At the start of this week in the comments, there was a discussion about the Pirates needing to make a “splash” this off-season. This wasn’t an idea exclusive to the comment section, as I’ve seen the same type of comment many times. This comes up during the trade deadline, during off-seasons, and any other time the spotlight of baseball is on the transaction market.
I’ve never believed in the idea of making a “splash.” By definition, it’s a move with a focus of making noise and drawing attention. Granted, this is done by adding a very good player. But the idea behind it is that you need to make a splash to contend, and that’s just not true.
The Pirates haven’t exactly made many splashes the last few years. The Russell Martin signing was hated. The decision to go with Francisco Cervelli to replace Martin wasn’t popular. Trading Joel Hanrahan for Mark Melancon was another unpopular move. The reclamation projects — from A.J. Burnett to Francisco Liriano to Edinson Volquez to the mid-season addition of J.A. Happ — were also low key, with a growing trust as each move worked out.
The one move where the Pirates might have made a “splash” was when they added Marlon Byrd, but even that move was lower key compared to some of the additions that take place around the deadline.
The problem I have with the idea of making a “splash” is that I don’t think there’s any evidence that this approach leads to better results than a lower key addition of a good player that doesn’t come with the big headlines and World Series predictions.
For example, in last night’s article I wrote about how Johnny Cueto didn’t do much for the Royals in the final two months, and had a few rough playoff outings, but came up big in game five of the ALDS, allowing the Royals to advance. Without Cueto, they might have seen an early elimination. But I wouldn’t use that as evidence that making a splash at the deadline is necessary to win.
On the other side of this, you’ve got David Price. The Blue Jays made the biggest splash at the deadline when they added Price and Troy Tulowitzki. In Price’s case, they got four starts and saw him give up 16 earned runs in 23.1 innings. That includes eight earned runs in 13.1 innings over two games against the Royals, with losses in both games.
Cueto ended up working out in game five of the ALDS, but the idea of a big splash didn’t work for Toronto and Price/Tulowitzki. It also didn’t work for the Rangers and Cole Hamels, the Astros and Carlos Gomez, or the Mets and Yoenis Cespedes.
I’ve mentioned that I feel the playoffs are random, and the above is a big reason why. The idea that a guy like Cueto, Hamels, or Price can make a noticeable impact over a full season is legit. But expecting one player to influence any given series he plays in — such as any playoff series — ignores that even the best players won’t have it every time out.
So what about making a splash before the season, when a player can provide a much bigger impact over the full year? That makes more sense, but the idea of a splash is still flawed.
Last year, the Padres made a lot of big splashes when they spent a lot of money and added a lot of big name players. The Mariners were supposed to be World Series contenders when they added Robinson Cano and any first baseman/outfielder that was available prior to the 2014 season. The year before that, the Blue Jays were the hot team after taking on all of the big salaries from Miami, then trading for R.A. Dickey (in a move that sent Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to New York).
The reason this didn’t work out for these teams is because they were adding to poor teams. Toronto was a 73 win team in 2012, and they added a bunch of players who led to a horrible season in Miami. So it’s no surprise that they only won 74 games in 2013, despite all of the off-season hype. Seattle made the biggest jump, going from 71 wins to 87 wins. However, they dropped back down to 76 wins this year, and will probably eventually regret that huge deal for Cano. San Diego went backwards, going from 77 wins to 74 wins.
Then you take a look at the World Series winners, and you start to see a trend. The Royals didn’t make a big splash last year. They followed up a World Series appearance by adding Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, and Edinson Volquez. Those were three mid-level guys who weren’t generating off-season headlines.
The Giants won the World Series in 2012, took a step back in 2013, then added Tim Hudson, Ryan Vogelsong, and Michael Morse in 2014. Again, you’ve got mid-level free agents at best. If you go back to the 2012 Giants (again, two years removed from their last World Series, because the Giants win in even years), the biggest free agent signing was Ryan Theriot. I’m not sure you could call that a mid-level free agent addition.
The Red Sox were praised in 2013 for their additions of mid-level free agents, such as Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Koji Uehara, and a trade for Mike Carp. This situation was a bit different than the other two, as Boston unloaded a ton of salary prior to the season, and then hit it big with almost every free agent they signed, leading to a quick turnaround that wasn’t sustainable.
The problem with a splash in the off-season is that it usually ignores the rest of the team. Some teams simply don’t need to make a splash. They can get by with a good player who isn’t the best at his position, but will provide solid production. That’s what the World Series winners did the last few years, adding some reliable players to already strong teams in most cases. Other teams need a big splash because their team is weaker. Those teams win the off-season awards, but those big moves usually aren’t enough to get them in the playoffs.
The Pirates have a strong team. They’re returning most of a team that just won 98 games. They’ll need some additions this off-season, and there are some areas that need upgraded. But the idea that they need something special to win the division, advance in the playoffs beyond the Wild Card game, or just make the playoffs in general, is either severely underestimating this team, or ignoring the not so flashy approach that has worked for a lot of contending teams in the past.
Last year’s approach would be perfect for the Pirates. They added a mid-level free agent in Francisco Liriano. They added another mid-level/bounce back guy in A.J. Burnett. They added a wild card in Jung-ho Kang, and added a sleeper in Francisco Cervelli. They got value in each move, but the risks involved with each player were staggered. There were some long-shots, and some guys who were closer to reliable production. Add that to their strong track record of finding value — either in the off-season or during the deadline — and the Pirates have a sound approach.
They don’t need to go with all sleeper picks in this approach, and they can go with more mid-level guys than just Liriano. But they don’t really need a big splash. The sleeper/mid-level approach has gotten them to this point, and the track record of results suggests their success with these moves should continue. And a quick look at some of the other successful teams around the league shows that those mid-level moves, while not being flashy, can be enough to take a team to the “next level.”
**Early Look at the 2016 Pirates Minor League Rosters – Outfield Edition. A breakdown of the early outfield roster predictions for the minor league affiliates in 2016, along with a note about how this position could lead to some trade depth. Probably not “big splash” trade depth, but enough to get a solid player who can help the Pirates get back to the playoffs again, and contend for the division.
**AFL: Two Hits For Reese McGuire, Trevor Williams Perfect Again. John Dreker with today’s AFL recap. I’ll be heading out for a week of live AFL coverage on Thursday.