By Jason Shetler
This past offseason, the Pirates two main needs to address was at first base and the starting rotation. The latter resulted in the Bucs acquiring Jon Niese from the New York Mets in exchange for Neil Walker during the Winter Meetings. He appeared to fit the profile as an above average mid-rotation arm for the Pirates. Niese struggled in April where he had a 5.08 ERA. He was better in May with a 3.82 ERA, but he scuffled again. Niese posted an ERA of 5.13 before being demoted to the bullpen.
Heading into the trade deadline, there was speculation about whether the Pirates would be buyers or sellers. They wound up doing both. Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano were dealt to the Washington Nationals and Toronto Blue Jays respectively, while Niese went back to the Mets in a swap for Antonio Bastardo, and Ivan Nova was acquired from the Yankees for players to be named later, which were Stephen Tarpley and Tito Polo.
Nova couldn’t find any sort of consistency with the Yankees this season, as he put up a 4.90 ERA with an ERA+ of 90 in 21 games pitched as a starter and reliever. Since joining the Pirates rotation, he’s been very effective to this point, posting a 2.89 ERA along with a 146 ERA+, and has been a big upgrade over Niese. Nova’s turnaround can be contributed to changing his approach on the mound. He’s displaying excellent control and getting ahead of hitters with a first pitch strike percentage of almost 70%. Nova is relying more on his four-seam fastball, which is certainly a big reason that he’s throwing more strikes. Because of this, his curveball is being used much more now at 65%, a 23% increase from when he was with the Yankees. While it’s certainly been a treat to watch Nova pitch, here’s why he might not return to Pittsburgh after the season.
The Pirates got a huge boost in the rotation last season from J.A. Happ, and he was a key figure in helping them reach the playoffs for a third straight year. Despite making just 11 starts in Pittsburgh, Happ’s outstanding work clearly didn’t go unrecognized, as the Blue Jays handsomely rewarded him with a three-year deal worth $36 million this past offseason. Nova could find himself in the same scenario, especially if he continues to pitch well down the stretch. This offseason will present a much more watered down free agent market when it comes to starting pitching, so Nova could get be looking at a nice payday. He also won’t have draft pick compensation attached to him, which will obviously make him a more attractive free agent option. With the Pirates now having a plethora of young starters, it could make for an easier decision to let Nova walk. I personally would like to see them make an effort in trying to bring back Nova, but if they don’t, they’ve got some potentially capable arms that could fill the void.