I expected the Pirates to add a starting pitcher today, predicting last night that they’d go for a lower cost guy, rather than one of the big arms from the Tampa Bay rotation. They did that with the addition of Ivan Nova. I also expected them to deal away one of their starters like Jon Niese, which they also did. You can read my recaps of those moves here.
And so I was all set to write a First Pitch tonight about Francisco Liriano. How he is the key if the Pirates want to contend. How they needed him to become the old Francisco Liriano in order to give them a fighting chance in the playoffs — the playoffs where Gerrit Cole would be used in the Wild Card game, and wouldn’t be available right away in the NLDS.
It turns out, I’m still writing about Liriano. Except I don’t think anyone could have predicted the topic of tonight’s article.
The trade of Liriano was perhaps the weirdest trade I’ve covered. The way everything unfolded was unlike any other deal I’ve seen, and the details surrounding the trade are unlike any deal I’ve seen. First, the news that Liriano was traded came out around 4:45 PM, well beyond the deadline. Then, it was revealed that the trade was Liriano and two prospects for Drew Hutchison. Then the first prospect was announced in Harold Ramirez. And then, about an hour later, the second prospect was announced in Reese McGuire.
The way the entire thing unfolded was confusing. Was this a trade where the Pirates dumped two top prospects in order to save on payroll? Were they sending two big prospects for Drew Hutchison, who seemingly didn’t have that much value, and the Liriano dump was a minor second part of the deal? Should they have just worried about getting rid of Liriano, and forget all about Hutchison? Or what about the opposite? And how would that change the value?
Neal Huntington was very clear after the deadline that the big goal here was to acquire Hutchison.
“Our goal in trading Ramirez and McGuire was to acquire Drew Hutchison, who has 400 innings at the Major League level,” Huntington said. “Our scouts have liked a lot in the past. We believe his surface numbers are not reflective of the potential, and we’ve got, again, multiple years of contribution from Drew. He’s a very nice complement to Gerrit Cole, and then all of the young arms that we have in the rotation as we go forward.”
Huntington wouldn’t commit on whether Hutchison would go to Triple-A right away, but reading between the lines of all of his comments today, it seems that will be the case. He said that they already told Hutchison there were a lot of moving parts in the rotation, and they wanted to give some veterans a continued opportunity. Also, every time he referred to him, he referred to their future rotation. So the odds are that Hutchison won’t be up this year.
And that makes sense. Hutchison currently has three years and 137 days of service time. If he comes up right away, and remains in the majors the rest of the year, the Pirates have him under control for two more seasons. If he comes up on August 30th or later, then he’ll finish the year with less than four years of service time, and the Pirates would have him under team control for an extra year, through the 2019 season. Let’s be honest. The Pirates didn’t trade this much for him just to then trade one month in 2016 for one whole year in 2019. Huntington didn’t say anything about this, but it’s only common sense.
There are three parts to this deal: the prospects, Hutchison, and Liriano. It’s probably best to break them all down separately, rather than taking the fantasy baseball trade approach of stacking the rankings to make one part of the trade look crazy. We’ll start with the prospects, obviously, since that’s what we do here.
Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez
In the past year, the Pirates have done a good job of dealing prospects who are expendable. They’ve traded guys who they aren’t going to be using in the short-term, and aren’t going to be using in the long-term because of their depth. When Huntington discussed McGuire and Ramirez, he mentioned that they both fit into this category.
“We understand that we gave up two quality prospects,” Huntington said. “We gave up a catcher in which we had catching depth that we like at the same level. And we have [Francisco] Cervelli under contract, we have [Chris] Stewart under contract, we have Elias Diaz that is positioned to be in line, to continue to grow and develop, and be our next guy. We’ve got some catching depth behind that we like.”
I’m going to stop the comment right there, and get to the Ramirez comment in a minute. For now, let’s focus on McGuire, because that might be the biggest issue I have with the trade. We rated him 6th overall in the system in our recent mid-season top 50. I was a big reason for that. The lowest suggestion for him was 10th overall, but I pushed for him to go sixth, and the reason from the article is below:
The big thing that people point to would be his offense. He has a .677 OPS in 241 at-bats in Altoona this year. He also has some of the best catching defense in minor league baseball, and that defense will at least get him a backup catching job one day, and possibly even a starting job. The offensive numbers aren’t good right now, but McGuire is 21. If he would have gone to college, he’d be playing in Morgantown right now, Bradenton next year, and wouldn’t reach Altoona until mid-2017 at the earliest, or possibly 2018. So he’s ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, he makes solid contact, and has great plate patience, with a 28:22 BB/K ratio. His issue is being too selective at times, which he’s working on improving this year. He might need a second full season in Altoona to work on the offense, but at his age, he can afford an extra year or two at the level.
If you’re in the same boat as me, and you think McGuire will eventually start hitting with more consistency, then you see him as either a strong defensive starter who will hit enough to justify being a starter, or in a best case scenario, a good hitter with the defense to make him an All-Star. And this could make this trade one that could haunt the Pirates for a long time.
Aside from liking McGuire’s upside, I don’t like his inclusion here because I don’t think the “we had catching depth” applies. This is an organization that has seen the need for extreme catching depth twice in the last six seasons. The idea that they’re fine with just Cervelli, Stewart, and Diaz — all three dealing with injury issues in recent years — forgets that we are less than a month removed from a catching duo of Eric Fryer and Erik Kratz. I love Elias Diaz, but this is putting a lot of faith that he will pan out as a long-term starter, or that Cervelli won’t continue his struggles this year (basically that 2015 wasn’t a fluke).
So the McGuire move is one I don’t like.
As for Ramirez, I can definitely see the outfield depth argument here, which Huntington explained so well.
“We have arguably one of the best outfields in baseball,” Huntington said. “They’re under contract for years to come. We have Austin Meadows. We have other outfielders that we like either at a similar level, or more than Harold. For us, this was an opportunity to add an extremely expensive commodity in the market for quality prospects that fit for us, but we also have some organizational depth to move from.”
We actually dropped Ramirez in our rankings to 12th overall. A big reason for that was due to his stocky frame, and the concern that he wouldn’t hit for power, and would slow down as he filled out, making him a small, stocky singles hitting right fielder with no speed. If you’re thinking of Jose Tabata right now, then know that those fears came up. But I hate player comps, because that might not even happen with Ramirez. He might stay in shape, keep his speed, and be a line drive hitter to the gaps, capable of extra base power and a high average.
Even if he does that, I don’t see him ever playing in Pittsburgh. Not with Austin Meadows ahead of him, and Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, and Starling Marte currently in Pittsburgh. Then there’s Tito Polo right behind him, who is another small, speedy outfielder who has more power potential, but some more questions about his hitting ability and K/BB rates. So the trading of Ramirez is fine, as this is a player the Pirates aren’t likely to miss in the short-term or the long-term.
As I mentioned, I was going to write about how Liriano was the key to the Pirates contending in the playoffs. The thing is that I didn’t have any answers. It was more a “the Pirates need to figure out what’s wrong here and fix it”, without the obvious solution. And after Liriano was traded, as I was thinking about the deal, a question popped up in my mind: What if Liriano can’t be fixed?
We’ve written about this a few times this year, and a bit last year, but there was a sudden drop off in Liriano’s production after it started becoming common knowledge that he just didn’t throw strikes. He worked out of the strike zone often, and people chased. And then they stopped chasing, and the slider became less effective. He was so good from 2013-2015, struggled at the end of the year, and really bombed this year. So what if this is actually the pitcher he is now?
That’s a question the Pirates weighed as well.
“It was a challenging decision,” Huntington said on the decision to move on from Liriano. “We had some quality discussion about that. The three years that Francisco was really good for us, or the four months we struggled — which was going to be the guy the next two months? Which was going to be the guy the next year-plus? There was some really quality give and take in the room about where we should go with this.”
Huntington didn’t comment on whether there was something specific that Liriano showed which led to the trade, or whether they decided he just wouldn’t become the pitcher he once was. Instead, he discussed the financial flexibility of the move.
“At the end of the day, I ultimately decided that the financial flexibility, adding Drew Hutchison to go with our young pitchers, the financial flexibility that’s going to allow us to reallocate those dollars onto this club in different ways, was a good move for us as we sit here,” Huntington said. “It didn’t take away from this year, but added to our ability to impact this club in different and potentially better ways for next year and beyond.”
The interesting thing here is that a lot of Pirates fans seem fine with the idea of dumping Liriano and getting rid of his contract. The problem a lot of people seem to have with this deal lies with the inclusion of prospects, and the idea that the Pirates might have traded prospects to save money. This would actually be the opposite of their approach in recent years, where they took on salary to keep prospects.
The easy way to figure all of this out would be to get Liriano’s trade value. We’ll start with Dan Szymborski’s tweet from earlier, with Liriano’s projected 2017 WAR.
ZiPS for Francisco Liriano for 2017 in Pittsburgh was down a 95 ERA+, 1.8 WAR.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) August 2, 2016
Liriano has been replacement level or worse this year, so there are two ways we can do his trade value for 2016. We can either give him the 1.8 WAR projection from above, or make him replacement level. The lower the WAR, the lower the value, obviously. I say the 1.8 WAR, pro-rated, makes sense. Toronto is in a race for the division, and they’re not adding Liriano thinking he has no shot at being more than replacement level.
This still leaves us with -$1.2 M in trade value, with Toronto assuming all of Liriano’s deal. The replacement value in 2016 would make it -$5.3 M. So in some way, the Pirates were paying for Toronto to take Liriano off their hands, although I feel it’s minimal. But if that’s the case, it means they paid a lot in prospects for Drew Hutchison, which brings me to the final breakdown.
A lot of people already hate Drew Hutchison, which is weird because I’m pretty sure no one has actually seem him. The anger seems to come from this confusing trade, plus a career 4.92 ERA in 406.1 innings.
If you look deeper, there are some things to like about Hutchison. For example, he has a 4.92 ERA in his career, but a 4.01 career xFIP. Looking at his ratios, a big reason for the inflated ERA is his HR/FB ratio. Pitching in the AL East and in Toronto could be hurting him there, just like it might have been hurting Ivan Nova. In fact, the Pirates are taking two big risks here that just getting these pitchers out of the AL East can solve their problems. That’s exactly what Huntington discussed first when breaking down what they liked about Hutchison.
“Part of it is the league and the ballpark,” Huntington said, when discussing factors that could lead to better future numbers. “Part of it is we believe there are some things that we can help him with in terms of pitch sequencing, in terms of pitch selection, in terms of how we attack hitters, and how he utilizes the quality of individual pitches that he has a little bit differently. We believe that he can step right in to our rotation next year, and be a quality addition to that rotation, to Gerrit and our youngsters, and maybe a free agent or maybe a trade, depending on how we utilize the financial flexibility we have. There are some things that he does that we believe we can help, and there are also some things that we believe a change of scenery will help him with naturally.”
I’m going to throw out a few stat comparisons here, just to add some perspective to Hutchison.
Hutchison: 4.92 ERA, 4.01 xFIP in 406.1 IP
Player A: 5.20 ERA, 4.17 xFIP, 377 IP
We’re starting here to illustrate the AL East factor. Player A actually looks slightly worse than Hutchison, with a lower ERA and xFIP. The main source of his problems were an inflated HR/FB ratio, and he pitched in the AL East during this time. He was also much older than Hutchison when he had his struggles.
The player? A.J. Burnett in the two years before being traded to the Pirates. And as we know, he did pretty well with the Pirates. The next two years, he had a 3.41 ERA and a 3.17 xFIP. The HR/FB ratio normalized, and he also improved on a few things, while taking advantage of a pitcher friendly park and a new league. That’s not a guarantee to happen with Hutchison, but it shows that there’s some long standing history of the Pirates taking guys out of the AL with bad numbers/good advanced metrics and bringing them to the NL (Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano could also fit this bill).
Now here’s the next guy.
Hutchison: 4.92 ERA, 4.01 xFIP in 406.1 IP
Player B: 4.52 ERA, 4.72 xFIP, 193 IP
I’m also going to add here that in Hutchison’s first two years at a young age, he had a 2.3 and 1.5 fWAR. Player B had a 2.7 and 1.9 fWAR. Both fell off after that.
For Player B, the decline was due to injury. He had a shoulder problem after that second year. The numbers posted above are his numbers since returning from his injuries.
Player B is Matt Moore, who was a big target on the trade block this year.
I like Moore, but apparently not as much as others. When the rumors were going around that the Pirates were looking at Moore, with Jake Odorizzi as a backup plan, I didn’t understand why Odorizzi wasn’t the main guy. Moore had a shoulder injury, and hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire since his return, as the numbers above would indicate. Granted, he’s better this year, but still has a 4.08 ERA and a 4.67 xFIP. His career xFIP is 4.43, which is 42 points higher than Hutchison, with only about 110 additional innings. Now Moore might not have seen this decline without the injury, but that doesn’t change the pitcher he is right now.
I doubt we’d see the same outrage if Moore was acquired for McGuire, Ramirez, and shedding Liriano’s salary. And yet you could make an argument, based on their history, that Moore should have equal value, or less value than Hutchison. Both can be under control for three more years, Moore has a higher cost, is two years older, and has the injury track record. I mentioned that Hutchison fell off after his first two years. I didn’t mention that they were the last two years. So it’s not like Hutchison has been struggling for a long time. This is a guy who had some good xFIP numbers, and still has some good numbers.
I actually really like the addition of Hutchison. The Pirates seem to like him too. He turns 26 later this month, and if he can live up to the expectations they seem to have for him, then he could be a great addition. So what about a trade value for him? Let’s start with the ZiPS:
90 ERA+, 1.0 WAR in ZiPS
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) August 2, 2016
From here, things get tricky. Hutchison is eligible for arbitration three more times, assuming he stays down all year this year. I set his 2017 salary slightly higher than 2016, at $2.5 M. From there, I used 1.0 WAR per year, and 60% and 80% of his free agent value for the final two years. This led to salaries of $4 M and $5 M. This all led to a trade value of $11.4 M.
The thing about this value is that there’s a chance Hutchison could do more. If he’s a 2.0 WAR guy each year, his value would be $25.4 M, and that’s with salaries of $6 M and $8 M his final two years. The better he does, the more those salaries go up, and the more his value increases. And there’s definitely that possibility here.
ZiPS isn't assuming searage magic, so there's upside.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) August 2, 2016
So if we take that $11.4 M from Hutchison, and the -$1.2 M from Liriano, the Pirates would owe $12.6 M in trade value. Ramirez and McGuire are both Grade B hitters, who fall outside of the top 100 prospect lists. The value of a Grade B hitter is about $5.5 M, which means they’d combine for $11 M. That’s fair value for Hutchison, meaning Liriano basically goes for free in this scenario.
But I don’t agree with the Grade B ratings. I think McGuire is closer to a 76-100 prospect, giving him a value of $10.4 M. So the total would be about $16 M in trade value coming from the Pirates, which is more than what they should owe. You could either look at this as them paying a lot more for Liriano, or a lot more for Hutchison. I look at the deal as salary dumping Liriano away for free, and paying a high price for Hutchison. Either way, I think they paid a lot, and the deal would sit a lot easier if it was Ramirez and 1-2 of certain Tier 3 or Tier 4 players, rather than McGuire.
I also think you can make an argument against the idea of paying so much for Hutchison, as there can be a perception that they paid based on their value, and not the market value. On the flip side of this, Toronto doesn’t have to trade Hutchison, and the price for controllable pitchers is really high in this market.
Grading the Deal
There is always a desire to issue a snap judgement of a deal, and grade the trade immediately. This is a weird trade, because you can do that for Toronto, but you can’t do that for the Pirates. Toronto gets Liriano, with the hopes that he bounces back and helps their playoff race. If that happens, it’s a very cheap add for one year and two months (and maybe I write a different version of that “Liriano is the key” article). Plus you’ve got two talented prospects who have already slotted into their top five.
For the Pirates, this deal is all about the long-term. We won’t get to see Hutchison in the majors until next year, unless he comes up in September, at which point they’d still have him for three more years beyond 2016. We also won’t get to see what they do with the savings from Liriano, with about $18.6 M saved over the next two years off his contract in the deal. They did already take on some money in Antonio Bastardo, although they’re getting money, so it’s hard to say how much they’ve added to off-set these savings.
I’ll talk more tomorrow about the payroll, but after this trade, the quick reaction is that they better be spending next year. It’s not a bad thing to dump Liriano if you don’t believe in him going forward. But if you do that just to go the cheap route the following off-season, then it wouldn’t be acceptable at all. And I’m not talking about spending just to spend. I’m talking about aggressively pursuing a good player who costs money, because most of the team is set, and most of the team is making the league minimum or very little in payroll.
As for the rest of the deal, it really all hinges on Hutchison, since he’s the only return. The Pirates are putting a lot of faith that he’s going to live up to their expectations. If he does, the consensus on this deal might be a lot different a year from now. If he doesn’t, then this trade could go down as a disaster, especially if Reese McGuire reaches his upside. And even if McGuire falls short, it would look bad that the Pirates wasted valuable trade chips if Hutchison doesn’t pan out.
For now, we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out. I know it’s illegal in today’s trade evaluation game, where you must have full, concrete opinions the moment a trade is announced. Right now, my opinion is that I like Hutchison, don’t like giving up McGuire, don’t mind dumping Liriano, and overall feel they gave more than they got. At the same time, I think it’s not out of the question that the trade could look like a win for them in the not too distant future, with the added bonus of payroll flexibility, if they spend properly. But they’ve certainly put themselves in a must-win situation, because this trade could be remembered for years if they miss.
**My goal with this article, and with every article, is to take a level-headed approach and try and see every side of the deal, while still giving my honest opinion. If this is an approach you appreciate, then I recommend subscribing to the site, where you get this same approach on all of our daily analysis. Speaking of which, we had a busy news day, beyond the trade deadline. Subscribe to read all of the other articles below, and all of the articles we have coming up.
**Pirates Are Still Trying to Contend in 2016 With Additions of Nova and Bastardo. My recap of the other trades today, which have more of an impact on the 2016 season. After all of this, the Pirates didn’t really hurt their chances at competing this year. In fact, you could argue they’re better off with Nova and Bastardo over Liriano and Niese.
**Prospect Watch: Kuhl Looks Solid in Return; Keller Continues Recent Struggles. Good to see Chad Kuhl back. I wonder if he can work his way back into the rotation in Pittsburgh?
**Pirates Trade Francisco Liriano to the Blue Jays. The Liriano trade breakdown.
**Pirates Trade Jon Niese to the Mets For Antonio Bastardo. The breakdown of Niese/Bastardo.
**Pirates Acquire Ivan Nova From the Yankees. The Ivan Nova breakdown.
**Edgar Santana Promoted to Indianapolis. This is a good story. Santana was in the DSL two years ago, and he’s already in Triple-A as a legit relief prospect. Read the story to find out what led to this jump and his prospect status.
**Top Performers: Craig, Hanson, McGuire, Tucker, Garcia, Hinsz, Holmes. Our weekly feature, with reports on the top performers from the last week, including our final report on Reese McGuire.
**Morning Report: Checking in on the 2016 Draft Picks. John Dreker checks on the progress of the 2016 draft picks.