The Pittsburgh Pirates do not have the money to spend on top free agents, or that is what owner Bob Nutting would have us believe. Pirates fans, while unhappy about the spending, have an understanding of the financial limitations placed upon General Manager Ben Cherington going into a pivotal 2023-2024 offseason. Coming off of a promising season where the Pirates finished with 2 pitchers that are locks for the 2024 playoff-hopeful team, we must embark on an adventure to find him the next crop of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, or Edinson Volquez from free agency or trade. Luckily, we seem to have an idea of what the Pirates look for in their bargain bin reclamation projects in the new regime.
It is no secret to anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the Pirates that pitching coach Oscar Marin and company are in love with pitchers who rely heavily on their slider or sweeper pitch. Johan Oviedo, acquired at the 2022 trade deadline for Jose Quintana might be the poster boy of this experiment. Oviedo works a fastball/slider combo a whopping 75% of the time, and his slider showed an ability to carry himself through tough starts despite having no fastball command. Oviedo generated a 32.6% whiff rate on his slider and had opponents hitting a .210 batting average and a .349 slugging percentage. His breaking pitches had a run value of 18, ranking in the 98th percentile of pitchers. Oviedo went from a reliever role on the Cardinals to pitching 177 innings of effective baseball last year for the Pirates, and his slider was his “get out of jail” pitch which hitters had absolutely no answer for.
Oviedo was not the only success story of the 2023 season where the slider reigned supreme. The Pirates were enjoying a career resurgence from journeyman Vince Velasquez, before losing him for the entire season with an elbow injury. Velazquez almost doubled his slider usage (22.6% to 44.6) from 2022 and was using it more than he threw his fastball with success through April and early May. This change in approach helped him drop his xSLG an entire 68 points from 2022, where he was absolutely torched all over the park as a member of the Chicago White Sox. His barrel rate dropped almost 7 entire points from 13% to 6.4 and his average exit velocity dropped 3 percentage points which doesn’t seem like much but is a ludicrous improvement. Now we have to temper this by acknowledging the very small sample size of 37 innings pitched by Vince but you can see the Pirates’ slider philosophy at work. The success stories are not limited to the Pirates rotation, however, getting lots of quality innings in the bullpen from 3 players no one had ever thought would be viable options. Angel Perdomo, Ryan Borucki, and the moneymaker himself Dauri Moreta all found new careers in the Pirates bullpen last season almost exclusively with their sliders.
So we have established how the Pirates have found success in rebuilding the careers of nobodies by identifying their slider and making it their devastating pitch. For the rest of the post, I plan to propose 5 options the Pirates could consider to help improve their rotation following this same principle, as well as give my opinion on which ones I would like to see most. It’s important to note that these are not necessarily the guys I want the Pirates to be targeting but I picked five pitchers who almost certainly would be within the price range of Bob Nutting and their pitching repertoire aligns with the Pirates’ pitching philosophy.
Option #1: Vince Velasquez
You could kind of see this one coming. Velasquez was extremely cheap to acquire last season, signing for a mere 3.15 million dollars and a guaranteed rotation spot here in Pittsburgh. His time in Pittsburgh was far too short, even if we would have shipped him off at the trade deadline with other off-season acquisitions of Rich Hill, Ji-Man Choi, and Carlos Santana. The Pirates love market inefficiencies and I figure that Cherington looks at Vince, sees the brief success he had in the organization, and at the very least brings him in to fill in pitching depth. If the 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates taught us anything, it is that you can never have enough guys who you can give the ball to every 5 days reliably. I don’t think that the sample size of Velazquez’s success last season is big enough that one can feel confident immediately inserting into a playoff-contending rotation. However, he would be an incredible bullpen piece if not your 5th starter rolling into the 2024 season while the Pirates wait until Paul Skenes‘ service time manipulation is up.
Option #2: Jack Flaherty
Looking at Jack Flaherty‘s 2023 and Vince Velazquez’s 2022 seasons is almost like looking in a mirror in terms of pitch usage, hard hit rates, ERA, and even involved a brief stint of being moved into the bullpen because of struggles on the mound. The biggest surprise for the former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher was the drop-off in effectiveness of his slider in 2023. 2022 Flaherty in limited innings saw his slider’s run value dip from 4 to -5. Opponents slashed .214 BA and .286 SLG in 2022 and saw those numbers skyrocket to .324 BA and .558 SLG, on top of a 3 mph increase in exit velocity against his slider. Injuries have derailed his career in the past few years and the Pirates are a prime target to take a cheap flier on a guy like Flaherty and try to rebuild his previous success. In terms of available targets who can be Ben Cherington’s “Francisco Liriano” Jack Flaherty might tick all of his boxes, and one of the more realistic options sign with the heavy linking of Flaherty to the Pirates that has gone on in the early stages of free agency.
Option #3: Jakob Junis
If your first reaction reading the name Jakob Junis was “There’s no way that’s a real player” you would not be blamed. This is an outside-shot player who filled a long relief/swingman role on the Giants who just hit free agency. On a normal team, you would scoff at the idea of turning a guy like this into a starter. But the Pirates are no normal team and have had success converting bullpen guys like Velazquez and Oviedo into rotation arms so Junis can fit into that mold. How did Junis find his way onto this list? Mainly his staggering 62.5 slider usage last year with the Giants and the +5 run value the slider carried. His slider generated nearly a 33% whiff rate and kept hard contact at bay over the course of 80 innings last season. A big caveat here is that using one pitch as a starter that frequently almost never works, MLB hitters are too good at pitch recognition to not be waiting for a slider and destroying it the second and third times through the count. In order to make this work you would really need to see improvement on his sinker or four-seam fastball, the former getting clobbered carrying a worrying .418 BA in 2023. The likelihood of a move like this is almost 0%, but if there is a team that would target a person like Junis to be a rotation arm it would be the Pirates.
Option #4: Luis Severino
There is no polite way to say it, Luis Severino was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2023. A 6.65 ERA in 89 innings are usually numbers that would get a pitcher DFA’d. If Severino continued his normal career numbers into his final year in Yankee Pinstripes there would be absolutely no way the Pirates would be in a bidding war to acquire his services. However, when looking at 2022 Severino you cannot help but look and see a massive opportunity to fix what seems like a broken pitcher with electrifying stuff. I do not believe there is a pitcher who saw a bigger drop-off in slider quality than Severino from 2022 to 2023. His slider in 2022 was borderline untouchable for most of the season, with hitters managing a measly .163 BA and .302 SLG against his best breaking pitch. What is even more encouraging was how unhittable the pitch was, generating a staggering 41% whiff rate and a 45.8% strikeout percentage. This seemingly disappeared over the offseason last year when his normal fastball/slider/change-up mix went from one of the most promising pitch mixes in the sport to something that would get shelled at the AAA level. A bonus with Sevy is that he isn’t just a one-trick pony with a slider that has nasty movement. His fastball and changeup are plus pitches and at his best, he dominated with his fastball. His location is what failed him last season, so if the Pirates feel like that is a fixable problem you’re getting a pitcher who will never be an ace due to lack of innings but will be a threat every 5 days he takes the mound. Being able to fix a Luis Severino would not only be a bargain bin deal for a team in desperate need of cheap starting pitching but it would also establish Oscar Marin as a pitching coach that demands league-wide respect.
Option #5: Dylan Cease
Oh, the things I would do for the Pirates to acquire Dylan Cease for 2 seasons. The White Sox are insisting that they plan to compete next year even after a disastrous 2023 campaign seeing them lose 100 games and soft-selling at the deadline. However, reports came out a few days before the official start of free agency that at the very least the White Sox will listen to offers on their ace. Cease regressed a bit in 2023 from a top 10 pitcher in baseball to a pitching of Mitch Keller caliber, which for the Pirates would still be a massive addition for a team with playoff aspirations. Another bonus if you’re the Pirates is the surprisingly cheap salary that Cease is expected to make considering how dominant his 2022 campaign was. The contract website Spotrac predicts Cease will only make 8 million in arbitration this offseason, which is identical to what the Pirates paid Rich Hill to be a human pitching machine last season. Dylan Cease is also someone who relies heavily on his wicked slider to generate over 200 strikeouts each season over the past 3 years. I don’t think anyone can expect to see Cease’s 2022 slider, which carried a ludicrous +36 run value and saw hitters slash a .128 BA and a .209 SLG. However, his slider was still really good last season and, like a Vince Velasquez, he throws it close to the amount he throws his four seam. In ’23 Cease put up identical whiff rates on his ’22 slider at 43.3% and one and a half points off his ’22 slider’s strikeout percentage at 36%. I think putting Cease in the building with a guy who specializes in maximizing slider shape could make him a frontline starter that the Pirates need in the worst way. Rolling into a playoff push after the all-star break with a rotation of Keller/Cease/Skenes/Oviedo/5th Starter gives you confidence that you can truly go to war against the rest of the NL Central. Especially with the Pirates somewhat sustained success during the last half of the season with 2 real starters.
A common theme of the guys listed here is that they are on the fringes because of injuries in the past derailing their careers. Specifically in guys like Flaherty and Severino, you’re looking at guys to bring in to fix but also understand they probably can’t give you the 170+ innings that we are used to from Mitch Keller or Johan Oviedo. In order of preference for the guys on the list, I would go 1. Cease 2. Severino 3. Velazquez 4. Flaherty 5. Junis. I do not pretend to know what the Pirates plan to do this offseason to address the pitching staff, but I would be absolutely shocked if none of these guys are linked or signed in some capacity for the 2024 roster.