PITTSBURGH – Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington had his usual meeting with the media this afternoon, including our own Alan Saunders. He answered several questions about the non-waiver trade deadline last week, the possibility of the Pirates being active in the August waiver trade market, and some general questions about the Pirates’ starting rotation.
On the moves made last week, Huntington specifically addressed the trade that sent Francisco Liriano, Harold Ramirez, and Reese McGuire to Toronto in exchange for Drew Hutchison, which demonstrated a heretofore unseen willingness on the part of the Pirates’ current front office to trade prospects for salary relief.
“We used the younger players as currency to acquire Drew Hutchison,” said Huntington, reiterating the team’s interpretation of last week’s events. “That is the primary motivation, was the primary motivation, and that is our reality.
“We understand that there are those on the outside that might question that. But that was our primary motivation and remains our primary motivation, to get a young pitcher by the name of Drew Hutchison that we like a lot and feel will be a quality starting pitcher for us as we move forward.”
Huntington did recognize the financial reality of the transaction, noting with an oft-repeated phrase that the trade gives the Pirates “financial flexibility” by clearing nearly $18 million dollars in payroll over the next two years.
Part of the negative reaction to the trade was a perceived delay by the Pirates in confirming that two prospects were indeed being sent to Toronto, and that it wasn’t simply Liriano being traded for salary reasons and/or poor performance. Huntington tried to address some of those concerns this afternoon with some lengthy comments on how what the team does can affect public perception.
“In this situation, our ability to let out what our intent was, what our primary motivation was, it wasn’t there,” said Huntington. “And we understand that with the franchise’s history, that allows people to jump on the negative very quickly.”
It was clear that the team felt their ability to present their “side” of the trade story was compromised by waiting until they had spoken with both Ramirez and McGuire before releasing a public statement. That allowed for other reports to circulate and feed fans’ negative reactions to the deal.
“We wanted to make sure we respected this player, and that was the focus for us, and as a result the optics came out very negative,” said Huntington. “We’ve taken a beating for it, but we feel like we still made the right move in doing what we needed to do to handle the situation the way it needed to be handled.”
Huntington was also asked if the newfound financial flexibility from the Liriano trade would allow the Pirates to take on salary this season via a waiver deal later this month.
“It could absolutely play,” said Huntington. “We’ll look at how acquiring a player with a significant salary plays for this year and plays for future years as well. We have the flexibility to be open, to be aggressive in claims, whether it’s to block our opponents from being able to acquire some players that they may want or need, or for our own benefit.”
“We look to be able to utilize that,” said Huntington, but he quickly couched his response in more careful terms. “I certainly don’t want to sit here and promise that we’re going to be active, because there’s so much beyond our control of our ability to be active.”
Given that the Pirates are currently looking to pass a few other teams to secure a playoff spot, they may have a slight advantage when it comes to the waiver claim process, as their lower position in the standings gives them a higher waiver priority. However, there does not seem to be a clear target to acquire, as waiver trades are usually for highly paid players nearing the end of their deals, or replacement-level players.
Of course, the Pirates recently completed a successful waiver trade with Seattle for Arquimedes Caminero, and Huntington mentioned that the trade came from discussions that were ongoing as the non-waiver deadline approached.
Huntington’s comments echoed those of Clint Hurdle yesterday on Jeff Locke’s moving to the bullpen, that having different multiple-inning relievers was something that the Pirates were focusing on coming out of the August 1st deadline.
“We were looking for multiple pitchers that could give us length out of the bullpen,” said Huntington, noting that Tony Watson, Neftali Feliz, Felipe Rivero, and Antonio Bastardo are generally only used for one inning. Replacing Caminero with Locke does add additional potential innings, but whether positive results will follow after Locke’s transition to the bullpen remains to be seen.
UPGRADING THE ROTATION
Starting pitching has been a consistent area of concern for the Pirates this season, and Huntington addressed some of the concerns about how the Pirates would construct their rotation over the rest of the season and beyond.
“The benefit of having quality young starting pitching is that we don’t have to worry about going deep into the free agent market,” said Huntington. “We’ve talked from day one, you need seven or eight, maybe nine. The team that gets one or two starts from their sixth starter is the rare one in this day and age. You need seven, eight, in some cases even nine, to have an opportunity to run a deep rotation out there to put yourself in a position to win the most of the 162 as possible.”
“We’ll explore the free agent market, we’ll explore the trade market, but we love our young arms internally,” Huntington added. “How much we can ask of how many of them does become a question. That’s where the Drew Hutchison acquisition comes in.”
To Huntington’s point, the Pirates have seen Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, and Steven Brault all miss time with relatively minor injuries this season. That of course doesn’t include poor performances from Liriano, Locke, and Jon Niese, or the injury to Ryan Vogelsong, all of which affected the rotation early in the season. It also does not include the concern about workload for Taillon as he returns from various injuries, and for Glasnow as he approaches his previous high for innings pitched in a single season.
Asked whether these myriad issues had encouraged the team to seek rotation help well before the trade deadline, Huntington seemed to say that help was either not readily available on the market, or at least not available at a reasonable cost, thanks in part to the changes to the playoff structure and the addition of another Wild Card team.
“It’s harder to acquire players, because more teams are in the hunt,” said Huntington. “And even as we looked at the ‘sellers’ as we got closer to the deadline, many of them had already made moves.
“There were some that held players that are on expiring contracts; that typically doesn’t happen, but they’ve held them for their reasons. So it’s not like there’s a plethora of starting pitching available in May or June, even if a team wants to acquire a pitcher. We were engaged in the market, and did not find something that we thought made a ton of sense for us.”
A name that has been floated as being a good fit for the Pirates’ rotation was J.A. Happ, who joined the team at last year’s trade deadline and pitched as well as any starter in baseball over the final two months of the season, posting a 1.85 ERA (2.19 FIP) over 11 starts. Happ is 15-3 with a 3.09 ERA (3.83 FIP) in the first year of his contract, pitching in more challenging environments against opponents the AL East.
“The challenge is [Francisco Liriano]’s first year of his three-year contract was a fantastic season, and J.A. has thrown the ball well, and certainly has shown to continue the ability to do what he did for the two months here,” Huntington said. “There’s still two years on that contract for time to tell.”
“Hindsight always gives you the opportunity to wish you’d done something differently,” said Huntington, noting that the team wanted to re-sign Happ but couldn’t meet the financial aspects of the three year, $36 million deal he signed with the Blue Jays in the off-season.
“We have to make the best decisions we can at the time with the information we have,” Huntington added, taking a more meta perspective. “We have to project what we believe is going to happen, and then work through the outcomes, and learn from what works, and learn from what doesn’t.”