As we all already know, the Pirates need to address their rotation this offseason, either through signings or trades. One obvious route is for them to re-sign J.A. Happ, and I think there's an awfully good chance that's what they'll do -- he pitched better for them than he pitched for anyone else, and after their re-signing of Francisco Liriano last offseason, there's precedent for the Pirates shelling out to keep a pitcher whose career they helped turn around. In case they don't re-sign Happ, though, here's a look at the rest of the pitching free agent market.
After I started writing this piece, I remembered that Joshua Choudhury has been working for quite awhile on an article on a similar topic. While this piece covers only free agents, though, Joshua's addresses some potential trade acquisitions, too, and lists some free agents I'm not considering here. Also, his analysis is pretty different from (and, obviously, a lot better than) mine. And, of course, this topic will be a crucial one this offseason. So I think we can certainly have a second article about it.
Without further ado, then, here's a look at free agent pitchers who will be available to the Pirates this winter.
Not gonna happen: David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Kenta Maeda. The Pirates' largest contract ever is still Jason Kendall's $60 million extension, so for the Pirates to get involved with any of these players would involve a massive change in approach. Maeda (a 27-year-old righty from the Hiroshima Carp in Japan) should cost significantly less than the other four, but he'll also likely require a $20 million posting fee that I have a hard time seeing the Pirates pay.
Very unlikely: Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen. Both are likely to get five-year deals, and it's hard to see the Pirates making that kind of commitment to a mid-tier player. I previously thought they might be possibilities, but now that I've looked into it a bit more closely, I doubt it.
Possible, but ... : Ian Kennedy, Marco Estrada, Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo, John Lackey. The Pirates should be able to afford these players, but Kennedy and Estrada don't fit the Bucs' organizational preference for ground-ball pitchers. Back in 2013-14, before the ground-ball thing was so obvious, Kazmir looked like a potential fit for the Bucs via free agency. If I remember correctly, though, they were never even connected to him, and they signed Edinson Volquez instead.
Gallardo is an innings-eating horse with a decent ground-ball rate. Unfortunately, the Rangers appear likely to extend him a qualifying offer, and it's unclear to me whether the Pirates would be willing to make a significant financial commitment and give up their first-round pick for a pitcher with declining velocity and strikeout numbers. Lackey will likely receive a qualifying offer, and while the length of his next contract should be reasonable due to his age, it would be somewhat surprising if the Pirates were the team buying high on a pitcher who posted a 2.77 ERA last year.
Makes sense if they'll pay: Brett Anderson. Anderson posted a 66.3 percent ground-ball rate last year and will only turn 28 in February. He looks like he would be a great fit for the Pirates. However, given his age, I imagine he'll get four years, and the Dodgers will likely extend him a qualifying offer. I think he would be worth the risk, but I wonder whether the Pirates feel the same. He looked like an obvious candidate for them to sign last year, and they didn't sign him then when he only would have required a one-year commitment.
Keep an eye on ... : Jeff Samardzija, Hisashi Iwakuma. Samardzija will likely have a qualifying offer attached, and by pure talent, he should be able to get the kind of expensive long-term deal that the Pirates probably won't be willing to commit to. If for some reason his market doesn't materialize after a bad season, he could take a one-year deal and try his luck on the free agent market again next year. If he does, the Bucs would be a great fit.
Iwakuma is eligible for a qualifying offer and is likely to re-sign with the Mariners, but as an effective veteran with a good ground-ball rate who should be available at a reasonable price, he's worth watching.
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Taken individually, I'm not sure any of the players listed above are particularly likely, but especially if Happ signs elsewhere this offseason, one would think the Pirates would at least be involved in the bidding for some of them. If not, they'll be limited to trades or to lower-tier free agents like these guys:
Interesting lower-tier signees: Doug Fister, Trevor Cahill, Mike Pelfrey, Mat Latos, Rich Hill. Fister had five straight good seasons before his average fastball velocity dropped to an absurdly low 86.2 MPH in 2015. If the Pirates decide that's due to his mechanics, he could make a great cheap signing. I discussed Cahill in last month's Ask BD; he's a young ground-ball guy who was very effective in September, although he was pitching in relief then. The velocity Pelfrey lost in 2014 returned last year, and while he still struck out just 4.7 batters per nine innings, his combination of size, velocity and ground-ball ability could intrigue the Pirates.
Latos is just sort of a generic formerly good pitcher who isn't good anymore. As I noted last month, he's gone out of his way to criticize a former team in the past, and as commenters pointed out, his wife might not like Pittsburgh too much, so there might not be a match there. The 35-year-old Hill had four unexpectedly amazing starts with the Red Sox after pitching his way out of the wilderness of independent baseball; any number of teams could view him as a potentially interesting back-end option.
For what it's worth, in MLBTR's yet-to-be-released free agent prediction contest, I have the Pirates signing Happ and Fister. We'll see.