Joe Sheehan wrote about the fairly quiet trade deadline in the August 1st edition of his newsletter and highlighted the relatively light returns that pitchers Sonny Gray and Yu Darvish fetched Oakland and Texas, respectively. Sheehan partly attributes this to Major League Baseball experiencing a strategic sea-change in the past few seasons that attributes a strong bullpen to October wins. With starting pitchers throwing fewer than 62.5% of all innings so far this season, the conclusion is hard to dispute.
While sitting less than a handful of games back last Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates were firmly “in” the NL Central pennant race. The Pirates’ management correctly emphasized bullpen reinforcement in their deadline trades, but they missed several opportunities to build for 2017 and beyond by staying silent last Monday. The NL West is loaded with quality teams this season, so a NL Central pennant will be the only way way for them to reach the playoffs. The Chicago Cubs’ additions to their rotation, bullpen, and bench, when paired with their performance’s late regression to the mean, makes it look like the Pirates’ failure to strike will translate to October tee times instead of games.
Neal Huntington and crew did well to focus on their bullpen at the trade deadline, but the moves themselves are puzzling. When examining the Tony Watson dump and the Joaquin Benoit pickup together, the net result is a swap of bullpen arms and Single-A players.
No one has spilt ink on either of the minor league players involved (or if they have it was because of a literal spill), so let’s focus our comparison on the MLB arms. Benoit and Watson have fairly similar lines when comparing them side-by-side. Benoit boasts a healthy 9.00 K/9 rate this year and has a BABIP against of .245 (as compared to Watson’s 6.61 K/9 and .331 BABIP this season, respectively). He walks about a batter more per nine innings than Watson and strands a touch more too. They both flamed out as closers in 2017 and have been relegated to setup duties. Like Watson, Benoit has been elite at times in his career and is an unrestricted free agent after this season. He’s clearly having the better statistical season of the two, but provides no future value to the team. This is a good “win-now” acquisition, but the departure of Watson makes this a push. If Benoit could have replaced Jhan Marinez or Daniel Hudson on the roster, I could see the on-field benefit. As a whole, this is akin to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. A Watson-Benoit-Rivero lineup for 7-8-9, however, would have been lethal.
While the rest of the league looked at their bullpens, the Pirates needed to look at their third outfield spot before this deadline. The team has been playing the entire season with only two starting outfielders. Between Starling Marte’s suspension and Gregory Polanco’s litany of injuries, the services of Adam Frazier, Josh Harrison, John Jaso, Jose Osuna, and others have been required to fill right field and left field this season. For those that might not be keeping track, none of those players are outfielders. More importantly, none of them hit like corner outfielders.
The Arizona Diamondbacks executed an impressive trade for Detroit Tigers corner outfielder J.D. Martinez on July 18th. Arizona sent three prospects to Detroit in return for a rental of Martinez. Dawel Lugo was the centerpiece of the trade. Still an infielder in Double-A, he projects to be a major-league utility man. The Diamondbacks will be responsible for $4.82 million of Martinez’s remaining contract this year.
Here is a trade that cost nearly nothing in terms of farm system talent for an immediate and significant boost to the team’s roster in 2017. Martinez would have been a bespoke solution for the Pirates’ corner outfield woes this season too. Polanco’s inability to remain healthy would have provided regular at-bats for Martinez during the remainder of the season, especially if the team were conservative and rested Polanco longer than necessary for the playoffs. Should the team make the playoffs, he could slide in for the re-suspended Marte and make meaningful contributions with his bat in the heart of the order. Lastly, Martinez would have provided the high batting average and homerun potential that the roster sorely lacks since Jung Ho Kang was barred re-entry to the United States this past spring. His rental status would have prevented any logjam that may have happened next year should McCutchen return for one more go-around on the North Shore too.
This one should have been a no-brainer. Instead, we get to watch John Jaso make his case for not belonging in professional baseball anymore. This is not the way to win a pennant.
What about the starting pitching?
A known weakness since last October, the failure to add a veteran talent this summer, much like Ivan Nova and J.A. Happ in prior seasons, hampers the team’s ability to chase a pennant.
Of the six total minor league players exchanged for Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray, only two of them were Top-100 rated prospects and none of them were featured in any Top-50 rankings. When the Pirates were rumored to be courting the White Sox for Jose Quintana, the names of Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, and Austin Meadows were frequently thrown out as targets. Rightfully, the Pirates were loathe to part with any of these players. What if the ask were three players that will likely never make The Show? Where do I sign?
I can understand if Darvish was unwilling to waive his no-trade clause and finish out the final two months of the season in Pittsburgh. No amount of negotiation could land him in PNC Park.
However, Sonny Gray is exactly the type of target the Pirates need to acquire when given the opportunity. Still on his rookie contract with two years of service remaining, he could have contributed for the remainder of the Cole and McCutchen years. Gray would be a “reclamation project” like the many before him. Once a Top-10 starter, he faded after sustaining injuries and is only now regaining his former self. It is tantalizing to imagine what more he could find with Ray Searage at the helm.
Why would the Pirates not want to make this deal? Here is another deal that would have provided immediate impact in 2017 and two seasons beyond for almost no consequential minor league talent in return. It is hard to rationalize when you consider that the team gave up a major-league pitcher and two Top-100 prospects for Drew Hutchison last year (if we take their word that it was definitely not a salary dump). Even the current diminished form of Gray would be a shot in the arm to this rotation while Jameson Taillon struggles to finish the season strong. Penciling him in for an April rotation spot the next two seasons sounds even better. Hell, maybe he might have been the only player not snakebitten by the Cincinnati Reds!
So why is Gray in pinstripes instead of black and gold?
This raises another question: Do the Pirates’ ownership and management groups actually understand what the franchise is selling?
Professional sports are, first and foremost, a form of entertainment. When at the highest caliber, they provide unparalleled moments of suspense and excitement. However, the company line is always about providing the “financial flexibility” to allow the team to perennially compete. When do we get to talk about winning it all? If I found a well-balanced checkbook or a healthy growth of the value of my assets to be the height of excitement, I would skip the trip to the ballpark and just look at my financial statements. It appears the Pittsburgh faithful aren’t dazzled by management’s virtuosic budgeting on the diamond either, as attendance is down nearly 3,000 per game so far from 2016 - 2017.
We want a team that wins on the field. Provide that and fans will make sure that ownership wins on the balance sheet.
With his option yet to be picked up and no contract renewal rumblings, we may be seeing the end of Huntington’s handy work here in Pittsburgh. His aspiration to contend every season solely through player development and savvy trading is lofty for a team hamstrung by a bottom-third payroll. He’s done an admirable job after a half decade of undoing the McClatchy/Littlefield demolition derby. 2-⅓ seasons of broken Sonny Gray for less than a handful of warm bodies, especially when you’re confident enough in your pitching coach’s abilities to be braggadocious, seems exactly like the risk this team needs to take. If brass is too gun-shy to even kick the tires, let alone pull the trigger, on a smart deal such as this, then the Jolly Roger was sunk in February. It’s anyone’s guess who is truly at fault, but Huntington will be taking the lion’s share of the blame if he’s not at the wheel next year.
My hope for 2017 is not yet dashed, as players like J.A. Happ, Marlon Byrd, and Justin Morneau were all acquired after the non-waiver trade deadline. That said, it’s hard to believe that the cavalry will dock at PNC Park before August 31st if the Pirates are only willing to make deals that balance their books.