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Are The Pirates In Rebuild Denial?

If the Pirates need to rebuild, will Huntington and Nutting have the courage to do it?
Photo by Chris Mack/93.7 The Fan

Over the years of following baseball, I’ve noticed a number of teams hang on too long before they commit to rebuilding their contender. Rarely does this give a team additional chances to compete, but rather it just makes the eventual rebuild all the more painful. This happens for few reasons. First, assets of the previous contending team are devalued by either performance decrease or reduction in the control. Players get older and less effective and they don’t yield the same trade returns as they would have one or two seasons before. Sometimes those players are left to walk either after being DFA’d or via free agency. While in some instances it’s better to get the value a player provides on the field rather than in a trade, it isn’t when the team has little hope to contend. You also have contracts that start looking bad and turn into payroll albatrosses. When teams are exiting the contention window, they often tend to make trades of major league assets for other major league ready assets with more control. In many instances, these trades are moving from a higher quality player to a lesser quality player. Last but not least, teams in rebuild denial often don’t contend but they don’t suck either. This deprives them of those high draft picks that are more likely to yield top prospects and, just as importantly in today’s MLB, bigger draft money pools.

If you’d like an example of the dangers of rebuild denial, head east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In 2011, the Phillies won 102 games and lost in the Divisional Series. Naturally, no one is going to blow it up after posting the best record in the NL, but warning signs were beginning to surface. The youngest player in the lineup was Hunter Pence, though they had a young Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick flashing some potential to go with the not-old Cole Hamels. In 2012, the Phils won 21 fewer games and holes began to appear as their former stars like Placido Polanco and Ryan Howard went full flop, others like Roy Halladay ceased to dominate, and prospects to fill the voids left by fading stars like Dominic Brown and John Mayberry showed some warts. While they had the sense to trade Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence at the deadline, they rested the urge to blow it up in the offseason and even doubled down by trading Worley for Ben Revere and used a part of the Victorino trade, Josh Lindblom, for Michael Young.

Before I go on with this story of mismanagement, I’d like to point out that, for me, it’s better to pull the Band-Aid off when the writing is on the wall that your team just doesn’t have it anymore than it is to try to extend the window with Scotch tape and BS. For front offices, I think it’s very difficult to admit you have a problem. It’s difficult to sell a rebuild to fans and ownership, especially if you haven’t already won big. Starting from scratch can cost you your job and if MLB Network isn’t hiring or Sirius XM, your next pay day could take a little while to manifest. It takes a ton of managerial courage to make the right call, but when you make it, a savvy GM would do well to sell anything of value that won’t be of use when the next window opens. More often than not, that’s anyone with fewer than four years of control.

That’s not what the Phillies did. They backed up 73 wins in 2013 with 73 wins in 2014 and yet they still hung on to most of their stars. By then, Cliff Lee suffered a career-ending elbow injury and returned nothing. The team’s heart and soul, Chase Utley, yielded a C pitcher and AAAA outfielder who hasn’t returned to the majors since. Their most valuable commodity, Hamels, returned five players of which all but one, the already established Matt Harrison, have had at least a cup of coffee for the Phils. Jerad Eickhoff had a nice 2016, even if he’s struggling in 2017. However, only two were considered top 100 prospects at the time of trade. In December of 2012, the return would’ve been much greater.

Now the Phillies suck and with little hope of that changing in the near future. So that brings me to the actual subject at hand, is it time for the Pirates to rebuild?

Test #1: Is the team old?

The Phillies had a roster full of players over 30 in 2012. The Pirates are still relatively young and even if some players are getting to the back end of their control, most are still locked up for this year and at least next year.

Test #2: Does the team have players in place to compete?

This question is a little more complex, but lets consult my piece from a couple of years ago breaking down the Anatomy of a NL winner.

Sub-Test #2a: Does the team have one or two elite/star field players capable of 5+ fWAR?

If Cutch produces the way he currently is, mixing in his usual suspect April in 2018, I think the answer is yes, they have the first star. If he flops, Starling Marte could be the best bet to fill the void, given that Jung-ho Kang may be done playing baseball in the United States due to his legal issues. Josh Harrison has had one 5 WAR season, but I’d gladly take what the Pirates are getting now and not look back. So the answer here is yes, but it’s likely only one and probably none if it isn’t number 22.

Sub-Test #2b: Does the team have one or two strong field players in addition of the stars (3.5 – 4.9 fWAR)?

If you only have one of the stars you’re very likely to need two of these. Again, the Pirates have Marte and Harrison who are not likely stars but who have star power. Francisco Cervelli is also capable of performing to this level and while he has struggled this year, Gregory Polanco does as well. I also wouldn’t put it past Josh Bell to perform at this level as he grows into facing major league pitching. There are options here, but beyond the fringe stars I don’t have supreme confidence in any of them.

Sub-Test #2c: Does the team have two or three good players in addition to the star and strong players. (2-3.4 fWAR)?

For me, the Pirates have an abundance of this type of player. In addition to Cervelli, Polanco, and Bell, I would include Adam Frazier, David Freese, and Jordy Mercer as potentially above average performers. I would also add Austin Meadows as a player who could potentially join this group in 2018 even if he’s struggling now.

Put another way, the Pirates have a lineup of potentially above average players, even if they’re lacking a little at the top end. This means you could get better in a lot of areas, but it would take an arm and a leg to do so. You could also conceivably do a lot worse. The Pirates have some depth that you could reasonably expect 5 – 6 players to be average performers, but it’s questionable if they would get three guys with high end performances.

Sub-Test #2d: Can the team pitch/defend in the top third of the league?

At the time I am writing this, the Pirates sit 8th in the NL in runs allowed, 22 fewer than 5th place Cubs. That’s not an impossible hill to climb in the last half of the season considering the Pirates have allowed the 6th fewest in June and only 2 unearned runs. The defense is getting punished less if nothing else, though it could still improve. The pitching also appears as if it’s settling down, with Tyler Glasnow working out his issues in the minors again and Felipe Rivero playing the role of closer and fireman.

Putting all of the sub – tests together, the lineup has warts so you can bet that they’ll need pitching to carry them somewhat. This means at least finding a way into the top 5 in runs allowed if not squeaking higher. They have a solid top 3 in their rotation even if nobody’s performing like a number one at the moment. They also have a serviceable #5 in either Trevor Williams or Chad Kuhl. What they’re missing is a #4 capable of pitching up more often than he pitches down. Kuhl could fill that role, and he has performed better of late. More likely than not, the team will need to look externally.

Test #3: Can you come up with any special why they might be able to contend?

No one wants to win the 2017 NL Central. The Cubs are having a World Series hangover and are missing the depth of above average performances to accompany their stars. The Brewers are in the worst third of the NL in runs allowed in the last 30 days and they’ll sink like a stone if they keep it up. The Reds have already come back down to earth. I could probably write this same piece about the Cardinals. Despite their awful April and May, the Pirates are still within striking distance of the division this year. In truth, a top 5 team in the NL could sit out the playoffs in favor of the NL Central winner meaning the standards could be lower.

Next year is another story and at the very least, I would expect the Cubs to plug a couple holes with bad contracts that might yield short run payoff. They should be the team to beat once again as they likely still are in the depleted division this year. The Pirates will likely be the number two. They don’t have too many old players, but the young guys will be a year older and more ready. I still think they could be interesting, but the key is Cutch.

Gone are my dreams that the contention window would stay open after McCutchen. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the Pirates have the guys in the majors or the pipeline to replace his star production even if they’ll still have depth. If the Pirates are going to trade him in 2017 or in the 2018 offseason, they should start a firesale for anyone who doesn’t have team control after 2020. Cole, Cervelli, Nova, Harrison, Mercer, all gone without question in my book for a mix of players that are either blocked or 1-3 years away. Maybe you consider moving Marte as well. Anything short would be rebuild denial, but they still have a window.

That said, I wouldn’t begrudge the Pirates for holding on in 2018 at least to the trade deadline as they don’t appear to be too far away. After the 2018 season though pull that Band-Aid right off and try catch a star if you can in diminished trade returns. It’ll be rebuilding time and while they might have a group of players who could be decent, they likely won’t win anything. How long that rebuild takes likely depends on how willing the front office is to make that tough call.

About Steve DiMiceli (137 Articles)
Steve is a naturalized yinzer hailing originally from just north of Allentown, PA. He came to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University and decided to stick around after graduation. Steve is best known for his contributions to Duquesne hoops community as the owner of the Duquesne Dukes forum on Yuku and as the former editor of We Wear the Ring on the Fansided network. He is an avid Pirates fan, home cook and policy nerd. He is the co-founder of the Point of Pittsburgh. Easily irritated by people who misuse the word regress.

3 Comments on Are The Pirates In Rebuild Denial?

  1. Leadoff // June 25, 2017 at 2:06 PM //

    I don’t see the Pirates in total rebuild for many years to come, the minor league system is just to strong. Many times this year the Pirates have started games with 4-5 first year players, that is very young. In fact, in the last year and half the Pirates have had the 2nd most call-ups from their minor league system in baseball only trailing the Reds by a couple players and they are considered in total rebuild. The Pirates are more reloading and waiting for the kids to major league mature. Cutch is not the key to anything, they will find a better defensive centerfielder and possibly a better clutch hitter for the 3 hole. They don’t have to build a lineup of star power, they need a lineup of very good players. They could have some star power pitching from their system however

    • Kevin Creagh // June 26, 2017 at 12:39 PM //

      I’m less sanguine about the future of the Pirates’ farm than you. I think Meadows and Keller are the only two impact players on the horizon. (I really like the HS picks from the 2017 draft, but they’re 4-5 years out).
      I’ve never been fans of Tucker and Newman due to the lack of power and the fact that I’m not sure either is a SS long-term (Tucker too big potentially, Newman not enough range). Just having guys to fill a bench/bullpen or be an OK player is not enough for a team like the Pirates — they need homegrown stars.

      • Leadoff // June 26, 2017 at 1:03 PM //

        The Pirates slow deliberate process promoting talent and their complete control of what players are allowed to do makes it tough to figure out where or how good some of these guys are. Keller is an example: Scouts say if he only was allowed to use his two best pitches, he would destroy lower minor league hitters and in other systems he would be on the doorstep to joining the likes of Taillon soon, but system says 3 pitches and all the steps to the majors. Players like Luplow, Kramer, Newman, Tucker either will be traded or will be starters for someone, stars are impossible to predict IMO.

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