There is no man who deserves more credit for turning the Pirates around than general manager Neal Huntington. When he took the job, the franchise was in complete disarray. Terrible decisions in player personnel by previous general managers Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield had left both the major and minor league rosters with more question marks than bona fide talent. It took some for Huntington to restock the organization with quality players. Though the major league club endured more losing in his first few seasons on the job, there was hope that the slowly improving farm system would yield some prospects that could change the team’s fortunes. It took some time, but with the addition of players acquired through shrewd trades and cost effective free agent signings, Huntington was able to assemble a roster that made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. While many of his decisions deserve praise and adoration, some have set the Pirates back. Case in point, the Francisco Liriano and prospects dump for Drew Hutchison last summer.
When this trade was first reported, it seemed as if the club was only giving up Liriano for Hutchison in a move that would get the lefty’s remaining $13.7M for 2017 off the books. What people found out moments later was that Huntington had not only traded away one of the top pitchers that team has had over the last few decades for a pitcher not many in the city had heard of, but additionally they were sending the Toronto Blue Jays two of the top position prospects in the system: outfielder Harold Ramirez and former first round pick catcher Reese McGuire. People were dumbfounded by this move. Yes, Liriano had struggled mightily for all of 2016 with an ERA above five, but teams were so adamant in not taking on his big contract in the trade that it forced Huntington to send with him two prospects. You would have expected those guys to eventually make their debut in Pittsburgh sometime in future or be used as pieces in a trade that wasn’t as lopsided as this one, though the club doesn’t make trades flipping prospects for good major league talent even when the need to is staring them right in the face (see Quintana, Jose).
So who exactly was Drew Hutchison? He was a 15th round selection in 2009 out of Lakeland High School in Florida. After making his major league debut in 2012, the right hander was able to carve out a 30-21 in 73 starts for the Blue Jays. That isn’t a bad win-loss record, but the problem was his elevated ERA throughout his time north of the border. In his 4 seasons with Toronto, Hutchison never had an ERA under 4.40 and it ballooned to as high as 5.57 in 2015 when he went a career-best 13-5. And if you are thinking ‘how is it possible for a pitcher to win 13 games while having an ERA near 6′, it goes to show you why the wins category has become so disregarded in recent years. The only reason a guy like Hutchison won 13 games in 2015 is simply because the Blue Jays had one of the best offenses in all of baseball.
In his initial appearances with the Pirates last season, you could already tell that Hutchison wasn’t going to have much success in Pittsburgh. In six appearances, including 1 start in 2016, he struggled with a 5.56 ERA in 11.1 innings. By contrast, Liriano almost immediately had success with the Blue Jays. His eight starts down the stretch run of the season helped push Toronto into the playoffs, going 2-2 with sub-3 ERA of 2.98. Not bad for a pitcher whose previous team had basically given up on him. The success Liriano had late in the year last season carried over into his first Spring Training with the Blue Jays. In 4 starts this spring, he has gone 1-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 14.1 innings of work. On the other hand, Hutchison had one of the worst Spring Trainings in all of Pirates City. The right hander posted an astronomical 10.02 ERA in 20.2 innings of action this spring, including allowing over 6 runs in each of his last two starts. After his latest debacle against the Boston Red Sox at LECOM Park, Hutchison was officially sent down to AAA Indianapolis which took him out of the running for the fifth starter race, a spot that originally looked all but certain to be his to lose coming into this season. That is how at least Huntington planned it.
This trade may not be the worst trade in Pirates history, but it is the worst deal Huntington has made as general manager. For all the spin doctoring he does constantly about the state of the roster, there was no way he could convince anyone that Hutchison was going to be a success for the Pirates. It didn’t matter that Ray Searage could tinker with him like he has done to all the rest of the team’s reclamation projects over the past few years. The fact was this guy just stinks and now Huntington has to try and convince the fans and the media that he doesn’t suck. It did not work, believe me. You can get over the fact that they had to trade two good prospects in the deal, because there is no chance either of those guys makes it to the big leagues or once they get there find long term success. Ramirez is on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster, but he failed to record a hit this spring while McGuire didn’t fare much better in limited opportunities. The bad thing is Liriano is going to be good for Toronto this season. He may not be as good as he was in 2013, but he will be the kind of the starter the Pirates could use now in 2017.
As for Huntington, he is stuck with a bum pitcher making $2.3 million at AAA. I predict at some point this season, or in the near future, he will make the decree that this trade was a mistake and, if he had to do it again, try and not sell off some assets just to dump a bad contract on another team. And if you see Hutchison called up to the majors at any point this season, expect a lot of offense from the opponent and hope for a good day at the plate from the Pirates because it will be a difficult outing either way.