There has been little word on Francisco Liriano other than the club are still in discussions with the left-handed starting pitcher since his injury was revealed and even less regarding anything that could affect the major league club since the Joel Hanrahan trade, with only minor league additions made; so the acquisition of Jeff Karstens may have ended the Pirates’ business for the winter with Spring Training only a few weeks away (other than contract discussions with arbitration eligible players).
The question is whether this should be the case?
Using the Pirates Prospects 2013 40-man payroll projection, the club could have between $7M and $9M remaining to spend this winter below the possible $70M budget if they entered the season with no further additions – so if that’s the sum that is available to the front office then further moves can be possible.
The line-up and bench seems to be set at this point. That’s not to say that it’s perfect and nothing can be done to upgrade (I personally think that George Kottaras would make an excellent addition). The problem is that free agent market now contains hitters that are too expensive (Michael Bourn), not really a fit for the roster when internal options are considered (Scott Hairston), undesirable (Rod Barajas, among others) or are better suited to be signed to minor league deals (like Mark DeRosa). While depth is never a bad thing, it’s also not costly. So if the money will be spent, it would be spent on pitching (and Kottaras), although both KentuckyPirate and I have mentioned the possibility of the club adding Aledmys Diaz.
Pitching depth is never a bad thing. While I was critical of the decision to bring Charlie Morton back, the deal looks a lot better now that Karstens is also back in the fold and the money spent does not stop the club from making required additions. That said, Morton is not expected to be back until at least July and I believe that Gerrit Cole would likely be on a similar timetable that was seen last year with Starling Marte to avoid Super Two status. Signing Liriano (or any other starter on a major league deal) would ensure this depth earlier in the season, as Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson would then either become bullpen options (in Brad Lincoln’s role last season) or Triple-A depth.
Nonetheless, I believe that it’s the bullpen where the money could be spent best. Karstens, Locke, McPherson and James McDonald have question marks hanging over them for various reasons, so a strong ‘pen could cover for any in game issues. Kyle Farnsworth and Brian Wilson offer intrigue for very different reasons, while the more obvious names left on the market are not coming off injuries are Jose Valverde and Francisco Rodriguez have other question marks; both pitchers suffered a big drop in whiffs last season (Valverde’s SwStr% dropped from 10.3% to 7.1% and K-Rod’s dropped from 12.0% to 7.9%) and Valverde’s average and maximum fastball velocity has dropped for each of the past three seasons. The remaining left-handers are likely to be available on minor league contracts, however if Justin Wilson is to begin the year in the minors then an additional lefty in the bullpen would benefit the club.
Kyle Farnsworth was ranked 38th on Keith Law’s top 50 free agent list at the beginning of the winter. Farnsworth has a half a season of health under his belt an Law noted that after a four-walk outing a few days after his return from injury in late-June before walking just seven hitters unintentionally over the rest of the season, while striking out 22 and allowing just one homer in 25 innings. Farnsworth would be a strong option that would fit nicely into a 7th or 8th inning role for the club and the cost isn't likely to be that high.
The biggest low-risk high-reward reliever left on the free agent market is Brian Wilson. Coming off his second Tommy John surgery last April, Wilson was non-tendered by the Giants over the winter. He has recently worked out for the Mets, however a Mets source stated that Wilson is not ready physically so they were not impressed enough to offer a major league deal and Wilson is not interested in a minor league contract. The issue is that control tends to be the last thing to return after Tommy John surgery and Wilson is a pitcher that has had control problems in the past. While he’ll likely begin the year on the disabled list, Wilson has more upside than any other available reliever.
Adding a further arm to the Jason Grilli/Mark Melancon combo at the back end of the bullpen would only help the club (unless you are a big believer in Vin Mazzaro); however the benefit of adding a reliever goes beyond strengthening the bullpen. Making a move would likely result in the Pirates having a valuable trade asset at the deadline – none more so than a healthy Brian Wilson. Relievers are always in demand, so the Pirates could sign a player now with a view to moving him at the deadline if they’re not in contention (or even if they are in contention and a different piece is needed). If the base cost is low enough and the potential player budget stands at $70M, there may be enough room in the payroll to add a second pitcher, whether it be Liriano, a further bullpen piece or anyone else.
While another move is not essential it doesn’t mean that the Pirates have no options remaining to them. While the club have added relievers on minor league deals that have ended up in the bullpen after Spring Training at this point in the winter in each of the last two winter, if they do have the payroll remaining then a solid use of the money would be to add one of the top available relievers with a back-up plan of trading the player if they’re not in contention.