A couple weeks ago, Rich wrote about how the now infamous Liriano and prospects for Drew Hutchison trade is one of worst of Neal Huntington’s career. It’s hardly a controversial opinion, especially with Hutchison somehow losing what was meant to be a one man race for the final rotation spot this spring.
In a way, Rich is right. Liriano has been an ace in the past, and I would not be that surprised if he has another year of “ace” baseball left in him. Hutchison is a quad-A fly ball pitcher who probably will never put in a full season as a Bucco. It was a clear salary dump that Huntington tried to play off as a legitimate baseball move, despite everyone’s BS meters going off.
On the other hand, while it may have been a bad trade, it was necessary.
Let’s start with the big reason why people hated the trade: it shipped off Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez, who at the time were top 10 prospects in the Pirates’ farm system. I previously wrote about how the practice of using prospects to unload bad contracts is a terrible trend. I believe that every bit as much now as I did then, and it’s reasonable to understand the frustration of having a front office hesitant to trade prospects for players but willing to use them to shed salary.
But Ramirez and McGuire are not top prospects anymore. You would be hard pressed to find any source ranking them higher than 11th and 14th in the Blue Jays’ middling farm system. Huntington still could have used them more effectively, especially since there was such a demand for pitching at the deadline last year. Liriano probably could have cost less to unload.
So let’s talk about the Liriano part of the deal. He is Russian roulette incarnate. When he arrives on a new team, he comes with promise, a slider that can generate misses and a to-be-determined self-destruct date. From 2013-2015, he was as reliable as any of the Pirates’ other four starters. Then again, from 1977-April 25, 1986, Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 was as reliable as the other three.
His fights with Ray Searage were becoming public and there was nothing the Pirates could do to turn him around. Even if he has a sub-three ERA in Toronto this year, that does not mean he would have done that again in Pittsburgh. Then again, he might have already reached his Canadian self-destruct date, surrendering five runs over 1/3 of an inning in his first start.
But Liriano, Hutchison and the prospects are not the heart of this trade, but rather the “financial flexibility.” Just about everyone at TPOP has at one point or another called for a reasonable increase in payroll, but I don’t think any of us were surprised when it did not happen. After setting attendance records in 2014 and ‘15, there was a noticeable drop in 2016. If thousands of empty seats on Cervelli bobblehead night are any indication, there will probably be another noticeable drop in 2017.
With the core of McCutchen, Marte, Polanco, Cervelli and Harrison all due to get raises alongside the arbitration eligible players, Huntington would not have had any cash to work with if he kept Liriano for his final year. Liriano was due $13.66 million. Hutchison is making $2.3 million, so he now had roughly $11.36 million to play with.
That money funded Ivan Nova’s contract and the David Freese extension. Freese is making $3.25 million more this season than last, and Nova is making $7.66 million this year. That’s $10.91 million, not counting any incentives Nova may earn.
Francisco Liriano died so Nova and Freese could live, and this team would be up a creek right now without them.
In a rotation that has question marks around whether Cole is an ace, if Taillon’s elbow can go 150+ innings, if Kuhl is a legitimate starter and can Glasnow put it all together, Nova is probably the closest thing to a sure bet out of the starting five. A renewed sense of confidence and a much better ballpark to pitch in turned a recent castoff into someone who could be as good as Liriano was during his peak Pirate seasons.
I’ve already done several pieces on Nova, so I’m not going to be too repetitive about his walk rate or his other peripherals. To keep it simple, he is the atonement of the sin of letting J.A. Happ walk prior to 2016. If Liriano was still on the team, they may not have had the money or spot in the rotation for him.
With Jung-ho Kang still without a travel visa and likely facing a suspension once he gets stateside, giving starter money to the “backup” Freese has been a season-saving decision. The only two free agents who could have been everyday third basemen were Sean Rodriguez and Justin Turner, and they both signed before Kang decided not to get an Uber. It’s a reasonable assumption that if there was no money for Freese, Harrison would be at third, Frazier at second and the Pirates would have to hold their breath that they stay healthy knowing that the bench is a disaster.
Freese’s value transcends just WAR and wRC+. That takeout slide Sunday (which he did nursing a bruised clavicle) was perfectly executed and legal, saved the game and will not show up on any stat sheets. Between plays like that, providing veteran leadership and being a perfect clubhouse fit, the team would be very different without him.
The Pirates do not win the home opener or Sunday without those two. Those are going to be the first of many games this year where they are the difference. It will be far more than what Liriano could have offered, Hutchison be damned.
Even though this year’s team has a chance to win because they traded Liriano, that does not take away his contributions from 2013-’15. From the strikeouts to the wild card win in 2013, he has a special spot in Pittsburgh’s proud sports history. It was time for him and the Pirates to get a fresh start. Instead of tarnishing that legacy further, Nova and Freese can build on theirs.