A 2022 Blueprint For The Pirates With 2019 Foresight
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.
I agree with everything here. The current situation is not tenable. As far as players, I would listen to offers for anyone except maybe Reynolds. He’s too good and too cheap. I agree with you on Bell. The time to trade him is now. He might become a superstar somewhere else but for the Pirates he’ll probably never be worth more than he is now. I’d like to keep Newman too. He’s probably better than the return he’d bring.
This team has a lot of players I really like but I don’t see it contending anytime soon. They should do as you say. First get a new GM in here and then let him (or her) blow it up. The current way isn’t working.
Yeah, I think Bell’s best position is DH. The DH has been so de-valued by AL teams, though.
Plan calls for vision and commitment ?- qualities missing in ownership. Owner wants to muddle along pretending that all is part of a plan, while sucking money from the team.
Nutting is the worst owner in baseball.
It’s an interesting thought. I am on board for a full blown rebuild. I think a cleansing of the philosophy is key, however. If you tear it down, it has to be built up w/ a sound strategy built on analytics and player dev from the DSL through Pittsburgh. And that philosophy has to run from the Front Office straight through to the players on the field. The coach has to be a conduit, not a hindrance to the FO. So I think Clint may have to go sooner rather than later. Or be promoted to a position that’s more of a figurehead. A face that can give an interview but remain relatively hands-off.
I think it’d be important to communicate the plan to the fans, but moving from Bell isn’t a horrible idea. The fans were ready to ship him out for peanuts last season, so if you could turn around and sell him high, knowing full-well that your new window is 2023, it’s a SMART move.
Vasquez is the perfect piece. His contract is highway robbery, and GMNH should be proud of that for the surplus generated.. but it’s exactly the contract needed to make a move. I look at teams that have a window that’s more in the 2020-2022 range that could see him as an incredibly valuable piece. I would LOVE to see an offer from SDP for him. They are absolutely loaded on the farm and a trade with them could jump start this rebuild.
None of this will happen.. The Pirates are afraid to go for it and equally afraid to tear it down. Purgatory for the rest of my days, it appears.
If you would indulge an amateur’s estimates, my historical projection for Bell puts his value around $60M to (and w/ a trade deadline inflation) $105M. If a team believes that this current season is sustainable, you could go as high as a surplus value of $134M. What does that mean? I did a quick peak at AL teams (DH + 1B for Bell), and if a team like LAA wanted to stop squandering the Trout years, could provide a package along the lines of Jo Adell (60 FV), Griffin Canning (50 FV), Jose Suarez (50 FV), and Jordyn Adams (45+). An injection of youth/talent that would pay major dividends for the Pirates.
That may be too rich, but w/in the realm of possibility for a talent like Bell.
That surplus value for Bell seems high — I imagine he’ll be pricey in arb after this year’s output. I think a Suarez+Adams package would probably be more of the ceiling for me.
Just learned about this site today: https://www.baseballtradevalues.com/
Pretty fun. Little clunky, but I’m sure once it gets going, that’ll change.
That’s an interesting site. And not just because they reference our surplus value work!
Choose a lane, give the fans a direction, and f’ing go for it. 100% agree with this column. Well done and well written.
Put it this way–this year’s club was built, and NH all but said this was the case, to win 80 games and then hope something really good was going to happen. Essentially, the Pirates are trying to fill an inside straight, which is a lousy strategy at the poker table and equally lousy for a MLB club. A team in a market like Pittsburgh in the current financial structure of MLB either needs to be all-in or rebuilding; the middle ground is a fool’s paradise. This article is very hard to find fault with, and I would concur that there is not a single untouchable on this roster right now.
I wouldn’t call him ‘untouchable’, but I’d be loathe to part with Bryan Reynolds for the years of control and apparent ability to be (at least) a complementary player, if not a building block.
I like the idea of a long-term plan. The offense is mediocre, the pitching is horrific. Ultimately, you have to rebuild the pitching more so than the offense, since you can’t do everything at once. Regardless, there’s a lot of work ahead for the front office to turnaround the misery Pirates fans have been experiencing.
I agree with everything you have included in this column, though at my age I might not be around for the payoff ! I would like to say that I think your Step 2 needs to be Step 1 as I myself do not want to see Huntington ?s fingers anywhere near all those deals ! I have thought that he had shown in the 2015-16 off season they all needed to be let go, from Hurdle and the coaching staff through Frank.
Thank you, Leo. I think NH has done a good job at the little moves so I’d keep him for this year at the deadline. You’re not bringing a major name in until the offseason anyway. It’s the big deals that he’s been bad at.
First, let me say that I always appreciate it when people put some real thought into their ideas. You’ve certainly done that, so I appreciate the article.
But I think what you’ve come up with is a recipe for repeating 2016-2018 in 2022. The Pirates went into 2016 thinking they had a good hitting lineup, but it was going to take a little extra time for the Pitching to “mature”, hence the Bridge Year comment, but if past is prologue then it’ll take 2 or 3 years for the Pitching to mature and 2022 soon leads into 2024 becoming a repeat of 2019.
(PS In looking for the Bridge Year comment I came across a TPOP article (10/7/16) listing NH’s Melancon trade for Rivero/Vazquez as ugly. – LOL Can’t win ’em all.)
With 2 NL Wild Cards, everyone but Miami is still alive at this point, although San Francisco is on life-support, being 11 games under .500. This leads to my take on the subject, which will have to wait, as I’m out of time.
Thank you, Phillip. The pitching would not be present solely from existing assets, aside from Keller and Bolton (maybe Brubaker as #5). But the trades would hopefully net some top pitching prospects and then the 2021 draft could be a Casey Mize-type of fast riser.
As for Alex’s October 2016 article, he listed the trade as Ugly for its reaction by the fanbase as the Pirates were nominally in the wild card hunt still and Melancon was so good.
Great insights. I get really excited about watching young teams grow. We can ?t get to where we really want to be from where we currently sit without dishing out serious money on upgrades and that ?s not going to happen. Small market teams need to make bold moves sometimes to achieve sustainable opportunities. I ?m all in!
Excellent! I wish there were more capable visionaries (if you will) laying out plans for the teams they follow.
This team is still in contention. No way can you have a fire sale with this talent. And let’s be honest, do you really want Huntington trading away what talent we have for unknown prospects? I sure don’t.
I’d try to keep J. Lyles and F. Liriano, both shouldn’t demand high dollar contracts in the off season and have been great additions. Nobody wants Cervelli, so forget trading him. Melky has some value, but again no one’s giving up anything solid for a bench OF on contending teams. Dickerson has some value, but who do you replace him with? He provides solid AB’s, defense and a spark to this team. I try and re-sign him to a friendly contract, if not I only deal him if the deal is right.
The rest, well stick to writing sci-fi books. You want to deal our entire young pitching staff, most of our bullpen and our best talent for what? Prospects who may or may not pan out? You think attendance is down now, wait till your proposed fire sale. While I do like this “thinking outside the box” approach, the risk/reward with unproven talent just isn’t worth it. If our pitching staff would have stayed healthy there would be no mention of fire sales or trading off players. If we do deal Marte and Vasquez, and maybe a contender puts in a waiver for Polanco and Archer in September from injuries (or DFA them), 2020 payroll already looks amazing without the fire sale. No need to rebuild, we have rebuilt this team enough. This team can compete, we just need our young pitchers to stay healthy.
Step 2 is to move on from Huntington. I state in there that he hasn’t been at good deals. He’s fine to stay this season and do the smaller expiring contracts.
Pitchers, in general, do not stay healthy. They also don’t have consistently great performances from year to year. Taillon, for example, has only been fully healthy one year of his major league career. Archer has not been good this year. Musgrove has been inconsistent at times this year.
The bullpen has been subpar in the middle innings up until this recent run of good play.
Of course all prospects have inherent value of failure. No one understands this concept more than me. I’ve studied the failure rates over a 20 year period. But if acquire a critical mass of high level prospect talent, there will be a greater chance of success.
The bottom line for me is that I think this team, even if a fairy would come with her magic wand and make this team fully healthy, is not a division title contender. And next year Marte is one year older.
seems like an awful drastic step for a team that to compete this year and next just needs some pitching stability
I just don’t see this team as a division title contender, even if the pitching was fully stable (which it never is from year to year).
If you look at their 40 man, nobody is better. If you look at their 25 man, nobody is better, if you look at their starting lineup you can make a case that other teams put a better lineup on the field. The Pirates are very deep through the system with talent, 3 no.1 draft picks, all talented parked at AAA a top 20 pitcher at AAA, 3 position players players up from AAA (2 starters) 3 pitchers up from AAA. The Pirate injuries have affected the team greatly, that is just a fact.
Reynolds will regress, Newman will regress and the Pirates probably will drop out of the race, a race they should be about 8 or 9 games above .500 now if they did not have the problems they had. Losing your top two starters is devastating to any team, Losing your top 4 outfielders is also devastating, who is to say that in 2022 they won’t go though the same bad luck they have now?
The farm is far from mediocre. I am not against complete tear downs and certainly not against trading anyone especially players that are not the future. I don’t see this team in need of a radical teardown.
If you consider Reynolds, Newman, and Tucker to be ‘graduated’, the rest of the farm is Keller (who may graduate too) and Cody Bolton, in terms of potential impact. The rest are overrated like Ke’Bryan Hayes or players that every farm possesses that currently do not project to be impact talent.
The Astros did not build a winner any differently than the Pirates are building, they did get very high draft picks and that solidified the position players that they needed, that came from losing, but the pitching staff core came from trades for starting pitchers that were all failing somewhere else. Verlander was on the downward side, Cole was on the downward side, Morton was on the downward side and all became stars. I would say the Astros moved to the top with a lot of luck and some skillful coaching. The Pirates have more talent than players show in Pittsburgh, all three traded to the Rays could be stars in the near future, Garret Cole is now a star in Houston. Tucker, Reynolds, Craig, Hayes, Newman, Keller, Brubaker all have a chance to be above average to star players, not to mention with Vasquez, Williams, Crick among others. Add the talent that they could accumulate with a couple of trades and this team could be a very good team in 2020. The future for this organization is actually bright. Pitching is very hard to find, every team in baseball is looking for pitching, the Pirates are not going to get any pitching help from other teams.
Here is a blueprint, in the 2020 draft make the first 10 picks pitchers. Change the pitching philosophy and raid some teams for top pitching coaches for the system, especially a new pitching coach in Pittsburgh. Position players are a dime a dozen these days and easy to get. If the Padres minor league system is so great why are they basically a .500 team? If the Rays minor league system is so great why did it take a trade of one of their overrated pitchers land 3 top players from the Pirates system to push them over the top, who by the way turn out to be 3 of the top players in the Rays system. You might be right about Huntington, but it is Huntington that brought in a number of star players to the Pirate system and some very young ones that will develop into stars.