The worst thing for a professional sports franchise to be is mediocre. Not good enough to make the playoffs, not good enough to bottom out to have the ability to obtain potential franchise-changing draft picks. Just bobbing along at or around .500 is like being trapped in the sports world equivalent of limbo. Sure, the money keeps rolling in from sponsors and fans, but competitively there’s no end in sight.
In recent years, the term ‘tanking’ has been all the craze in the other three professional sports. Essentially, a team makes the decision as an organization that they’re going to punt a year in order to bottom out in the hopes of getting the top (or close to it) draft pick for a perceived cornerstone talent. The Edmonton Oilers did it in the NHL for Connor McDavid (after other years of drafting in the top 5 because they were just awful), the Penguins did it for Crosby, the 76’ers in the NBA had a whole movement dubbed The Process to garner top talents, and the Colts in the NFL ran a campaign unofficially termed ‘Suck for Luck’ to get Andrew Luck.
I’ve heard fans and even read some national baseball writers lament the fact of certain teams like the Astros or Phillies ‘tanking’ to get higher draft picks. This has always tanned my rawhide because to me tanking implies that there will be a quick turnaround once the new asset(s) are obtained the following year. In baseball, a draft pick typically takes 3-5 years to reach the Majors and even then rarely are impact players in their rookie years. NFL, NHL, and NBA players can step right in a few months after their drafts and be difference makers.
So this whole intro has been a setup for what to do about the Pirates. Last year the Pirates had 78 wins and in 2017 seem to heading for that same zone, plus or minus a few wins. Is it time to offload assets and reset the win cycle or can the Pirates get off the mediocrity treadmill with some better off-field decisions and on-field additions in 2018? To answer that question, Michael Bradley, Joe Douglas, and I all weighed in with our views.
I’d like to try and thread the needle on this by going two ways with this — Trade high and buy low.
Felipe Rivero – could bring back the best prospect in the game and could be worthless in two seasons…. or could be the new Chapman and have 12 WAR in the seasons Pirates control.
Andrew McCutchen – could actually net a Robles now. I’d rather have them find a good catching prospect as I see that as a big hole in two seasons (Diaz and ?).
Juan Nicasio – is almost on pace with Rivero for WAR, is cheap, and is a rental. He’d bring a Jordan Luplow and Steven Brault-type return.
Josh Harrison – I can’t see his value getting any higher but I don’t see a realistic replacement in Frazier or Moroff if continuing to compete in the second half of 2018 are in the plans.
Alcides Escobar (KC) – the Tony Watson of SS’s. Was a solid, unspectacular glove first SS with speed that just needed another solid year to assure a 2+ year deal. He had a horrible April/May and could be had for a song. Could be a real upside play and vital if Mercer would get injured. Plus he allows Moroff to play everyday in Indy.
Any AL relievers with high HR/FB and/or with poor pitch framing catchers whose teams are out of it, such as:
– Dan Jennings – White Sox
– Edwin Diaz – M’s
– Jose Alvarez – Angels
Tony Watson, Jordy Mercer, John Jaso – not enough trade value to cost team all chance of competing in second half.
You could trade guys up top (with exception of Harrison), buy guys on bottom. Promote Austin Meadows, await the return of Starling Marte, and still compete in NL Central.
Don’t forget Glasnow and Brault could easily get some bullpen innings in second half, too.
Not really sure how to approach this since the prevailing sentiment is that the Pirates appear to be in striking distance of the division. Using the playoff odds at Fangraphs, the Pirates odds of making the division have hovered between 3% and 13% all year. The majority of the time they have been under 10%. The Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals all being ahead of them makes the potential playoff run less likely. Can the Brewers and Cubs falter? Absolutely. Do I think we want to bank on that being likely? Probably not. So, in their spot, I ?d recommend buying and selling.
Buy offensive guys like Jay Bruce, maybe J.D. Martinez, though he’d be more expensive in terms of prospect capital. Call San Diego about their pitchers. If buying pitching, buy the role types like Trevor Cahill and not the super cost controlled guys.
The market dynamics are key here. At the present, there is very little demand for position players across the league. Many teams at the top have elite offenses and are already set.
This makes the proposition of trading Andrew McCutchen more difficult. While he has performed at elite levels recently, the number of teams needing offense has gone down substantially. In a vacuum, his value would be more than this past offseason. However, I am not convinced it has increased dramatically.
The trade floated at the time was Victor Robles from the Nationals, plus another piece (Gio Gonzalez was mentioned, Lucas Giolito, etc.) At this point, I do not believe Robles would be on the table for McCutchen, though the Pirates would be right to ask. Reason being is that any team that wants OF has numerous other options available, with limited other buyers. The Nationals can decide they won ?t trade Robles, and center a deal with any of the numerous teams selling offense that meets that parameter. However, I do not believe Robles is necessary for a McCutchen deal with the Nationals. Juan Soto is quite good (maybe better, but farther away) and is rocketing up lists. People will be talking about him in a similar vein to Robles in the offseason. Erick Fedde is solid in AAA and would give the Pirates a likely mid-rotation starter. There are other options is what I am saying, and I don ?t expect Robles to be one of them. The other team I would call is the Dodgers. They can shift Bellinger to 1B, replacing Gonzalez, opening a spot for Cutch in the OF. Additionally, they have a ton of assets that could help the Pirates: Alex Verdugo, Yadier Alvarez, Willie Calhoun, Walker Buehler, and many others. That being said, if there isn ?t a market for outfielders, the team can hold Cutch and continue to push for a division. Both are fine options. It all comes down to what options are available.
Given the market demand on pitching, I would probably be looking at deals around Rivero and Cole. Plus all the other relievers that are most likely to move (Nicasio, Watson, etc.) Again, all of this depends where on the pendulum you sit. Are we buying or selling?
I love Rivero, and that is probably the least traditional name left so far as it would be surprising. However, I would float his name and see what was on the table.
He has 4 years of team control left, but they will all be arbitration years as a Super Two player. Given that he is closing now that will get expensive quick. Looking back at last year ?s Aroldis Chapman/Andrew Miller deals can make one wonder what Rivero would get back. It would be more than Aroldis, that ?s for sure. But that being said, I don ?t think it would be as much as may be assumed when you have an elite RP with 4 years of control. The reason for this is that teams will heavily discount the future years of control due to volatility surrounding relief pitchers. The years of control help. But relief pitcher volatility is still a thing that works against Rivero. Most prospects would be on the table and if I could get something similar to Gleyber Torres for Rivero, I would consider it.
The bones of a 2018 playoff team are in place. If Josh Harrison can replicate his 2017 season, Starling Marte can avoid the needle, and Josh Bell can continue to build towards becoming a power-hitting, stray bat-observing 1B, that’s a good core. Gregory Polanco needs to become more consistent, but he flashes his star potential with the bat and the glove. Jordy Mercer is a slightly-above average shortstop with the bat and glove. At this point, I’d consider bringing Andrew McCutchen back on his option and seeing where the 2018 season takes you.
The pitching rotation has Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Ivan Nova. That’s a 1-2-3 that, as of this writing, no other NL Central team has as a 2018 starting point. The Cubs are facing the loss of Jake Arrieta in free agency, John Lackey is aging out, and Kyle Hendricks is losing velocity at an alarming rate. The Cardinals have Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha, but I prefer the Pirates trio at this point.
The Pirates’ bullpen, aside from the brilliant Felipe Rivero, is an EPA-sponsored Superfund cleanup site. To that end, I would look to package up as many 2017 free agents (Tony Watson, John Jaso, Juan Nicasio) as I can and try to find some 2018 bullpen arms. I doubt they can pull a Melancon-for-Rivero type of deal again, but that’s the template I’d be using.
Unless the Cubs are just totally sandbagging the 2017 season, I don’t see the 2018 NL Central being too drastically different than it is this year. That’s a division very much up for grabs that I’d be willing to give one more chance to this current core of players.