Amidst much fanfare, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Ivan Nova to a three year contract after the 2016 season. If the club had a do-over, would they still make that deal?
As the disastrous 2016 season ended, the Pittsburgh Pirates knew their starting pitching was suspect.
Over the course of that season, the starting rotation was held together with spit and a prayer. The organization talked itself into Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong and Jeff Locke occupying 60 percent of its Opening Day Rotation.
You know the rest of the story. Francisco Liriano was traded. Vogelsong was never the same after that gruesome HBP that resulted in a broken orbital bone. Locke went to the bullpen and continued to nibble. Chad Kuhl, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow all made their MLB debuts. Even so, questions surrounded each of them — some to a lesser degree — as to their long term viability as starting pitchers.
So, it kind of made sense that the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates — just 52-51 on deadline day, coming off of three straight losses — would go after a value starting pitcher.
Ivan Nova came over from the Yankees in exchange for Stephen Tarpley and Tito Polo — a modest price for a modest acquisition.
Except, Nova was anything but modest for the Pirates over the season’s last two months. One could point to his 1.1 percent walk rate, his 2.62 FIP or his 52.4 percent ground ball rate during that marvelous stretch.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were able to sign Nova to a 3-year/$26 Million contract. There was much rejoicing.
Yet, as the final year of that three-season pact draws near, is it fair to wonder if GM Neal Huntington harbors any secret regret?
At the time, the dollar amount that Nova agreed to was surely well within market value for a pitcher of his ilk. That is especially true considering Nova’s 40th-best 3.1 fWAR between 2017-2018 among qualified starting pitchers. If we grab a figure of something like $8.5 million per win, Nova’s compensation is well aligned with what he has given the club.
WAR isn’t everything, however, and other peripherals are not so kind. Nova came back down to earth in 2017-2018 from his lofty final months of 2016, and the fall was a steep one. While he has still maintained a reputation for few walks — 4.8 percent or 1.8 BB/9 if you prefer — the long ball propensity came right back to 1.4 per nine. Without much strikeout ability to fall back on (just 6.3 per nine over the past two seasons), Nova’s 4.51 FIP over that time frame checks out.
Could the Pittsburgh Pirates have done better? Without consummating their thirsty pursuit of Jose Quintana, the answer is a resounding no. The richest multi-year contract signed by a starter during that offseason turned out to be Rich Hill’s three-year deal worth $48 million. Nova’s signing actually came in second, and the names that follow all have their warts.
A fair amount of second-guessing is to be had from the Pittsburgh Pirates — and 28 other clubs — in not bringing back Charile Morton at the 2/$14 Million rate he got from the Houston Astros. Pittsburgh had definite interest in southpaw Derek Holland, who eventually signed for $6 million. Though he had a solid rebound season with the Giants in 2018, the 2017 version of Holland was a near-disaster. I’ll spare you the rest of the starting pitching crop.
Okay, one last name. Nathan Eovaldi, fresh off of Tommy John surgery, was signed by the Tampa Bay Rays to a two-year, cut-rate deal that would allow him to rehab with the organization. He was then flipped to the Red Sox in 2018, of course, and has more or less thrived since returning to duty.
It would have been awfully refreshing to see the Pittsburgh Pirates, take an innovative approach such as this. Alas, the club decided to gamble that Nova’s regression would not be too drastic. The club absolutely needed someone to pitch innings while Taillon, Williams, et al., asserted themselves. Signing Nova was a textbook case of right place, right time.
To be fair, Nova as a fifth starter-type compares very favorably to pitchers in similar roles throughout MLB.
Yet it is also fair to wonder if the Pirates could have done better, given the situation, roster makeup and roadmap as the 2016 hot stove unfolded. Aside from a few pinpoint instances during that offseason, the answer is one that I personally did not think I would arrive to as I began to write this post.