With 2016 in the books, it’s time to look back at GM Neal Huntington’s moves from the past calendar year.
As expected, there was some good and some bad. Of which there was more of may depend on who you ask. But to wrap up this season, let’s look back at how Huntington did during his “bridge year.”
- The Ivan Nova trade
For the second year in a row, Huntington landed arguably the best pitcher at the deadline.
Nova was brought in for the lesser half of the Travis Snider trade (Stephen Tarpley) and a 22 year old A-ball outfielder (Tito Polo). Pitching with a renewed sense of confidence, Nova had what might have been the best two month stretch of his career. He had two complete games, 1.9 fWAR and a 3.06 ERA in 11 starts with the Bucs.
There is mutual interest in a return, so if he does come back, this could be one of the best trades in Huntington’s career.
- Building the bench
Building a bench is a lot harder than people give it credit for. It’s almost impossible to land the guy who is a viable major league player while telling him he won’t be a starter. Huntington did that three times with David Freese, Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce.
Joyce was a pinch-hitting extraordinaire, walking 21 times off the bench for a new Major League record. Sean Rodriguez had his best offensive season (129 wRC+ and 18 homers), while providing above average defense in most of the seven positions he played. Freese held the fort down at third and first, and the Pirates were 59-45 when he started (and 19-38 when he didn’t).
- The Polanco/Cervelli/Freese extensions
For all of the flack Huntington and the rest of front office takes for not going after big free agents, he has done a great job at keeping most of the in-house talent.
Cervelli had a down year offensively, but his value behind the plate as a pitch framer and signal caller was well worth his raise. Polanco slumped in the second half, but his slugging percentage improved 82 points from 2015. Freese is, well, Freese. Every team in baseball would love to have a Freese, but he wanted to remain a Pirate.
Keeping these three players for the next couple years extended the Pirates’ window of contention. After all, imagine the offseason right now if Cervelli and Freese were about to hit the open market and Polanco was a year from arbitration.
- Not getting a lefty in the offseason
The Pirates’ offseason plan was to invest heavily in the bullpen, hanging on (for the time) to Mark Melancon and adding Neftali Feliz. There was sound logic in it. They won 98 games in 2015 due in large part to their bullpen, and the Kansas City Royals basically rode their relievers to back-to-back pennants and a ring.
But there was one problem: there wasn’t a lefty besides Tony Watson. They let Antonio Bastardo walk in hopes of making a major league lefty out of bubblegum and paperclips. Kyle Lobstein threw a handful of good innings, but he was clearly a AAA pitcher. Eric O’Flaherty was sold before the season started. Cory Luebke was a disaster.
The bullpen let a handful of games slip away early in part to their lack of a situational southpaw.
- Not signing Happ
J.A. Happ was brilliant in his two months as a Pirate, but he was fairly mediocre in the years prior to that. As a result, Huntington decided not to match the Blue Jays’ 3 year, $36 M deal. To put it nicely: that was a mistake.
Happ had a 3.18 ERA and 3.2 fWAR (roughly a $20 M value in the open market) in the hitter dominant AL East. While he could (and probably will) regress in 2017 and ‘18, his contributions instead of Jeff Locke or Jon Niese could have been what the Pirates needed to make the playoffs.
- Walker for Niese
Trading Walker was the right move. The Pirates had too many infielders, he was one year away from free agency and was not a good candidate for a qualifying offer (especially with the back injury).
Trading Walker for Niese was the wrong move.
There was a lot to like about Niese, including a very promising ground ball rate. But to put it nicely (again): he was a complete and utter disaster. All told, he was worth -0.7 fWAR between the Pirates and Mets, walking 3.5 per nine and letting 22 percent of his fly balls leave the park. The one bright spot is booting him from the rotation did give the club a look at Chad Kuhl.
- The Jason Rogers trade
I’m putting this in ‘ugly” instead of bad for now because there is still some hope that Rogers could be a viable major leaguer. Still, his 2016 was one to forget, only logging two hits in the majors and being a very average hitter in AAA.
He was brought in for Keon Broxton and Trey Supak, who both looked like potential bust prospects that did not have a real path to become Pirates. They were expendable and not exactly that valuable.
But one year in, the Brewers have made out like bandits. Keon Broxton was worth 2.1 WAR in limited duty, with 9 homers and 23 stolen bases. Rogers still has some trade value or could be a good bench piece, but his window is closing. It seems like a 50/50 chance that either Huntington salvages the two prospects in a trade or Rogers works out. If not, he could be DFA’d while the Bucs deal with Broxton for years.
- Melancon for Rivero
The Pirates were roughly a .500 team with Melancon and slightly below .500 without him. Trading two months of Mark Melancon for years of Felipe Rivero (and minor league fireballer Taylor Hearn) was the smart move, but that doesn’t mean the fanbase, or even the media, took it well.
Rivero struck out 12.8 batters per nine and had a 3.29 ERA as a Pirate, but every mistake he made was put under a microscope. To make matters worse, Watson continued his unspectacular year in the closer’s role.
Rivero is a good piece going forward and there is a chance (albeit a slim one) that Melancon’s free agency is not as lucrative as he hopes and he becomes a Pirate again. But for two months, every time the Pirates bullpen gave up a run, Melancon’s name was brought up.
- The Liriano trade
From the get go, the best case scenario for the Pirates was “maybe this won’t suck.” Unloading Francisco Liriano was good, but with pitching at a premium at the deadline, he probably could have brought in at least a fringe prospect. Instead, he and two of the Pirates’ top 10 prospects were sent to Toronto for Drew Hutchison.
If Hutchison pans out and the prospects bust, this will probably be viewed as a good trade. But for now, with Hutchison failing to establish himself as a starter and everybody and their grandmother making “financial flexibility” jokes, it is pretty ugly.