The Pittsburgh Pirates and competitive contracts
By Jon Anderson
Pittsburgh Pirates management saw something this offseason that they had rarely seen in the past; they saw free agents that actually wanted to come play for the Pirates. The ever-present small market cloud still looming, management wasn’t able to make any big splashes to capitalize on being a more favorable destination for players, but they certainly did take advantage when they could
It might sound harsh to imply that players would not be as dedicated or try as hard for the Pirates if they aren’t concerned about their next contract, but it’s a proven fact of sport. Burnett and Liriano are very talented pitchers
The Pirates re-signed Francisco Liriano to a three-year deal when other teams were interested, and they were also able to ink A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal to strengthen their rotation. The big splash they were unable to make was Russell Martin, as he departed to sign a massive contract in Toronto. The last few years with the Pirates and their dealings with these three players tells a pretty interesting story. Those three players were all incredibly instrumental in the helping the Pirates break their streak of futility and make consecutive trips to the playoffs. Their similarities don’t end there. They also share the attribute that none of them ended up in Pittsburgh because they really wanted to be there.
Burnett was traded to the Pirates as a salary dump. Liriano was far from a hot commodity after posting a 5+ ERA in consecutive seasons and being looked at as a huge injury risk. Martin hit .211 in 2012 and quickly signed in Pittsburgh because they gave him the best offer he could have expected. They all came to the Pittsburgh Pirates with one main thing in mind – stay healthy and improve in their short time with the Pirates so they could try to get one more big contract after those deals expired.
Luckily for the Pirates (and as a huge testament to their coaching staff and management), those players all did just that. They put up some of the best years of their careers and helped the Pirates go from a 21 year losing drought to a legitimate pennant contender. Things are different now. Obviously the Pirates could not afford to keep Russell Martin in black and gold, as he signed a monstrous contract with Toronto. However, Burnett and Liriano both chose the Pirates again, this time in different circumstances than the first time around.
This will probably be Burnett’s last season and he chose to spend it as Pirate. Liriano was going to get a very nice contract somewhere this off-season, and he was happy to take it in the form of three years and $39 million from the Pirates.
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My question is, does the circumstances of the contract affect performance? There is a chapter in Baseball Between the Numbers, a brilliant book written by the Baseball Prospectus team of experts, that talks specifically about the “Contract Year Phenomenon“. You can click here for a free preview of that chapter, but you’ll have to buy the book to get the full thing. Long story short, yes, players do perform better in years before they become free agents.
The first time Burnett and Liriano joined the Pittsburgh Pirates, they were playing for more than just a chance at a World Series. They were playing for the chance to make big money later on. This year, they don’t have that. Burnett has likely signed his last contract and Liriano now has three years before worrying about another contract. Nobody took fuller advantage of their contract year(s) than Russell Martin, and now that he has also signed what will most likely be his final contract, does anybody actually expect him to perform as well as he did last year with the Pirates?
It might sound harsh to imply that players would not be as dedicated or try as hard for the Pirates if they aren’t concerned about their next contract, but it’s a proven fact of sport. Burnett and Liriano are very talented pitchers, and they should greatly help the team in their quest for a third straight playoff appearance, but if you’re expecting the dominating Liriano-Burnett combination that you saw in 2013, you might be a bit disappointed come summertime.