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Is Trevor Williams worth retaining?

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Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

There’s no telling what the 2021 Pirates roster will look like at this point in the offseason, but it’s safe to say we’re going to see some changes. According to MLB Trade Rumors, 19 players are arbitration-eligible, and there’s a good chance at least a half-dozen of them – if not more – will not be tendered contracts by the deadline, which this year is Dec. 2.

My guess at this point is that the club will not tender contracts to backup catchers John Ryan Murphy or Luke Maile, whom MLB Trade Rumors believes will earn in the neighborhood of $600,000 and $900,000, respectively. But what about some of the bigger names on the list – names that include Adam Frazier (estimated $3.7 million), Trevor Williams ($3.5 million), Joe Musgrove ($3.4 million) and Jameson Taillon ($2.3 million)? If I were a betting man, I’d bet on the Pirates offering contracts to Frazier, Musgrove and Taillon, but waving goodbye to Williams.

Although I’ve never been Williams’ biggest fan, I admit I jumped on his bandwagon during the second half of the 2018 season. Who didn’t? Frrom July 11 through the end of September – a span of 13 starts – Williams limited opponents to 62 hits over 76 2/3 innings, walked 23 and struck out 58. During that stretch he fashioned a 1.29 ERA and an opposition OPS of .578 OPS.

Overall, he finished the season with a 14-10 record, a sparkling 3.11 ERA and a 1.178 WHIP. At 26, he looked to be one of the cornerstones of the Pirates rotation for years to come.

But after a strong start to the 2019 season, Williams suffered a strain to his right side in a start against San Diego on May 16, and from that point on, he did not resemble the pitcher he had been prior to the injury. Over his final 17 starts, a stretch that covered 91 2/3 innings, Williams yielded 111 hits and 67 earned runs while walking 34 and striking out 71. That equates to a 6.58 ERA, and opposing hitters hung a .947 OPS on him. For the season, Williams finished with a 5.38 ERA and a 1.414 WHIP in 26 starts over 145 2/3 innings.

Given his injury and Williams’ eye-popping performance the previous season, I was more than willing to give the well-spoken right-hander the benefit of the doubt going into the 2020 campaign. But aside from a couple of strong outings, Williams took a beating and finished with a 2-8 record, a 1.572 WHIP and a 6.18 ERA over 55 1/3 innings.

So what should we make of Williams? Was he pitching through some undisclosed injury, taking one “for the team” as it scuffled its way through a nightmare 2020 season? And is he worth retaining?

I’m stumped. A part of me says that perhaps with a “normal” uninterrupted spring training and a second year of working with Bucs pitching coach Oscar Marin, Williams will figure out what went wrong last year and put together numbers that would be commensurate with that of a No. 4 or No. 5 starter. But another part of me says the Pirates, while not overflowing with starter candidates, might be able to find another No. 4 or No. 5 starter with a much lower price tag.

It would appear that – barring trades – the club will go into spring training with Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon and Mitch Keller penciled into the starting rotation. I realize Taillon is definitely not a sure thing, given his injury history. And there’s a chance that Musgrove is sent packing, given that he’s probably the most valuable trade chip the Pirates hold at this point.

But assuming Taillon is healthy and Musgrove isn’t dealt, that would leave two starting spots that need to be filled. Along with Williams, candidates include Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault, both of whom showed flashes in 2020, and JT Brubaker, who also showed signs of being at least a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Given all that, I don’t see room for Williams in the Pirates’ rotation – at least not at $3.5 million or thereabouts. I realize it’s not my money, but I can’t see spending that much of anyone’s money on a right-hander who’s just as likely to blow up in a bad way as he is to shut down the opposition on any given start. I’d rather see what Brubaker, Kuhl and/or Brault can do over 30 starts – and use the $3.5 million elsewhere.