With A.J. Burnett potentially missing a substantial amount of time and the Pirates having serious internal depth issues at starting pitcher, Neal Huntington probably spent a lot of time at the trade deadline looking to creatively add starting pitching to the Pirates. It’s no secret that the Pirates minor league depth has taken hit after hit this season. Brandon Cumpton, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and even more players have suffered various season ending injuries, and Clayton Richard opted out of his deal for a Major League opportunity with the Cubs. Huntington also has a starting rotation currently where he doesn’t really have the ability to option anyone to AAA if he was to add a front line starter. Jeff Locke, probably the worst starter in the rotation, has pitched well enough to justify his role, especially as he makes the league minimum and is controlled for three more years. Thus the only way a starter would break into the rotation was if a pitcher was injured. Obviously that happened, and I suppose it’s lucky it was just before the trade deadline. That gave Huntington and company a day to find a replacement, even after they had already creatively acquired Joe Blanton to the bullpen (to give them an emergency starting pitcher if they needed one). It seems the best Huntington was willing to do was add J.A. Happ to the rotation, a curious decision, but one that can be justified.
Blanton best profiles as a a long reliever who can start in an emergency, almost exactly like the pitcher he replaced on the roster, Vance Worley. The logic behind DFA-ing Worley is probably that the Pirates hope he clears waivers and accepts an outright assignment to Indianapolis rather than forfeiting the remainder of his 2.4 million dollar salary. That’s possible. Worley hasn’t pitched poorly this year though, so it’s not out of the question that the Pirates lose him either on waivers or to a trade with a team looking to give him another shot as a back of the rotation starting pitcher.Either way, an answer on Worley’s status should come sooner rather than later. Blanton should provide similar value to Worley, so the move seems lateral. Blanton has been striking out more batters since he moved to the bullpen though, and that could be the reason the Pirates were interested. He also has a much better xFIP than Worley, so maybe his performance will be a tick above over the rest of the season.
J.A. Happ has not pitched well this season, but there are some reasons that explain why the Pirates were interested in the 32 year old veteran. His 4.64 ERA is masking his 4.07 FIP and 4.03 xFIP. Sure, he’s underperformed his peripherals in the past, several times in fact, but he’s also outperformed them enough that his career ERA, FIP, xFIP are basically in line. That at least hints that there’s a chance that over the course of the season his numbers will swing a little in the Pirates favor. Contrast that with Dan Haren, who the Cubs acquired at the deadline to fill out their rotation. Haren has his best ERA since 2011 despite striking out less batters than his career norm (16.8% of batters this year against 20.1% for his career). That’s why he has such a disparity between his ERA (3.42), FIP (4.58), and xFIP (4.56). To continue the comparison between the two players, looking at what projection systems expect of them going forward, it’s possible to make the case for why the Pirates acquired Happ instead.
Happ (ZIPS): 49 innings, 4.32 ERA/4.11 FIP, 0.5 WAR
Happ (Steamer): 50 innings, 3.78 ERA/3.77 FIP, 0.7 WAR
Haren (ZIPS): 57 innings, 4.48 ERA/4.11 FIP, 0.5 WAR
Haren (Steamer): 57 innings, 4.18 ERA/4.36 FIP, 0.4 WAR
I’m not pretending to know their logic, of course. They could have pushed really hard for Haren, although that wouldn’t fit their template for a typical starting pitcher. He doesn’t get enough ground balls. Essentially, the hope would be that Steamer is the most accurate projection of what Happ will be over the rest of this season. Splitting hairs between fifth starters might seem silly, especially when the difference in projected WAR is at most 0.3, but it’s important to remember that the difference is 0.3. This isn’t a massive issue. It just seems like, when you break down the advanced numbers (albeit at a very basic, not thorough level), the Happ trade doesn’t seem as bad as some have made it out to be. Especially when you consider that even if Happ struggles, he’s probably only going to make be in the rotation until A.J. Burnett returns (roughly four weeks, but perhaps longer), and then Happ can transition to the bullpen for September, starting if necessary but mostly providing the Pirates with a left handed long reliever for emergencies and mop up duty.