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Williams: I’m Concerned the Pirates are Still Stuck in No Man’s Land

The Pirates have traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole this offseason, but are still hoping to compete in 2018. Photo Credit: David Hague
Williams: I’m Concerned the Pirates are Still Stuck in No Man’s Land

I’ve written many times over the past six months that the Pirates appear to be in No Man’s Land. We’re in an era in MLB where you’re either fully committed to a rebuild, or you are one of the super-teams that is all-in. The middle ground — where you’re trying to remain competitive for the long-term, and by doing so, you are falling short of trying to be one of the best teams in the league — is not a good place to be right now.

The Pirates have been in that middle ground the last two years. They’ve been waiting for prospects to arrive and get established, while holding onto their prospects for future years. They’ve traded players on expiring contracts to build for the future, and at the very same time added players aimed at competing in the present. They’ve topped out at a $100-110 M per year payroll range aimed at contending for the long-term, rather than going bigger in contending years and going smaller in rebuilding years. That last part currently has them in a rebuilding year, projected to spend around $80 M, with the possibility that they could shed more salary in future deals.

I used to believe that the best approach for small market teams was to try and be competitive for the long-term, rather than going all-in. I don’t believe that anymore. But I’m concerned that the Pirates are still taking this approach, despite clear signs that this approach isn’t the way to go in today’s MLB.

I’m concerned the Pirates are still stuck in No Man’s Land.

The Trades Didn’t Provide a Clear Path

I wrote at the start of the offseason that I hoped to see the Pirates take a clear direction one way or the other. Either add to the team and try to contend with Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole in their final years, or trade guys away and go for a rebuild — similar to what teams like the White Sox, Astros, Yankees, and others have done around the league.

The Pirates opted to trade Cole and McCutchen, but didn’t exactly make their path clear.

First of all, the trade returns largely got guys closer to the majors, with the Pirates getting higher floors rather than higher risk/higher ceiling guys. Part of this could have been because so many of the top prospects from the Yankees and Astros were reportedly off-limits in the Cole trade. But there were also reports that the Pirates passed on a higher upside package from the Yankees to get the return they got from the Astros.

I like the return of Colin Moran. The more I think about it, and the more I read about the changes he made with his swing to add power, I think he could have been a really good pickup. As in, the type of guy you want headlining the Cole deal. It doesn’t matter that he’s close to the majors. There’s still upside here, and that’s what matters.

The other part of the deal was what didn’t add up. The Pirates got Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin in return. Musgrove looks like a back of the rotation starter. Feliz has the stuff to be a late inning reliever, and the Pirates have had success fixing his biggest flaw — a lack of control. Martin is a Grade C hitting prospect in Double-A who might have a shot at starting, but probably doesn’t profile as more than an average starter, and is more likely to be a bench guy if he makes it.

I could be wrong here. Maybe the Pirates see something in Musgrove where he could be more than a back of the rotation guy. I don’t see it, and I look past his strikeout numbers to see reports that he doesn’t have an out pitch. Typically that doesn’t lead to long-term results in regards to strikeouts. Steven Brault is a guy who has gotten strikeouts due to good control of his fastball in Triple-A, but that control didn’t carry over to the majors. Even if it did, the lack of an out pitch wouldn’t allow him to continue getting strikeouts.

And maybe Martin has a good chance at being a starter, and maybe he could be more than an average starter. I really don’t think they’re banking most of the trade on him though.

The thing that I can’t get past is Feliz. I’m sure the Pirates are thinking what I’m thinking: He’s got late inning stuff, and maybe they can make an adjustment where he becomes a late inning reliever and a great complement to Felipe Rivero. The problem is that Feliz has four years of control remaining. So even if that works out — and there’s no guarantee it does — you’re looking at a short window where Michael Feliz is part of your competitive team.

I’ve felt the Pirates might be competitive in 2019, and are more likely to compete in 2020. If that’s the case, then they’ve got Feliz on a contending team for 2-3 years at best. And that’s great if he’s a guarantee to be a complement to Rivero. But the Pirates are taking risk here, since he isn’t a guarantee, and if they’re taking risk, they need to be getting more than two years of upside as a contender.

Unless they believe they can be contenders before 2020. And that brings me to the second part of this section.

By all public statements, the Pirates do believe they can contend before 2020. Neal Huntington has said that they believe they can contend in 2018. His comments:

“There’s a lot of misinformation, and a lot of false narrative out there about when we are looking to compete again,” Huntington said. “We’re looking to compete again this year. We believe this club is a lot closer to the ’11, ’12, and ’13 Pirates than we were to the ’07, ’08, and ’09 Pirates. There was enough talent at the Major League level, on the verge of the Major League level.”

I wrote more in detail about that earlier this week, looking at what the Pirates would need in order to contend in 2018. The summary: Not only do they need a lot to go right internally, but they need to add pieces from the outside.

So you’ve got Huntington not only saying that they believe the team can compete in 2018, but making trades where they got guys close to the majors in return, rather than going for higher upside guys who are further away. I wasn’t a writer during the Dave Littlefield years, but my biggest complaint during that time was that they were looking for quick fixes, rather than taking the time to rebuild properly.

Huntington isn’t Littlefield. He actually focuses on the farm system. He also took the time to rebuild once. But this time seems different. This time it seems like they don’t think they need to rebuild. That they’re in the same mindset where they can try to contend while trying to build for the future.

The problem there is that this is difficult to pull off, and can lead to issues where your two paths have a conflict — like perhaps trading guys away and getting lower-upside, closer to the majors players in return in aims of trying to contend quicker.

The Payroll Factor

One thing that is really confusing about Huntington’s comments about contending in 2018 is that they came after trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.

Think about that.

Huntington traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Then he said they believe the team can compete in 2018. If that’s true, then why would you trade the two best players from the team?

Again, I’ll point to my article from earlier in the week saying that the only way the Pirates really can contend in 2018 is by having a lot going right internally, and by adding from the outside. But part of those additions are only going to be making up for what was just traded away. It doesn’t make much sense to take a step back here if you think you can move forward.

Maybe the Pirates felt Cole and McCutchen weren’t reliable, given their performances over the last two years. Maybe they felt that the additions from these trades (Moran, Musgrove, Feliz, and Kyle Crick can all help this year), plus outside additions could be better than Cole/McCutchen and the outside additions needed for those other spots.

The one thing I’ve seen floating around — and I’ve suggested it as well — is that they didn’t have room to add with Cole and McCutchen on the team. This is correct if you assume they would continue to spend $100-110 M in payroll as a maximum.

I hate the payroll arguments in this town. It’s too often focused on spending money, rather than the more important things of spending money at the right time, and spending in the right way.

The Brewers just spent some money, trading for Christian Yelich (which was more about spending prospects) and signing Lorenzo Cain. Their payroll is now in the mid-$80 M range, which is about $5 M more than where the Pirates are currently at. The Brewers started the last two seasons at $63 M while they were rebuilding. They haven’t gone over $110 M, and have only gone over $100 M once. Their numbers are comparable to the Pirates, but they spent when it was time to win, and when it was time to rebuild, they didn’t play the middle ground.

The Indians also did this. They gradually increased their payroll from $53 M in 2011 to $69 M in 2012, and then moved to the mid-$80 M range from 2013-15. That coincided with a team that started to get competitive. They had a shot at contending in 2016, and made moves at the deadline to increase the payroll to $117.5 M — the first time they were ever above $100 M. They opened with $124 M in 2017, and finished with $151.8 M. They will eventually come down from those figures when they rebuild. And the overall average when you factor in the rebuild years might be around that $100-110 M per year range.

The Royals have almost an identical story. They increased their payroll, then got to a record $97.7 M in 2014 when they had a shot at contending. They opened 2015 at $112 M, and finished at $128.9 M and a World Series. Their payroll has gone up in the following years, to the point where they spent $185 M by the end of 2017. Their owner has said it will drop, and that will probably start to happen now after they’ve lost so many free agents.

The Royals spent big when it was time to contend. They kept players through free agency, then let guys like Lorenzo Cain, Mike Minor, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and others walk. They contended through their window, and now they’re going to be in line for a rebuild. The same will be true of the Indians soon. The same will probably be true of the Brewers.

Spending to a set limit every year makes sense in a world where you can contend every year, and never have to worry about a rebuild. But that’s not the world MLB is in. That may have been the case in the past, but we’re now in a time where teams have definitive directions and shortened windows. You can either spend and add when you’re trying to contend, or cut payroll and rebuild when you’re not contending. Trying to extend the window by playing the middle ground isn’t a viable approach. Thus, any approach aimed at spending to a figure that allows you to contend with that figure year-after-year is a bad approach.

The better approach is spending money when you’re competitive, knowing that you’re going to take a loss, but also knowing that those losses will be offset when you’re eventually rebuilding and cutting payroll — assuming they haven’t already been offset by cutting payroll when you were rebuilding before.

So if the Pirates really did think they could compete in 2018, the better approach would have been to keep McCutchen and Cole, spend to add to those players, go over that $110 M figure, and try and finish out the current window, knowing that payroll would drop drastically when they eventually rebuild. I don’t think that was the approach they should have taken. But I also don’t think they should be focusing on contending in 2018 or entertaining that idea after trading their two best players away.

I know the knee-jerk response from some is going to be “The Pirates will never spend over $110 M and will never do what the Royals and Indians did.” I’m not here to say what the Pirates will do. I’m saying what they should be doing, based on what works in today’s MLB. The approach from the Royals and Indians works in today’s MLB. The approach of spending up to a certain limit doesn’t work.

I don’t get into the Bob Nutting discussions because it’s about as nuanced as the payroll discussions, and not as cut and dry as it’s made out to be. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying “Nutting needs to spend his money.” The Pirates need to work within their budgets in the short-term and long-term, and there are a variety of reasons why Nutting can’t just drop his own money into the team in any given year.

He can choose to take a loss in some years, and make up for that in other years, which is similar to what the Royals and Indians have done. The Pirates have said in the past that they don’t do deficit spending in any year. If that policy is still in place, then it’s not in line with how successful teams are run, and it’s fair game to criticize Nutting for that approach.

No Man’s Land

I could be wrong about the Pirates and their direction right now. Maybe they’re looking at this free agent market, knowing they can get some deals for 2018. Maybe that’s combined with the idea that Cole and McCutchen weren’t reliable after the last two years. And maybe there’s the big picture factor, where the guys they got in return (third baseman, late inning relievers) would have been harder to acquire in this market than an outfielder and a starting pitcher (where they could get a reclamation project).

That gives them the benefit of the doubt, while also acknowledging that I don’t know every detail of what is going on with their plan, or with any discussions they’ve had.

But here’s what we do know.

**The Pirates traded their two best players away.

**The returns mostly involved players who were closer to the majors, and there weren’t a lot of high upside players involved, with more low-risk/lower upside guys who will be able to help immediately.

**Neal Huntington came out after the trades and said they expect to compete in 2018.

**There have been rumors that they’ve discussed trading Josh Harrison as well, but Huntington has also said that they want Harrison to help them contend.

**There haven’t been any rumors that the Pirates are looking to add to the team from the outside.

**The guys they’ve added in the last six months include Sean Rodriguez (under control through 2018), George Kontos (2019), and now Feliz in a trade (2021).

I take the approach where I give the Pirates the benefit of the doubt sometimes where there’s information I don’t have, rather than thinking my theory is correct. But it’s impossible to look at those things that we know above and not come away with the idea that the Pirates are still stuck in No Man’s Land.

We’re in a time where the most successful teams go all-in when they’ve got a window to contend, and the teams with the best future outlook are the teams who are fully focused on rebuilding and getting the highest upside guys they can get. If you’re not taking one of those paths, you’re doing it wrong in today’s MLB. Unfortunately, the actions from the Pirates don’t point to one of those paths, but instead still point to the idea that they’re still trying to play the middle ground, which probably won’t end up well for them.

  • davidp

    the pirates “COULD” be thinking that flipping Feliz at the trade deadline could get them a high upside return. That is if Feliz is lights out this year

    • I had that thought. Same with Crick.

      • jaygray007

        same with a bullpen Musgrove, who has already been that lights out bullpen guy.

      • thecrow124

        Feliz it makes a little sense, Crick not so much. They have Crick for 6 years, Feliz for 4. Also, Crick has almost nothing of value.

    • They could also take the same route with Rivero…especially now that he is (incredibly) cost controlled. If he’s lights-out in late July and the Pirates are a steaming pile of “ahem”, a good GM would jump all over the opportunity to send him off for another organization’s top two-three prospects….plus a lottery ticket or two.

  • TurnerWardHitsTheWall

    Tim, it is a general truth in business if you are not gaining ground, you are losing ground. By trying to play the middle ground, the Pirates are being passed up by their division with the possible exception of the Reds. Well said.

  • With all of the crap that is going on with the Bucs, I really really wished that I could ‘divorce’ them and get them ‘out of my blood’.

    Sadly, even a new ‘partner’ and a blood transfusion wouldn’t help.

    I am stuck rooting for them, no matter what.

    :(

    • juniorkrz

      I share your pain, leefoo.

      • duckwoes

        As do I…. Absurd but true

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD

      I’m with you and feel your pain…been a fan since 1970, when I was 10 years old…almost 50 years…despite the dark mid to late 80s, the first 25 years were pretty good….since 1992, we’ve had 3 winning teams and playoff teams in 25 years – that is pathetic.

      • Andy C

        Agreed. I buy a new hat as a tradition every spring. Not this year. And I’m going in a new direction this season: more trips to Altoona, Morgantown and to see the Washington Wild Things. And I’ll only (MAYBE) go to PNC when someone gives me a freebie. I also plan on an Erie, Akron and Charleston, WV trip, as well as a Padres game while in San Diego for a conference. I’ll get my baseball fix, and I’ll try to stick it to ownership any way I can. I’m trying to explain to friends that I root for the ‘Pittsburgh’ on the caps and jerseys; the players, but not the front office. It’s a shame I’m from this area, or I would’ve given up long ago. I’m not holding my breath…

    • Bill W

      It would end in a bad divorce. I have been having a rather open affair with the Indians. It’s been steamy at times but the Pirate won’t let go. I keep getting pierogies for dinner and lately the love has dimmed in our relationship but a separation has ben recommended.

    • William Maloni

      Yes, but plz don’t stay quiet about your anger and why????

    • Randy Miller

      I am getting all teams games on Direct TV and watching the Yankee games If the Pirates don’t sign some good free agents

      • Randy Miller

        All teams all games will cost $179 for the summer Direct TV Extra Innings every team every game

  • angie0399

    If they continue doing this, I can see them in the 5th place real soon. Reds have a good farm, Brewers added talents, Cardinals and Cubs are, well, Cardinals and Cubs. I like the young core of this team but they can’t just wait till all their prospects miraculously pan out. Some years they can be unlucky as hell like we’ve all seen from last year!

    This off season is a buyer’s market. I hope the Pirates sign a good player (maybe a #2 or #3 type pitcher & a catcher? I really don’t think we needed another backend pitcher i.e. Musgrove) till 2022-ish. Or sell Harrison and Nova. I want ‘not really competing, but not really not competing’ thing to stop.

  • Brian Z

    A) Don’t believe Nutting when he says they can compete this year…he’s just selling tickets.
    B) His model works to make some money. Kinda compete for .500ish and rake in the profits.

    • A. Nutting isn’t saying that. Huntington is. And I had that thought. But the actions (trading for closer to the majors guys, getting guys with very little control) kind of back up the words.

      B. I think teams can make money without having to go to evil genius lengths. The question is, are they willing to lose some money in the short-term when it’s time to contend.

      • juniorkrz

        Nutting has proven time and again he is not willing to lose a dime over the short term in order to contend.

        • angie0399

          This is sad.

      • Bucco99

        Tim, I think Neal is talking about competing with the Reds to see who will stay out of last place in the division. I think that’s the only competition we’ll see from this team. They’re certainly not going to compete with the Cubs, Brewers or Cardinals.

      • Brian Z

        Ahh thanks Tim.. Makes sense Huntington would actually believe that. That’s his job to complete with what he can get, I’d feel the same way.
        I don’t think what I said it’s evil genius type of thinking, it’s just smart safe business in the current MLB economic system. Nutting isn’t the owner of a MLB team because he’s stupid.

  • TNBucs

    The Buddhist Pirates, seeking the Middle Way.

    • Bill W

      THE JUDAS PIRATES! Leading us astray.

  • DGT1977

    Tim,
    I know you can never have enough pitching, but the bullpen is loaded. I hate to see a guy like Hudson taking innings from younger guys. What is your thoughts

    • My thought is that unless he shows some massive changes in Spring Training, Hudson shouldn’t be on the team.

      • terrygordon30

        Yup!!! Double Yup!!!

        • JamosLN50

          Wouldn’t the Bucs learn from the Hughes situation last year that they should just keep the veteran RP around for a few months hoping he figures it out and can be flipped? If Hudson isn’t working out again then DFA him in June and give the remaining innings to younger guys who have options and can be stashed until then. It’s not like anyone’s going to pay Hudson’s salary for the Bucs, so might as well see if he can net something.

  • Michael M

    Tim, I’m curious. Given the moves that were made, what would you do at this point if you were Huntington? Would you go heavy on a J.D. Martinez / Lance Lynn, would you sign a ton of SP reclamation projects for several million each, would you trade Harrison and others and push toward a full rebuild (which could be challenging given the types of moves for Cole and McCutchen) or something else?

    • I’d push for a full rebuild.

      • How full, trade Marte etc full?

        • Anyone under control through 2018-19. If you’re not contending by 2019-2020, then go further.

          • John W

            Ok but who is that and what are they really going to return? I don’t have the roster in front of me. Cervelli? Well they probably can’t trade him. Jhay- OK they aren’t getting much in return. Nova? Minimal return at best Freese? Probably missing someone but none of these guys are returning anything of consequence(if you can even trade them)

            It’s not like these guys are bringing in high end talent. The only movable chip that would have netted a big return was Rivero and he’s locked up now.

            The problem is more than just NH’s commitment to the cause(which is a problem). It’s that we simply are bereft of valuable assets at this point in time.

            • I think some players like Cervelli and Mercer have more value staying with the team in mentor roles, considering their contracts and trade value.

              I also think that they’d be wise trading some of these guys for lowest level, high risk, high upside guys. That way they have a better shot of getting something good in return.

              • John W

                I don’t know Tim. I’m not trying to be argumentative but this team looks in considerably worse shape than I expected 12-18 months ago. I felt the window was closed but at least expected to get some really high end talent in trades back. If we don’t have some major breakouts on farm this year…

                The stearns moves really drove home how far we have fallen. Go back to late 2014 and look at the respective farms/rosters of brewers and pirates at the time and tell me you envisioned our outlook going into 2018 would be what it is.

  • 20Stoney

    I think you’re putting too much stock in what comes out of Huntington’s mouth. This is the same person who sat at Piratefest and said that Drew Hutchinson was a baseball trade. He says things to try to appease the fanbase and still sell some tickets.

    • I’m looking more at the actions. You should know by now that I rarely put stock in the words, and focus more on the actions.

  • Phil W

    I think people are taking Huntington’s “we can compete in 2018” comments too literally. First, he compared them to 2011 and 2012 teams, both of which were sub-500 teams. Second, the GM isn’t going to come out and say this team sucks and won’t be competitive until 2020. Third, if everything goes their way, maybe they can be competitive. You could probably say that about 20-25 teams, it’s just that almost never does everything go your way. So then you have to look at his actions. Maybe we’re overestimating what other teams we’re offering. Maybe they like Moran better than Frazier. I do. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to have a couple years of Feliz when we are competitive again, especially since he was a secondary part of the trade. Regarding Harrison, Huntington isn’t going to announce we are looking to move him. Harrison will be gone at some point when they think they can maximize his value.

  • Smokinjoe

    The problem at least at this time in my opinion is the Pirates have outside of Harrison no other quality to sell to get back quality, so a full rebuild is something I believe should be done but may require an additional year for both Marte and Polanco to reestablish some additional value and Cervelli’s health needs to improve to make his contract a bit better to swallow…

  • bradlej31

    This article seems reactionary to tweets that you’re getting and isn’t real Pirate Prospects bread and butter. You’ve missed a relevant “prospect” thing from last week that I’ve been waiting for you or John to mention.

    • Actually, it’s not reactionary to anything. It was something I started thinking about after the last article. I started mapping it out on Wednesday. Then I wrote a bit on Thursday.

      Then I wrote several variations today while having writer’s block, struggling to get to what I wanted to say (which was this article). Then it took a long time for me to wrap it up and add edits, which is when I was on Twitter having discussions today.

      So I knew what I was going to say well before any discussions on Twitter today. The bread and butter of this site is giving honest opinions, rather than pandering.

      What was the relevant prospect thing we missed?

      • I think it was NMR that tipped your scales ;)

  • dr dng

    Anyone know anything about some type of investigation
    of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club that KDKA tv says
    is underway according to their “stay tuned” statements.

    • They’re probably mis-interpreting the report that came out today saying the MLBPA is looking at the Pirates and Marlins to make sure they’re doing everything right in terms of spending revenue sharing.

  • jaygray007

    I’ve grown to have almost no issue with the Cole deal. I understand how they could be thinking “Musgrove is the okay version of Gerrit Cole (3 WAR guy), but with 5 yrs of control… and then we got Moran, Feliz, and Martin in addition.”

    The more i think about the Cutch deal, the less i like it. Unless they have some genius plan for LF, it just makes no sense.

    none of this makes any sense if they don’t spend some money to try to eek out a wildcard. Luplow can work in AAA if they sign a LF. Losing Elias Diaz on waivers would hardly be a big deal if they sign a C like Lucroy. Watching Jordy Mercer for 600 PA does no good whether they want to be good or if they want to rebuild. He makes no sense… unless they do some creative platooning.

    The roster, as constructed right now, makes no sense. more shoes have to drop.

    • dr dng

      I guess I am learning something from this site.
      I think I agree with JayGray.
      I also do not have much problem with the Cole trade.

      We needed 3rd base and hopefully have some depth
      at starting pitcher. We also get a pitcher back who
      might also be useful.

      McCutchen. Different story. He’s more than a CF.
      He’s a “leader of the community.” Its going to take
      some significant production from what we get in
      return to offset not only the on field production
      but also the PR value, ticket sales, and emotional
      loss felt by the community.

      Many in the community are actually morning his loss.
      -(i’m not in that bad of shape.)

    • Darkstone42

      I’m firmly against entering the free agent catcher market this off season. It’s crap. The best guys carry massive risk.

      Wait until next year and sign Grandal. There’s your chance to give the team a legitimate, high certainty boost at the position.

      • jaygray007

        I’m 100 pct on board with Grandal. Definitely only in favor of a 1 yr deal for Lucroy

        • OTDLOT18

          @piratesprospects-47a658229eb2368a99f1d032c8848542:disqus @piratesprospects-342c472b95d00421be10e9512b532866:disqus
          Fellas, have you really been watching this team over the past 10-20 years? NO WAY they go after Grandal until he is ready to retire

          • jaygray007

            the team’s payroll is going to be like 50 million in 2019 if they don’t add anybody. if the MLBPA wanted to get after them this year while theyre at 80, i can’t imagine they’d even be literally allowed to only spend 50.

            They’re going to have to sign someone decent next year just to become like… compliant with the league.

      • Nobody stands out this year…no need.

        Folks scream for Realmuto, but…really? The Pirates won’t contend this season and, most likely, won’t next year. In ’20, if everyone pans out, they have a good shot…but trade for him to contend for his final season with the Pirates? Nah.

        The Pirates are, pretty much, stuck with Cervelli for this season. Maybe he rebounds and has some value at the deadline. Other than that…unless Diaz steals the job…I expect this position to be a hole for the foreseeable future.

        • JamosLN50

          Agree with JayGray too. Hard to believe that NH is targeting this squad for Opening Day. Perhaps a strategy where they take on salary and prospects as suggested, and/or go for a Brantley/CarGo bounceback type or the OF / Jaime Garcia/Chacin type SP in free agency. Then flip assets at the deadline. I’m onboard with that strategy.

          I’m definitely not onboard with staying put, although I see the argument for using the IP/PA’s for younger players.

    • OTDLOT18

      @piratesprospects-47a658229eb2368a99f1d032c8848542:disqus @jay
      I would love to know what your are smoking that you equate musgrove to Cole? Has anybody on here actually watched Musgrove pitch? He definitely is not a Cole type talent!! I would bet anyone ANYONE on this comment board that Cole finishes up this year with a far better record/WAR/whatever than Musgrove…There are plenty of free agent 3B that are way better than Moran that we could have went after and PLENTY PLENTY of relief arms – i agree with you that the roster currently makes no sense

      • jaygray007

        I’d say that there’s an awfully good argument to make that both Cole and Musgrove are 4 ERA guys.

        of course, Cole is likely to throw more innings in 2018 since Musgrove hasnt proven to be able to do any kind of 200 inning workload. so yeah, i agree that Cole will have a higher WAR, but it’ll be based mostly on volume. I think their per-inning quality will be similar.

        in 2019, when Musgrove can handle a full year of starts, i wouldnt be shocked if they’re both popping jsomething like 3 WAR

      • jaygray007

        have *you* watched Musgrove pitch?

        That probably comes across as snarky, but i’m legitimately asking.

      • jaygray007

        and RE: the other 3b in FA.

        welp, at least now they can use that money on things other than 3Bs!

        Giving 10 mil to GarGomez and 10 mil to Lucroy might take them from 78ish wins to 82ish wins. Moran being a 1.5 WAR guy instead of a 0.5 WAR guy takes them to 83.

        it’s not that hard to get them back into the wildcard race, but they need to spend a little bit to do it.

        • JamosLN50

          Remember that Cole gets a WAR projection decrease going to the AL and Musgrove an increase moving to the NL. So the gap isn’t as big right off the bat. Nearly everyone would put money on Cole having the better season but it’s not hard to dream/envision a scenario where Musgrove is nearly as good as 16-17 Cole, and Moran/Feliz will cover the gap.

  • NMR

    Woke Tim Williams is my favorite Tim Williams.

    Brought the fire, my friend.

  • tmuney15

    I don’t believe that the Pirates are stuck in no man’s land. Newman, Mitchell, Meadows,Tucker, Kramer, Santana, King ham and others have more talent than they are given credit for. I believe you will see a very competitive team by 2019.

    • I’ll give you Meadows, Tucker, and Kramer.

      Newman is at a point where he better grab the opportunity now or fade off to irrelevancy, Mitchell (who are you referring to?), Santana won’t be worth too much in the long term…he’s a BP arm after all, and Kingham? Meh. If Nick can be better than Trevor Williams, he’ll exceed expectations.

    • tmuney15

      I meant Mitchell Keller.

    • Scott K

      I don’t believe in the concept of “No Man’s Land.” It’s a catchy slogan, but if you unpack what Tim is selling, it fails the reality test.

      His whole assertion is based on the premis to be a competitor for a title, an organization must either be a Super Team, or sell off most, if not all, of your veterans with value, and choose to suck for a number of years before becoming a true competitor.

      In reality, a team just needs to be good enough to make it into postseason.

  • Zachary N

    To be honest, there are several bounce back type starters available, and a guy like Melky Cabrera could probably be signed for a 1-year deal. Wouldn’t mind see them signing 2-3 reclamation type free agents.

    • yutz03

      What isn’t Jeremy Burnitz available….come on

  • IC Bob

    It the words of John Mclain in Die Hard 1 ” Welcome to party!”

    • “Welcome to the party, PAL!”

      You’ve gotta include the ‘pal’…if not, you might as well just say: “yippee kai ay”.

      • IC Bob

        Good point

    • Jason Kelley

      “Come out to coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”

  • cmat0829

    The Blue Jays a few years ago took an approach that the front office had a 5-year budget. They could spend less in some years and if so they had that to overspend in others. That seems to be a reasonable idea. Deficit spending on a continual basis isn’t realistic. But for a year or two as in say 2015 ? It is necessary and could have brought a championship.

    To fund those seasons at lets say $125m-$135m range they would need to restock for a couple down in the 60-70m range.

    Makes sense.

    • That’s the approach that should be taken.

      If you spend $100 M over five years, or $60, $60, $90, $130, $160 M over five years, it’s the same amount. But you can spend more when it counts, and spend less when you’re rebuilding.

      • David N

        Do we know for sure that Bob Nutting has the authority to do that, given his contractual arrangements with his minority partners? $160 million is 266% of $60 million, if my calculations are correct. That’s a pretty big variance.

      • burghb

        Tim, any rough idea on what they lose in attendance revenue in the rebuild years vs the extra payroll spent in the contention years? I don’t know all the figures but it seems like both extremes would be prone to unprofitability in small markets without team-friendly TV deals.

        Speaking of which, maybe their plan is to avoid a full rebuild until after the re-negotiation of the TV deal, which i believe happens in a year or two. Wouldn’t a 60 win team be pretty bad negotiating leverage?

      • piraddict

        If costs were the only consideration, and revenues were flat and unaffected, that would be right. But the quality of team on the field also affects total gross revenues which diminishes the potential of your strategy. For a small market club like the Bucs when they have a bad team attendance suffers significantly and their profitability is challenged. They have already figured this out, which is probably why they want to “contend” every year.

  • Paul Kraybill

    While I do not think this is remotely what they are planning, if they off load another contract could they buy prospects from the few teams trying to stay under tax threshold by taking on bad contracts. Example, Pirates get Kemp (cut him) and top prospect (better be worth it). Dodgers then can sign Darvish or Arrieta and stay under tax. It is basically what Blue Jays did when they took Liriano. Red Sox and Hanley Ramirez could be another option.

  • Perhaps the Pirates are a victim of the strategy, maybe of circumstance.

    Trading Cole and Cutch for guys closer to the majors with a lower ceiling is absolutely fine…no problem with it at all, but, if there’s going to be a semblance of competitiveness, they needed to snag a good FA or two this year to fill the void.

    Meadows isn’t ready? Fine, trade Cutch…but Cain or Bruce should have been signed to take his place. The cost would have just about balanced and the Pirates would have ended up with a AA Of’er and a (potentially good) BP arm.

    Keller’s a couple years away? Okay, jettison Cole but replace him with…somebody. Lynn? I’m not a huge fan, but he lessens the blow. The Pirates (probably) lose nothing in rotation talent and gain the package from gotten from the trade…all for a minimal increase to AAV over ’18-’19.

    Maybe trades and signings are what the FO wanted to do in the off season…but the FA market is just too weak this year. Maybe not…but there’s no way this team contends before ’20 without substantial FA additions. I’m fine with that…but can we call that a reality instead of sugar-coating it, please?

    • jaygray007

      if i’m them, i’m getting my hands on any decent veteran FA who is willing to take a 1 year deal and who has some upside to be above average.

      i’ve been pimping Lucroy and Gomez pretty hard, but i’m sure there are more out there.

      I really don’t think it’s a problem is Luplow and Meadows get another half season in AAA. and evaluating again at that point.

      Maybe they help you stay in the WC race. Maybe the team is bad and they are nice little trade chips. maybe everything is bad and theyve just lost some money.

      i’m sure someone could argue that Luplow needs the MLB ABs instead of a veteran, but i honestly dont remember the last time we’ve been okay with *anybody* only having 182 PAs in AAA before being flung into MLB. the guy deserves a shot to develop right.

      • I go more than a one year deal.

        Here’s why:

        Sign Bruce (my personal underrated man crush)…

        Let’s say he’s a stud…and so are Marte, Polanco, and Meadows…that’s a nice problem to have.

        Maybe Meadows isn’t ready for ’19…still have Bruce, Polanco, and Marte.

        Maybe Meadows is ready, and one of Bruce, Polanco, and Marte crumbles…okay, Meadows replaces the underperformer.

        What I don’t like about signing a one-year “hope for a rebound” guy is that, if he doesn’t rebound and Meadows still has problems…nothing has been solved.

        Lucroy I don’t mind so much…but he’s an aging catcher…I’ve gotta think he takes a multiyear deal over a single year offer.

        • jaygray007

          Well, Bruce is gone :) and probably isn’t a stud, but that’s beside the point

          If a 1 yr signing and a meadows both fail, then you have the ability to attack the market again next offseason with hardly any side effects. If a multiyear signing and meadows both fail, then youre screwed. You’re in “we have to do the Liriano trade to clear this salary” territory.

          And Lucroy- I’ve seen both 1 yr and multi year predictions for him. We’ll see.

  • thecrow124

    When the Pirates flip Harrison and Musgrove to Milwaukee for Domingo Santana it will all make sense.

  • cabbo80

    Bottom line you have an investment ran for profit at all costs. This ownership has no reason to build a winner if they continue to make money. It’s just enough to be just enough and they pat each other on the back and light each other’s cigars. We fans want a team that we will never have.

  • jaygray007

    random idea…

    i wonder what kind of prospect they could get from the dodgers by taking Matt Kemp’s contract and just eating it for two years…

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD

    No one can take seriously anything NH says…he talks like a politician.

    As long as the Pirates have the current ownership and management, they will be in no man’s land…too cheap to compete and too incompetent to win

    • buccotime57

      How can you say to incompetent to win when this same exact management team put 94, 88 and 98 win seasons together!?!

      • Larry Piotrowicz

        How can you say that? Easy, Because they put together sub-500 seasons in 2007-12 and 2016-17. That’s 8 out of 11 seasons. Things luckily fell in place for the team they weaved together in 2013-15. Blind squirrel finding the acorn those 3 years. The system they use will only work when they get lucky. Bargain basement shopping rarely yields top shelf goods, and that’s the way the Pirates build their teams.

  • mitch t

    I hate to counter the haters but the notion of higher upside <AA ballers having better results just doesnt pan out. Jeff Bagwell, Brian Giles, Jason Bay etc ad nauseum point to “ready for prime time” players having good results, meanwhile AAA is chock full o’ 28 yr old failed “High Impact” prospects who never became anything. Sil Campusano, Felix Pie, Andy LaRoche… the list is endless. I strongly endorse stockpiling 24-25 year olds like cordwood and see if 25% can be MLB plus players. If Cutch and Cole were so good we wouldnt be rebuilding.

  • The Pirates can contend in 2018 if most of their superstars in waiting (Taillon, Glasnow, Bell and Polanco) become the players we expected them to become. Marte returning to form; Moran becoming a 2-3 WAR player; Luplow and Frazier producing 2-4 WAR between them; etc. It’s easy to imagine this team winning 85-90 games. It depends on the players.

    The Pirates went all in on acquiring amateur talent. That long-term strategy, coupled with the organization’s resource constraints, makes it difficult for the team to change their strategy to achieve short-term goals. Plus, it’s easy today to forget that, not long ago, the Pirates consistently had a top rated farm system. If one were to look at the Pirates for obvious targets to criticize, it would be at the organization’s refusal to sign top Interaction al Free Agents. The Pirates never tried after the Sano fiasco and Heridia’s disappointing career. The organization did not try to compensate for their lower draft slots and Seligula’s draft caps. We will pay for their reticence in the coming years.

  • Paul Newmeyer

    The lingering TV deal has to be playing a role in their strategy. I also agree that NH’s plan is to load up on bullpen arms and deal them at the deadline. I agree with that plan, but he misjudged the market when trying to get Price. He was ready to deal prospects when teams wanted close to the majors players instead. Unfortunately that is what teams want now. It just seems the timing is always wrong for their player movements. NH should have a better read on the market and act accordingly.

  • Scott K

    Tim, your point of view seems reasonable. The examples of Royals, Indians and Brewers are spot on.

    My only counter to your “no man’s land” argument is the Pirates under this leadership team have remained steadfast in their approach. Build through the draft, trade away players before they hit FA (usually), and sign undervalued FA’s to fill glaring holes on 25-man roster.

    This approach worked to make the team one of the three best teams in MLB for a three year stretch. I wouldn’t exactly call that no man’s land.

    Furthermore, there’s something to be said for putting a competitive club on the field each and every year. To suffer through years of 100 loss seasons in the hopes one day gold will be struck in the draft isn’t my idea of good times as a fan.

    • AttyMike

      You make a point BUT I would counter that the Pirates’ dedication to no-man’s land is what caused them to short-arm the team in 2016-2017. That methodology actually backfired and wasted a couple of years of their competitive window. Maybe it giveth but it also tooketh away.

      • Scott K

        Not adequately replacing Burnett/Happ in ’16 undoubtedly played a part in their downturn. But it was a bit part compared to their 3 best players all forgetting how to play baseball all at the same time!

        • JamosLN50

          Totally agree on the rotation (or lack there of) in 2016. That was embarrassing, a bridge year to nowhere. I know NH claims he tried to get pitching that offseason and couldn’t, but still…

          Along those lines, do we think NH overestimated the pitching help from the farm? There were a lot of high level minors pitchers that got injured and arrived late (Taillon), are still delayed (Kingham), or didn’t progress enough to capitalize on their talent (Glasnow) – (and you could make a similar argument with Meadows last year when Marte went down). A general rule of thumb is that you can’t rely on AAA for MLB wins, anything they provide is gravy. I think NH was counting his eggs before they hatched a bit.

          If we look back to the 15-16 prospect guides, I bet we’d find Tim projecting a lot of pitchers to graduate to the majors in those seasons or shortly thereafter, and people probably thought they could have a Mets-like impact based on their prospect profiles.

          Perhaps there’s some post-hype upside still out there… and perhaps NH will learn to prioritize the major league team rather than rolling out the red carpet for Indy.

  • AttyMike

    Excellent article. Well written and soundly reasoned. I do think Huntington speaks for Nutting. He has to b/c we rarely hear from the owner. Their business model is to make money every year so they have a narrow financial band within which to work in contrast to the other small market teams that you feature. What makes it even more challenging is that they are very risk-averse. They are highly unlikely to spend through the entire “window” for fear of spending one year too many. That risk-averseness doesn’t pertain to public perception though. I’m not sure they care much for how their customers view them. My cynical view if that their business model is to spend just enough to keep it close — keep people interested — and sell tickets, etc. Profit w/in revenue sharing. I do believe they want to win and Huntington truly wants his minor league operation to produce results. However, his track record thus far in that department — objectively — is so-so. What makes him the right guy for the job is that he accepts the uber-financial restraints placed by Nutting, and not his performance in drafting/signing/developing. Is that a system w/in which truly competitive people want to work? I’ll allow that there are on 30 of those jobs but I’ll also say that the organization’s penchant for being risk averse may reflect a personal risk-averseness in one or more members of the front office.

  • Joe P

    When Huntington says he expects to win now, management’s actions don’t seem to support that. Last year they could have easily picked up Jay Bruce or another addition and there was little reason to release Nicasio to save 500K. Of course, I was very surprised the Cardinals seemed to go the same route.
    One thing NH mentioned that I’m not sure you picked up on? He said we needed more players as in quantity to compete. Quantity of quality? or possibly quantity gives you a greater probability of getting quality, but Cutch only brought us 2 players.
    I would not be frustrated as much with the Pirates if they brought in a few quality free agents with the money they saved. Then maybe NH statements ring truer.

    • michael t

      An important and fact based example you cite. When Polanco went down and the Pirates still in contention for a wild card, the Pirates did nothing and Bruce was available for peanuts. Watson was sent packing for a high ceiling single A guy and they released Nicasio to save some money. Compete? Absolutely not…..capitulate for increased profits…..yes.

      The fact that the players union is asking for a formal review of the Pirates compliance with the revenue sharing provisions of the CBA is telling.

    • Scott K

      Rather than bring in a few FA’s, I’d rather they sign one good one. Alex Cobb is my personal favorite.

  • AttyMike

    The Mets — commonly-reference suitors for Harrison — signed a middle infielder who will probably end up as their second baseman. I’m guessing it just got harder for the Pirates to trade Harrison — if that’s what their plan is at this point.

  • Robert W

    I know this will sound STUPID even as I write this and maybe it is the “fan” in me but is it “possible” the NH Can pull this off. There are guys that may be ready by mid summer and guys ready in 2019. I feel NH has some really good scouts that he trust. I guess if he is wrong, I hope he is really bad wrong and won’t experiment with this plan ever ever again

  • rich

    I agree that NH cryptically is implying that he could use the savings to make a bit of a splash in free agency and compete now. But, any free agent would just stunt our long term growth as it would prevent them from seeing what they have in the younger guys:
    – Moran has to play
    – Moroff’s time is the first three months or never as Newman, Kramer, and then Tucker roll through

    The three best options in free agency would be:
    – a veteran lock down presence in the pen for the young guys to watch (they could flip him like Hanrahan if the young guys progress)
    – Swap Nova for a better veteran (by that I mean trade Nova and pick up a front line free agent starter). Of course, you would still be blocking 4 of the following five pitchers: Musgrove, Glasnow, Brault, Kingham, and Holmes
    – You could get a left or centerfielder as Luplow really could use some AAA time, S-Rod is not a part of the future, and Frazier seems to be a 4th OF long term. But unless you can trade Harrison for a Clint Frazier, why not move Harrison to the OF? Is there really a better free agent option?

    • rich

      The more I think about this, the more I would be tempted to try to:
      1. Sign Alex Cobb ($64/4yrs)
      2. Re-Sign Tony Watson ($16/2yrs)
      3. Trade Ivan Nova
      It would only increase payroll by about $15 million ($16+$8-$9) and place us at about $96 million

      It shores up the rotation by giving us a second top guy (in addition to Taillon) and gives that situational lefty (which Watson would be better suited for at this point) to settle down the pen.

      Yes, it would cost us a #3 pick in the draft but we can pretty much assume that Cobb would be flipped for prospects in two or three years anyway. So we would get the #3 back and presumably more.

  • joe s

    What might be overlooked is that Pirate management does not think highly of its minor league players. They dumped McGuire and Ramirez causing an uproar and to date neither player has done much and now they show little to no interest in Santana and Neveraskus by getting relievers in the recent trades. Could it be worse then the fans even think? Seems so.

  • Chris C

    The significant mistake was not adding after ‘15 and botching the Walker trade at the same time. I think they have been trying to recover ever since.

  • rjgrinde

    They are more interested in increasing the value of the franchise which has increased drastically over the past five years to 1.25 billion dollars so they can sell and collect teh massive profit from this drastic increase in organizational value. They are doing this by investing in facilities, negotiated TV deals while maintaining the proper (or should I say calculated) player personnel / salary to winning balance that will keep the attendance dollars at the necessary point to continue to gradually increase the value of the franchise. This is all an investment, a house flip operation. I think what we are missing is that NH’s / ownerships idea of competing is not in line with the fans and or the traditional concept of competing. When NH says the he believes the PIrates will compete in 2018 he is really saying, they will hover below .500 but not too far below that the attendance numbers drop below our necessary mark. What the fans think when they hear the word “compete” is win and challenge for a title. Everyone in their right mind knows that is not even a relative possibility in 2018. That stark reality should highlight what NH and the ownership group really mean when they say the word “compete”. All we can hope for as fans is that the organizations current evaluation of 1.25 billion dollars is close to the ownerships desired net profit expectation from their initial investment to the sell of the team. That way they will sell sooner rather than later. I know I won’t be able to stand another 10 to 15 years of lies and mediocrity / sub-mediocrity.

  • William Maloni

    I realize that without the PBC you might be out of a job you love, but Tim why do you keep buying the hogwash the BMTIB (not!) peddles.

    You’re an adult and smarter than most because you have watched this team closely for years.

    Does anything Nutting/Coonelley’Huntington claim ring true and even possible, given what you see around them in MLB, what other teams are doing?

    Join those who don’t have to be hit between the eyes with a two by four to see Nutting is financially abusing the franchise to reap millions for his other commercial activities.

    Why else would anyone extend the ocntracts of three guys who’ve helped create this baseball mess???

    • buccotime57

      Maybe because they have orchestrated the 3 most successful seasons in 20 years and have a top farm system and seem to keep the team competitive in a small market since arriving.

      • William Maloni

        Please read the headline at the top of today’s edition.

        Besides leading the league in minor leaguers named “Kevin,” you believe that “#16”–represents a “top farm system?”

        How many MLB all-stars, guys who consistently hit 25-30 dingers, bat .300, and throw 200 innings wiht ERA under 3.00 has that system produced??

        C’monBT57, it’s just not the case.

  • There seems to be a mindset that forgets that we are talking about actual human beings that get to have a choice in where they play. It’s not like the auto parts store. Please give me a Third baseman with power. I am sure there is a plan is place. They just need responses from players so that we can see what path the Pirates are taking

  • jmanfredi

    If Feliz or Crick develop into good/great RPs, they could be easily flipped at the deadline for higher upside prospects. The trade market the past few years has put a high price on dominant relievers with a few years of team control, and that is the type of player the Pirates seem to be best at finding in a cost effective way.

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Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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