Let’s establish this right from Jump Street. I’ve been very vocal that the Pirates should make an honest effort to assemble a playoff-caliber team in 2018. That entails spending to their correct threshold of revenue-to-payroll, a level I’ve set at $115M for 2018. If things aren’t looking good in July, then I’m onboard with a full tear-down and rebuild.
A key part of any success the Pirates may achieve in 2018 will stem from closer extraordinaire, Felipe Rivero, coming in and causing nightmares for opposing hitters at the end of games. He was a revelation in 2017 and finished the year with the 4th highest WAR among relievers in Pirate history.
But if the Pirates intend to just fidget around at the periphery of the team and hope for internal improvements, without augmenting the team and funding it properly, then they should just start the rebuild right now. If any rebuild happens, whether it is now, in July 2018, or next offseason, the player that has the most potential trade value is none other than Felipe Rivero. Yes, I love watching Felipe Rivero pitch. But having a stud closer, one who is easily in the top 3 in all of baseball (and I’d entertain arguments that he could be #1 or #2), on a losing team is a total waste.
If the Pirates are going to be bad for the foreseeable future, then trading Rivero for assets that could be part of the next great Pirate team is the correct course of action. There have been two recent closers traded that provide good case studies.
After the 2015 season, the Phillies finally admitted it was time to go full-bore on a rebuild. In December of that year, they traded Ken Giles to the Astros for a package of five prospects and young players. As with most trades involving a bulk of players in return, some were chaff soon to be discarded. Interestingly, one of the pieces in the return for the Phillies was old friend Mark Appel, who the Pirates drafted in 2012 and were unable to sign (thankfully). He was re-drafted 1st overall by the Astros in 2013 and never developed. At this point, he’s a long shot to even reach the Majors.
But one of the players the Phillies got back appears to be a key piece for them in their future. Vince Velasquez is a flame-thrower that has been in the Phillies’ rotation for the past two seasons. When he’s in the rotation, his stuff has been phenomenal, even if his surface stats like ERA don’t show it. The problem is that Velasquez can’t stay healthy, which means that a move to a dominant closer/setup role may be in his future. His fastball will play up and the smaller workload will keep him healthy. With four years of team control remaining, Velasquez can still be part of the next great Phillies’ team — which I’m predicting may happen starting in 2019. He was rated only as high as #86 by Baseball America, prior to the 2015 season.
And don’t sleep on Harold Arauz from this trade, either. He’s still toiling in the low minors of Low/High A, but his stuff is very promising and his K/9 and BB/9 rates portend future success. If the Phillies can get two assets out of this deal, it’s a clear win for them in terms of extracting value from Giles.
Naturally, the newly-minted World Series champion Astros like their end of the deal, too, even if it took Giles a full season to adjust to the American League after a down 2016 season.
The Padres acquired Craig Kimbrel right at the start of the 2015 season in their somewhat misguided attempt to go for it that season. It predictably didn’t go very, so GM A.J. Preller course-corrected and embarked on a full-scale teardown at the end of the year. In November of 2015, Kimbrel was traded to the Red Sox for an intriguing package. It seemed very light to me, based on how dominant Kimbrel had been in his career (as a point of reference, Kimbrel has had three 3+ WAR seasons in his career).
But the Padres have extracted some value from it. CF Manuel Margot doesn’t have a dynamic bat, but his defense and baserunning make him a competent ML starter. Carlos Asuaje is not spectacular, but he’s a solid utility player with great defense that generated 0.8 WAR last year.
Prior to the start of the 2016 season, Margot was rated the #56 prospect in baseball. I’ve never been very high on his hit tool and I’m not a fan of his squat 5′-11/180 frame, but he was rated as a Top 100 prospect. Javier Guerra was ranked as the #52 prospect in baseball prior to 2016, but (again) I’ve never viewed him an as impact bat. He struggled last year in High A and Double A. Carlos Asuaje was never ranked and Logan Allen was just starting his career when he was traded. I think Logan Allen could reach the Majors in 2-3 years. For me, he profiles as a high-end #3/low-end #2 starter, so he could actually be the prize of the whole lot.
So these two trades are sort of the template that the Pirates could look to expand upon, in the event they would look to move Felipe Rivero. They could target two prospects in the mid-range of the Top 100, plus a lottery ticket from a lower level. Or they could go for a young, promising starter plus a lottery ticket and some fungible assets. Rivero, even as a Super Two, has immense prospect surplus value. The Pirates need to be sure that they get at least two starters for the price of one if they move him.