Back at the end of November the Pittsburgh Pirates non-tendered right-handed pitcher Jeff Karstens. The move was pretty controversial at the time. Karstens was projected to make $3.8 M through arbitration and was coming off a pretty good year when he was healthy. The starter posted a 3.97 ERA in 90.2 innings, with a 6.55 K/9, a 1.49 BB/9, and an 0.79 HR/9. The problem was that Karstens couldn’t stay healthy. Ultimately that’s why the Pirates opted to non-tender him.
The majority of Pirates writers that I read at the time criticized the move. I also criticized the move, pointing out that it was an inconsistent approach. A summary of my argument:
It’s true that Karstens is injury prone. If the Pirates felt he might miss half the season, then they’d be justified in letting him go. The problem is they’re not consistent. We know that Morton will miss half the season, and they gave him $2 M. We only think Karstens will miss time, and we don’t even know how much time that will be. Karstens was projected to make $3.8 M. So the Pirates paid $2 M for, at-most, half a year of Morton, but balked at Karstens for $1.8 M more over the risk that he might miss an unspecific amount of time.
It’s not just Morton and Karstens. Last year the Pirates signed Erik Bedard to a one year, $4.5 M deal. If there’s anyone who is a bigger injury risk than Karstens, it’s Bedard. Yet the Pirates felt that he was worth $4.5 M, even though at the time of the signing he looked like a guy who would be lucky to top 15 starts (which he only did once from 2009-2011). Karstens made 15 starts last year, and pitched 162 innings in 2011. The last time Bedard topped 129 innings was in 2007. Yet the Pirates gave Bedard $700 K more than Karstens was projected to make, plus incentives if he stayed healthy.
I guess time will tell on this. We’ll have to see what Karstens gets on the open market.
To sum it up, think of it this way. Karstens made 15 starts in 2012 and FanGraphs had him as a 1.7 WAR player. Russell Martin was a 2.2 WAR player in 2012, according to FanGraphs. The Pirates gave Martin $8.5 M a year for two years (about $3.8 M per WAR). They declined Karstens, who was projected to make $3.8 M. If we assume he only pitches 90 innings again in 2013 with the same results as 2012 (which I believe is a fair assumption), then Karstens would cost $2.2 M per WAR, which is a much better value than Martin. When you consider that, and you consider the inconsistent history of giving contracts to injury prone players, the decision to non-tender Karstens makes very little sense.
I’ve spoken with Neal Huntington a few times on this topic. One of those times was at PirateFest, when Huntington sat down with Charlie and Vlad from Bucs Dugout, Kevin Creagh, and myself. I pointed out that the decision with Karstens was inconsistent with Morton and Bedard. Charlie posted the transcript of the discussion, but here was Huntington’s explanation:
A couple things with Charlie [Morton]. When Charlie’s been healthy, he’s been nearly as effective [as Karstens]. It just hasn’t been as often, which is a risk we’re taking. $4 million compared to $2 million, [an] extra year of control. Jeff’s a free agent after this season. Charlie’s a free agent after 2014. Given the cost of starting pitching, if we’re right on Charlie Morton, we’ve got a very effective starter cost-controlled for the next year and a half, even if Charlie comes back midseason. If we’re right on Jeff, we’ve got one year of control at double the cost. So that’s the part of the factor. Not completely, but part of the factor.
With respect to Erik Bedard, we felt that there were strong enough indicators that the chance of success … ironically enough, we felt like we’d get 15 really good starts out of Erik Bedard with a chance that we might not get more than 15. Erik was good for two months, stayed healthy but wasn’t nearly as effective [after that]. Now … his indicators [were] about a run different than what his ERA and what his projected ERA should have been. But the reality is, we were deep in the hole too many times when Erik started, and that’s why we made the eventual move to release him. He wasn’t going to be on our postseason roster, so we figured we’d go with someone else who had a chance to be on our postseason roster, and we made a tough decision late.
Huntington also discussed how the decision could end up making him look foolish if Karstens went to have success elsewhere. When I asked if there was any consideration to biting the bullet, tendering Karstens, and trying to deal him, Huntington said that $4 M was too much for them.
Is Jeff Karstens over-rated by Pirates fans, or under-rated by the rest of baseball?
We could debate all of that, but it’s kind of pointless now. Karstens is reportedly returning, and the Pirates will be getting him for about $2.5 M, which is $1.3 M less than his estimated arbitration price, and $600 K less than what he made in 2012. The Pirates took a gamble, and obviously it paid off. From what I saw, the majority of Pirates fans were happy with the move, which makes sense since most of those same fans were outraged when Karstens was non-tendered. That brings up an interesting subject. Are Pirates fans over-rating Karstens, or is Karstens an under-rated pitcher?
Obviously Karstens didn’t have a high value on the open market. We barely heard his name mentioned in rumors. The only team that had a reported interest in him was Colorado, and that was reported as a “mild interest”. If I’m Karstens, and my choices are a one year deal with Pittsburgh or Colorado, I’m going to Pittsburgh. Karstens had a below-average 36.8% ground ball rate last year. I doubt he’s going up in value pitching at Coors.
When he was non-tendered, I felt that Karstens would easily get $3.8 M or more on the open market. We saw Kevin Correia get a two year, $10 M deal with the Twins. Scott Baker has dealt with injury problems the last two years, will miss time this year recovering from Tommy John surgery, and received $5.5 M for one year, with incentives. Correia the last two years has been a 4.30-ish xFIP pitcher. Baker has been in the 3.60-3.80 range. Karstens has been in the 3.80-4.00 range. Baker is a little more flashy, posting some consistent strikeout numbers. You could see how he’d get more than Karstens, even when recovering from surgery. But Karstens is better than Correia, and Correia received four times as much money.
So are we missing something? Are we over-rating Karstens? If he played for some other team the last few years, would the reaction be the same? Probably not on that last one. But that doesn’t mean Karstens isn’t a good pitcher. It just means that he gets that home town boost, and the reaction to his signing is probably bigger than his talent deserves.
Karstens is arguably a good pitcher. He’s shown improvements almost every year since entering the majors. Since 2007 he’s seen his K/9 rate go up every year, from 3.07 in 2007 to 6.55 in 2012. His walk rate has been outstanding the last three years. His HR/9 rate has dropped in each of the last three years. His xFIP has gone from 5.42 in 2009, to 4.26 in 2010, 4.00 in 2011, and 3.84 in 2012. The improvements coincide with the improved control. In watching him the last few years, it’s clear that Karstens knows how to pitch. He’s not a number one or a number two starter. He occasionally puts up league average number three starter numbers, and is more likely a strong number four. So why the lack of interest?
Is it the injuries? The Pirates non-tendered him because of those health issues the last few years. They tried to trade him and got no takers. They tried to trade him for cash, and still got no takers. In hindsight, that should have been a sign of his value. Teams could have added him for nothing, paid his estimated $3.8 M, and no one bit.
I believe Karstens is a good pitcher. I don’t think Pirates fans are wrong about that. But I do think we under-estimated the hit that Karstens would take due to his injury problems. I think a lot of people just dismissed the comments about the Pirates trying to deal Karstens, thinking either:
1. Teams were just waiting until they could get Karstens on the open market.
2. The Pirates weren’t being honest about the lack of demand for Karstens.
I was in camp number one. A lot of people tend to be in camp number two. But it seems like the Pirates were right about Karstens and his value. If the reported deal is correct, and they were able to sign him for $2.5 M, then the gamble paid off. At the time they said they would try to bring Karstens back. We now know that the market for Karstens was very weak. The risk of losing him wasn’t really there. I think Karstens is a good pitcher, but it seems the market on him was low because of his health issues. That’s why the Pirates originally non-tendered him, and I believe that’s why the Pirates were able to get him back at a lower rate.
In short, Pirates fans might be over-rating Karstens a bit, especially by ignoring his health issues. At the same time, MLB teams could be under-rating him because of those same health concerns. He had a 1.7 WAR in 90 innings last year. Even if his production is half that in 90 innings this year, he’s still a steal at $2.5 M, especially when teams are usually paying $4-5 M per WAR on the open market.
Links and Notes
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**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Top Prospects: #13 – Tony Sanchez.
**Winter Leagues Recap: Marte Returns.