First Pitch: Looking at the Free Agent Market and Why I Like Taijuan Walker For the Pirates

Ten to fifteen million.

That’s the projected cost per year of a good player in free agency this offseason.

When I say “good player”, I don’t mean the top of the free agent class, like Trevor Bauer or George Springer. Those guys are projected to get over $20 million.

I’m talking guys who are in that range just outside of the top five players, but above the top 20. The guys who could make an impact over a one or two year deal with a contender.

But what does that price get you?

It could get you Jake Odorizzi, who MLBTR projects to receive three years and $39 million.

Odorizzi is coming off a year with a 6.59 ERA in 13.2 innings, although he’s been a solid pitcher in previous years. There’s definitely a potential Chris Archer effect here, with the risk of a starter suddenly falling off the table. Odorizzi will be in his age 31 season next year.

That price could land an aging veteran hitter like Justin Turner or Michael Brantley, who are both projected to receive two year deals in the $12-14 million a year range.

It might make sense for the Pirates to add guys like this in the future, when they’re projected to contend. I wouldn’t recommend those types of deals this offseason. I also doubt the Pirates would be favorites for one of these types of deals in the future. The only deal in this price range that I can recall was the Francisco Liriano signing, and they abandoned that very quickly when it wasn’t working out.

Personally, there’s too much risk and not enough upside here. These types of deals are for big market teams. The teams that can afford to boot one or two expensive years of plunging production from a guy like Turner or Brantley at the ends of their careers, or who can afford to pay Odorizzi for his past success, all to get maybe one year of those numbers. There’s very little upside for these guys, outside of “maybe they’ll remain the same good players for the duration of this deal.” It’s a game of hot potato.

Just below these guys you start to see some values on two-year deals just under $10 million a year.

Jackie Bradley Jr. is projected to receive two years and $16 million total. He’ll be in his age 31 season, and has produced 1.4 fWAR in each of the last two seasons, with his defense in center field driving a lot of his positive value.

Taijuan Walker is a huge injury risk, with just 67.1 innings in the majors over the last three seasons — and 53.1 of those innings came in this pandemic shortened season. He’s projected for the same two year, $16 million deal as Bradley, entering his age 28 season. I’d gamble on Walker all day to stay healthy for a full season and put up solid numbers before I’d spend almost triple his entire deal for one extra year of Odorizzi.

Bradley would upgrade the Pirates’ outfield situation for the next two years, although as I wrote last week, I think there’s some value to keeping Bryan Reynolds in center field for 2021. Walker is the main guy who stands out for me.

The Pirates aren’t winning in 2021, but could win in 2022. They’d need a strong rotation for that to happen. The current rotation is filled with question marks of the likes of Mitch Keller, Jameson Taillon, and Joe Musgrove. Walker would be an additional question mark to add to the list. He’d also give them a fourth guy who could provide middle to top-of-the-rotation production if things break right. And if enough breaks right, that rotation could lead the 2022 club to being contenders.

More likely, if Walker breaks right in 2021, and the Pirates aren’t set to contend in 2022, they have a great trade piece with 1+ years of control in his age 28-29 seasons. The risk is that Walker’s injury history remains, and the Pirates sink $16 million over two years on very little production from the free agent starter. The reward is that you could get a boost of prospects all for the cost of a little more than $5 million and four months of Walker in the rotation in 2021.

Garrett Richards is a similar guy who is projected for the same two year, $16 million deal as Walker. Richards pitched 207.1 innings in 2015, but hasn’t pitched more than 76.1 innings in the majors in a single season since. He did pitch 51.1 innings this past season with a 4.03 ERA and a 46:17 K/BB ratio. I like Walker more, due to the younger age. Richards will be entering his age 33 season in 2021.

The Pirates could go cheaper if they want a potential trade chip. J.A. Happ is projected for one year and $6 million. Again, the Pirates aren’t contending in 2021, but this type of move gives them a trade chip for the deadline, assuming Happ pitches well leading up to the deadline.

The Pirates went the Happ route in 2020 when they tried to upgrade their outfield with Jarrod Dyson on a low-cost, one-year deal.

What route do you think they’ll take in 2021? And what route do you think they should take? Walker is the guy I’d target.

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