Pirates Add to Rotation, Bullpen With Vince Velasquez and Jarlín García

Vince Velasquez
Brian Sevald-USA TODAY Sports

MLB’s annual winter meetings usually prompt free-agent signings. The last time they were held before COVID-19 interrupted the league’s yearly schedule, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon all signed. This year feels like more of the same; Jacob deGrom signed in the leadup to the meetings, Trea Turner and Justin Verlander signed during them, and several other top free agents are rumored to be next.

But not every signing can be thunderous. The Pirates aren’t going to make the World Series next year. They probably won’t win 80 games; they went 62–100 in 2022 and haven’t approached .500 since they went 82–79 in 2018. But they made two signings on Tuesday in San Diego, adding Vince Velasquez and Jarlín García on one-year deals worth $3.15 million and $2.5 million, respectively. García’s deal also contains a club option for 2024 worth $3.25 million.

Neither of these deals will alter the balance of power in the NL Central, but I think both make plenty of sense for Pittsburgh. Let’s start with the starter — or at least, the pitcher who more resembles a starter. Velasquez flashed tantalizing potential over five-plus seasons with the Phillies, but inconsistent command and secondaries held him back. He spent 2022 on the White Sox as a swingman, jumping to the rotation when injuries hit the projected starters.

I expect his 2023 role to be more of the same, or perhaps tilted slightly more to the starting side. His time with the White Sox showed the perils of that approach; he looked solid in relief but struggled as a starter. It didn’t look fluky, either. When he started, he struck out fewer batters and walked more and also allowed more homers and more hard-hit balls. It added up to a 4.25 ERA (3.22 FIP) in relief and a 5.26 mark (5.20 FIP) as a starter.

That’s probably more of a performance gap than you can expect going forward, but the general point holds: plenty of teams would feel okay with Velasquez in the bullpen, but no playoff team wants to rely on him as a starter. As far as I can tell, the reason is straightforward: his fastball is great, but he’s never found a truly reliable secondary pitch to pair with it.

If he’s coming in for an inning or two of work, half a turn through the order and frequently against right-handed hitters, that’s fine. In a five-inning stint, however, his fastball isn’t enough, and that’s always been his downfall. Our pitch values are a blunt instrument, but they rate his four-seamer as 26 runs above average, and all of his other pitches combined as 70 runs below average. It’s easy to fall in love with that four-seamer, the kind of pitch that took baseball by storm over the past decade; tons of backspin leads to tons of vertical movement, which in turn leads to plenty of empty swings and wistful head shakes. Sure, he’s prone to the occasional home run, but that’s hardly disqualifying these days.

For a contending team, that would limit Velasquez to the bullpen, which again is just fine. I could see the Dodgers bringing him in, working with him to change his pitch mix and emphasize that delightful fastball, and turning him into an excellent reliever. Maybe Pittsburgh will end up doing just that anyway; if he ends up as a lights-out seventh-inning option, it would hardly be surprising. It would also likely lead to a mid-season trade; every contender could use a few more relievers, and the Pirates would prefer to bet on the future anyway given their current team setup.

At just over $3 million per year, that’s a worthy gamble, but there’s upside for more. I think Pittsburgh will start with Velasquez in the rotation and see if he can dial his secondary pitches in just slightly better. The Pirates are short on starters, and they’re also well-suited to absorb a bad start or two; there’s not a ton of difference between 71 wins and 74 wins, basically. When the White Sox put Velasquez in the rotation, they did so out of desperation. Doing it out of a sense of adventure is a much better situation, and even if it’s only 10% to work out or so, the price is certainly right.

Speaking of the price being right, García’s deal is for $2.5 million, with a club option at $3.25 million tacked on. That’s dart throw territory, and that describes him well. He spent 2022 with the Giants as a mop-up man, third in relief innings but tenth in average entry leverage. He came in a lot, but rarely when the stakes were highest. And he did just fine in those innings, which has been the case quite often of late. Since converting to relief full-time in 2019, he has a 2.89 ERA and 3.87 FIP. His plan is straightforward and effective: a two-plane fastball and one plus secondary. The secondary varies based on opponent; he has a drop-off-the-table changeup against righties and a bendy slider against lefties.

There are plenty of relievers with a similar profile, and I’ll level with you: I can’t tell you which ones will be effective next year. But 2022 brought some worrying signs for García, whose changeup dropped less and also ran less, making it eminently more hittable. Perhaps not coincidentally, he posted his worst season against righties in years. Relievers operate on fine margins; an inch here or there can be the difference between excelling and struggling.

I don’t know if García will bounce back in 2023, but it won’t cost the Pirates much to find out. I don’t think I’m alone in pointing out his changeup’s uncharacteristic shape; if a quick search of our pitch type splits shows it, you can bet teams know it. Knowing there’s something wrong isn’t the same as fixing what’s wrong, but it’s a good start.

Like Velasquez, the best outcome for the Pirates might be trading García to a contender in July. That makes his contract particularly compelling; assuming he looks good in the first half, pitching-needy teams can pencil him into not just their 2023 bullpen but also next year’s as well. For a team that’s still in the process of accumulating prospects and planning for the future, that club option could mean an extra lottery ticket prospect, and building a farm system is all about playing the percentages.

This might seem like a lot of adulation over two small-time deals. That’s because it is a lot of adulation over two small-time deals. Most likely, neither signing will change the course of the franchise. But I don’t think there’s a world where Pittsburgh makes a franchise-altering free-agent signing this year. The franchise ran an aggregate payroll of roughly $300 million from 2018 to ’22; that’s the same amount the Phillies just guaranteed to a single player. The Pirates simply aren’t going to build the team any way other than slowly and for little cost.

If you accept that method as the only way forward, deals like this are essential. Pittsburgh has decided it won’t compete for coveted players on the open market. That means it has to find some way to get good young players with team control, and that means international free agents, the amateur draft, and trades. Signing potential trade chips to cheap contracts is just logical in that context, and I think these two moves are smart if parsimonious.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 months ago

The free agent market has gotten crazy enough that I don’t think the Pirates are gonna do much more than stuff like this. I suspect Velazquez is still a reliever, because I don’t think he beats out any of Keller / Brubaker / Contreras / Wilson and they’ll probably sign someone like Dylan Bundy too. But Velazquez could be a pretty good reliever; he has the stuff. Garcia’s probably a bust, but he’s a warm body and this is a relatively inexpensive gamble.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

They might surprise you.
Reynolds wants out and the Bucs say no, no, a thousand times no. Until somebody gives them a deal they can’t refuse.