My oldest son is 9 years old. His favorite player is Starling Marte and he has two posters of him on his bedroom walls. I’ve engrained in him how the Yankees are a bunch of cheaters because of all their players that got caught taking drugs. We’ve also had the talk about Ryan Braun. I figure between that and telling him about the pitfalls of cotton candy, the true gateway drug, I’ve done my quota of drug-parenting for the next couple of years, at least.
So I wasn’t looking forward to telling him after work on Tuesday about Marte getting suspended. I envisioned a multi-layered discussion about personal responsibility, what a role model really means, maybe some financial aspects. Instead I got “that was stupid of him” and we pivoted to another topic.
Just as my son was relatively unaffected by the Marte suspension, I believe the Pirates are not going to alter their plans for their once and future outfielders, Andrew McCutchen and Austin Meadows, respectively.
Last year, we published our most-read article (even more than the Surplus Value models) about Tyler Glasnow and the Super Two deadline. As a primer on Super Two and why teams do it, it’s still a good baseline to read and how it relates to Austin Meadows. I saw a lot of tweets from Pirate fans about how Austin Meadows was sure to be on his way to Pittsburgh in the wake of the suspension. That’s just not going to happen.
First off, Meadows is struggling out of the gate in Triple A Indy. A line of .162/.220/.270 (490 OPS) isn’t going to make that phone ring in manager Andy Barkett’s office. But Neal Huntington is, oddly, probably pleased to see him struggle as that’s one of the mythical checklist items before the Pirates call a player up. They want a player to taste that in the minors, rather than the majors for their first time.
Just as importantly, the financial aspect does come into play. Fans never want to hear that, but they don’t pay these guys in smiles and lollipops. If Meadows were called up today, the Pirates would still have all of 2017 plus the next six full seasons of control over him. But Meadows would absolutely qualify as a Super Two, meaning he would get four bites at the arbitration apple instead of three. That could result in an additional $10-15M of cash outlay during those years versus a standard player that gets three arbitration years.
The Pirates have plenty of options for players they can have patrol the outfield. Jose Osuna was called up to replace Marte on the 25-man roster. I’m not overly wild about Osuna, but he’s worth the look. The Pirates can have Josh Harrison go out to right field. Adam Frazier can display some sub-par Frazier defense out there. Jaso could hum a few bars and fake it. They don’t need to rush Meadows.
The second part of the moving puzzle is the future of Andrew McCutchen. Again, I don’t think Marte’s absence is going to alter Neal Huntington’s plans much. Marte is eligible to return on July 18th, essentially two weeks before the trade deadline. I projected the Pirates to be an 85-win team at the start of the season. If you presume that Marte is a 4 WAR player, then a crude estimate is that the Pirates would stand to lose two wins over his suspension (assuming his replacement is a replacement-level player).
For discussion purposes, let’s say the Pirates are plus or minus 1 game around .500 when Marte returns. Maybe 47-46 or 46-47. The Pirates, most likely, weren’t going to be much better than those 47 wins anyway. If Huntington was willing to trade Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano when the Pirates were 52-51 last year, you can be sure he’ll pull the trigger on McCutchen if a deal is right.
Now of course, Andrew McCutchen has to be producing enough to justify another team to grab him and give up assets in return. In the nascent part of this season, that hasn’t happened. McCutchen’s line of .250/.291/.423 (96 wRC+ of 4% worse than league average) is actually a continuing decline from last year, but he has showed some flickers of heating up in the recently-completed Cubs series.
In their quietest of moments, the Pirates’ front office must believe that the 2017 season is a wait-and-see season, not a go-for-the-playoffs year. The loss of Jung-ho Kang for what may be a substantial portion of the season, coupled with the refusal to obtain the eminently-affordable Jose Quintana, means that the Pirates are content with going with what they have and hoping for the best. Hope is not a recipe for success.
So if McCutchen picks up the production and a deal is in the works, Marte’s July 18th return will allow one outfielder to enter and another to exit. At that time, if Meadows himself rebounds, then he’ll potentially get recalled and be well clear of the Super Two deadline. This is virtually the same scenario that would have played out prior to Marte getting suspended.
Although it’s entirely possible the Pirates collapse with the joint absences of Marte and Kang, I’m not a Chicken Little type. They’ll probably hang in there and muddle around .500. Marte is the Pirates most well-rounded player — speed, power, and outstanding defense — so his replacement simply won’t be as dynamic as him. But it’s not time to throw in the towel on this team, either.
This is the time for the mettle of the Pirates to be tested. It’s not time to alter timelines on two important players for the Pirates, though.