The Pirates, at the moment, don’t pass the eyeball test as a true contender. The pitching all around is near the bottom of the National League, even if the bullpen looks pretty sturdy. One week following the trade deadline, TBA should no longer hold a spot in the rotation. Generally, teams with starting pitching this bad don’t force their way into the mix. The bats have gone quiet against weak pitching. They went 1-5 on a road trip that included two of the worst teams in the league.
Yet, they sit 2.5 games out of the second wildcard spot heading into the series against the San Diego Padres. They’re still chasing three other teams, but despite the Pirates woes no one from that cluster has distinguished themselves. It’s almost looking like a reverse of 2015 where you needed 97 wins for a chance to play in. This year it may only take something in the 86-88 range.
Despite a Murphy’s law type season for the Pirates, they’ve managed to somehow stay in the hunt. While I suspect falling out of the race might actually be best for them in the long term, I can’t root for something like that to actually happen and call myself a true fan. However, they’d be able to lean more heavily on prospects like Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell in real games without placing the pressure to win on them this early. They could also trade some potentially coveted players in Pittsburgh on short term deals like David Freese and Neftali Feliz, for solid prospect hauls. Despite the narrative that 2017 looks woeful for the Pirates due to their unwillingness to spend, the season looks bright as they’ve managed to hold their low cost, higher upside options by frugally managing their minor league system. Compared to the woeful crop of free agents this offseason, it wouldn’t be absurd to suggest that Josh Bell could outperform the entire veteran ranks of first basemen on the open market and I would almost feel comfortable saying that Glasnow should do better than all the starting pitching. There are without question advantages to staying in the race like additional revenue from ticket sales and the extra mental toughness young guys get from playing in meaningful games. So how do you manage both?
While it might be a bit a unpalatable, the Pirates can afford to move one of their bench bats to make room for Bell. Freese likely wouldn’t make it past the Mets, but maybe Matt Joyce could find his way to the AL division leaders or at least the division leaders. The Pirates would get a decent return of prospects for him, likely enough to offset the potential value lost in the Ivan Nova deal, but they could also clear space for Bell right now. Bell may not play everyday, but the 3 or 4 games he starts a week would likely help his development more than staying in the minors and facing inferior pitching would. Otherwise, he’ll have to wait until after Sept 1.
On the pitching side, I’d love to see the Pirates go with a modified six man rotation when Glasnow gets healthy and rosters expand. Gerrit Cole would continue to pitch on regular rest, but the rest would pitch in order:
- Gerrit Cole
- Jameson Taillon
- Ivan Nova
- Tyler Glasnow
- Ryan Vogelsong
- Drew Hutchison
There are a few of advantages here. First, you don’t lose any of Cole’s starts. Second, you also preserve Taillon’s season pitch count in the event that you do work your way into the postseason. Finally, you give two younger pitchers who could be key contributors in next year’s rotation the opportunity to prove themselves early. If both look good, it could drastically alter the offseason shopping list. If one or both falter, at least they’ll be offset by a start or two being shaved out over the month.
Meanwhile, that’s likely as strong a rotation as the Pirates have pressed into action this season. The top two are solid and Nova, while not an ideal number three, should provide results closer to the norm for that role than Jon Niese did. Vogelsong probably assumes the place he was signed to take and both Glasnow and Hutchison should upgrade Jeff Locke. The Pirates likely go from a bottom third rotation to one that has the potential to slot in the top half.
Speaking of Jeff Locke, the prevailing thought is that he ought to be DFA’ed immediately. While he’s every Pirate fans favorite scapegoat with his value generally underrated by the fan base, he might still have some value which likely prevents the Pirates from flat out dumping him. I think they would like to move him, but an unrelated quote from Neal Huntington in Travis Sawchik’s trade deadline follow up in the Tribune Review, might offer some insight into why Locke is still with the Pirates.
“We recognize there is a scarcity in the affordable starting-pitching market,” Huntington said. “Mediocre pitching is getting paid a lot of money. As we look forward, whether it’s the trade market or free agent market, the challenge of acquiring quality, controllable, productive starting pitching … is hard to do.”
Prior to the free agent pitching market blowing up last offseason, a guy like Locke would have been easy for the Pirates to jettison. See Worley, Vance. Not so in the reality of the market heading into 2017. Even a four like Ivan Nova could command multiple years at a ten digit salary this offseason especially if he closes strong. Suddenly a guy like Locke who has had some considerable success in the past and has two years of discounted control left, shouldn’t be allowed to walk away for nothing. The Pirates can and should bury Locke on their 25-man roster for a month and then re-evaluate what to do with him in the fall. Most have Jeffy as a non-tender candidate. I would actually be surprised if the Pirates didn’t bring him back.
In the end, the Pirates can have their cake and eat it too in 2016. Solid players, like Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison, need to start contributing more and the Pirates will likely need to cash one of their AAA lottery tickets in Bell and Glasnow. However, they’re still in the hunt in 2016, a year I’ve long called a transitional one, but they can still set themselves up nicely beyond.