I’ve been mildly obsessed with how the non-waiver trade deadline played out for the Pirates since the start of August. As controversial as it was, it has made for a steady stream of talk pieces. Even if it wasn’t great for the Pirates, it’s wonderful for two-bit amateur analysts such as myself and armchair GM’s everywhere.
With the players to be named from the Ivan Nova deal, the story keeps on unfolding. Last week, it was reported that outfielder Tito Polo and Stephen Tarpley went to the Yankees to mixed response on the internet. Nova pitching well certainly softened the blow of losing two fringy top 30 prospects, but that doesn’t matter to some, especially those who thought the waiver return from Arquimedes Caminero would magically offset it.
In the end, here is how it all stacks up:
RP Felipe Rivero
SP Ivan Nova
RP Antonio Bastardo
SP Drew Hutchison
P Taylor Hearn
$$ Ca$h Ca$hman
CL Mark Melancon
SP Francisco Liriano
SP Jon Neise
OF Harold Ramirez
OF Tito Polo
C Reese McGuire
SP Stephen Tarpley
I was mostly confused at first, but upon further digestion, I think the Major League team is better now and next season for having made these moves. Rivero has been excellent for the Bucs and is looking like he could become the team’s future closer, maybe as soon as next season. Bastardo’s depth helps off set the loss of the Shark. Recall, Caminero used to go in the seventh when one of the normal set up guys couldn’t. Now it’s Bastardo. Pretty big difference and the bullpen, in my opinion, is about the same even removing a star like Melancon.
The rotation is, without question, better. Next year’s American League Cy Young winner Ivan Nova has been a ground ball machine and given the Pirates a solid chance to win four out of five starts (even though they’re mired in a seven game losing streak, of course). Liriano had only two quality starts in his first four for the Blue Jays and since moving to the AL, he’s failed to record an out in the seventh, allowed five runs against Houston in 5.666666667 IP on 8/12, and has been removed from the rotation entirely. His ERA as a reliever isn’t actually a number just yet. Could you imagine the impact on the Pirates if the Pirates had to stash $13 million in the bullpen next season? That would be over 10% of their payroll wasted on a struggling player. Maybe, Liriano snaps out of it and returns to form. However, the Pirates did a good job shedding his salary for next year and limiting risk even if they also had to move two prospects who likely wouldn’t have helped next year anyway.
Jon Niese was already out of the rotation when he was dumped, but the spot he cleared in the bullpen also allowed them to remove Jeff Locke from his starting role. He’s been replaced by Chad Kuhl who has been steady if not a strength and looks like the kind of guy most clubs would kill to put in the back of their rotation. His sinker hasn’t always played, but has looked better following his brief return to AAA. Dumping Niese was addition by subtraction. Replacing him with Locke and Locke with Kuhl while receiving discounted Bastardo led to a chain reaction of improvement.
Then there are the prospects and make no mistake the Pirates gave up their share. We often talk here on TPOP that prospects, even the good ones, fail with regularity. Kevin Creagh often suggests this is a reason to deal them rather than stockpile them. I, on the other hand, think the high failure rate suggests a need for safety in numbers. I like depth in the system, because it means you have a back up for the back up plan in case player A fails. Often enough, you’ll need it. I get a little leery when good prospects move, but on this year’s deadline, the Pirates were dealing from positions of organizational strength. The best prospect the Pirates moved was Harold Ramirez. His upside is likely Melky Cabrera as he could become a player who hits for average while limiting his strike outs. While they’re not en vogue, there is still value to hitting singles. Staying in the outfield, the Yankees received a proven run producer against David Price in Tito Polo as part of the Nova deal. Polo will produce more power than Ramirez, but Ramirez has been producing for longer. With Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco locked up long term, Austin Meadows waiting in the wings and Josh Bell for insurance, the same reasons people make for trading Andrew McCutchen before his contract expires can be applied to trading two solid, but still uncertain prospects like Polo and Ramirez. It’s worth noting that the Pirates still have depth with Jose Osuna, Elvis Escobar, and Jordan Luplow.
While the Pirates don’t have a ton a of depth in the system at catcher, Reese McGuire didn’t have a clear path to the majors. Francisco Cervelli is under control for several years and Elias Diaz had surpassed McGuire as the Pirates top catching prospect. I have questions whether or not Diaz is a primary catcher on a good team, but I have those questions about McGuire as well. Though the glove may play for McGuire, his slow developing bat is a huge red flag for someone who could play 2/3’s of the time. The Pirates likely have a hole after Cervelli leaves, but I had my doubts that McGuire would fill it anyway. Even if Diaz also struggles, the Pirates control Chris Stewart and have time to figure it out.
Then there is the pitching. Drew Hutchison likely starts 2017 as the Pirates’ #5. While he’s struggled and ultimately got demoted to the minors, the Pirates could reinvent him using his two-seam fastball as a primary pitch. They also officially have him under team control for three more years now after keeping him the minors for the month of August. With middle of the rotation upside, he could end up being the steal of the deadline if the Pirates manage to cultivate it. Stephen Tarpley is a solid prospect in terms of his stuff package, but he struggled for much of the season as an older player in A+. On top of that the Pirates’ system is loaded with pitching. To put it into perspective, I had Tarpley ranked 16th among potential starting pitchers and 4th among lefties. In truth, it’s a shame they didn’t move more starting pitching. If he is viewed as a starting pitcher, Hearn may also have the greatest upside of any prospect moved in or out by the Pirates at the deadline. He has a plus-plus fastball and decent control of it. His lack of experience and professional starts are the only things that give me concerns.
Finally, we have the money! The cheddar! The clams! But what’s a measly $16 millionish in savings to fans? While the free agent crop looks dismal, especially in the starting pitching department, there is plenty of depth in relief. Retaining Nova may be the Pirates best option, but the Pirates may be able and more willing to make a big push to sign him than J.A. Happ. First and foremost, the financial flexibility attributed their deadline moves wasn’t there last offseason when Happ signed. Second, Nova is younger and the Pirates front office may be more open to offering three years to a 29 year old than a guy who enjoying his first success at 33. Jeremy Hellickson is a solid alternative but should get a qualifying offer from the Phillies. The Pirates could also invest the money in the bullpen, signing a reliever to complement Rivero and Tony Watson. They could even sign two and use Watson as a trade chip, thus freeing up more money to reallocate. While I would never bet on the Pirates to make a big splash in free agency, they’re certainly in a better position to make their club better by spending than they would be with the albatross of Liriano’s contract.
Troubling as it is to admit it just a month later after my initial reaction, the Pirates won at the trade deadline. They didn’t make a dramatic improvement for the push in 2016, but they got better. They also look better positioned for 2017 and maybe beyond depending on how they spend the Liriano money. Losing four solid prospects hurts, but only one was top ten in the organization at this point. They dealt from positions of organizational strength and they added a pitcher who might have a higher ceiling than anyone they moved. The rotation is without question better than it’s been all season and the loss in the bullpen of Melancon has been offset by improved depth. All in all, the Pirates had the tools they needed to compete all along for the second wildcard spot, but now the tools are slightly better and they are primed to get even better next year.