that was that.

Well, good players bolt for big-revenue clubs all the time, and the shrewdest spurned teams find ways to replace that lost talent. The A’s did such a great job of replacing All-Stars, Cy Young winners, and even MVPs that they inspired a no. 1 best-selling book and another vehicle in which Brad Pitt could eat and brood. The Pirates showed no such resiliency, messing up the Burnett situation in numerous ways, including by failing to tender him a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer that would have guaranteed them draft-pick compensation if Burnett had chosen to sign elsewhere anyway. GM Neal Huntington said that financial restrictions prevented him from making that offer:

From a value standpoint, you can argue that $14 million should have been a no-brainer, and we understand that. But the reality is in 10 to 15 markets, a qualifying offer, if accepted, becomes a large chunk of payroll and something — right or wrong — we were not comfortable in doing at that time.

It’s always easy to look in hindsight. If he’d accepted the offer, it would have had a significant impact on what we could have done … It would have affected our approach on the first-base market, the right-field market and bullpen market. If we had a crystal ball and seen this is the way it would play out, maybe things are different.

It’s weird enough that the low-revenue Pirates considered a one-year, $14.1 million offer for a good pitcher in today’s overheated free-agent market a potential season wrecker. What’s even weirder is that the Pirates offered Burnett a one-year, $12 million deal, which he refused. Either the Pirates placed little stock in sandwich-round draft picks, didn’t really want to keep Burnett and thus made offers they knew he’d reject, or viewed $2.1 million — $400,000 less than reliever Jeff Karstens made to throw zero pitches in the big leagues last year — as a make-or-break sum.

To be fair, Burnett hasn’t exactly lit the league on fire this year: He’s striking out fewer batters this season than last, giving up a lot more walks and more home runs, and posting mediocre defense-independent stats that belie his relatively small year-over-year jump in ERA. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Pirates drew a bizarre line in the sand over a minor amount of money, or that they failed to find a capable replacement with the chunk of change they saved after Burnett signed elsewhere.

Instead of Burnett, the Pirates signed Edinson Volquez to a one-year, $5 million deal, a move that has predictably worked out poorly. As I wrote last week in a piece on the importance on fifth starters, Volquez led the league in walks in 2012, then led the league in earned runs allowed in 2013, yielding 108 in 170⅓ innings. He’s not walking as many batters this year, but he’s still served up 11 long balls in 65⅔ innings, leads the NL in wild pitches, and ranks among the five worst pitchers in the league by defense-independent metrics.

The Pirates couldn’t have expected much from Volquez, but they put some hope into left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who was set to earn $13 million ($7.5 million of it paid by the Pirates) in the final season of a multiyear deal he signed with the Astros. Pittsburgh’s front office saw Rodriguez as an upside guy who could pitch well and eat innings in Burnett’s stead, and that logic at least made a modicum of sense: From 2009 through 2012, Rodriguez had never thrown fewer than 191 innings in a season, nor posted an ERA higher than 3.76. But the Pirates also knew that Rodriguez had missed most of last season with a flexor tendon injury, and sure enough, he couldn’t recover this year, posting a 6.75 ERA through six starts before earning his release.

With Cumpton and Volquez comprising two-fifths of Pittsburgh’s starting rotation (and Rodriguez’s stats still weighing down the numbers), the results have been awful. By ERA- — a stat that adjusts ERA for home park effects, uses 100 as league average, and then ranks all teams 1 to 30 — Pittsburgh sits 27th in the majors. Strip out the impact the Bucs’ still-shifty defense makes, then apply the same park factor adjustments, and the staff actually ranks as the worst in baseball.

We can chalk some of this up to inevitable regression. The Pirates got monster performances from several different relievers last year, flashing the third-lowest bullpen ERA in baseball … and bullpen performance is notoriously volatile. Their pitchers were incredibly stingy with runners in scoring position … and that’s not something that tends to last, whether on the pitching side or the hitting side. At times last year, Francisco Liriano looked like a lethal weapon … but he’s Francisco Liriano, so there was no reason to expect that to hold up in 2014.

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AP Photo

But we can chalk it up to other factors as well. Really, there are two ways to process what’s happened to the Pirates’ pitching staff, and in turn to the team’s 2014 hopes.

The first is to blame management for being cheap. As the above excerpt showed, Huntington tried to justify the Burnett decision by claiming that spending that kind of money on one pitcher would hurt the team’s pursuit of first base, right field, and bullpen upgrades; however, the Bucs failed to do much of anything at those positions this offseason, which surely felt like a slap in the face to fans, and a callback to the miserable, miserly days of former owner Kevin McClatchy.

It’s not quite that simple, though. Some back-of-the-napkin math suggests that the Pirates earmarked about $17 million in 2014 payroll room to spend on free agents over the winter, since that’s what they would have spent if Burnett had accepted their $12 million offer after they’d already signed Volquez. They pursued Josh Johnson and came up empty, though they dodged a bullet there considering he’s now out for the year following Tommy John surgery. They offered James Loney a multiyear deal to be their new first baseman, but Loney opted to return to the Rays instead. Huntington was right that no one has a crystal ball, and a team can’t force free agents to take its money. And even after failing to land anyone but Volquez, the Pirates still spent $5 million more on Opening Day payroll this year than last despite having to make do with the worst local TV deal for any team and the third-lowest ticket prices in the majors.

Moreover, the Pirates have become one of baseball’s most aggressive teams when it comes to draft spending. From 2008 through 2012, they dished out more than $51 million on draft bonuses, with several of the players acquired in those drafts now playing key roles for the big club. They’ve also spent money to lock up some of their best young players to multiyear deals, including 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen and his outfield running mate Starling Marte. They recently offered Gregory Polanco, the future third member of that outfield, a seven-year, $25 million contact with three club options before Polanco had played a single big league game, trying to do what the Astros just did with their young, slugging prospect, Jon Singleton. And so the more charitable explanation is that the Pirates realized everything went right in 2013, that they were bound to fade this season unless they truly spent a mint, and that being conservative would suit them best in the long run.

We’ll find out soon enough if they were right. If the Bucs don’t turn it on and jump back into the playoff race, we’ll surely look back even less favorably on their failure to chase after a guy like Scott Kazmir, who would’ve added a high-strikeout lefty starter to a ballpark that’s generous to left-handed pitchers. We’ll be able to ask if sacrificing a draft pick to sign Stephen Drew might’ve been worth it, given how awful Jordy Mercer and Barmes look at shortstop. We’ll likely scratch our heads and wonder why the Pirates didn’t pursue Jose Abreu, who might’ve cost $68 million before playing a single major league game, but now looks like an absolute steal given his huge talent and relative youth. We’ll also have a better read on Pittsburgh’s decision to hold Polanco back in the minors, a move the team might defend given how little time he’d spent in the high minors before this year and how much money they figure to save over the long haul, but one that’s leaving fans frustrated.

More than anything, we’ll have a further glimpse into the window of a small-revenue team. Even with revenue sharing, being a small-money club is a tough racket, one that requires the Pirates to compete for a playoff spot in the same league as the Dodgers, while making $18 million a year from local TV as the Dodgers make $340 million. It’s one that can cause a GM to be ultra-cautious, letting Bucs fans down in the first couple months after a magical season, and making the rest of us wait longer than we should for a phenom.

Holding Polanco back probably makes sense given the rules of the game, even if it’s frustrating for fans. The Pirates’ other decisions look shakier right now, though, and could end up short-circuiting the gains and enthusiasm 2013 brought. Here’s hoping that’s not the case, at least for long.

Filed Under: MLB, Baseball, Pittsburgh Pirates, NL Central, MLB Stats, A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez, MLB Contracts, free agents, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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