Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Liriano deal good start for Pirates

Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, 11:36 p.m.
Francisco Liriano: 23-18, 3.20 in two years with the Pirates. (Frank Victores/USA TODAY Sports)

On a day when news broke that the Pirates will re-sign starter Francisco Liriano for the cost of $39 million over three seasons, my thoughts turned to pitch framing. I wondered if the investment in Liriano could really pay off considering the Master Pitch Framer, catcher Russell Martin, has taken his talents to Toronto.
And this is how the Pirates finally arrived as an honest-to-goodness big league organization.

Owner Bob Nutting need not receive praise for authorizing general manager Neal Huntington to spend money at the annual winter meetings. Spending money is what contenders must do, and the Pirates are contenders.

They've played seven postseason games the past two years. They own a .562 winning percentage over that span. The National League's best everyday player, Andrew McCutchen, is their center fielder. One of baseball's most promising power pitchers, Gerrit Cole, is their ace-in-waiting. An elite manager, Clint Hurdle, commands their dugout. Huntington, a shrewd (and underrated) general manager, runs their operation, which is home to one of the game's top farm systems.

A lot of presumed World Series contenders don't bring what the Pirates will bring to spring training. Oh, and close to 6 million fans have spent two summers turning PNC Park into a Jolly Roger-waving home advantage.

Nutting was obligated to spend money this offseason. He knew it, pledged to do it, and then did it.

He should keep spending, too.

Despite retaining Liriano, which is not yet official, the Pirates are an inferior club to the one that was knocked out (literally and figuratively) of the wild-card playoff game by San Francisco in October.

Unless you believe Pedro Alvarez, who can't hit left-handers and has never regularly played the position, can fill a black hole at first base.

Unless you believe Josh Harrison is what he was in 2014 and not what he had been before a breakout campaign.

Unless you believe the front end of the bullpen is a dependable enough for the Pirates to make use of standout setup man Tony Watson and clutch closer Mark Melancon.

Unless you believe A.J. Burnett, who turns 38 on Jan. 3, is ideally cast as a third starter, or that Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke are dependable for the rotation.

Unless you believe Martin can be replaced.

I don't believe any of the above at the moment. But I do believe Alvarez and Harrison easily can prove me wrong, Huntington will find bullpen help, and miracle-working pitching coach Ray Searage might work magic with the starting staff.

Martin was irreplaceable, though. That is a fact, and one the Pirates acknowledged by extending him a four-year offer, which would have paid him until he was 35.

Fiction, perhaps, is that Martin's excellence in the art of pitch-framing helped transform Liriano from a pitcher only the Pirates wanted two years ago into one they paid handsomely to keep Tuesday.

“Framing is individual; the relationship between the pitcher and the catcher and the Xs and Os are more important,” Searage said.

“Pitch framing is not the end all.”

I'm buying what Searage was selling. Martin's pitch framing was measured to be worth about 19 runs for the Pirates last season, but also less than two full wins.

No wins are insignificant, even over a 162-game season, but the Pirates probably will miss Martin's penchant for hitting pitches more than the way he framed them. It's not like Toronto agreed to pay him $82 million over the next five years because Martin paints a pretty picture behind the plate. He can mash, so now he's looking at a future filled with ridiculous amounts of cash.

Paying $13 million to Liriano each of the next three seasons is not ridiculous for the Pirates. That is the going rate for a really good pitcher. It will be a bargain, even if as the Pirates must hope, Liriano spends most of this contract as the No. 2 starter behind Cole.

They should go after a No. 3 starter for next season and beyond, even if that would mean going well above the minimum $15 million that Trib Total Media's Rob Biertempfel reported would be added to the payroll.
Strength among starters is what will keep the Pirates from ceding their current standing as perennial wild-card favorite to the Reds, Brewers and the they-mean-business Cubs.

The Pirates were good. Keeping Liriano makes them better. They're still not ahead of where they were a few months ago.

World Series are won by clubs armed for success. The Pirates still need more arms.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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