On Sunday morning, I started writing a piece on how the Pirates should sit the 2016 trade deadline out and wait to pursue waiver deals. Boy, am I wishing I had finished that piece 48 hours later. Even when I include the Melancon deal in the mix, the Pirates didn’t quite sell, but they didn’t really buy either. In some cases they dumped salary, but they also took on Antonio Bastardo’s busted contract. The Pirates did obtain more control for players about to depart, but they could have parted way with so many more like David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, Neftali Feliz and part-time superstar and über-expendable Matt Joyce, but they hung onto all of those guys and didn’t really move the current club any closer to winning the World Series.
Couple of caveats, though, before I move on. First and foremost, I thought the trade market sucked in the areas the Pirates needed help for some time. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when Neal Huntington and Friends had a hard time finding anything of value for a reasonable price. As much as some of the deals were head scratchers, I’m glad that they elected to make a similar caliber offer for Matt Moore as they made for David Price a couple of years ago. Ultimately, it would have taken close to that to land him as it took the Giants a package centered around the reigning rookie of the year runner up in Matt Duffy. Moore is under control for three more years, but would he really been much better in the short term than Ivan Nova? Probably not.
Still, it’s hard not to walk away from today’s deadline deals puzzled and disappointed. It might even be fair to feel pandered to or even betrayed. The Pirates were a fringe contender and it doesn’t appear on the surface that they improved this year’s club much. Let’s look at it trade for trade.
Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn
I know Kevin and I are in the minority when we say this, but we really like this deal. When the Nationals were first connected to the Shark, we knew the formula the Pirates wanted in return was:
Controllable Major League Set Up Man + Solid Prospect = Deal
I skipped over Felipe Rivero as even a possible candidate for inclusion. I was very excited to find out he was involved. As we learned this past weekend in Milwaukee, closers can’t help if you’re not winning and while I think they’re an important piece to any bullpen, I think the fan’s mind tends to exaggerate the value of the position. The trade market for relievers with scant control cooled considerably over the last couple of years, reflecting that front offices got it as well, only to catch fire after the Aroldis Chapman deal.
The Pirates did what made sense. They sold an overvalued player in a favorable market. Yes, he was an All-Star. Yes, he was one of the best as what he did. However, his skills don’t help you when the starting pitcher goes 3.1 IP and yields 7 runs anyway. The same can be said for Rivero, but he has plenty of time to see better days given that he’s under control for five more years. Hearn is an absolute lottery ticket with the a chance to pitch towards the top of a rotation or at the back end of the bullpen. If you project him out as a starter, I see him as a B- prospect right now.
Ivan Nova for ?????
Here is the sad truth of Ivan Nova. As nonplussed as I was when the Pirates announced the trade, he immediately became the third most effective starting pitcher. He’s not going to make anyone think World Series thoughts, but sadly, he improves the rotation. The Pirates are no stranger to taking pitchers from the AL and seeing them pitch closer to their xFIP in the DH-less National League. In truth, fans might be glad to have him if he pitches to his peripherals. However, it’s impossible for me to fully evaluate this trade without knowing what the Yankees have coming their way. If any prospects higher than my top 15 are involved, I’ll probably be pretty disappointed.
Jon Niese for Antonio Bastardo
I know I’m alone here, but I actually like this trade. Bastardo had some success with the Pirates and maybe they think they can fix him. If they can, they’ll have a flexible lefty for this year and next when the bullpen gets unquestionably thin. Jon Niese’s days were numbered and if August 2nd were baseball Groundhog Day, Phil may have popped out of the hole, failed to see a shadow and declared that a DFA was just around the corner. This feels like a much more amicable way to part with a failed player.
Also please stop with the transitive property of the Neil Walker deal now equaling Bastardo. Fact. The value of b has changed over time. Niese was a fair return at the time of the trade and as Huntington hinted during his post deadline news conference, many of the other options would have disappointed as well. It’s very possible that people were overvaluing the return Walker should yield.
Liriano and What?! for Drew Hutchison
This is where the day got weird. I would have called the deadline disappointing prior to this deal, but as I write this four hours after I learned of the deal, I’m still trying to make sense of it.
If I look at each piece of the deal, I get why they were involved in some kind of trade, but it’s the putting it all together at the end that’s troubling. While Liriano was been excellent in his first three years as a Pirate, he has sucked hard this year. He was hurting the team far more than he was helping. Every time you thought “there’s the old Frankie,” he almost went out of his way to prove you wrong his next time out. He wasn’t getting better and the front office decided to mitigate any financial risk that he would tank again next season, thus freeing up salary to spend in other ways. Makes sense. It also makes sense to trade Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez. As you’d know from reading any comment section on TPOP of any article involving prospects, you’d understand that our valuation of McGuire is way outside the norm. My feeling with the former first round backstop is that Ryan Hannigan is his ceiling and that the Bucs should trade him before the rest of the world figures that out. I was higher than most on Ramirez but with Austin Meadows’s jump into elite status and Gregory Polanco’s long term deal, it made the Colombian somewhat expendable. I can even see why the Pirates would see Drew Hutchison as a solid buy-low candidate. He’s posted outstanding peripherals at a young age that suggest he could turn the corner and become a middle of the rotation pitcher in his prime. He’s also controllable for two, possibly three more years (depending on service time accrued this year). Why not take a shot?
So here’s my best shot at putting in all together. The Pirates wanted to dump Liriano’s salary and he may have been a problem in the clubhouse. Let’s not pull any punches. That’s what this is. A deal of struggling Liriano for struggling Hutchison makes sense in a vacuum, but Hutchison has extra control and Liriano has extra salary that the Pirates didn’t want to eat. Let’s say as the better of the two prospects, Ramirez covers the control. That means McGuire gets thrown in to cover the nearly $15 million in salary difference committed to both players assuming Hutchison moves to arbitration-2. I have no problem trading McGuire for $15 million in flexibility.
That’s one way to look at it and it’s the only way I’ve figured out to make me want to stop poking myself in the eye. Another, more damning way is the Pirates traded their best potential remedy for all that ails their starting pitching, if Liriano rebounds quickly in Toronto. Trading for Matt Moore or Andrew Cashner or Drew Smyly or Nathan Eovaldi or the rest of the expensive hot garbage with control wouldn’t have fixed the Bucs rotation the same way the Liriano we’ve gotten used to the last few years could have. None of the above give the Pirates the pitching needed to make a deep run in the playoffs. The front office decided not to be patient with Liriano, but they had to be certain that they couldn’t fix his issues before they dumped him. If there was an iota of hope, they should have hung onto it.
In the end, the Pirates moved a high profile major league reliever for a couple of talented pitchers with upside and control, acquired a mediocre but stable pitcher in Nova, swapped some bad contracts and then blew all of our minds with a crazy deal. I have no problem with the team adding and subtracting at this or any deadline if the market dictates it as this deadline did.
They may have improved their current situation as Nova is better than crap Liriano. However, they may have also limited their immediate postseason potential by removing a high upside pitcher in favor of a low upside one. The Pirates have enough talent to scrap into the wild card, but do they have the pitching to stand up in a seven game series? The answer is unquestionably no and in fact, they seem less likely to salvage that type of rotation with the remaining pieces than they did 24 hours ago. To me, the Pirates might as well have traded the entire lot of free agents-to-be if they are going to sell the one piece that can bring everything together. Again, I get why they ditched Liriano, but I can’t say why they didn’t ditch a lot of other players as well.