Donnelly’s Confusing Addition

After adding Ryan Church on a contract for 1.5 million dollars plus incentives, the Pirates turned around this weekend and gave a very similar deal to veteran reliever Brendan Donnelly. The deal pays 1.5 million in base salary and can reach up to 3 million if all incentives are reached.

Brendan Donnelly is coming off one of his best seasons since his years with the Angels in the early part of the last decade. He still didn’t amass many innings, but he was excellent with the opportunities he received last season with the Marlins. His strikeout and walk rates were reminiscent of his first three years with Anaheim, in which he compiled 4.8 wins above replacement. He also did a fantastic job of keeping the ball in the yard, only allowing one home run in 25.1 IP.

There’s the problem, though – Donnelly only compiled 25.1 IP, and that was his highest IP total since 2006. He was almost certainly due for some regression, as his 3.7% HR/FB ratio is quite low compared to 6.8% overall. His xFIP of 3.76 was nearly a full run higher than his FIP. His 8.88 K/9 marked the first time his strikeout rate was above 8.00 since 2004. Simply put, Donnelly hasn’t been relevant since 2004.

Most importantly, though, Donnelly will turn 39 years old in July of 2010. Relievers at the age of 29 are very fungible, not to mention relievers nearing 40. At age 39, it’s hard to either project Donnelly to maintain his performance from last year or to complete an entire season without injury. It’s for that reason that Donnelly is projected for only 2 runs above replacement by CHONE. That projection values Donnelly at roughly .7-.8 million dollars on a one-year deal.

Even if the Pirates weren’t overpaying, adding Donnelly to their roster in any form just doesn’t make any sense. The Pirates have 11 relievers projected to produce between 0 and 3 runs above replacement. To commit any sort of money to Donnelly would be committing money to, at best, a marginal improvement and somebody who could just as easily be either below replacement level or injured for most of the year. Not only that, but given the Pirates low spot on the marginal win curve, one or two extra runs simply won’t make a difference in the team’s short term future.

Much like Ryan Church, the best way for Donnelly to provide value is for the Pirates to flip him for some prospects at the trading deadline. However, unlike Church, it’s very unlikely that Donnelly provides the Pirates with enough value before the trading deadline for any teams to have significant interest. The most likely scenario here is that the Pirates will be out 1.5 million dollars or more with almost no return on investment, and that’s 1.5 million dollars that can’t be used to sign the international prospects, draft picks, or freely available talent that will be needed to rebuild this franchise.

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I think Hundington is trying to build a bullpen by adding depth. However, I also get the feeling alot of these short term deals might be an attempt to stave off the “payroll floor” that recently got the Marlins in trouble. Although the money is better spent acquiring amateur talent, you might see alot more of these types of move being made by the smaller market teams. As most of their bullpen arms are at least a half a year away, its a relatively low risk move that doesn’t sacrifice player developement.