Writing about the Pirates in the offseason, especially one in which they are in dire need of improvement, is not for the faint of heart. You must be willing to go headlong into a dumpster while your friend holds your legs, as you fish out a Colorado license plate that would look great in your college apartment…wait…where was I going with this?
What I’m saying is that you have to be willing to leave no stone unturned and be open to all possibilities. It also helps to keep track of spending trendlines for the other teams in baseball to see who’s up against their budget. One of those teams is the Kansas City Royals. Their own GM has admitted recently that they’ve overextended their budget in recent years and need to pare back. That means there will be trades and it also means that some free agents won’t be brought back.
One of their upcoming sort-of decisions is the mutual option on Edinson Volquez. Mutual options never get picked up; one side is always turning it down to seek greener pastures. Volquez has a $10M deal with a $3M buyout for 2017. The Royals can’t allocate that money to Volquez, coming off a down year, and he is probably looking for a new place to lay his head.
Enter the Pirates, a place where he has had recent success, ranking only 2nd to winning the World Series last year with the Royals. There’s no need to re-hash the tale of Edinson — short story is that he was a broken toy, entered the Ray Searage Pitcher Rehabilitation Center, signed a 2 yr/$20M deal with Royals, wins World Series. With $3M already in his pocket for 2017, Volquez may be willing to take a slightly-below market rate on a deal for 2017, with some extra money in 2018 if a 2-year deal is required to seal it.
Let’s toss this on the table right now — Edinson Volquez was not great in 2016. In 189 IP, he had a 5.37 ERA/4.57 FIP, yet it was still good for a 1.5 WAR. By my Rule Of Six, that right at the level of being between a #4 and #5 pitcher. The crazy part is that all his peripherals are still in place — solid 93 mph fastball, strikeout rate (6.61 K/9) that was consistent with both his 2014 Pirate season (6.54 K/9) and his 2015 Royal season (6.96 K/9), ditto on the walk rate (3.61 BB/9 versus 3.32 and 3.23 in the previous two seasons). Volquez seems to have been done in by a rise in his HR rate (1.01 HR/9 up from 0.71 HR/9), an elevated BABIP (.319 versus his career .300), and a lower-than-usual strand rate (65.7% versus 71.1%). These are all fixable things.
Number 4’s go for around $12M nowadays; number 5’s for $8M. So let’s ballpark that Volquez could get $10M on a 1-year deal, in a vacuum. With that $3M burning a hole in his pocket, would Vasquez be willing to sign for $7M for 2017? Knowing that he would probably want some security, would anyone blanch at a 2 yr/$19M deal? Thanks to his July 3rd birthday (cutoff for MLB-age is July 1st), the 2017 season is Volquez’s age-33 season. So the Pirates would be paying, in crude terms, $9.5M/year for his age-33 and age-34 seasons. Keep in mind that JA Happ is getting $13M the next two seasons for his age-34 and age-35 years.
Volquez, even in a poor year in 2016, still logged 189 innings. Those are innings that are desperately needed by a Pirates’ rotation that has Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and a whole lot of question marks after that. Volquez was incredibly steady here in 2014 with 192 innings and getting the sacrificial start in the Wild Card game against the demi-god Madison Bumgarner. There’s space for him in 2017.
Edinson Volquez represents a couple of different things in this scenario. AJ Burnett was the first free agent pitcher during this Pirates’ renaissance to leave the team that fans were clamoring to stay; I would have given Burnett the QO after the 2013 season for $14.8M, even though the 2014 season was his age-37 season. But Volquez left right after him at the end of 2014. The 2 yr/$20M deal he signed with the Royals was eminently affordable. This was a trend that continued last year with JA Happ and will most likely extend to Ivan Nova this offseason. But Burnett came back to where he felt comfortable after a not great year. Perhaps, in a bit of delicious symmetry, Volquez can be the second to return to the Pirates after a down year abroad.
The one thing to keep in the back of your mind is what Neal Huntington told me last year when asked about why Volquez’s 2014 deal didn’t have a club option for 2015. He said that got bluffed by Volquez’s agent at the time, implying that the agent from Wasserman Media may have said he would take Volquez’s services to another team if the Pirates wanted to tie him down for 2 years. Essentially, Volquez got a pillow deal of $5M from the Pirates in hopes of re-building his market value, which is exactly what happened. I’m just wondering if there are some bruised feelings and egos on Federal Street as a result of that play from Volquez’s agent.