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Ask BD: Potential reclamation projects for the Pirates

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Successful franchises inevitably create their own archetypal strategies, born through some serendipitous marriage of circumstance and intent.

To wit:

  • The San Antonio Spurs' team-first ethos keeps yielding NBA championships even though Tim Duncan is nearing AARP eligibility age.
  • The Steelers are (were, if we're being painfully honest) known for a ferocious defense led by a perpetually-stellar linebacking corps.
  • Michael Bay makes boatloads of money directing nonsensical, explosion-heavy movies aimed at evoking tumescence in teenage boys.

If the Pirates' modus operandi were to be similarly defined, it might begin with the rehabilitation of previously-ineffective pitchers acquired for a relative pittance. A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, and Arquimedes Caminero all serve, to varying degrees, as examples of the sort of miracles that the Ray Searage-Jim Benedict brain trust has delivered.

It remains to be seen whether the Pirates can sustain this sort of wizardry after Benedict's departure to Miami, but in the absence of contravening evidence we should probably assume that they''ll at least try. Given A.J. Burnett's retirement, J.A. Happ's unresolved free agency, and Vance Worley's exodus to Baltimore, the Pirates are in need of at least one (possibly two, depending on your opinion of Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke) reliable starter this offseason.

In last month's Ask Bucs Dugout (yup, last month's at this point--let's just say punctuality was never my strong suit), posters anticipated the continuation of the annual reclamation project tradition:

"Which starting pitcher would you like to see the Pirates pursue? And specifically would you give Lincecum a chance as a reclamation project?" - peach tea snapple

"What are your thoughts on Trevor Cahill as a potential reclamation project for next year? He seems to get the ground balls the Pirates like and he is still rather young. Also what do you think it would take to sign him as I have absolutely no clue on how to come up with a guess." - battlingbucs

"Any thoughts on the next pitching reclamation projects? Even if they re-sign Happ, I’d think they’d need one more, unless they are comfortable with Morton/Locke shakily holding down the 4/5. Would Andrew Cashner be someone they should take a look at? I’d think the Pads would be interested in dealing since they have a glut of young pitching and Cashner is a FA after 2016." - WoderTugs

Charlie already published an excellent overview of the Pirates' free agency options--the purpose of this piece will be less to address each of the multitude of pitchers that the Pirates could, in some as-yet-unrealized theoretical universe, sign, and more to provide deeper analysis for pitchers in whom the community has expressed an interest or who might be intriguing buy-low options. By virtue of this article's conspicuous lateness, I also have access to FanGraphs' crowdsourced contract projections, an invaluable resource.

I should start by defining the criteria for what constitutes 'intriguing.' It's tempting to say that the Pirates have a type. They like sinkerballers; they like guys who throw hard; they like ground balls. Think A.J. Burnett or Charlie Morton.

Except, well, Vance Worley, Joakim Soria, Joe Blanton, Arquimedes Caminero, Radhames Liz, and J.A. Happ all defied this template. Whatever the Pirates are looking for, there's a decent chance it's scouting-related, rather than something we can easily observe through publicly available statistics. Which means that neither I nor anyone else outside the Pittsburgh front office can truly offer you accurate insight into which pitchers they may be considering, and while groundball proclivities will certainly play a role in which pitchers they might pursue, I'm much more interested in whether the player in question appears, holistically, to be a good bargain at his projected contract amount.

On to the pitchers mentioned in the comments (numbers in parenthesis indicate crowd-sourced contract projections, courtesy of FanGraphs, in the format years/dollars):

Tim Lincecum (1/$6M) - Here's a graph that should terrify even the staunchest Lincecum fan:

Lincecum's velocity has fallen off the map. His fastball isn't fast any more, and his sinker sinks only halfheartedly. Neither of these are good things, especially for a former power pitcher. Nor has Lincecum compensated for his reduced arsenal with the sort of Buehrle-esque veteran craftiness that could stave off age-related decline--the trends in his strikeout and walk rates over the same period tell a similarly dire story:

I don't see anything in Lincecum's profile that indicates he has significant upside at this point. He's not old (only 31), but he's coming off a hip injury and it's fair to wonder whether some combination of age, injuries, and karmic retribution for his horrific facial hair (which, regardless of one's belief in the existence or lack thereof of a omnipotent Judeo-Christian deity, indisputably invites some vengeful smiting) have combined to basically end the productive portion of his career.

Of course, maybe the Pirates look at all of this and see 'hey, we can fix his mechanics and he'll be Tim Lincecum again!' Somebody will probably give Lincecum a major league contract for next season, hoping to recapture his previous glory. But it shouldn't, in the absence of any compelling scouting-based reason, be the Pirates.

Trevor Cahill (1/$5M) - I agree with battlingbucs that Cahill is an interesting buy-low option because of his extreme groundball tendencies (63% groundball rate in 2015), his heavy sinker, and his relative youth (despite debuting in 2009, he's still only 27). Cahill's peripherals also indicate potential upside--in particular, he ran a huge ERA-SIERA gap last year.

The catch with Cahill is that given his history of inconsistent command he isn't the type of guy the Pirates could reliably pencil into the rotation. The last time he was a full-time starter, in 2014, he walked almost a better every two innings--there's significant potential for implosion. In other words, if the Pirates are shopping for a steady #3 starter I think Cahill is too high-variance. He'd be a great reclamation project if we're also able to acquire a steadier option we trust to reliably eat innings.

Ultimately, however, the contract will make all the difference. Cahill has a $13M option for 2016 that the Cubs will certainly decline. Charlie had speculated that Cahill might receive a two-year deal in the $8-10M range, while the FanGraphs community is more bearish. If a modest one-year deal is all it takes to bring Cahill into the fold, count me in--as long as we're prepared with a reasonable fallback plan. Worst case scenario, Cahill takes over the Jeanmar Gomez Memorial Long Relief slot in the bullpen.

Andrew Cashner (Not a FA) - Any discussion of Cashner as a potential acquisition target is necessarily also a discussion of A.J. Preller, the Padres' sophomore GM. Last offseason, Preller made a string of controversial trades, emptying the Padres' farm system, dealing away several useful young players, and taking on a series of bad contracts in order to construct a defensively deficient roster heavy on powerful right-handed hitters like Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Will Middlebrooks, Justin Upton, and Derek Norris.

The moves didn't (in my opinion, at least) make much sense at the time, and in retrospect Preller's offseason looks like a franchise-crippling disaster. Nor did Preller do much to restore his reputation during the 2015 season--he apparently asked the Diamondbacks for Paul Goldschmidt in return for Craig Kimbrel around the trade deadline, a suggestion that Arizona GM Dave Stewart understandably found laughable.

All of which is a long way of saying that I have zero idea how Preller values players, except that he doesn't seem to care much about defense. Which makes it difficult to anticipate whether Cashner is even available, and if so what sort of return Preller would expect. Perhaps he'd be interested in Pedro Alvarez? That might be a bridge too far.

With regard to Cashner himself, there's not actually all that much to say, He throws very, very hard (~95 MPH average fastball velocity) and gets a fair number of ground balls, both of which are points in his favor. While his results have never matched his arm strength and pedigree, Cashner still projects as something like a 2.5-3 WAR starter for 2016. Obviously, if he's available, Cashner is someone in whom the Pirates could have substantial interest. The roadblock, in this case, is the price tag.

Fortunately, Lincecum, Cahill, and Cashner do not represent the totality of the available starting pitching talent. Below, I address some of the other interesting options:

Brett Anderson (3/$33M) - Like his former teammate Trevor Cahill, Anderson is an extreme groundball pitcher with a heavy sinker. 66% of all balls in play against Anderson last year were grounders (77% off his sinker), making him the most groundball-heavy starter in the league by a fairly wide margin. Also like Cahill, Anderson is just 27 years old. If you want a perfect overview of Anderson, just look at his Brooks Baseball page:

Basic description of 2015 pitches compared to other LHP:
His sinker is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' sinkers, has less armside run than typical and has some natural sinking action. His slider is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' sliders and has exceptional depth. His fourseam fastball generates a very high amount of groundballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, has some natural sinking action and has essentially average velo. His curve is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' curves, is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' curves and has a sharp downward bite. His change is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' changeups, is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' changeups and is slightly firmer than usual.

Dem grounders.

Unfortunately, the Dodgers value Anderson's worm-killing abilities and are likely to retain him--reports say that he will receive a qualifying offer. With Zack Greinke potentially leaving it isn't hard to imagine that the Dodgers will be eager to eliminate one of the question marks from their rotation. This is a continuation of a worrying trend--the Dodgers were second to the Pirates this season in groundball percentage (50.4% vs. 50.1%), and they aggressively pursued potential Pirates targets like Anderson and Brandon McCarthy last offseason. They can obviously afford to outbid the Pirates for pretty much whomever they want, so hopefully they'll be focused more on Cueto/Price/Greinke this year than on any potential Pirates targets.

Both Anderson and J.A. Happ are projected to receive identical 3 year/$33M contracts this offseason. The qualifying offer might complicate things a bit, but in general I'd be more willing to offer that deal to Anderson than Happ. The age split between the two (27 vs. 33) is part of it, as is Happ's inconsistent history. I'd be interested to see which pitcher others prefer, all things being equal.

Mark Buehrle (1/$10M) - Buehrle, who's thirty-six, could very well retire this offseason--if so, it will mark the end of a remarkable career. Buehrle's fastball has never consistently topped 90 MPH, yet he's now won 214 major league games. He never gets hurt and he's posted 7.5 fWAR over the last three years, a figure that probably underrates him as he's one of the very few pitcher to consistently overperform their peripherals. Buehrle is perhaps the least-sexy option available to the Pirates (well, maybe not--see the next paragraph), but if he's actually available on a reasonable one-year deal he's a legitimate option for 200 innings of league-average pitching.

Bartolo Colon (1/$10M) - I have to admit that independent of Colon's effectiveness as a pitcher, I selfishly want him on the team purely for my own entertainment. An impartial spectator unfamiliar with baseball could be forgiven for assuming, upon watching a forty-two year old 5'11''/ 285 lb. man trundle out to the mound, that Colon was perhaps a participant in a local beer league who'd won some sort of sweepstakes. Which, to me at least, makes Colon a singularly endearing figure.

Despite his less-than-svelte physique, Colon is still an effective pitcher--he's put up 2+ WAR each of the last five seasons and shows no signs of slowing down. At this stage of his career, he's mainly a command guy (1.11 BB/9 last year) who throws a high-80s two-seam fastball and doesn't generate a ton of ground balls. That doesn't sound particularly exciting, but as with Buehrle we could do a lot worse than giving him the ball every fifth day.

Marco Estrada (3/$36M) - Estrada would be an atypical target for the Pirates in that unlike the Andersons and Cahills of the world, he generates among the fewest ground balls of any starter in the league. However, Estrada's contact management ability has allowed him to consistently induce low-quality fly balls and pop ups--perhaps it's the massive speed difference between his fastball and changeup.

It's unclear whether the Jays will extend him a qualifying offer--regardless, I think the Pirates are unlikely to sign him (especially at Liriano-contract prices). But they've targeted poor-peripherals contact managers in the past (Volquez, Hughes), and Estrada is at least worth considering.

Doug Fister (2/$20M) - Fister, after years of both under-the-radar stellar pitching and sophomoric last name-inspired jokes, crashed spectacularly in 2015. Always a soft-tossing sinkerballer, Fister's fastball velocity dipped to 87 MPH (see below).

His groundball rates have also dropped, particularly against lefties:

There isn't any obvious mechanical flaw that jumps  out--no glaring change in release point, for instance. Both Charlie and FanGraphs' Dave Cameron predict that the Pirates will sign Fister, and provided it's on a short-term contract I wouldn't hate the move--he's not particularly old (31), he has the size (6'8") the Pirates seem to covet, and on the surface he seems like a reasonable candidate to bounce back and start generating ground balls again.

If we do end up snagging Fister, though, we'll need to hope that Ray Searage can prevent him from bleeding additional velocity--otherwise we may be looking at a potential long reliever.

Mike Pelfrey (2/$16M) - Don't laugh. Pelfrey might be a near-caricature of the Twins' no-strikeouts fetish (among qualified starters, he bested just the previously-mentioned Mark Buehrle) only a year removed from a disastrous 2014 campaign that saw him post a 7.99 ERA, but he could be a sneaky buy-low option this winter. Take a look at the 2015 stat lines for two pitchers (apologies in advance for the alphabet soup):

Pitcher A: 4.26 ERA/4.00 FIP . . . 51.0 GB% . . . 2.0 fWAR

Pitcher B: 3.70 ERA/4.20 FIP . . . 51.8 GB% . . . 1.7 fWAR

Pitcher A is Pelfrey; Pitcher B is Mike Leake, who is about to become a much richer man than Mike Pelfrey. Of course, the comparison isn't perfect--Leake is four years younger, and he doesn't have Pelfrey's disastrous 2014 on his resume. But Pelfrey throws a 94 MPH sinker, and he's been a reasonably effective starter two out of the last three years.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Pelfrey, of course--if there weren't, he wouldn't be available at a comparatively modest price. But I can't help thinking that a change in pitching coaches could make him the bargain of the winter.

This list obviously isn't exhaustive. This year's free agent crop is gigantic, and out-of-left-field options like Jhoulys Chacin or Justin Masterson could easily wind up in the picture when Spring Training rolls around. Whether we acquire Bartolo Colon or Doug Fister (or both, with Colon subsequently eating Fister and absorbing his powers, Space Jam style), I have faith that Searage's magical dust will continue to work wonders.