“What the hell was that?” –2016 Pirates fans
The trade deadline has come and gone, and it was a busy one for the Buccos despite my prediction several days ago. (Yeah, I’ll eat my words and take responsibility for the stupid shit I said, I’m not Donald Trump.) They managed to dump some salary, dump more salary, get guys with years of control, trade away two of their top 10 prospects, trade away their stalwart closer, and get some guys back who are various levels of facsimiles of real baseball players. The only thing they didn’t do is trade back one of the guys they got for one of the guys they gave up. If you’re a Pirates fan, you’re definitely griping about at least one of these moves, maybe a few of them, and possibly all of them if you’re a true yinzer. Whichever of these levels you’re at, I commend your quick rush to judgement over something that cannot be judged in full until, in some cases, 10+ years from now.
Given that, I’m here to immediately judge all of the Pirates’ deadline moves, so buckle up because this should be a long one.
Pirates send Mark Melancon and $500k to the Nationals for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn
We’re only two days removed from the close of the Mark Melancon era in Pittsburgh, but it seems like ages ago. The Nationals made the bizarre move of trading for a closer to replace incumbent closer/psycho Jonathan Papelbon, who is immediately more likely to attempt to end Bryce Harper’s season/life with this demotion. The likely NL East champion Nationals, get a big boost to their bullpen, though, and Mark Melancon will become a free agent at the end of the year without the threat of his new organization losing a top draft pick in the event of a qualifying offer. This is a plus for Melancon’s career, as he’ll look to cash in on his years of consistent success in Pittsburgh.
The Melancon era began when the Pirates obtained him as a part of the Joel Hanrahan trade, which has turned out to be a decent trade for the Pirates, as they got many years of a quality reliever and basically only gave up Brock Holt (who, granted, has had some decent years for the Red Sox but has come nowhere near matching the production of Melancon, who has the highest WPA added of any reliever since 2013) to get him. I don’t need to go through Melancon’s stats anchoring the back end of the bullpen because if you’re reading this, you already know what he’s meant to this team since the 2013 season.
I was a proponent of trading Melancon; looking at it from a purely logical standpoint, the bullpen downgrade of replacing Melancon with another arm for the remaining two months of the season is a nominal downgrade, even if that bullpen arm is some bum from AAA. It especially doesn’t matter if the Pirates don’t make the playoffs, which is what seems most likely after getting swept by the Brewers this past weekend. If you’re all about making the playoffs, which you should be, then you have to see the benefit of trading Melancon under the assumption that the Pirates aren’t making the playoffs (the compensatory selection for Melancon declining a hypothetical qualifying offer being the only other thing they lose out on, which is not meaningless but is risky given the possibility of Melancon accepting a qualifying offer of ~$16 million that the Pirates don’t want to pay to him).
So Melancon was worth trading; that’s something easily established. But was the return the Pirates received the best they could get? It’s hard to argue that the answer is yes, given the market for other top relief pitchers. Aroldis Chapman, a fellow free agent when October comes to a close, plumbed in a treasure trove of talent for the Yankees from the depths of the Cubs’ system. That doesn’t even account for the questionable morality of having a player like Aroldis Chapman on your roster (Cubs fans, if you win the world series with Chapman closing out the last game, just remember that you shouldn’t feel good about that). So what did Melancon net the Pirates?
Felipe Rivero is a 23 year old player in his sophomore campaign in the Majors. His ERA has been 3.64 over his career, but his 2.94 FIP might tell a better story. He has averaged 8.9 K/9 juxtaposed with 2.5 BB/9 over his brief career. He’s still young, he’s cheap, and he’s an immediately effective bullpen arm for the club who could work his way into later and later inning situations, pending his performance. If he turns into anything useful in the bullpen for the next couple years, his arm alone could be worth trading Melancon by itself. The Pirates also got Taylor Hearn in this trade, a young prospect in his first year in the minors who has been covered elsewhere in more detail than I’ll provide. He sounds a bit like Tyler Glasnow, to be honest; tall, lanky, big fastball and questionable command. This is a raw prospect and we’ll have to give the hourglass a few turns before we can pass judgement on this one.
I think I’m a lot more okay with this trade than most people are. August Fagerstrom wrote that the return seems light in comparison to the return for Chapman, which is true, but also that “Really, it’s the kind of return we should expect for three-plus months of an elite reliever.“ I was basically counting Melancon as zero value for the Pirates for the remainder of the 2016 campaign, so netting someone who could effectively be a replacement for Melancon coupled with a hard throwing pitching prospect seems like a pretty reasonable return. Possibly Neal Huntington and team could have turned Melancon into something more, à la Will Smith, although his years of control are a significant value compared to Melancon’s status as a true rental.
Win? We’ll call it a small win, with the potential to grow if Taylor Hearn can do the same.
Pirates send Two Players to Be Named Later to the Yankees for Ivan Nova
This trade is a straight up move to give up on this season. Ivan Nova is a pure rental, and a terrible one at that. He’s similar to Jeff Locke (and holy cow Jeff Locke is still in a Pirates uniform, that’s amazing to me. He’s like Navi the Fairy, he just keeps sticking around and sticking around and occasionally he’s useful, but for the most part, he just disappoints you) in that he seems pretty inconsistent this year, but generally is a fringe-fringe starter.
The sole reason acquiring him seems to be to eat up some innings for the remaining two months of the season; the Pirates will put those innings on an arm they don’t care about, rather than one of the young ones that they deeply care about. The issue with this approach, however, is that if you’re going to give up anyway, you might as well get the young guys some experience out there on the mound. Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, and even Tyler Glasnow could use the innings to get some real experience and be better prepared for next season. Instead, Ivan Nova will be out there on the mound pitching for the Pirates 10-12 times for the rest of this season. Don’t expect too much out of those games, both in terms of the Pirates’ immediate and long-term success. My guess is also that Neal Huntington knew that Liriano would be moving, which is one of the reasons this trade was made, as Liriano was likely to soak up a lot of innings for the rest of the season had he stuck around in the ‘Burgh. More on that trade later.
I have a much better plan than trading for Ivan Nova, however. Instead of putting him in the rotation (and it’s entirely plausible that he’ll be limited to a bullpen role, but hear me out here), just don’t acquire him and, every fifth day, have nine different position players cycle in to pitch. The Pirates have enough guys with positional flexibility that they could do this without very many actual substitutions; rather, they could simply shift guys around the field. McCutchen is pitching? Move Starling Marte to center and Josh Harrison, Adam Frazier, or Sean Rodriugez to the outfield. Jaso comes out to deal for a bit? Move Freese to first. Jordy Mercer takes the hill? Just put whoever the hell at short! It doesn’t matter! Because this plan is crazy and so is having Ivan Nova in the rotation, stealing starts from deserving AAA guys who could seriously benefit from the experience against Major League hitting. At least getting to watch all the position players pitch every five days would provide some entertainment and something that would take a place in baseball lore forever.
Pirates send Jonathon Niese back to the Mets to get Antonio Bastardo again
This is a straight salary dump. Both players are swingmen in the bullpen at this point, but Niese costs more for the remainder of the season than Bastardo does, so the Pirates dumped his salary. Bastardo also comes with a year of control next year, which could be good if he plays well but isn’t good if he can’t improve on his performance thus far this year. Niese has an option for next year that certainly won’t be exercised by either the Pirates, had they retained him, or the Mets, who have no reason to pay $9.5 million (discounting the $500k buyout) for his services next year when they could be obtained much more cheaply as a free agent, or simply not at all.
The biggest question is where Niese will live in NY; Niese has been subletting his NY apartment to his previous trademate, Neil Walker. Does Walker have to relinquish the apartment for the remainder of the season now that Niese is back? Does Niese awkwardly cede control to Walker since he’s clearly the more important player of the two? Or do they possibly simply become roommates for the rest of the season, bunkbeds and all? These are the burning questions that only the hard-hitting reporters at Bucco’s Cove are asking.
Pirates send Francisco Liriano, Harold Ramirez, and Reese McGuire to Toronto for Drew Hutchison
You know in the movies when a ship is sinking and the people throw everything overboard in an effort to prevent the ship from sinking and, at a minimum, delay the sinking? That’s what happened here. This… this is the trade that… has everyone saying what the hell just happened. The other trades, they were fine or at least were relatively inconsequential. But this one. This is a reeeeaaaaaaalllllllll headscratcher for Huntington and company. Let’s lay it out and try to find the silver lining.
Francisco Liriano was going to cost a lot of money and seems like his career as a Pirate was winding down. From my couch, it seems like the only hope that Liriano had of reviving his season was if he had a change of scenery; sometimes guys just get stuck in the mud and can’t get out without a little push from their GM. The Pirates owed Liriano $18.2222222 million over the remainder of his deal that runs through next season. That’s a significant chunk of change for a small market club, and with Liriano completely tanking this season, was basically wasted money if there was no hope of reviving him in a Pirate uniform.
So dump him off on another team! But no team is willing to take on that financial commitment to what amounts to dead weight without some incentive, and the Pirates provided that in the form of the low-power outfielder Harold Ramirez and the catcher-of-the-future Reese McGuire. I was annoyed about this trade before I even heard that McGuire was included, and that had me just… completely confused. I know that there’s a chance that neither Ramirez or McGuire ever have interesting Major League careers, and I know that it’s possible that Liriano is never good again, and I know that Drew Hutchison has interesting stuff and is controlled for two seasons past the current one and could be a decent arm to have in the rotation at some point because, as the Pirates have shown this year with 11 different guys getting starts, you can’t have too many starters.
Given all the uncertainty surrounding all of the players involved in this deal, including Hutchison, it boils down to a the Pirates trading two prospects to alleviate themselves of a financial burden and they also got a guy who might be useful. This is all well and good, but it’s going to be tough to watch if either Ramirez or McGuire see any big league success, knowing that they could have been playing for the Pirates had they simply been willing to commit the money to it.
So what does this all boil down to? The Melancon trade was a salary dump of its own kind, with significantly less money committed to the return than to Melancon in the short term, although the return for this one seems the most promising relative to what they gave up. That right there should be indicative of the quality of the other trades, as Melancon likely netted a bit less than he should have given his sustained success for multiple years. The Ivan Nova trade is simply to get some innings out of someone other than their precious young arms this year. The Niese swap was to free up some salary, although technically Bastardo will cost more in total since he’ll be on the books for next year. And the Liriano trade was a straight salary dump, nearly as bad as the one the Padres completed to ditch a good chunk of Matt Kemp’s salary.
What’s the point of dumping salary? It’s so you have the money available to sign other players in the offseason. That’s where the kicker here is; there aren’t many players worth signing for the Pirates. Here’s the list of free agents this offseason; mosey on down to the starting pitchers list, as this is where the Pirates would be most likely to spend their money given the relative stability they have with position players. There’s not really anyone there worth signing or that won’t be overpaid due to the weak market.
So the really big question here is…what are the Pirates going to do with this money they’ve sloughed off the books? The answer is that I have no idea. A good way to piss off the fanbase that’s showing up in record numbers, though would be to do nothing with it. Extend someone useful, re-sign someone like Sean Rodriguez, or try to give a long term extension to Jameson Taillon like they did with Marte, Polanco, McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and others to guarantee years of control. But the worst thing would be doing nothing, which is what a little voice in my head is saying that they’re going to do. Time will tell, but I’m seriously hoping we don’t see the Pirates give up on 2016, shed payroll, and do nothing with the money.
The Bucs might have been buyers today; the trades they made don’t preclude a late season run to the postseason, as the main core of the team is still in place and they could get hot down the stretch. However, many of these trades look toward the future, although not in the most traditional way of a seller at the deadline. So here we are, all sitting on our hands, a bit confused by what we just saw. Time will tell how good of a job Neal Huntington and crew did at this deadline, but it’s hard to look at some of these moves and feel super optimistic for the immediate future of the Pirates. The McCutchen window is closing faster than you think.