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With Ivan Nova deal, Pirates change organizational course

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates have reportedly agreed to sign Nova to a three-year, $26 million deal with up to $2 million per season in performance bonuses. This is a great deal. It's so good, in fact, that I'm honestly a bit baffled.

At the beginning of the offseason, I predicted that Nova would get twice as much money, and I think my prediction looked conservative at the time. Following the season, I don't think I saw anyone predict Nova would have received anything in the neighborhood of $26 million, and if they had I would have thought they were badly misguided. The way both the free agent and trade markets have unfolded since then has been extremely veteran-friendly, as teams have paid record-shattering prices for free-agent relievers, and teams dealing star veterans have landed terrific prospect packages.

Nova, in contrast, received significantly less than J.A. Happ did last year, and his deal looks so good that you have to wonder if there's something teams and Nova's agent know that we don't.

Could Nova have some sort of health problem? I know of no evidence whatsoever that he does, but if he did, it would explain a lot.

Is the industry significantly more skeptical of Nova than the public, for some reason? That would be weird, since the Pirates gave up two real prospects in Tito Polo and Stephen Tarpley to acquire Nova last summer, agreeing to at least the framework of the deal before the excellent two-month run that was supposed to produce big bucks for Nova on the free agent market.

Why did Nova agree to a three-year deal at such a modest price? If his agent determined that demand for him was lower than anticipated, he could have bet on himself, taking a one-year deal to prove his 2016 stretch run was no fluke, then hit the market again.

One possibility is that Nova really wanted to return to the Pirates (a team for whom he said he liked playing), and this is just what the Pirates were offering. If so, good for him for recognizing there isn't a huge difference between being extremely rich and monstrously rich. But it's rare for ballplayers to leave as much money on the table as it looks like he did here.

In any case, if we're thinking about a deal this way, the simpler possibility is that it's just a really good deal. Good for the Pirates, who get the veteran for their rotation they badly needed. They didn't skimp and pursue a Ryan Vogelsong type. And, of course, it's obvious that the reports about the Pirates being in touch with Nova weren't just someone in the front office blowing smoke. The Bucs got someone who, based on the available evidence, can be very good. Good for them.

You saw Nova pitch down the stretch. His control, in particular, was absurdly good, and a pitcher who walks as few batters as he did is very, very likely to succeed in the long haul. Maybe the walk numbers -- just three in 64.2 innings -- are unsustainable. But he's also posted very good ground-ball numbers his entire career, and health permitting, his ability to get grounders makes his floor at least somewhat high, particularly in a ballpark that isn't likely to amplify his tendency to allow homers.

In fact -- and now we're back to what a bargain this contract looks to be -- Charlie Morton received a two-year deal with a $7 million average annual value from the Astros this offseason, and grounders are pretty much all he has going for him. He doesn't have Nova's control, he doesn't have Nova's health record and he didn't have Nova's excellent stretch run. And yet the average annual value Nova will receive is $8.7 million, only a little bit more than Morton got. (The Pirates paid for another year, but based on the price they seem to be getting, that looks like a good thing.)

It now suddenly appears that, having been unable to trade Andrew McCutchen for a prospect package they liked, the Pirates have decided to keep the band together. I liked the idea of trading McCutchen for the right return. But if the Bucs weren't able to do that, signing Nova and trying to compete makes sense, and it will certainly be more fun to watch the 2017 team as a result. Either way, the signing suggests the Pirates have chosen a direction for the franchise to go, which is good, because I previously hadn't been sure what the plan was -- they seemed to be hovering somewhere between competing and rebuilding.

Ken Rosenthal adds, by the way, that the Pirates are still pursuing Jose Quintana. Quintana's price via the trade market isn't going to be a bargain along the lines of the Nova deal, but if they were to land Quintana, they would suddenly be very well positioned for 2017. They probably still wouldn't be likely to overtake the Cubs, but they should be very much in the hunt for a Wild Card spot. As we've seen throughout the game, Wild Card teams can win the World Series. And as we've seen in Pittsburgh, they can be awfully fun to watch.

So let's take a step back to appreciate what happened here. The Pirates tried to zig by trading McCutchen. That didn't work, and it appears they recognize that, and so they're zagging. The Bucs took a ton of flak, not least for me, for their awful Francisco Liriano salary dump, raising big questions about their ability to spend. Now it appears they did have surplus funds available, and they're wisely spending them now that a bargain has fallen into their lap. At the very least, their ability to spend $26 million on Nova (plus $11 million on Daniel Hudson) strongly suggests that some of the more apocalyptic-sounding stuff we discussed following the Liriano trade appears to have been unfounded (although there remain big questions about that trade). And, of course, the Pirates will get Ivan Nova, a durable starting pitcher who doesn't even turn 30 until next month and who, by all appearances, is capable of pitching well in a Pirates uniform.

These are all very good things. Following the Liriano trade, I thought the Pirates were heading to some dark places as an organization. Nova is just one player, of course, and he isn't a superstar. But the Bucs' ability to re-sign him suddenly makes their short-term future appear considerably brighter.