There is no question the NL Central is a division of hitters. From future Hall of Famer Joey Votto to reigning MVP Christian Yelich to perennial All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt, Lorenzo Cain, Matt Carpenter, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the Central has the deepest lineups in baseball. But not the Pirates, who are going against the grain and countering with one of the NL???s best pitching staffs.
Not only is it one of the best staffs, it’s also one of the cheapest. Chris Archer could be the only starter making more than pre-arb money, and he’s still a bargain at $7.7 million. In the bullpen, Felipe Vazquez will make $4.5 million this season and Keone Kela $3 million and change. Those two will likely make more than the rest of the Wolf Pack put together.
This staff had a high acquisition cost, including trading top prospects (Archer, Kela), top veterans (Vazquez, Kyle Crick, Joe Musgrove) and even trading a top front office exec (Trevor Williams), but they have been cheap financially. These low salaries have been a gift for the front office and ownership, but it???s time to finally invest some dollars back into the pitching staff. March may seem too late to make a significant transaction, but the best moves in Neal Huntington???s career have come after spring training started.
The traditional way to invest in the staff would be to get a fifth legitimate starter. Jordan Lyles, Nick Kingham and Steven Brault have all struggled this spring. In most offseasons, you???d have to grit your teeth and hope one of them works out, but this hasn???t been a normal offseason. There are still legitimate upgrades on the pitching market.
Dallas Keuchel is a former Cy Young award winner and Gio Gonzalez has been one of the most consistent starters this decade. Keuchel???s case is interesting because his velocity and strikeout numbers are poor, but his results have been great. In fact, going by bWAR over the last five years, he???s been just as valuable as the freshly minted 330 million dollar man.
I???ll admit I???m not a huge Keuchel fan, but I can???t argue with the numbers he???s produced. It???s ridiculous nobody feels comfortable enough to offer him a J.A. Happ style contract. Just make the vesting option a guarantee. Maybe he’s not worth the six year deal he wants, but isn’t a compromise usually met during negotiations? He and Gonzalez should be more motivated to sign now, too, meaning a more team-friendly contract.??
A mid-spring training acquisition wouldn???t be out of the norm for Huntington. He fleeced the Rays out of Corey Dickerson after camp started last year and scooped up David Freese in mid-March in 2016. Now obviously Keuchel or Gonzalez would be larger financial investments than those two, but the Pirates should be able to stretch payroll enough to land one. It really looks like that rumored $75 million payroll is coming to fruition. I did some quick head math on Spotrac and calculated the 2019 payroll at $70 million. TPOP???s resident payroll guru, Ethan Hullihen, has it closer to $73 million, assuming no NRI guys make the team.
Signing one of those guys would push the Pirates out of their preferred spending range, but they opened last year with an $86 million payroll. They have financial wiggle room to get there, even if it means dipping into their BAMTech millions. It is worth investing in your product instead of constantly cutting back. Yeah, you could chop off a foot to save 50% on shoes, but is it really worth it if you can???t go anywhere?
Unfortunately, it???s extremely unlikely the Pirates will bring in that extra guy to put them over the top for pitching. They are betting on the players they already have, which is fine, if they can keep them. Arbitration is around the corner, which will be costly in a year or two. They could control that cost and extend their window of opportunity if they can extend their pitching.
The Pirates would have lost Andrew McCutchen after 2015 if they did not extend him in his pre-arb years. Starling Marte would be in a different uniform now, too. Both signed their deals in late March. Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison put ink to paper shortly after the regular season started. This is Huntington’s busy season. Small market teams need to sign their young talent to long-term deals. If there was one Pirate to give such a deal to, it would be Jameson Taillon.
In recent weeks, Aaron Nola and Luis Severino decided to forgo their arbitration years and signed a guaranteed deal instead. Nola traded his arbitration seasons and a year of free agency for 4 yrs/$45 million, plus an additional club option. Severino did the same for 4/$40 million. This seems like solid framework for a potential Taillon extension. There haven???t been any rumors of such a deal being in the works, but it makes sense for both the Pirates. The Pirates lock up their face of the franchise and their best potential pitcher, and Taillon — who already has undergone Tommy John, sports hernia and cancer surgeries — gets a big payday while still reaching free agency at a young enough age that he can get a good deal.
The Pirates built up fan excitement to its highest levels in decades only for ownership to squander that good will. Winning can bring fans back, but one season is not going to cut it. The Pirates need to extend this window of opportunity they???ve created, and it will take a sizable investment in the pitching staff to do just that. They can bet on this year’s team or the near future’s, but they’re going to need to double down on this staff sooner rather than later for prolonged success.