This season has been maddening for a Pirates fan. After an offseason of frugality resulted in an incomplete roster and questionable depth, the cumulonimbus cloud of crushing injuries descended on Pittsburgh and has parked itself over PNC Park for the whole season. I’m not going to go into the whole litany of injuries, but the pitching staff has been hit particularly hard.
If one were to assume prior to the season that Jameson Taillon was the staff #1, Trevor Williams the #3, and Jordan Lyles the #5, then it is less than ideal for all three of them to be out long-term with injuries. Especially when the presumed #2, Chris Archer, has been pitching like number 2 for the vast majority of the season. Keone Kela was the presumed setup man and he’s been out most of the year and ineffective the rest. Depth is tested every year, but it’s usually one or two at a time, not three or four. The replacements have been terrible from AAA — some being terrible is a surprise (Kingham) and some not so much.
Neal Huntington says the Pirates don’t believe in having windows of contention, but I simply find that impossible to believe. It’s great to say the Pirates are a ‘sustainable’ organization, but there needs to be a consistent flow of talent upwards from the minors and an ability to trade players at a certain point to maximize returns. Neither of those things have happened consistently enough to say this is a sustainable operation that doesn’t need contention windows.
So to that end, it’s time for the Pirates to come to grips with the fact that not only is the 2019 edition of the Pirates not good, but neither will be the 2020 Pirates if just a few additions are made here and there cosmetically.
What I’m proposing here is drastic. It will involve many trades of currently popular players, but it’s a course of action that I believe is the only way forward to potential playoff success. The current method of ‘build an 84-win team and hope for some luck’ is not working. They need to start building Division title-contending teams, not Wild Card-contending teams.
The Pirates seem to have been scared of going for a total rebuild in recent years so that they wouldn’t alienate the fanbase, but guess what ? It’s not like attendance is going to suffer that much more than it has in the past couple of years. If the Pirates’ ownership and front office both explain upfront that this short-term pain can lead to medium-term glory, it can be a form of selling hope that is more legitimate than the brand they’ve sold in recent years.
Here’s how they should do it:
STEP 1: TRADE EVERY PLAYER POSSIBLE THAT IS A FREE AGENT AFTER THIS YEAR
This seems somewhat intuitive already, but it needs to be reinforced. The potential players in this category are Francisco Cervelli, Corey Dickerson, Melky Cabrera, Jordan Lyles and Francisco Liriano. Injury concerns will probably make Cervelli untradeable, of course, but the others should all bring back some value.
Now this is the key part: In order to maximize any potential returns, the Pirates must be willing to pay the rest of 2019’s salaries for these guys. If a team is essentially getting a player for free (or two players if a couple are packaged together), the Pirates can get a higher level of return. None of these guys are probably going to fetch a Top 100 prospect, but if an interesting lower level guy with high ceiling potential can be had, then it’s a good deal.
STEP 2: MOVE ON FROM NEAL HUNTINGTON
For some of you, this would be step 1. But I’m willing to wait until after the season to make this move. Huntington has been pretty good at extracting value out of little deals — like getting the intriguing Oneil Cruz for Tony Watson, Felipe Vazquez for Mark Melancon. But I no longer have confidence in having him oversee the remaining steps of what it will take to get the Pirates back to contender status.
This isn’t a vitriolic, emotional takedown of any specific facet of Huntington’s tenure. Rather, it’s simply pulling back the lens and looking at his track record — from 2008 to now, he’s presided over four winning seasons out of twelve. There were three playoff appearances from 2013-15, but no playoff series wins. There are very few GM’s, especially in the modern era, that would have been allowed to oversee over a team that has been more bad than good, even accounting for the runup needed to rebuild the team in the beginning. This was something I initially discussed two years ago, so it’s not a 180 degree turn on my part, either.
The Pirates are no longer on the bleeding edge for statistical analysis. As of right now, I’d say the Rays and Astros are the top two teams in that regard. I would immediately call Tampa and seek permission to interview Chaim Bloom for the position of GM. The 36-year old more or less job shares the GM position with Erik Neander. Clearly, both he and Neander are able to thrive on minuscule budgets. What the Rays are doing in terms of research and development is miles ahead of the rest of baseball and that’s where I’d go for my next GM. (Neander would be a nice consolation prize.)
The importance of a GM in today’s modern game is the current ‘undervalued asset’ that can alter the course of a franchise. I’d offer Bloom a four year/$12M deal, with the first two years’ salaries somewhat lower to compensate for paying off Huntington, then balloon years 3 and 4 up appropriately. The $3M/year would put Bloom on par with the top 5 GM yearly salaries in baseball, but for the cost of a bench player, his intrinsic value would be so much greater.
Every GM wants his own coach, so Hurdle would be swept out as well. Although it wouldn’t bother me if he stayed on, especially in years where you’re not expecting to win anyways. Bloom could theoretically keep Hurdle and then look to make a move after the 2021 season when Hurdle’s contract is up and the team would hopefully be ready to compete again.
STEP 3: TRADE EVERY PLAYER CURRENTLY IN ARBITRATION
OK, here’s where some of you may choose to exit the train.
If you accept the premise that the Pirates aren’t going to be good again until 2022, then there’s no point in keeping players that won’t be around for the team when they are on the cusp of being good in 2022. The entire clock needs reset and assets need to be added to the mediocre farm system.
Players in this group are Keone Kela, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, Chad Kuhl, Michael Feliz, and Erik Gonzalez. I left Elias Diaz out of this part because the Pirates are so woefully thin at catcher in the organization that I’d be willing to ride out his three arbitration years and bring in journeymen backups. Injuries will probably have ruined the market for Kela, so he’s probably sticking around. If Trevor Williams and/or Joe Musgrove wanted to do a small extension to extend their control beyond the current end date of 2022, then I’d entertain that.
Jameson Taillon may be looking at a second Tommy John surgery, so his market would be non-existent, as well. Chad Kuhl is coming off his Tommy John, but I’d still move him as the 2nd piece in a deal. No one probably wants Frazier, Feliz or Gonzalez, but I’d try anyway.
That leaves Josh Bell. Yes, he’s having an amazing season and it appears he’s reaching his promised potential. But again, what do you really have in Bell ? He brings little to nothing of value on defense or the basepaths. Add in the fact that Scott Boras is his agent and there’s no chance of any extension past his 2022 (not 2021, John!) team control.
By trading as many players in this group as possible, the Pirates should be able to yield 2-3 prospects in the 51-100 range of the Top 100, plus a few interesting upside types. Again, quality over quantity is the theme here.
STEP 4: TRADE EVERY PLAYER UNDER CONTRACT
I know this is going to ruffle some feathers. The players in this tier include Starling Marte, Felipe Vazquez, Gregory Polanco, and Chris Archer. I love watching Starling Marte (despite his concentration lapses) and I consider Vazquez to be either the best or 2nd-best closer in baseball right now. As a fan, it would pain me to see them go.
But again…this current edition of Pirates is not going to be a serious playoff contender, no matter how much a return to health is naively hoped for by the fanbase.
Marte is most definitely not a liability, but he will be 31 next year and has two options remaining on his deal at 2 yr/$26M total. Assuming a conservative 5.5 WAR over those two years at $8M/WAR, that gives $18M of surplus value. That should garner one 51-100 level of prospect and one interesting high upside flyer.
Polanco and Archer are definitely in the downswing in terms of market value, but there’s always a team out there that thinks they can fix a young’ish player and extract value. Polanco is at 2 year/$22M guaranteed (that includes a $3M buyout, if options not picked up) or 4 year/$45M if both are exercised. If you assume he’s at 4 WAR over the next two years, that’s $10M of value. Most likely that’s one or two upside types. Archer is really hard to peg for future value at this point, but let’s say his 2 yr/$20M contract, if both options are picked up, would at least break even in projected value. You should be able to get one or two low-level types for him.
The real prize, though, is Felipe Vazquez. Yes, he’s amazing and yes, he’s controlled potentially through 2023 when I’m projecting the Pirates will be (hopefully) good again. He’s owed just $13.9M over the next two seasons (including $1.5M of buyouts) or $32.4M over four years if the options are picked up.
But bad teams don’t need great closers. And great closers can return great assets. At 8 WAR over the next four years, Vazquez can yield $32M of surplus value. That gets you into the 26-50 tier of a Top 100 prospect, plus a couple other low-level trinkets. They can hopefully find their next great closer in a trade, similar to how Vazquez was obtained in the first place.
The Pirates could extract even more prospect return by being willing to eat some of the money, a practice not used in recent years very much by Huntington. This is how the Seattle Mariners ended up getting Jarred Kelenic from the Mets in the deal that sent Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz to New York. Kelenic appears to be on the road to stardom. This is what Huntington should have done with Gerrit Cole — instead of the sampler platter he got, I’d rather he went pure upside in a 1-for-1 with either Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley as the return.
STEP 5: SIGN FREE AGENTS TO 1-YEAR DEALS
Let’s assume that Steps 1, 3, and 4 happen and there’s a mass exodus of players. Who’s left in 2020?
C Elias Diaz
1B Will Craig
2B Kevin Newman
SS Cole Tucker
3B Ke’Bryan Hayes/Colin Moran
LF Jason Martin
CF Bryan Reynolds
All current starting pitchers are gone, so Mitch Keller and J.T. Brubaker would be in the rotation. Kyle Crick would be the closer. Nick Burdi, Edgar Santana would be in the bullpen. This is a terrible team, which will serve the purpose of getting a high spot in the 2021 draft.
This team in 2020 would be costing virtually no money, so dive into the depressed free agent market and sign some placeholders to 1-year deals to round out the team. Maybe you get lucky and one or two have big years so you can flip them at the July 2020 trade deadline.
But you have to commit to being terrible in order to get a high spot at the 2021 draft order. Then be bad again in 2021, but maybe a little less, so you can draft well in June 2022, too. The whole goal from July 2019 to July 2021 is to acquire as many high-value assets through trades and drafts as you possibly can.
Let’s say the massive 2019 fire sale of talent yields the following chips:
- One (1) 11-25 Top 100 prospect
- Two (2) 26-50 Top 100 prospects
- Five (5) 51-100 Top 100 prospects
- Eight (8) High-upside, low-level flyers
Then you draft in the top 3 in 2021 after a Ragnarok-level season in 2020, yielding two more Top 100-caliber talents. Now you’re got a rich farm system on par with what the Padres and Braves currently possess.
By the time 2022 rolls around, Bryan Reynolds will only be entering the 1st year of presumed Super Two arbitration. Cole Tucker will have hopefully grown into an above-average shortstop. The Pirates need to build their marketing around Tucker’s dynamic personality and both of their continued on-field contributions. If Reynolds continues to look like a viable piece in 2020, I’d sign him to a 6-7 year deal to buy out his Super Two years and get 1-2 free agent years, as well.
In terms of prospects currently in the system, I’d hope that of the group of Cody Bolton, Lolo Sanchez, Rodolfo Castro, Mason Martin, and Oneil Cruz at least 3 of the 5 are viable potential starters in 2022 delivering on their promise, with 1 of them as a legitimate All Star-caliber player (4+ WAR). Quinn Priester will hopefully be getting a tune-up in late 2022 in Triple-A. Maybe the high-end prospect drafted in 2021 (if a college player) is ready to step in soon, too.
This is a complete and utter fire sale, akin to what the Houston Astros did earlier this decade. They built around Jose Altuve, bottomed out in the draft and got George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman, and are now a juggernaut. It is a bitter, bitter pill to sell to the fanbase, but if ownership does it transparently and gets fan buy-in, it can be done.
The bobbing along in the Sea of Mediocrity has not worked these past few seasons. It’s time to hit Control-Alt-Delete and get crazy.