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The Pros And Cons Of Selling

Neal Huntington may pick a path to rebuild.
Photo via Twitter

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.

Gerrit Cole

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. 

Josh Harrison

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. 

Francisco Cervelli

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.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

12 Comments on The Pros And Cons Of Selling

  1. I doubt that Cervelli gets dealt. I don’t think that they want to go into 2018 with Diaz as their starting C.

  2. I love the idea of a rebuild that will bring in young controllable pieces that could win 75 games just as easily as the current group of Buccos, but with much bigger upside. The real downside to not rebuilding is that all of those trade chips are going to have nothing left but downside potential the longer they wait. Whether it’s age or cost, the longer they wait, the less their trade chips are worth.

    • While I do not advocate trading Cerveilli, his injury history makes it very tempting if anyone is offering anything near decent for his services and salary. As for Diaz, he is not an ideal candidate to replace Cervelli, but you are surely forgetting that the Pirates played half a season with Diaz and Stewart as their starters in 2017.

      If they trade Stewart, there are options on the market like Lucroy and Avila who can fill the gap. There are also other catchers available from other teams. Cameron Rupp in Philadelphia is available, as is their former first baseman, Tommy Joseph. Joseph actually came up through the Phillies system as a catcher, but was converted to first base when Ryan Howard swiftly declined. Now that the Phillies have signed Carlos Santana, Joseph is a man without a position and four years of team control. He has had concussion issues in the minors, so whether he can go back to catcher is unknown, but he is only 24, not like Jaso who was much older when the Pirates acquired him.

      • Kevin Creagh // December 28, 2017 at 1:44 PM // Reply

        Joseph’s concussion history is quite severe. Like the erstwhile John Jaso, his catching days are done.

        • I live in Philly and hear much more about Tommy Joseph than most Pittsburghers. It is true that T. J. has had four concussions. It is also true that he missed significant playing time after only one of them. It is true that the decision to convert him to first base was an organizational decsion and not one that he requested. It is true that he is a very poor defensive first baseman, he is an adequate to slightly better than average catcher. He does not have a position available to him in the Phillies organization and he recently suggested that he would be amenable to returning to catching with another organization. If he doesn’t his career is most likely over.

    • Bob, are you being serious? I agree that young players can also win 75 games, as this team can. Then when those you get players HIT their upside, away they go for more players with upside. Then when those player hit THEIR upside, away they go….and so on. Cmon, we’ve seen this movie for years….

  3. betterthanchickwood // December 28, 2017 at 6:10 PM // Reply

    Rebuild ie. Cut payroll for Mr. Nutting

  4. Bob Nutting was never going to spend more to bring payroll up to major league average. Only a fool (see below) would believe that he would do so. Someone on this blog (initials BS) commented back on 10/25 that my views on this were “nonsensical”. Surely, he stated, Nutting would spend more money this year and next. To quote BS….

    “…….yes I do expect a change for this year and next, or until he gets what he wants in his new local rights deal. It would cost him far more over the next 20-25 years if he does not.”

    So much for the local rights theory! Old BS is now firmly in rebuild mode. Something that was nonsensical to him just a few months ago.

    • My full rebuild mode is an expression of my preference on how the Pirates should proceed and not on how much money I think Nutting will or will not spend. I think that their odds of regaining their 2015 form by tinkering around the edges and signing a few marginal free agents is less than 25%. So, they could spend $115 million with a couple of lower value free agents and accomplish nothing, or they can rebuild. As a fan I opt for rebuilding and I don’t care what Nutting spends. All of you people who rob yourselves of sleep worrying about Nutting’s finances only make baseball uninteresting and desultory. Get over it. Nutting will do what Nutting will do, but I want the Pirates to win. That’s why I follow baseball. Not so that I can find an endless litany of reasons to complain about their ownership.

  5. Shelby miller haul is turning out to be over rated.

    • Kevin Creagh // December 30, 2017 at 6:59 AM // Reply

      Not really, the Braves have already slam dunk won it just with Ender Inciarte (3.6 and 3.0 WAR). If they get anything out of Swanson and a little something out of Blair it will be one of the bigger heists in recent memory.

  6. Richard R. Hohmann // December 31, 2017 at 8:07 AM // Reply

    As BR once said, better to trade a player a year too soon rather than a year too late [McCutchen]. Control is the key factor. Cole’s value will never be higher. His six innings will result in more wins for the Yankees than for the Pirates. The one piece the Pirates must get in return though is Andujar. You do not want to be left holding the bag when McCutchen and Cole walk.

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