Before we get started, I want to be clear on something: the 2017 Pirates a better team with Ivan Nova than without him. The rotation was the weak spot last year, but he was a good interim ace while Gerrit Cole was out. If Nova comes back, he, Cole and Taillon should be a pretty strong top three in the rotation.
Neal Huntington wants a veteran for his rotation, and it’s safe to say that Nova is the first choice for both the front office and the fanbase. The Fangraphs’ Steamer has him pegged as a 2.4 WAR player in 2017 with a low 4 ERA and FIP over 172 innings. Considering what the Pirates got from their rotation last year, that sounds like a godsend. But that does not mean signing him is a no-brainer.
If I was in Huntington’s shoes, I would want to resign him, but there are big risks involved with the revitalized righty, including:
He probably can’t match his peripherals
Nova has always done a good job limiting walks, but he was incredible at limiting base on balls in his stint with the Pirates. In 64.2 innings pitched as a Bucco, he only issued three free passes, which averages out to 0.42 BB per nine.
The last starter to do better than that over the course of a full season was George Bradley. He did it in ‘80.
The same year baseball reduced the number of balls needed for a walk from nine to eight. There is no way Nova is going to be able to do that over a full season.
There is also concern with the batted balls he surrenders. Even though he had a much better ERA as a Pirate, he actually generated more soft contact as a Yankee in 2016 (19.4% of the time to 17.1%). Teams also squared him up more, and Nova saw his line drive percentage jump from 17.3% to 21.2% once he left the Bombers.
It all resulted in him allowing 68 hits as a Pirate. Considering he’ll probably walk more batters, that could be bad news, especially since he has had troubles with the long ball in the past.
Mo’ years, mo’ problems
Let’s go back a minute to why J.A. Happ left.
The $12 million a year salary was not the reason why the Pirates let Happ walk. They brought in Jon Niese as his replacement, making similar money. The breaking point was the third year.
In this free agent market, the only possible way Ivan Nova is signing for two years is if he gets a ridiculously high Average Annual Value (AAV) or if Neal Huntington blackmails him with compromising photos of him with the Maz statue. He’s going to get a third year. He might get a fourth, and he wanted five when the Pirates tried negotiating with him in September.
The Pirates can give three. No more, no less. Three shall be the number of years the Pirates should give, and the number of the years shall be three. Four shall not be the number of years. Five is right out.
Even so, is three years too many? Like Happ last year, Nova has had a hard time staying upright. He’s never made 30 starts in a year and has only thrown 170 innings once. He did show durability as a Pirate and ate a lot of innings by attacking early in the count and reducing his pitch count, but he may not be able to do that through a whole season.
Also, what happens two or three years from now if he is either hurt and struggling? Do the Pirates eat the contract, trot him out there every five days and potentially block someone like Mitch Keller from reaching the majors? Or do they ship him off with a couple prospects to unload the contract like they did with Liriano?
Future free agents and starting options
Unlike this year, the 2017 and 2018 free agent classes are much deeper for starters. Next year will most likely have Jake Arrieta, Masahiro Tanaka, Johnny Cueto and Yu Darvish. The 2018 class should be legendary, including Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, David Price and Dallas Keuchel.
The Pirates aren’t going to sign any of those guys, but there will be less interest in middle of the rotation guys that they can afford. Those starters include Andrew Cashner, Clay Buchholz, Danny Duffy, Drew Pomeranz, Drew Smyly, Garrett Richards and others.
If any of those guys look more appealing than Nova, then the Pirates may need to let him walk. Not just because of finances, but there are only so many spots available in the rotation, especially if you are high on guys like Keller and Nick Kingham.
Signing Nova may take the Pirates out of the running for other starters that have a higher ceiling and floor.
Money could be spent somewhere else
The Pirates have a little cash to spend. Even with Nova, they will still be sending out at least two starting pitchers who will be in their first full season. That money may be better utilized by grabbing a quality reliever or two and taking pressure off of them.
Greg Holland (not Derek — Pirates may have dodged a bullet there) was a top five reliever not that long ago and is looking for a multi-year deal. He could fit into the Pirates’ price range, and assuming his recovery from Tommy John surgery was successful, he could be an elite closer once again. Having him at the back end of the bullpen with Felipe Rivero and Tony Watson could create a lot of six inning games.
There are also a handful of good late and middle relief options, ranging from former Buccos Neftali Feliz and Joe Blanton, to potential newcomers like Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo. The $7.4 million net saved from the Francisco Liriano deal and re-signing David Freese could probably pay for one of them.
The Indians and Royals have won the last three American League pennants because of the strength of their bullpens. The Pirates may want to do the same to get back into the postseason.
Like every other team, the Pirates can build a good team through the farm system, but they will need to complete it with trades and free agents. They aren’t the Dodgers or Cubs. They can’t make mistakes and make up for it by just throwing more money at it. They will one day have to sign a guy like Nova to compete, but he might not be the right guy.