For anyone who follows the Pittsburgh Pirates, even casually, it has become abundantly clear that Joe Musgrove has emerged as one of the leaders within the clubhouse at PNC Park. From welcoming Derek Shelton to Pittsburgh with a Primant’s Brothers sandwich, to being the one that reaches out when a new guy joins the team and the player that others look at to set the tone for how they are going to operate as a unit. He is a mentor to the young pitchers with his work both on and off the field. Above all else, Musgrove has also been the Pirates most consistent starter over the past two seasons.
In 2019 Big Joe led the team with 11 wins, but more importantly pitched 170.1 innings, the most of his career, across 31 starts. His ERA was a solid 4.44, his WHIP stayed strong at 1.125 and his FIP (3.82) showed a little room for improvement. Then came the off-season and a new pitching coach, Oscar Marin. There was talk of a new “player-centric” model that would focus on each pitcher’s strengths, which for Musgrove was a revamped curveball and new found confidence in his slider.
Unfortunately for the Pirates and Musgrove he was unable to pitch a full season in 2020, making only 8 total starts on the year. In a limited 39.2 innings of work Musgrove was able to strike out 55 batters, while earning a 3.86 ERA and a 1.235 WHIP; ending the campaign with two strong outings. On the year his curveball produced a 53.2% Whiff Rate, while his slider was not far behind at 50.6%; resulting in a career best 12.5 K/9. It is well known at this point Musgrove was nearly traded to Toronto just prior to the deadline and that there were other interested parties, so it is no surprise his name keeps coming up in trade rumors.
However, following the season both Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton spoke about Musgrove being able to build on his strong finish to the season as they moved toward 2021; which is something Gary Morgan wrote about almost immediately and also gives you the impression that he will be around next year. Nevertheless, it still needs to be considered that Cherington and Shelton were just implementing the language sometimes used to show their faith in a player in an attempt to buildup their trade value.
When looking for comps over the past few off-seasons I was surprised to find there were two that fit the bill to a degree and even more shocked that they both involved the Pirates.
In December of 2018 then General Manager Neil Huntington was look for a trade partner in need of a veteran starter in the form of the big righty, Ivan Nova. Almost exactly two years earlier Nova had signed a 3 year deal with the Pirates for $26 million, which meant he had about $8.5 million remaining on his contract. Huntington quickly found a suitor for Nova, the Chicago White Sox, due his ability to eat innings over the previous two years and perform fairly well in doing so. Across 2017 and 2018 he had totaled 60 starts, 348 innings and 2 complete games, while putting up a consistent ERA just over 4.00. In return the Pirates received a 19 year old right hander from the Dominican Republic, Yordi Rosario, and $500,000 in international bonus pool space, which is actually not a bad return for the aging veteran.
In his 19 appearances for the Bristol Pirates, Pittsburgh’s Advanced Rookie Affiliate, Rosario compiled a 2.87 ERA, a .989 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 31.1 innings. The international bonus pool space is something that is often overlooked because of a lack of understanding as to how it works or the fact that Pirates Fans have yet to see the full impact of these signings at the major league level. Unfortunately this is not a topic that has any bearing at this time because international bonus pool space cannot be traded during the current International Free Agency Period.
The second example is a famous one, that has more similarities to a potential Joe Musgrove trade. During the off-season in between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Pirates traded 27 year old Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros in return for Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz and Jason Martin. At the time Cole was entering his second year of arbitration. The situation is exactly the same for Musgrove this off-season, however, he will not be due as much in arbitration; $6.75 million for Cole versus an an estimated $3.75 million for Musgrove.
In his final season with the Pirates, Cole had one of his worst years of his young career as his ERA rose to 4.26, his FIP (4.08) was also at its highest point and he allowed a career high 31 home runs in 33 starts and 203 innings. However, his track record of a 3.50 ERA, a 3.27 FIP and a 1.217 WHIP cannot be ignore and neither can the pitch to contact philosophy he was forced to endure. Over 5 seasons with the Pirates he accumulated a 11 WAR, with his highest (4.4) coming in his 2015 All-Star Campaign. In comparison Musgrove has totaled 4.2 WAR in his 5 years in a Pittsburgh uniform, topping out at 1.8 in 2019.
Of course I am not directly comparing Joe Musgrove to Gerrit Cole or Ivan Nova as far as the possible trade returns. This was done to give Pirates Fans an idea of the range of potential outcomes for a Musgrove type trade. And once again as I stated in the Adam Frazier and Richard Rodriguez articles a lot depends on trade market temperature, free agent availability at a similar position and with comparable performance, the motivation or desperation level of the team trying to acquire any player and the ability of Cherington to secure a favorable deal.
If, in the end, I was forced to come up with the trade value potential for Musgrove I would probably still give a general answer of somewhere between Nova and Cole. And honestly I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of an extension for Musgrove to buyout his two remaining arbitration years plus one, with potential team options for the two years after that. Either way, I am positive that we are going to hear Big Joe’s name a lot as the Pirates and Cherington navigate their way through the current off-season.