By: Noah Wright
Every year, it seems like there’s some sort of pitcher the Pirates bring in in hopes of recapturing the talent and skill that once made them a good pitcher. Sometimes, they can recapture that talent and make them an all-star. Other times, not so much. So with the Pirates entering camp with guys like Francisco Liriano and Jordan Lyles, I wanted to look back at some of the team’s former reclamation pitching projects they’ve brought in in recent history.
- Francisco Liriano:
It’s almost dejavu what’s happening to Francisco Liriano. Back in 2013, Liriano was a down on his luck left handed pitcher who had just come off a pretty rough year with an AL Central team. While in 2019 it was the Tigers, in 2013, it was the Twins and White Sox. Between 2011 and 2012, Liriano had posted ERA’s above 5 and FIP’s above 4. The former top 10 prospect had good years in the past, but that was long ago, 2006 and 2010 to be exact. So in February, the Pirates decided to pick up Liriano on a 2 year deal, and it was a bargain for the Bucs. Liriano would go on to post a 3.02 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and 1.224 WHIP in 161 innings. Liriano had lowered his 5.0 BB/9 rate from 2012 to just 3.5, while keeping the high strikeout numbers he was known for (9.1 K/9). Plus he had only given up 5 home runs. His great performance earned him the nod for the legendary 2013 NL Wild Card Game (yes, the Cueto game) in where he put up 7 one run 4 hit innings for the Pirates. After 2013, Liriano would continue to put up good numbers for 2 more seasons. Between 2014 and 2015, Frankie had a combined 3.38 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 1.249 WHIP in 349 innings of work. Though his tenure ended with a trade to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2016 after having a rough time with the Pirates, Liriano will be looking to reclaim, for a third time in his career, the magic he brought to the Bucs back in 2013-2015.
- A.J. Burnett:
A.J. Burnett will remain unforgettable to Pirates fans everywhere, and for a good reason. He brought leadership to a struggling team, and a spark that made him stand out. However before he became the Batman of Pittsburgh, he was a veteran right hander who just came off of 2 straight seasons with the Yankees where he put up ERA’s above 5 in both years. That’s when the Yankees decided to bassically salary dumb A.J. to the Pirates. And boy did it pay off for the Bucs. His first season in Pittsburgh, A.J. posted a 3.50 ERA, 3.51 FIP, and 1.241 WHIP in 202 and a third innings. Burnett also saw a rise in strikeouts, and lowered his BB/9 over a whole walk from 2011. Burnett further built off of his 2012 season with an even better 2013 season. This time, the veteran leader posted a 3.30 ERA, 2.80 FIP, and 1.215 WHIP in 191 innings, along with another drop in BB/9 (2.8). While Burnett did sign with Philly for 2014, it was short lived and he came back to Pittsburgh for less money in 2015 so he could end his career in Pittsburgh. In his final year, Burnett turned in a terrific 3.18 ERA, 3.36 FIP, and 1.360 WHIP in 164 innings.
- Mark Melancon:
Before 2013, Melancon was a set-up man in Boston. There, the right handed relief pitcher put up a 6.20 ERA and 4.58 FIP in 45 innings. However, the Pirates decided to flip former closer Joel Hanrahan and utility man Brock Holt to Boston for Melancon plus some minor league players. The move to Pittsburgh rejuvenated Melancon and made him a top 5 closer in the MLB for a few years. In his first year, Melancon served as the set-up man to another guy I’m going to bring up later, Jason Grilli, and posted a 1.39 ERA, 1.64 FIP, and .958 WHIP. He had only given up 1 home run and 8 walks in all 71 innings he pitched in. After a rough start to the 2014 season by Jason Grilli, Melancon eventually overtook the closer role, and continued his dominance from there on out. His highest single season ERA with the Bucs was 2.23, which it should go without saying is amazing in all regards. Even when he was traded from Pittsburgh to the Nation’s capital, he still reeled in Felipe Rivero (now Felipe Vasquez) and Taylor Hearn (who was flipped to the Rangers for Keone Kela at last year’s deadline). His performance between 2013 to 2016 helped Melancon earn one of the largest deals for a closer/relief pitcher ever.
- Edinson Volquez:
Volquez was coming off of a season where he posted the highest qualifying ERA in 2013 at 5.71. Accepting the fact that they weren’t going to be able to resign A.J., the Bucs decided to take a one year chance on Edinson Volquez, and he turned out pretty well for that 1 year $1 million deal. Volquez pitched 192 and 2 thirds innings, dealing a 3.04 ERA, 4.15 FIP, and 1.230 WHIP. Plus he was really good down the stretch with a 2.20 ERA and 3.89 FIP post ASG break. Volquez got the nod for the 2014 NL Wild Card game and while he struggled, Volquez was an overall solid 1 year $1 million signing for the team.
- Jason Grilli:
Grilli was a pick-up by the Pirates back in mid-2011 and he immediately became one of the team’s best relief pitchers. 2012 was when Grilli really broke out as the Bucs’ set-up man when he pitched to a 2.91 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and 1.142 WHIP with an impressive 4.09 strikeout to walk ratio (13.8 K’s/9, 3.4 BB/9) in 58 and 2 thirds innings. After the departure of Joel Hanrahan, Grilli was given the closer role, and thrived. In 50 innings exactly, Grilli gave the Pirates a 2.70 ERA, 1.97 FIP, and 1.060 WHIP. He kept his strikeout rate around the same (13.3 K/9), but significantly reduced his BB/9 rate (2.8 per 9). Through Grilli was traded during the 2014 summer, he was a large part of that 2013 bullpen which was one of the large reasons why the Pirates returned to the playoffs.
- Vance Worley:
Back in 2011, Vance was once one of the Phillies best young pitchers as he finished 3rd in ROY voting during '11. However, that was 2011 and it was 2014. Worley had just come off of a rough stint with the Twins having a 7.21 ERA in just 48 and 2 thirds innings. With injuries on the team, Worley was inserted into the rotation in ‘14, and succeeded big time. In 110 and 2 thirds innings, Worlery posted a 2.85 ERA, 3.44 FIP, and 1.211 WHIP while limiting walks to only 1.8 per 9. Worley had also given up just 9 home runs across this span of innings. Though Worley did struggle some in his second year with the Pirates in 2015, his impact in 2014 was major.
The Failed Projects:
- Jon Niese:
Jon Niese was a solid pitcher between 2012 to 2015 with the Mets. Through those 4 seasons, Niese posted a solid 3.65 ERA, 3.88 FIP, and 1.310 WHIP. Niese had also shown good control with just a 2.5 BB/9 rate and .9 HR/9 rate. Though 2015 was his worst season (4.13 ERA, 4.41 FIP), Niese was a solid pitcher to project for a bounceback to an ERA around 3.80 and FIP around 3.80 as well. However things didn’t go as planned for the left hander. After being traded to the Pirates for Neil Walker, Niese posted an ugly 4.91 ERA, 5.36 FIP, and 1.545 WHIP. Niese could no longer limit home runs in a Pirate uniform, giving up 21 in only 110 innings. Eventually, the Pirates flipped Niese back to the Mets for Antonio Bastardo. The Mets then released him, was picked up by crosstown/cross league rival Yankees where he struggled again. The former mid-rotation level starter has not played an MLB game since 2016.
- Radhames Liz:
Liz wasn’t your standard comeback Pirate candidate. The former top 100 prospect was signed by the Bucs after 3 solid years in the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization), but hadn’t played an MLB game since 2009. In hopes of Liz keeping his performance up, the Pirates brought Liz back state-side, and it was well, not good. Liz Only pitched in 23 and a third innings and gave up 4 home runs, and 12 walks. Overall, Liz was responsible for a 4.24 ERA, 4.98 FIP, and 1.629 WHIP. Though when the Pirates did option Liz to AAA, he looked like an ace. Liz was just another AAAA player among others.
- Jonathan Sanchez:
Throughout his tenure in San Francisco, Jonathan Sanchez was never an ace, but he put up solid numbers for a back end rotation guy. Between ‘09-’11, Sanchez posted a 3.75 ERA, 4.13 FIP, and 1.325 WHIP. Sanchez was also responsible for a no hitter as well during his Giants tenure. 2012 however proved to be rough for Sanchez as he gave up 58 earned runs in only 64 and 2 thirds innings split between the KC Royals and Colorado Rockies. Hoping to rediscover the solid version of Sanchez, the Bucs decided to give him a chance. As you guessed, the Pirates got the 2012 version of Sanchez instead. His time with the Pirates was short lived, giving up 7 home runs, 18 earned runs, and 7 walks in only 13 and two thirds innings. 2013 was the last time Sanchez threw an MLB pitch.