Free agency is starting soon, and there’s an under the radar move the Pirates can make to position themselves better in the 2020 season.
Last offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed zero Major League free agents to a contract. With the way the team is currently structured, it would appear that the only free agents the Pirates would target would be marginal fits in the bullpen, or perhaps a bench bat.
But gloss over 2019, where the team will look to build upon winning 82 games, though a bit of luck from Trevor Williams in the latter half of the season helped in doing so. That’s a player who has value – likely as a backend guy – but one who can be upgraded. But with the roster constructed, and top pitching prospect Mitch Keller in Indianapolis waiting his turn, Williams isn’t the most expendable pitcher right now, that’d be Ivan Nova.
Nova has only a year left on his deal, and he’s been a more than capable backend innings eater type starter, but it’s only one year. The only real depth comes in the form of Nick Kingham, who has no options, and Mitch Keller. He’s expendable in terms of being the most likely to be upgraded upon, but not really expendable given the depth, so keeping him for another go round makes sense.
Assuming Keller gets a full season in Indianapolis – a league in which he tossed 52.3 innings to a tune of a 4.82 ERA this past season – that puts his timeline as 2020, and sliding into that vacancy that Nova will be leaving. Chad Kuhl will also be returning from Tommy John surgery, but he has the look, stuff, and control of a multi-inning relief threat compared to a starter.
Even if Kuhl remains a starter, that leaves a toss up between Kuhl, Keller, and Williams for two spots behind Archer, Taillon, and Musgrove. The level of upside here are different, and Williams has posted seasons of 97.7 and 95.7 DRA- in 2017 and 2018. He’s been at the worst an average starter and that’s valuable.
The Pirates, however, can do better in terms of upside for (likely) minimal risk that would represent a huge upgrade to the rotation, and if that arm is of any concern, a relief option. Garrett Richards, formerly of the Los Angeles Angels has a career 3.54 ERA and has struck out 23.0 percent of hitters over his last 86 starts and 514.7 innings. He features a power fastball and a power slider, and when healthy, Richards has shown to be an effective pitcher, and that’s the catch.
Since 2016, Richards has only thrown 138.67 innings at the Major League level and he won’t pitch again until his age 32 season in 2020 after undergoing Tommy John in July. Richards missed most of 2016 with a torn UCL, but didn’t get Tommy John and opted for a different recovery method, and he then missed most of 2017.
It’s the upside that he brings that could be worth it for the Pirates. I opined last July that the Pirates should sign Michael Pineda after it was announced he needed Tommy John because of the upside he could bring for 2019. The Minnesota Twins signed Pineda five days after they hired Josh Kalk last offseason from the Rays front office. Kalk was with the Rays when the club did this move with Nathan Eovaldi.
The Chicago Cubs did something similar with Drew Smyly as well, as this looks to be the next trend in a copy cat league. The Pirates would be wise to get in on Richards, given his stuff, and he shouldn’t cost much in terms of dollars either. While the potential is there, the injury history should be a concern for multiple teams. Pineda got two years worth $10 million, and Richards has been hurt more than Pineda.
The upside doesn’t have to just play as a starter, and a move to the bullpen would still allow his stuff to play. Kyle Crick, Keone Kela, and Felipe Vazquez will still be under contract, though Kela and Vazquez seem like safer bets to be holding down a backend bullpen spot in two years than Crick. That would allow Richards, and perhaps Kuhl, to be multi-inning threats with power stuff.
The potential that Richards has, be it as a starter or reliever, with little risk in terms of capital, is why the club should take the flyer. The club paid Sean Rodriguez $5.75 million this past season, and Richards presents more upside than Rodriguez did.
*Numbers from Baseball Prospectus