I’m going to end 2017 with a bummer. It looks like Neal Huntington might finally pick a direction for his club after 27 months of hoping his depleting roster regains its 2015 form. Unfortunately, it’s not the fun choice. Let’s just say I hope nobody here got a Gerrit Cole jersey for Christmas.
It’s not just Cole, though. Josh Harrison’s name has popped up in trade rumors, both as a chip in for a potential Cole deal to the Yankees and by himself. Francisco Cervelli hasn’t been as popular in the rumor mill, but his contract and declining production make him a salary dump candidate. And at this point, I’m sure Andrew McCutchen is so sick of seeing his name pop up on MLBTR that he’s blocked them on Twitter.
I’ll believe the rebuild when I see the rebuild. The way I see it, Huntington is a pixie-cut away from being baseball’s Katy Perry, trying to repackage what made them successful earlier in the 2010’s while being either too attached to the past or unable to adapt to a changing environment. Huntington winning in 2018 with a team that has finished sub-.500 the last two years seems about as likely as Perry dropping another “Teenage Dream.” Sure, if everything goes right, this team could compete for the division. And a C-G-Am-F chord progression can be a number one record, but eventually you have to move on. Don’t be known for one album.
So let’s take a look at the players who have two years or fewer of team control remaining who could bring in the pieces needed to restock the Pirates’ farm system and make it a speedy rebuild. And before we get started, I’m omitting McCutchen. There’s about 5,000 other pieces and trade rumors you can read about him. Also, I’ll go on a limb and say I think he will be starting the year as the team’s center fielder. There’s some bad PR around the team and they could use their superstar. Austin Meadows also needs at least a couple more months to grow. He’s the perfect short term solution.
Why trade him? The short answer is prospects. The long answer is prooooooooooooooooospects. Gerrit Cole is arguably the best pitcher available because of his high upside, two years of control and cheap salary. Sure, he comes with a higher acquisition cost, but guys like Cole aren’t usually up for grabs. Kevin already pointed out that Sonny Gray and Cole had similar trade values, so look at what the Yankees gave the Athletics as a potential Cole return. It’s a fair argument, but don’t forget about the Shelby Miller trade. Yeah, that was a legendary overpay. That’s what Huntington is going for. Just be careful, Icarus.
The best argument for keeping him is the Pirates may get a bigger overpay if they try trading him at the deadline. Cole is coming off of back-to-back middling seasons, partially because of an inflated home run to fly ball ratio. If that normalizes and he strings four good months together, he may be worth more. There will also be more potential buyers. A team could enter the year set in the rotation and then start scrambling in July. A desperate team can be a stupid team.
If the Pirates catch the bounces they need, they can keep him and try to make a stretch run with their ace. He doesn’t need to be traded, but Huntington is continuing to burn a bridge that he set ablaze when he tried cutting Cole’s salary before the 2016 season. It’s tempting to cut the losses, roll with either Steven Brault or Tyler Glasnow as the number five starter and enjoy that shiny new Clint Frazier in the outfield. You want the Pirates to win a World Series like the Royals? The first thing they did in their rebuild was trade Zack Greinke when he had two years of control left.
Why trade him? Because every team would love to have a Josh Harrison. There aren’t too many guys who can play a Gold Glove-worthy second base, strong third base and competent corner outfield. And at $10 million in 2018 with two option years on top of that, he falls in just about every team’s budget. There’s a reason why he’s becoming one of the most intriguing trade chips on the market.
The Pirates bought high on Harrison after his career best 2014. He hasn’t lived up to that season since, but 5.2 fWAR and an All-Star appearance for $15.3 million is relatively good bang for the buck. Still, his value may never be higher after a solid offensive campaign in 2017. Harrison added 28 points to his OBP last year. Four of those points came from being hit by 23 pitches. He had been hit just 26 times his entire career before 2017, so this might be a fluke. We can safely assume he’d be fine to going back to being hit five or six times a year instead. He’s never had a great walk rate, and you can’t rely on batted balls forever. His bat is volatile. Selling high makes sense.
Or, it would make sense, except the Pirates were looking to add an infielder this offseason to move David Freese into a backup/platoon role. Unless the Bucs get a major league ready infielder like Miguel Andujar in return, trading Harrison is counter-productive to that goal.
Why trade him? Well, money. Cervelli hasn’t been particularly good at either the dish or framing since signing his extension, of which he is still owed $22 million over the next two seasons. Injuries have played a large role in that decline, but he came to Pittsburgh with an injury history. 2015 may have been the one year where he just stood upright.
Despite that, he could bring back a pretty good return. Perhaps not a top prospect, but at least a couple of lottery tickets or fringe major leaguers. There are so few quality catchers in the league right now. Even a bounce back candidate has plenty of appeal. That $22 million price tag isn’t outrageous, either. The Steamer projection has him pegged being worth 1.5 fWAR next year. At a very conservative estimate of $7 million per WAR, that lines up perfectly with his $10.5 million 2018 salary. That should yield a better return on investment than Jonathan Lucroy.
But a catcher’s most important job isn’t hitting or fielding, it’s managing the pitching staff. Last year, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl had nothing but good things to say about Francisco Cervelli. The Pirates are relying on these young arms to lead this team. Why take away their security blanket? Sure, Cervelli might be overpaid, but they’re all pre-arb and underpaid. At the very least it evens out.
It’s hard to take that first step into selling, but if Huntington finally does it, I doubt he’ll stop at one move. Maybe I’m wrong and there’s new McCutchen gossip every day. Maybe he gets bold and flips Felipe Rivero for all the tea in China. Would he dare dangle a Starling Marte or Gregory Polanco if he gets a Clint Frazier or another high profile outfielder? It’s Pandora’s box, but, again, I’ll believe the rebuild when I see the rebuild.
I still believe this team could compete for a wild card with one or two bargain priced free agents. The downside is a 2018 run might detract from future teams. Small market teams need to reload every couple of years. It seems like it’s the right time for the Pirates to do that.