What the Toronto Blue Jays Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Pirates

Courtesy of National Post

For a moment, let’s compare two teams; Team A has endured heartache for the past 20 years. Team B has also endured the very same disappointing past two decades. Both franchises have not played in the postseason since the early 90’s.

But there’s one distinct difference; Team A is going to the playoffs this year.

Team A of course is the Pittsburgh Pirates and Team B is the Toronto Blue Jays. The Pirates have snapped a streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons and will be playing baseball in October. The Toronto Blue Jays however, will not be.


Both teams have seen their fair share of ups and downs over the past two decades, but you could argue the Pittsburgh Pirates have had it much, much worse. At least the Blue Jays have strung together nine winning seasons in that period.

A winning season is great and all, but it’s basically all for not if you don’t make the postseason. And to think … some organizations even view a first round exit from the playoffs as a failure.

And yet even after 20 consecutive losing seasons, it’s Pittsburgh that will be going to the postseason this year.

Considering they managed to build something out of virtually nothing the past few years, I figured it couldn’t hurt that the Blue Jays should mimic what the Pittsburgh Pirates did this past offseason and mirror some of their key transactions.

Sign a starting pitcher to an incentive-laden contract
Pirates sign Francisco Liriano to $1 million with $3.75 million in potential bonuses

Francisco Liriano always seemed like one of those starting pitchers who was always on the cusp of making a comeback, but never quite put it all back together. Then for some reason or another, Liriano hit his stride this season under an incentive-laden contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Francisco Liriano’s base salary is a very modest $1 million dollars, but it stands to be closer to $4.75 million total once his incentives kick in. In fact, the Pirates even went as far as to specifically designate the bonuses were related to avoiding the DL due to a right arm injury.

Even with all that factored in, it was a signing that came with tremendous value. Perhaps the Blue Jays would be well served employing a similar strategy on a pitcher who they feel has tremendous upside, but who also has a history of injury troubles.

The first pitcher that comes to mind is obviously Josh Johnson. Considering how badly his 2013 season went, bringing back Johnson on an incentive-laden contract makes perfect sense. If the base salary is low enough and Josh Johnson spends significant time on the DL again, it provides the Blue Jays a failsafe plan without losing very much cash.


It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that the Blue Jays won’t extend a qualifying offer to Josh Johnson. But there were however some rumblings they s may be entertaining the idea of bringing Johnson back on a low-base salary two-year deal. 

At this point, I’d even be leery of signing Josh Johnson to a two-year deal because it gives him the cushion of two guaranteed years. Structuring a contact similar to Francisco Liriano’s would force Johnson to stay healthy if he wanted to receive as much money as possible, otherwise a second option year would not be guaranteed.

Outside of Josh Johnson, other potential starting pitcher targets might include Johan Santana. The Mets will almost certainly decline his $25 million dollar option for 2014, so he’ll likely hit the open market this coming offseason.

Or how about Tim Lincecum? For a guy who has quite an unorthodox delivery and questionable pitching mechanics, Lincecum has remained relatively healthy as he’s never spent any time on the disabled list in his seven year career and has been good for 30+ starts the past six years running.

Durability isn’t really a question when it comes to Lincecum, unlike many of Toronto’s starting pitching candidates. The increase in walks and home runs is a bit of a concern, but at 29 years old, there’s definitely still something there with Lincecum.

I don’t think the Blue Jays would or should expect Tim Lincecum to magically return to his Cy Young ways, but even with his struggles these past few seasons, Lincecum has been a serviceable arm for the San Francisco Giants.


And who knows … maybe the weighted ball program that’s worked wonders for Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan might rub off on Lincecum and add a few MPH to his fastball velocity as well. 

And if all else fails and none of those options pan out, why not ask Roy Halladay to come back home for one final tour in Toronto?

Trade their established closer
Pirates trade Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt for Mark Melancon and others

At the time, it may have appeared to be a shrewd move by the Pittsburgh Pirates front office; trading their All-Star closer for another reliever and a couple of other prospects. But it was actually one of their best offseason transactions.

Last winter, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox along with Brock Holt. As far as the prospects go, it’s basically a wash, but the Pirates ended up far ahead due to the re-emergence of Mark Melancon as an elite reliever.

It was an astute move by the Pirates to not only recognize that Joel Hanrahan would be in line for a hefty raise in arbitration, but also deeming that Jason Grilli could fill his shoes at a savings of nearly $5 million dollars.

Earlier this season, I was dead set against the Blue Jays trading Casey Janssen. But as the season progressed and the bullpen became less and less of a concern, I’ve warmed up to the idea of selling high on Janssen this offseason.

The Blue Jays have proven there are a bevy of arms in the bullpen who could likely step into the closer’s role; there’s as many as four internal candidates, including Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Sergio Santos and even Dustin McGowan.

Considering the glut of bullpen arms the Blue Jays will likely be faced
with next season, the Blue Jays may even entertain the idea of moving
Ricky Romero and Kyle Drabek into the bullpen. 

One would think the departure of Casey Janssen wouldn’t leave too much of a void in the Blue Jays bullpen, so he may be worth more in return on the trade market than by playing another year in Toronto.

So if the Blue Jays can parlay Casey Janssen into any sort of Major League players in return or high-level prospects, it serves them well to do so. As we all know, the closer position is one that’s in constant turmoil, so it seems like there are always buyers for closers.

Bring in an established starting catcher (preferably defensive-minded)
Pirates sign Russell Martin to two-year/$17 million dollar contract

This should be no surprise; virtually any other starting catcher in Major League Baseball would be an upgrade over J.P. Arencibia. Anybody. And not just offensively, defensively as well. Arencibia ranks dead last in nearly every category imaginable.

This year, J.P. Arencibia’s weaknesses became glaringly apparent in nearly a full season behind the plate, so perhaps his skills would be better suited as a backup catcher who could pick up the occasional start here or there.

Watching Arencibia flounder day-in and day-out this season, I learned to really appreciate the often underrated skill set of defensive-minded veteran catchers; handling a pitching staff, calling a game, pitch framing, the ability to block a pitch, as well as to hold and throw out baserunners.

Case in point, Russell Martin. The Pittsburgh Pirates went out and made one of the most underrated signings of the offseason; inking Martin to a two year/$17 million dollar contract. 

Offensively, Martin and Arencibia’s career numbers are somewhat similar; they’re both low-average hitting catchers, but have the ability to hit 20+ home runs. But that’s where the similarities end and it’s apparent Martin is a much more well-rounded backstop.

Russell Martin alone has been worth 16 defensive runs saved for the Pirates this season, while Arencibia has been worth exactly zero.

When it comes to veteran defensive-savvy catchers on the open market, obviously Brian McCann will be the most sought out for catcher this offseason. He seems destined to sign with the Yankees, but the Blue Jays could always make a play for McCann.

But that also leaves guys like A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Ruiz and Kurt Suzuki who could also provide the Blue Jays a huge upgrade at the catching position over J.P. Arencibia. Each of these catchers excel in the defensive aspects of the game, and any offensive contributions would just be a bonus.  

Acquire a veteran starting pitcher via trade
Pirates acquire A.J. Burnett from Yankees for two prospects

Technically, the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett in February of 2012, but Pittsburgh has reaped the benefits if this transaction not only in 2012, but this season as well.

Although the Yankees had him locked up for $16.5 million per for 2012 and 2013, the Pirates only ended up paying $5 and $8 million for two seasons of A.J. Burnett with the Yankees paying the difference. So the Pirates essentially snagged a $33 million dollar starting pitcher for $13 million.

So I guess what the Blue Jays need to do here is seek out a starting pitcher with an albatross contract, preferable one where the other team would be willing to pay a good chunk of the remaining salary.

Not that the White Sox would be willing to deal him, but John Danks strikes me as the type of player that fits the descriptions. Chicago is in a state of constant rebuilding anyway, so shipping off one of their starting pitchers would not be surprising at all.

They may be less desirable options, but Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Jonathon Niese are a few options who are at least under contract in 2014, if not longer. Again, there’s only value in these contracts if the other team kicks in some significant cash.

You could argue whether one of Danks, Gallardo, Lohse or Niese would provide much of an upgrade over the current starting pitcher candidates have internally. They’re not the sexiest names out there, but neither was A.J. Burnett a few years back … and look what happened to him.

Ian Hunter

Ian has been writing about the Toronto Blue Jays since 2007. He enjoyed the tail-end of the Roy Halladay era and vividly remembers the Alex Rodriguez "mine" incident. He'll also retell the story of Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS to his kids for the next 20 years.

4 thoughts on “What the Toronto Blue Jays Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Pirates

  • September 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    The Pirates will most likely be my team in the post season this year. What they've accomplished over the past couple of seasons is remarkable. I honestly don't think the Jays are too far from putting it together. Shoring up 2b and C should be at the top of AA's shopping list. The Pirates made me like AJ (or Pay Jay as I christened him when he bolted to the Yankees).

    There was a time when I was willing to be patient with JP and his crappy defense but that time went in July just after the AS break. He was batting with the bases loaded and nobody out and struck out. He couldn't hit a long, fly ball to at least bring in the runner from 3b. That was the end of any patience, tolerance I had for JP. He either needs to go or become the back-up. He has no business being a starting catcher on a contending team.

    As usual great reading.

    • September 25, 2013 at 12:37 am

      Same here … I think it's either the Pirates or the Reds for me. How can you not cheer for them, right?

      And I think it says a lot if the Jays ride with Arencibia as their starting catcher next year. Hopefully the front office does something to remedy that.

  • September 24, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Dude…forget Halladay. He's practically a walking corpse at this point.

  • September 25, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I hope they go after De La Rosa, or 2 mid-rotation guys from the AL East. Take strength away from our competition, like. Feldman and Kuroda maybe. Bartolo Colon is a dream. So cheap. Arroyo or Vargas are also worth the risk, imo.

    For some reason I don't like Happ. He seems like an a$$hole and I don't have faith in him being consistent. However, serviceable major league starters always have trade value. I'd love for the team to sign the pitchers they need, and then trade Happ, Janssen, Lind and Izturis for a salary dump/bring in an impact player.

    The catcher situation is a conundrum. Ideally, an outside hire could learn to catch Dickey, because having Thole in the lineup is a problem. But any human being would probably need a lot of time to do that. So maybe JPA could catch 1 or 2 guys. He's cheap, has no trade value, and I still believe he's high ceiling. Whether he reaches his potential is a totally different issue.

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