You would think I woke up today planning to troll the entire city of Pittsburgh when I penned the headline to this article, but I quietly came to the realization that the Pirates might actually be ahead on the Francisco Liriano plus prospects for Drew Hutchison and $$$$$$$$ deal at the moment. I’m sure most people read the headline and crapped their pants without even clicking on this piece. For those of you with a stronger sphincter, please allow me to explain.
Of course, one quick caveat. I didn’t hate the deal like most. I was just sort of confused and shocked by it. You had to really use your imagination or put on your thinking cap to make sense of it. I, at least, tried to even if the rest of this town had not, and while I acknowledged from the jump it was a salary dump, I didn’t want to immediately dismiss it. Put another way, I opted not to light the torch and left the pitchfork in the barn. I don’t regret my decision, but I also approached and still approach this deal with a little more open mindedness than the average fan or media member. If one who felt outraged by this deal wants to count my starting out mostly emotionally indifferent to the deal as bias, than I am biased as hell.
I want to break the deal down by each of the components. Let’s start with the easiest part of the deal, Drew Hutchison. He remained in the minors long enough last year for the Pirates to get their extra year of control and got a cup of coffee in September where he didn’t help the team much but didn’t hurt it either over 11.1 innings of meaningless baseball. He competed for a spot in the rotation in spring training, but ultimately went a little further west on his trip north. He certainly didn’t help his chances of restarting his clock early this year in Indianapolis. However, his three May starts have been excellent allowing 4 ER in 18.2 innings and a WHIP under 1 after posting an even 5 ERA in April. At the moment, the Pirates seem committed to Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow learning from their mistakes at the major league level. However, Hutchison appears to be the next man up if the front office changes course with either development plan or Trevor Williams loses focus as the upcoming season of Games of Thrones approaches. Hutchinson hasn’t done much so far as a Pirate, but he appears as if he’s knocking on the door.
Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez went to Toronto along with Liriano and were really the component that got most people’s goat as it was seen as trading good prospects for money. People had been aware of McGuire for a while and though I like Ramirez, he was surplus goods. With the benefit of hindsight, people should be more upset that Neal Huntington gave away Keon Broxton last year rather than Ramirez. Both McGuire and Ramirez are repeating the Eastern League, not a huge deal given their age in a vacuum. Problem is both are struggling in an extremely small sample. Ramirez OPS has dropped by more than .100 points with his K rate increased and his walk rate decreased. On the positive side, his ISO improved and his BABIP is unsustainably low, meaning his batting average will likely even out a little. Some bad luck removed, he still is spinning his wheels at best so far and running out of time. The Blue Jays spent Ramirez’s second of his third options when they sent him down this year. At the moment, he doesn’t look like he’ll be AAA ready for next year let alone major league ready in two. Twenty-two year old outfielders with OPS under .650 in AA may not stay on the 40-man roster very long.
Reese McGuire hasn’t played since the beginning of May and his OPS is dead on where it was last year while he was with Altoona. In an even smaller sample than Ramirez, he’s at least hitting for a little more power. In 59 PA’s in 2017, he’s hit more home runs (2) than in 2015 and 16 combined. Of course, that might be a hot streak rather than a trend as 59 PA’s doesn’t tell you much. It’s also possible that his numbers along with Ramirez’s are flat because the Jays see something the Pirates didn’t and they’re now working on adjustments that could ultimately make the two better hitters in the long run. Both have solid contact foundations. If McGuire adds a little pop, his offense could play enough for him to be a glove first catcher in the majors. As I’ve said before of McGuire, there simply isn’t a good track record for 22 year olds OPS’ing under .700 in AA. Without looking, I’m sure it gets worse for 23 year olds. The Jays have a little more time with McGuire, but he will be Rule 5 eligible this offseason. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it.
Then there is the man himself, Francisco Liriano. With his 6+ ERA and 7+ BB/9, it appears the AL has quickly caught onto what the NL figured out about Franky last season; don’t swing till he starts lobbing meatballs. His O-Swing%, the percentage of swings he generates on ball outside the strike zone, is down a stunning 4.6% from last year to just 25.4%. Pair that with his Swing Strike% down to a career-low 10.8% and you have a pitcher that is not fooling anyone. He did have a nice run as a deadline acquisition in August. Sure, he melted down a couple of times, but he looked as if he or the staff had figured something out and in general helped the Jays win more than he hurt them. On top of that, Liriano is generally underperforming his FIPs and his luck stats indicate a few too many pokes are finding grass or their way over the fence. He hasn’t been good, but if he heals from his shoulder injury quickly enough, the advanced numbers suggest he’ll rebound some. Unfortunately, not to his elite #2 levels of Pirates days.
Finally, the elephant in the room, all that money. According to Cots, the Pirates saved roughly $17.4 million by dealing Liriano when they did. Factor in the $2.3M that they’re paying Hutchison to cool his heels in AAA and you still have a savings of $15.1M. Assuming Liriano does not return from the DL by the end of the month, his control acquired by Toronto is halfway done, meaning he’ll have been paid $8.7 million. Since heading north of the border, Liriano has accumulated 0.8 fWAR which we value at $8 per WAR for a total value of $6.4 million. That means Liriano has underperformed his deal by about $2.3 million since the trade meaning, so far, the savings are more valuable than the output. He has a half a year to turn it around, but early returns this season give me pause that he’ll be effective. Every paycheck that Liriano receives makes it a little easier for the Jays to jettison the remainder of the deal in the event that they prefer to give his 40-man roster spot to someone else.
I get that saving Bob Nutting money is never a strong argument, but as Alex pointed out, the saving may have paved the way for the Pirates to be able to keep David Freese and Ivan Nova. Freese was the only bat who performed early in the year and Nova was one of the best pitchers in baseball for a month. They’ve combined for 1.3 fWAR so far this year compared to Liriano’s 0.1. While the Pirates might be dastardly for saving money, at least they’ve put it to good use.
If all of the minor league players involved in this deal bust, whether or not Liriano lives up to the value of his contract could determine who wins the deal. Right now, he’s falling short. At the moment, Hutchison appears the most likely component to bare fruit at the major league level for the team that acquired him. Ramirez and McGuire still have some upside, but their ceiling looks a little lower in the three months of minor league baseball since the deal went down. Given the money saved on Liriano relative to performance and the high likelihood that the Pirates will soon need Hutchison in the majors, I put the Pirates in a slight lead on this deal at the moment. Of course, that all changes if Liriano figures it out in the second half of the season, Hutchison fails and one or both of Ramirez and McGuire become useful players, even if just backups, for the Blue Jays. We’re far from done evaluating this trade and I think it could be one that continues to haunt the front office. For the time being, it looks OK despite the lingering issue with optics.