It’s almost impossible to have an honest conversation about the Pirates again. During the twenty years of losing, you could occasionally find some honest chatter in some dark alley or hidden corner of the city where fans objectively critiqued and praised the Pirates organization outside of the same stale, relatively uninsightful groupthink that only allowed for talk of ownership not keeping their players or the unfairness of the current economic realities of baseball. We’re right back where we started and Pirates fans interested in process have to live a solitary existence once more. Lack of a signature player acquisition and the Pirates unwillingness to spend the at most $20-$25 million a season the front office could have spent the last two years provided all the evidence for the “screw the Pirates” type arguments to take over.
In the end, the Pirates hedged on the philosophy that they could sustain winning beyond their first competitive window in two decades. They selected a conservative approach to both trading prospects and taking on contracts that could hinder financial flexibility down the road. That’s not to say that the philosophy couldn’t work, but a lot of pieces would have had to fall into place for it to succeed. In truth, as much went wrong as it went right. In this case, they couldn’t keep the competitiveness going.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to argue that they shouldn’t have gone all in for a run in 2016, but I don’t know how obvious it was that the window was closing back then. Certainly, there were some signs. However, if you consider where they actually were, I get why they didn’t. If you win 94, 88, or 98 games in the a 162 game regular season sample size you have a good shot to win a play in, a best of five and two best of seven series. Those teams were already really good. Sure, each team had flaws, but every team has flaws. I hear the jeer that the Pirates failed to improve on a 98 win team, but winning 98 games suggests to me that you don’t need to make a lot of changes. They returned a lineup that had three players capable of a starlike 5 WAR season (Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, Jung-Ho “What’s the Korean Uber Called” Kang) and one with perceived star upside in Gregory Polanco. You also have two players with an above average track record in Starling Marte and Francisco Cervelli. That along with a rotation that looked strong at the top with some questions at the third spot, it didn’t seem that outlandish to think the Pirates would find their way back to the postseason.
There are no guarantees in baseball and only one team ends their season with a parade. Plenty of teams that win the trade deadline or offseason fall short. Without question the Dodgers killed the trade deadline but came up short against the Astros. Washington won the offseason in 2015, missed the playoffs and hasn’t won a divisional series in their 2016 and 2017 post season appearances. With a ton of money tied into Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the Nats likely won’t have the capacity to sign Bryce Harper after this season. While the philosophy of trying to extend a window failed for the Pirates this time around, it’s no more flawed an approach than going to the gust and falling short.
Back to the question at hand, what went wrong for the Pirates? It’s not as simple as they didn’t sign a star pitcher and the truth is they likely didn’t have the capacity to trade or spend their way out of the issues that developed.
I’ve been meaning to write a full article on player performance drop off being the primary cause of the Pirates struggles in 2016 and 2017, but I suppose I’ll include it here. My premise is pretty simple. Key players to the first window failed to maintain their performances from 2014 and 15 into 2016 and 17. See the chart below.
|Two year fWAR Avg||2014 – 15||2016-17|
|Francisco Cervelli **||2.5||1.3|
|* 2017 with Toronto|
|** 2014 with NYY|
I took six key players with some tenure on the club and compared their two year fWAR average between competitive seasons and relatively non-competitive seasons. These are some pretty significant drops with with four of the six being roughly half as productive. Assuming $8 million per WAR, the Pirates would have had to roughly double their payroll to overcome the loss of productivity. That’s without considering Mr. Kang’s wild ride. A huge factor of the Pirates inability to keep their window open revolves around the players who opened it falling off before the next wave even had much of a shot to factor.
In theory, the second wave should have had a few transitional players who would have started their major league career at the tail end of the first window and carried it into the second. Polanco, Jameson Taillon and to a lesser extent Josh Bell were the keys and all have developed more slowly than desired. Polanco failed to live up to his star potential and Taillon has had to deal with major health issues two of the last three seasons that delayed his potential impact. Really, the Pirates should have had more time with Cole and Taillon in the rotation together. The second wave did get a chance to establish itself last year. Bell’s counting stats looked good in 2017, even if the advanced numbers left something to be desired. There are also some pleasant surprises like Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl showing some middle of the rotation upside. Problem is, the two guys with potential star power that should have established themselves last year, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, took steps back. I see a lot of average players in the next core, including the recently acquired Colin Moran, but not anyone who can elevate them to the next level.
Some of the failure of players to develop into stars is just the luck of the draw or natural attrition, but a lot of it has to do with the Pirates shift toward low upside, “safe” picks in the draft as they began selecting in the back half of the first round of the draft. We’ve spent enough word count at TPOP on this subject that I don’t need to elaborate, but they nabbed a lot of average at best types before thankfully shifting back towards a more aggressive draft style last year.
Prospects fail, as Kevin and I routinely point out. For me, you can respond to this insight about attrition in two logical camps. First, prospects fail so you should use them as assets to acquire major league talent to supplement your roster. Kevin tends to fall in line with this approach. On the other hand, I tend to think that prospects fail so you ought to horde them. Most people would put the Pirates squarely on my side of the arguments but while they coveted their top prospects, they tended to recklessly dump C or low C+ level guys at will for AAAA garbage. I could rattle of ten trades that fit this bill and though most ended with little to no damage, none resulted in much value add at the major league level either. Off the top of my head I can think of four farmhands dumped for peanuts who reached the majors. A couple of them, Brock Holt and Keon Broxton, could have changed the way the Pirates approached other moves. If Holt puts up the same 2014 in Pittsburgh as he did in Boston, could the front office have moved Neil Walker a year earlier when his trade value was higher? If Broxton posts a 2.1 fWAR in limited duty with the Pirates, do they nab a greater haul for Cutch in fall of 2016? If you’re going to covet your prospects, covet all of them.
I’m also not sure if they Pirates were committed to buying and selling at the same time outside of their bullpen arms. I think they held on to some vets to too long and I’ve already mentioned two, Walker and McCutchen, though unfortunately there wasn’t an immediate replacement for either in place sooner. I also think they could have moved Jason Grilli and to a lesser extent Jeff Locke earlier for some value. In truth, I think they should consider trading anyone on the roster now with less than two years of team control. I’d even consider moving Felipe Rivero as he might be the only player capable of returning star power.
At the end of the day, “going for it” would have been a token gesture of commitment to a generally uncommitted fanbase. They had a good enough team during the peak run from 2013-15 where all they needed was to supplement the core or tweak some things. They didn’t need to make a splash move and making one may not have changed the course of a single season. Veterans falling off and lower ceiling second wavers have taken longer to get to the majors and to get established. Bizarre trades of midlevel prospects cost the Pirates some major league decisions. In the end, it was a few factors beyond Nutting is cheap that have them heading towards a rebuild. It’s clear that Neal Huntington will get another crack at fixing the team. Will he follow the same conservative course to open the perpetual window if they return to competitiveness or will they try to make a bigger splash the next time? Only time will tell, but I’ll need to find the new fringes of Pittsburgh conversation to talk about it until it does.