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Pirates Trying To Thread The Needle Between Contending/Rebuilding

What level of attendance will the Pirates have in 2018?

I’ve been following the Pirates intently for a long time.  I’ve been writing about the Pirates in various outlets for a long time.  At no point in my life as a Pirate fan and writer have I ever been as confused about what they’re doing as I am right now.

The trades of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen are course de rigueur at this point for Pirates fans, but it’s the returns that leave me scratching my head.  I covered the fact that the Cole trade is more quantity instead of quality, indicating that they might be trying to contend in 2018.  Then, just two days after they trade Cole, Andrew McCutchen walks the plank (or runs, probably) to the Giants for a less-than-inspiring return.

If you trade your best starting pitcher and best position player by WAR, it sure seems like the team is rebuilding.  Right?

So then at the virtual same time they announce trading McCutchen, the Pirates announce a four year deal for Felipe Rivero that covers the nightmare-inducing closer’s four arbitration years.  He’s locked in for an incredibly team-friendly set of rates:

  • $2M signing bonus
  • $2.5M in 2018
  • $4M in 2019
  • $5.25M in 2020
  • $7.25M in 2021
  • $1M buyout in 2022 or a $10M option
  • $500k buyout in 2023 or a $10M option

This makes no sense if the team is actually rebuilding.  Felipe Rivero, if traded right now with his four years of team control and coming off his ridiculously good 2017 season, would return a king’s ransom.  I touched on this back in November.  Yes, this creates financial certainty, both for the Pirates’ payroll so they don’t have to face escalating arbitration rates and also for future trade partners.  I get that.  But…why now?

They were going to pay him somewhere between $2.4M (team figure) and $2.9M (Rivero’s agent figure) for 2018.  If they were going to trade him at some point in calendar year 2018, it would be another team’s problem.  So they seem intent on keeping a closer for what may or may not be a rebuilding team.

Unless Neal Huntington thinks he can have it both ways with this team — a soft rebuild while contending.

I’m not saying this with any snark whatsoever, but I think this group of goals are all in play simultaneously for the Pirates’ front office:

  1. Team must turn a profit each year
  2. Team must be competitive each year, as ownership feels that the fanbase will not tolerate a full rebuild
  3. Team must maintain viewing interest on AT&T Sportsnet, as new TV deal will be negotiated during 2019 season

All three of these goals must be met on a budget that is artificially lower than what their revenue says they can spend, as goal #1 (profit) is the overriding goal.

If Neal Huntington knew he was going to trade Andrew McCutchen at any point prior to the start of the season, then his failure to obtain Clint Frazier from the Yankees in a Cole deal is inexcusable.  ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported that the Yankees were willing to include Frazier in the deal, but not both Frazier and Chance Adams.  OK, that’s fine.  Work on the secondary part of the trade, but don’t pass up a potential future building block in Frazier.

Instead, he went with a pu-pu platter of low upside players in the Houston deal.  None of them are going to be key cogs in a future contending Pirate team.  At best, they’ll be complementary players.  By not getting a building block when trading his best starting pitcher and 2nd best trade asset, Neal Huntington probably set the inevitable rebuilding period back by 2 to 3 years.

Josh Harrison isn’t going to return a key building block type of player on his own with his existing contract.  We saw that 1 year of McCutchen at $14.5M and declining performance didn’t return much of anything.

By running each of the prospects or near-ready MLB players through our SSL tool from these two deals, here’s what you get.  For each of the players, I’m going to show their 2016 and 2017 SSL’s to demonstrate that I’m not entirely sure if they’re good all of a sudden or just a blip on the radar.

  • Colin Moran (2016, SSL 40), Colin Moran (2017, SSL 55) — Moran repeated the level and his power jumped up to levels he has previously not had to date.  He went from a periodical callup from the minors to an above-average regular, in terms of value.
  • Jason Martin (2016, SSL 55), Jason Martin (2017, SSL 45) — Martin appears to be a 4th OF type that every organization has a few on hand.  He wasn’t selected in the past Rule 5 draft, which says something.  His 2016 was inflated by the fact HOU’s High-A affiliate was in the Cal League — accounted for in SSL.
  • Kyle Crick (2016, SSL 40), Kyle Crick (2017, SSL 50) — Crick’s control was so bad that the Giants abandoned hope of him as a starter.  He appears to have ironed out some issues and SSL grades him as a potential quality setup man.  I’ve been down on him as a starter, but if they can get a good setup man for McCutchen, that’s a win.  Big if.
  • Bryan Reynolds (2016, SSL 30 ), Bryan Reynolds (2017, SSL 35) — I’ve seen some Giants people saying they’ll miss Reynolds in the deal, but I can’t figure it out.  He’s nothing special.  His power was inflated by the Cal League and he walks at a below-average rate, with little speed.  He’s grading out as an organizational player at this point.

None of these guys are the types of building blocks that the White Sox got when they tore the franchise down to the studs last year.  Players like Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Adam Eaton had more control and surplus value, so the hauls weren’t going to be equivalent, but the Pirates could have got *1* key guy out of the two players.  Instead, including Musgrove and Feliz, they got some bullpen guys and bench guys.

The idea of a full rebuild must induce shudders from everyone at 115 Federal Street, from owner Bob Nutting on down.  There’s been a moderate debate among national writers on whether “tanking” (a terrible word for what is just rebuilding — you can’t tank to fix a team quickly in baseball like you can in basketball, hockey, and even football) is good for the game.  If 15 teams are “tanking” and 15 are contending, is that what people want to see out of baseball, is the argument.

On a macro level, no.  It would be some brutal baseball to watch two deeply stripped-down teams play a game in August.  But this is failing to grasp that not everyone would be rebuilding and contending on the same timelines.  In reality, it would be more like 8-10 teams would be rebuilding at any time, while 10-12 teams have designs on contending in that given year.  The teams in the middle would be either building towards contending or starting to strip down assets to rebuild.

The Pirates are doing none of those things.  It would be a very in-depth article for a later time, but I’d like to explore the anatomy of how the Cubs and Astros successfully stripped it down to the studs and won World Series.  They each did it with key draft picks by picking very high in the draft, thanks to being terrible for a few years, which is where you find stars in the draft.  They also got lucky in trades and shrewd in waiver wire pickups.  But they also spent money in free agency to put the cherry on the sundae, something that the Pirates may never be willing to do.

This is a franchise that is stuck making moves in half-measures.  That only leads to being fully frustrated.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

20 Comments on Pirates Trying To Thread The Needle Between Contending/Rebuilding

  1. I’m not sure how you think the Pirates could get a “King’s Ransom” for Felipe Rivero if, by your own admission, they only got a bullpen arm and organizational OF for Andrew McCutchen of all players.

    These have been dark, dark days for the Pirates’ organization, and the notion that they are still trying to contend is utter nonsense. Frankly, the Pirates trying to rebuild and contend at the same time is why they continue to be so consistently bad.

    • Kevin Creagh // January 17, 2018 at 7:51 AM //

      4 years of team control for Rivero — easily one of the top 3 closers in all of baseball — at far less than market rate is worth a great deal more of value than 1 year of post-peak Andrew McCutchen at $14.5M. The return would net at least two top 50 prospects and two mid-grade pieces. The piece referenced shows what the Phillies got for Giles and the Padres got for Kimbrel as a comparison.

      • You are also incorrectly assuming that Neal Huntington is good at making trades of established veterans for prospects.

        Neal Huntington is straight-up terrible at making trades of established veterans for prospects, as the past weekend so cruelly reminded us.

        • Kevin Creagh // January 17, 2018 at 8:32 AM //

          I made no such assumption on NH’s ability to get value or not. I simply said that in a vacuum, Rivero with 4 years of below-market rates returns more than 1 year of McCutchen.

  2. Henry Kassab // January 17, 2018 at 7:53 AM //

    Any thought regarding the proposed trade of Harrison to the Mets for Brandon Nimmo? To quote Rosenthal from yesterday … Nimmo could be the “centerpiece” to acquire Harrison from to Pirates.

    If the deal is in the works, could explain why the Pirates passed on Frazier.

    • Kevin Creagh // January 17, 2018 at 8:26 AM //

      Brandon Nimmo is not good. 4th OF at best. I would pass on him, personally.

      • Henry Kassab // January 17, 2018 at 6:50 PM //

        I din’t know enough about him to have an opinion one way or the other but I did read where although he may never achieve the expectations of a 1st round pick he could still develop into an everyday contributor.

  3. Charles Vine // January 17, 2018 at 9:10 AM //

    Nicely written article, Kevin. These are sad, sad days in Piratedom, that’s for sure. It will be a long time, if ever, that these group of Pirates right the ship. Down, down, down to China Town, I’m afraid.

  4. Given that the Yankees need an infielder as opposed to wanting another starter (Cole), does anyone think Harrison could bring back Frazier? The Yankees really have no need for Frazier in the foreseeable future and while they have young guys to play second and/or third I would imagine a veteran who can produce now would be attractive.

  5. Kevin, do you think the Pirates could add a pitcher like Kuhl or a prospect like Glasnow along with Harrison to get Frazier? Any other hitting prospect out there who we could get for Harrison/pitcher that could be a building block? We need power in the worst way.

  6. Your article doesn’t give me a good feeling about the Pirates’ chances of success either this season or in the future.

    Sounds like they didn’t get much in these trades of their two best players, they don’t have much talent on the current team, and not much in the minor leagues.

    • Kevin Creagh // January 17, 2018 at 1:49 PM //

      It didn’t give me a good feeling writing it, either. There are no high-end pitchers in the rotation (Taillon is a strong #3 for me), there are no players that are going to garner MVP votes in the field. There are no players that could be considered top 5 at their position. Those are the types of things you need to be considered a true contender.

      In the minors, Keller looks strong, but not ‘ace’ strong. Plus we’ve seen what happens to high-end prospects like Glasnow.

    • Steve just owned everybody. Yes to Steve.

  7. Jim Monteleone // January 17, 2018 at 1:41 PM //

    Sounds like both the Pirates and Yankees are going to regret not doing the deal.

  8. Daquido Bazzini // January 17, 2018 at 2:24 PM //

    A complete and total disgrace from top to bottom.
    I have not liked the Nutting Regime since the Jason Bay trade, and they have now re-confirmed all my fears.
    Nothing but a bunch of liars and cheap, heartless, money hungry thieves.
    Sign the petition (for what it’s worth) and keep the pressure on.
    One of these days….Nutting is going to sell and get out.
    He has no business owning the Pirates.

  9. Lee Young // January 17, 2018 at 4:32 PM //

    I prefer Colin Moran to Frazier. Clint has too much swing and miss for my tastes.

  10. Assessment on Martin – wrong! I see how this works – one scout sees something one day, publishes his opinion and the bloggers run with it. Martin is legit.

  11. Kevin Strafalace // January 18, 2018 at 1:45 PM //

    I wouldve been fine with a full rebuild if they went all in on it. They have proven incapable of picking good players outside the top 10. They should’ve dealt these guys last deadline and demanded better returns even if they had to take back some cash to do it. Picked high for a few yrs and when the time was right went for it. But 1 can only dream of such vision from a GM making millions of dollars

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