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:
- Team must turn a profit each year
- Team must be competitive each year, as ownership feels that the fanbase will not tolerate a full rebuild
- 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.