When a team trades established major league players for prospects, a practice the Pittsburgh Pirates are very familiar with, they run in to a difficult situation with their fan base. They are trading away established players who will go and immediately provide production for their new team. Meanwhile, the team gets unestablished prospects in return, with no guarantees that those prospects realize their potential.
The fact that the other team is getting immediate results leads to the idea that the trade was a bust, without actually giving any time for the prospects in return to develop. Because it can take a few years for a the prospects in a return to develop, you usually see a few years of complaining about a deal before the actual return starts to materialize. In some cases, the original perception never changes, even though the trade value obviously has changed. That’s in part due to stubbornness, and in part to unrealistic expectations about how soon a trade for prospects should pay off.
In the Pirates case, they blew up their team in 2008 and 2009, trading almost everyone away. That led to a horrible record in 2010, and a ton of prospects and unestablished players making their way to the majors over the last few years. It’s become popular to say that Neal Huntington can’t be trusted with trades. In fact, with all of the talk of possibly trading Joel Hanrahan and Paul Maholm, the “Huntington can’t get a good return” argument has been brought up a lot lately.
That’s an interesting stance, because the overall topic was “should the Pirates be buyers, sellers, or both”. That topic exists because the Pirates are currently in contention in the NL Central, with a 45-42 record, and a team made up of mostly Huntington acquisitions. The heart of the team, the rotation, is made up of 80% Huntington acquisitions. The bullpen, another strong point, has five of seven Huntington acquisitions, including top closer Joel Hanrahan. Granted, the best player on the offense, Andrew McCutchen, wasn’t acquired by Huntington. But can you really hold it against Huntington that the Pirates had a guy like McCutchen in the system when he got here, and he decided to make McCutchen the starting center fielder?
It seems popular to think that people take one of two stances: either all trades were good, or all trades were bad. The reality is that there’s probably no one who thinks this. Instead, there seems to be two perceptions. One perception suggests that Huntington is bad at trading, and the Xavier Nady trade was the exception. The other perception is that Huntington has a good track record, and the Jason Bay trade is the exception. I personally find it hard to believe that Huntington is so horrible at trades now that we’re talking about a contending team led by a pitching staff that is made up mostly of players acquired via trade. So I feel it’s time to re-evaluate the trades that have been made over the last three years.
Jason Bay/Xavier Nady
The Trade: I’m grouping these together because they seem to go hand in hand. In July 2008, Bay and Nady were leading a very productive offense. At the same time, the Pirates had a horrible pitching staff, no pitching depth in the system, and weren’t contenders by any means. They traded Nady and Damaso Marte to the New York Yankees, getting Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, and Daniel McCutchen. A week later, they dealt Bay to Boston in a three team deal, getting Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris from the Dodgers, and Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen from the Red Sox.
Initial Reaction: It’s hard to think of it this way now, but the initial reaction was that the Pirates got good value from the Bay trade, and bad value for Nady and Marte.
Reaction Over Time: As time went on, the opinions switched. The Bay trade was hated, and the Nady trade was loved. Part of this is due to what the players did. Bay had success in Boston, and Nady returned to being injury prone. A bigger part is due to the returns. Ross Ohlendorf had success in 2009, and Jose Tabata turned his prospect status around. Meanwhile, Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss struggled in the majors.
Reaction Now: The Bay trade turned out horrible. LaRoche, Moss, and Hansen are no longer in the organization. Morris, one of the key pieces, looked promising heading in to the year, but has struggled this year in his repeat at the AA level, and has since been moved to the bullpen full time. As bad as the Bay trade ended up, the Nady trade looks just as good on the opposite end of the spectrum. Jose Tabata is one of the top young hitters on the team, although he is still adjusting to the majors. Jeff Karstens has had a ton of success this year, even if he might be playing over his head. Ohlendorf has put up good numbers the past two years, although I’ve been concerned about a regression due to his advanced metrics. McCutchen has emerged this year as a strong middle reliever.
Verdict: The Bay trade has been horrible, but the Nady trade has been great. They wash each other out. I think a big deal is made about this because Bay was the best player. The expectation was that they should have gotten the big return for Bay. But if they got Tabata/Ohlendorf/Karstens/McCutchen for Bay, and LaRoche/Moss/Morris/Hansen for Nady/Marte, would the situation be different? No.
The Trade: After acquiring Andy LaRoche in the Bay trade, and drafting Pedro Alvarez in the first round, the Pirates traded Bautista to Toronto for Robinzon Diaz. The Pirates didn’t have much leverage, since it was a waiver trade in August.
Initial Reaction: There wasn’t much of an outcry, and no one saw what was coming with Bautista. That was apparent when he passed through the entire National League, and half the teams in the American League on waivers.
Reaction Over Time: For the first year, the trade didn’t matter. Bautista was at risk of being designated for assignment. Then, somewhere along the way, he became the best hitter in the game.
Reaction Now: Obviously the trade looks horrible if you look at it from the stance of sending out a home run king for a backup catcher. That wasn’t the case. Making that case is like saying the Pirates got rid of an ace for nothing because Ryan Vogelsong is having success this year. It’s an unfortunate, fluke performance.
Verdict: This trade approach is no different than the trade of Ronny Paulino for Jason Jaramillo. It’s a more expensive bench player for a less expensive bench player, only this trade turned out horrible. There’s no guarantee that Bautista would have broken out here (from what I’ve read, he refused to make the proper changes until the 2010 season). On paper, this trade looks like a huge loss. But it wasn’t a bad deal at the time, and it wasn’t an unforgivable judge in talent, since 75% of the teams in the majors didn’t think enough of Bautista at the time to put in a waiver claim for him.
The Trade: This one was a shocker. We knew that the Pirates were probably going to trade Bay and Nady. However, they had just signed McLouth to an extension in the off-season, and no one expected them to deal him away. The Pirates got Jeff Locke, Gorkys Hernandez, and Charlie Morton in return. The Braves had turned down similar deals over the off-season for Jake Peavy, and turned down deals involving those same players the year before in the Jason Bay trade talks.
Initial Reaction: The trade was hated. McLouth was an All-Star and a Gold Glover. However, there were suggestions that the All-Star status was worthless, and that McLouth wasn’t deserving of the Gold Glove (and the latter came out before the trade was made). I think people expected to get Tommy Hanson or Jason Heyward in return.
Reaction Over Time: Nate McLouth started to struggle, validating the arguments that he wasn’t an “All-Star” and wasn’t a Gold Glover. The Pirates didn’t get much of a return on the deal initially, with Charlie Morton having some success in 2009, then totally bombing in 2010. Jeff Locke bounced back in 2010 at the AA level, and Gorkys Hernandez has kind of been in prospect limbo, not really stepping up, but not flaming out either.
Reaction Now: Morton experienced a huge turnaround with the emergence of his sinker, and McLouth is still struggling, making this trade a huge win for the Pirates. Locke hasn’t repeated his success in his return to the AA level this year. Hernandez has put up some good numbers in AAA this year, but is pretty much a high average/strong defense/speed guy. Last year, Locke and Hernandez were considered the key to this deal. Now they’re a bonus.
Verdict: This trade is a huge win for the Pirates, as they sold when McLouth’s value was at it’s highest, and ended up with a promising pitcher in Morton. There are some people who still cling to the “McLouth was an All-Star/Gold Glover” argument, but it’s hard to ignore what Morton has done this year, and what McLouth has failed to do.
The Trade: This was a minor deal, where the Pirates sent the struggling Hinske, along with $400 K, to get Eric Fryer and Casey Erickson.
Initial Reaction: No one cared, since Hinske was horrible with the Pirates.
Reaction Over Time: Hinske became hated, as he was brought in for his power, didn’t show any power, then immediately saw his power return after going to the Yankees. On the Pirates’ side, there wasn’t any huge reaction to the prospects returned in the deal.
Reaction Now: Fryer has emerged as a strong backup catching option, and maybe more if he can carry his hitting skills over to the majors.
Verdict: The fact that the Pirates got a player who made the majors, in exchange for Hinske, makes this a huge victory.
Nyjer Morgan/Sean Burnett
The Trade: We knew this deal was coming, as we heard rumors for a week leading up to it that the Pirates and Nationals were talking about swapping Morgan and Lastings Milledge. When the deal was finally made, it also included a swap of Sean Burnett for Joel Hanrahan.
Initial Reaction: The consensus was that it was a smart move to swap Morgan and Milledge, as Milledge had more upside. The decision to swap Burnett for Hanrahan was hated, as Hanrahan was at a low value at the time, and was recently removed from the closer role in Washington.
Reaction Over Time: Milledge didn’t really take things to the next level, and Morgan hit well and showed good defense, but wasn’t really a strong starting option. Meanwhile, Hanrahan emerged as a strong late innings reliever, to the point where people didn’t even care about Sean Burnett.
Reaction Now: Hanrahan is now considered untouchable, and the suggestion to trade him is met with a negative reaction. That’s ironic, since we’re less than a year removed from people suggesting he can’t cut it in the closer role, and two years removed from him being demoted twice in a season from the closers role.
Verdict: The primary trade of Morgan/Milledge didn’t amount to anything. The huge steal here was Hanrahan, as part of the secondary trade in this deal. It was supposed to even out the difference in value between Morgan and Milledge. Instead, it made the trade totally lopsided.