Entering this offseason, the Pirates set out trying to trade Andrew McCutchen for some reason. Was it because his salary in 2017 is going to be $14.2M? Only if you see red whenever Bob Nutting’s name is mentioned and think he’s Scrooge McDuck with a big silo of money. Was it because he had a shockingly bad year? Perhaps, if the Pirates don’t think he can recover from it. Or was it because 2017 is his last guaranteed year before his team option year of 2018 and they wanted to recoup some value and re-stock the farm system? This is the most reasonable and likely answer.
They tried to move him to multiple destinations, with the Nationals as the most often-reported suitor. But as I discussed at the outset of the offseason, the Pirates were selling him as a bounceback MVP-caliber player on an affordable deal and the other teams were trying to buy him as a player that just turned 30 coming off a terrible year. The chasm of negotiations was too large to bridge.
So it seems that Neal Huntington and Company took a deep breath, re-worked the offseason plan, and decided that they’re going to attempt to make an effort to go for it in 2017 (and perhaps 2018), while McCutchen is still here. News tweeted out yesterday by Buster Olney that the Pirates were “trying hard” to acquire LHP Jose Quintana from the rebuilding Chicago White Sox. My affinity for Quintana is bordering on restraining order level at this point, but let me just point out that I was on the Quintana acquisition train back in July for the Pirates. To recap why Quintana is the perfect pitcher for the Pirates:
- He’s extremely good at the business of throwing baseballs — he’s basically a high-end #2/low-end #1 pitcher, good for 5 WAR per year
- He’s extremely durable — innings totals the last four years, from 2013-2016…200, 200-1/3, 206-1/3, 208
- He’s left-handed — the Pirates don’t currently have one of those dudes in the rotation
- He’s extremely affordable — 2017 salary of $7M, 2018 salary of $8.85M, 2019 club option of $10.5M, 2020 club option of $10.5M
And these four factors combined together are why the soon-to-be 28-year old Jose Quintana will be extremely expensive to acquire from a prospect capital perspective. Let’s run a rudimentary surplus value calculation on Quintana:
- 2017 — 5 WAR, $8M/WAR = $40M value
- 2018 — 5 WAR, $8.5M/WAR = $42.5M value
- 2019 — 4.5 WAR, $9M/WAR = $40.5M value
- 2020 — 4.5 WAR, $9.5M/WAR = $42.75M value
His value based on production totals up to $165.75M. Once you subtract out his salaries over those four years, as shown above, his surplus value is $128.9M of prospect/player capital. From our Prospect Value article, here’s a handy reference chart on what each tier of prospect from the Baseball America Top 100 list is worth:
As you can see, no one prospect is going to be equivalent to Quintana’s value. It will require a passel of them to make up the surplus value he brings. Baseball America will be coming out with their official new 2017 Top 100 in late February/early March, but using this past summer’s Midseason Top 100, the Pirates had the following prospects on the list:
- Tyler Glasnow #6 — Pitchers #1-10 — $69.9M
- Austin Meadows #10 — Hitters #1-10 — $73.5M
- Josh Bell #38 — Hitters #26-50 — $38.2M
- Kevin Newman #51 — Hitters #51-100 (we group them together because of minimal value spread) — $22.4M
- Mitch Keller #52 — Pitchers #52-100 (same grouping, same reason) — $16.5M
So in order to do this just with BA Top 100 caliber guys, one of Glasnow or Meadows has to front the deal. Bell almost has to be in there, too, which is fine with me because I think he’s a DH-in-waiting and not suited to the NL. Then add either Newman or Keller to round it out. Let’s say the deal was Glasnow, Bell, and Newman…that’s $130.5M of prospect surplus value, a near-perfect match. That’s a package I could live with. Yes, losing Glasnow would sting, but if you think his control issues and slow times to the plate portend future struggles, then sell high on him to a team seeking as much upside as possible before the shine is worn off. Newman is a slap-hitting SS that I don’t think will have enough bat to justify being more than a middle-of-the-road starter. A slightly better Jordy Mercer, maybe?
There are those out there (including here on the TPOP staff) that would blanch at this package and say it would ruin the farm system irreparably. Of course you would be losing 18+ years of combined control, many of which are of the low-cost variety the Pirates crave. But prospects fail all the time. Look back up a few paragraphs at the prospect value chart by tier. Take a gander at the bust rates for how many prospects get 3 WAR or less over their team-controlled seasons. Then look at how many get 0 WAR or less (outright bust) during their team-controlled seasons. It’s staggering, especially for prospects outside the highest tiers.
Quintana is a known quantity, a proven performer, on a contract that is envious to every team. Yes, there’s the chance that he becomes injured and never replicates his Chicago years here. Nothing is set in stone. But Quintana has already done it and is in the prime of his career, whereas these prospects are hoping to have the career Quintana has achieved heretofore.
If the Pirates acquire Quintana, the Pirates will have extended their window of contention by at least two years to 2017 and 2018. The Pirates’ top three of the rotation will be under control through at least 2019. Cole is here for that timeframe, Quintana potentially through 2020, and Taillon through 2022. The Pirates can run 2017 as a go-for-it season, then explore trading McCutchen in the 2017 offseason (as we called for a year ago). With whatever assets they obtain from the McCutchen trade, the Pirates can then enter the 2018 as a contender again.
After the 2018 season, the Pirates could then enter a reload phase by trading Gerrit Cole and his one remaining year of team control and possibly sniff the market on Quintana and his two team option years. Trading those two high-end pitchers could either re-ignite the farm system or provide some young talent to keep the contention wagon rolling. Keep in mind, the Pirates still have Marte (2021), Taillon (2022), and Polanco (2023) under control for long down the road. That’s a far better core of talent than the White Sox possess as they enter their own rebuild phase.
In short, the Pirates can still be sustainable, even if they have to take a step back here and there. The sky is not falling. And the Pirates can have their cake and eat it, too, by contending on a budget while maintaining a farm system that supplies young talent to the Majors. But all this depends on Neal Huntington being willing to pull the trigger and part with prime talent, something he has yet to do in any of his trades to date.