I’ll admit that it had been awhile since I last went to a PirateFest, but last Saturday was far more bitter than I ever remembered. In past years, fans would get a chance to ask softball questions, shake a few hands and get some autographs while the front office and ownership gets to smile and look good in a PR stunt.
This year, the fans came for blood. The first question thrown at Neal Huntington came from a young boy who asked if he was going to trade Andrew McCutchen or Gerrit Cole. Neal’s day didn’t get much better.
Fans are mad and justifiably so. After one of the best runs in franchise history from 2013-2015, ownership went back on their promise that more butts in seats meant a payroll closer to the league median. Last offseason was a snorefest, with only Daniel Hudson and Ivan Nova to show for it. Now the Winter Meetings are wrapping up, and the only transaction the Pirates have made is for a minor league utilityman that the Phillies waived. I guess Brady Dragmire wasn’t available.
So what can the Pirates do to get the fans to lower their pitchforks? The answer is simple: do something. Anything. Literally anything. Their offseason plans these last two years could be best summed up by Mona Flanders, “We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas!” Besides that waiver claim (who will probably never suit up for the big club) and giving Justin Meccage a new job, what is different between the Pirates at the end of last season, today, and opening day?
Well, I think I heard that PNC Park got a Chick-Fil-A. That’s pretty cool.
The simple truth is the Pirates didn’t have enough talent to win in 2016 or 2017. There are three ways to get more:
1.) Sign a high profile free agent. Pittsburgh’s small market makes this very difficult. Their owner makes it impossible. Speaking of which, Mr. Nutting was last seen fleeing PNC Park wearing a cartoon villain mustache with a bank bag marked “team profits” in each hand. Just kidding. I last saw him at the Pitt-WVU game Saturday. Didn’t see him at PirateFest that day, though. He might have meandered around or hid in his suite, but he certainly didn’t take any questions from fans. I guess if there’s one thing a billionaire hates to be called, it’s “cheap.”
2.) Trade prospects to fill holes: This is Huntington’s shortcoming as a GM. The Kansas City Royals and Houston Astros built their core the same way the Pirates are trying to, but they had the cojones to make the big trade to complete their teams, whether it was for Justin Verlander, Johnny Cueto or Ben Zobrist. The Pirates weren’t in a good enough position either of these last two deadlines for Huntington to take the plunge, but there was some level of optimism around the club during the offseason. A big move could have made the difference and propelled them to the playoffs.
3.) Trade your major leaguers for controllable players: If a team does this more than once or twice, they are “rebuilding.” But a team can move a player or two who is on the cusp of free agency, shore up the farm system and bounce back. The Yankees did this in 2016. So did the Twins at the deadline. Heck, this is basically the mantra for the Rays and A’s. If you can get an overpay, it’s the responsible move.
Option three is the best plan of attack for this club right now. They even have the perfect guy to flip: Gerrit Cole.
The Pirates have a surplus of the most valuable commodity in the game: young, controllable arms. A guy like Chad Kuhl or Trevor Williams may look like just a middle or back of the rotation starter in Pittsburgh, but just about every team in baseball would love to have a guy like them. Both have proved they can get major league hitters out, made great strides in 2017 and are under team control for five years each. The team even gets to pay them whatever they want for the next two years. Major league pitching is hard to develop. The Pirates may not have produced the next Cy Young winner yet, but they have built an above average rotation that should only get better.
Meanwhile, the farm system does not seem to have that next great offensive threat looming. Austin Meadows can’t stay healthy and struggled when he was in between the AAA chalk lines. Personally, I think we have not heard many McCutchen rumors this offseason because the organization does not trust Meadows yet. Huntington still wants to compete, and he can’t rely on Meadows right now. Cutch is a good one year option, and based on how Meadows does, they can either trade their superstar at the deadline or decide their fates in the offseason.
Will Craig and Ke’Bryan Hayes are at least two years away, and they are on the cusp of the make or break AA level. Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker are never going to hit for much power. The old saying is “grow the pitchers, buy the hitters.” The Pirates have grown more pitchers than they can use. It’s time to sell one and buy some much needed offense.
There are plenty of guys waiting in the wings, too. Steven Brault was perhaps the most dominant AAA pitcher in baseball last year. He deserves an extended look in the majors. Tyler Glasnow is going to keep getting chances in the bigs, too. At least one spot needs to be opened for one of those two. If the pitchers get bit with the injury bug, Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes and Alex McRae provide plenty of depth.
So why is Cole being voted off the island? I wouldn’t trade Kuhl, WIlliams or Jameson Taillon. They are still young enough and have enough team control to build around. Brault, Glasnow and Kingham have either little experience or poor results in the majors, which would hurt their trade value. Hang onto them, too. Ivan Nova is cost controlled and an inning eater, but he would not yield much in a trade. If the Pirates want to get the most out of him, they’ll keep him in black and gold.
It’s too late to build anything around Cole. Hurdle even admitted it at PirateFest, saying: “I would agree with you as far as that window [being closed] for these guys.” Cole was implied to be one of “those guys”. And number 45 is a well respected former All-Star who was dominant for four months last year. Insiders agree that if Cole was on the market, his skill level, two years of team control and affordable salary may make him the best guy available.
The most logical fit is with the Yankees. Clint Frazier is one of the most exciting young outfielders in the game. He’s currently stuck behind two MVP candidates. Dealing for him makes so much sense that it almost hurts that it hasn’t happened yet. If Frazier does not suit the Pirates’ fancy, Justus Sheffield is a very exciting left-hander who could be an All-Star himself one day, and Miguel Andujar is one of the most promising prospects at the hot corner. Andujar had an .864 OPS at AAA last year. The Pirates are looking for a new everyday third baseman. They could deal from a strength to address a weakness.
The Pirates could hang onto Cole, hope the outfield finally lives up to the hype, the rotation takes a step forward and the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers don’t run away with the division. That best case scenario would put them at 80-something wins, which could compete for a wild card. There’s too many variables to feel confident about them being favorites, though.
Or they can take one step back to take two steps forward. Trading Cole while his value is high will be bad PR, but at least they would have made an attempt to get out of neutral, which is more than can be said about these last two years. At least they will have done something.