For years, the Pirates followed a pretty consistent strategy when it came to trading prospects and taking on payroll. That strategy was always to defer to taking on money, rather than giving up additional players.
They did this in 2011, when they were barely contenders, and traded for Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, taking on salary and only giving up Aaron Baker in the process. Later that off-season, they traded two lower level wild card prospects for A.J. Burnett, while taking on half his salary, and refusing to part with better prospects for more salary relief.
The 2012 season saw them trading actual players, with Brad Lincoln going for Travis Snider, and Robbie Grossman, Colton Cain, and Rudy Owens going for Wandy Rodriguez. They also traded Gorkys Hernandez and a competitive balance pick for Gaby Sanchez. All of these moves were made not just to compete in 2012, but to help the team in future years.
Their 2013 season was the first one where they made a big splash by dealing prospects for rentals, sending out Dilson Herrera and Vic Black for Marlon Byrd and John Buck, and Alex Presley and Duke Welker for Justin Morneau.
They didn’t make any big moves, instead going for cheap depth additions in 2014. The approach in 2015 was more subtle. They once again took on salary by trading Yhonathan Barrios for Aramis Ramirez and his remaining contract. They purchased Joe Blanton from the Royals. They traded JaCoby Jones for Joakim Soria, and Adrian Sampson for J.A. Happ, which sent two mid-level prospects for two pitchers who were still owed a few million the remainder of the year.
But then we get to the 2016 season, and that’s where things took a turn. Most of the trades were normal, in a sense. They traded Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn, which was a good move to get something for Melancon, rather than seeing him walk this off-season. They also later traded Arquimedes Caminero to the Mariners for pitching prospects Jake Brentz and Pedro Vasquez. On the flip side, they traded Stephen Tarpley and Tito Polo for Ivan Nova, which was similar to the Happ deal, only with a bit more going out the door this time.
And then we’ve got the Francisco Liriano trade, which was the exact opposite of almost every deal they’ve made to date. This one saw Liriano’s remaining salary shed — about $18.4 M over the next one year and two months — along with Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez traded, and Drew Hutchison coming back in return. Regardless of how you stack the deal, they had to include at least one of the prospects to get salary relief. And that process of trading prospects for salary relief is something they haven’t done.
It’s the exact opposite of that Burnett deal in the 2011-12 off-season. In that deal, the Yankees ate some salary for a struggling pitcher, and got two wild card prospects. A lot of the rumors at the time suggested they were trying to eat more salary to get better prospects, which would have essentially been the Pirates trading prospects for money. But they took on his salary instead — two years and $16 M — to lessen the prospect haul.
The Pirates now find themselves on the other side of that type of deal. They had a bad contract, with a pitcher who had a realistic shot at turning things around with another team. Make no mistake about it. This deal hasn’t changed since August, even with Liriano starting to pitch well again. That was expected at the time of the deal. Right after the trade, I wrote about how the Pirates were taking a huge risk with the Liriano trade, including this about his future performance.
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
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.
Fast forward to the end of the year, and Liriano finished with an 0.7 fWAR in his final two months with Toronto. That’s a 2.1 WAR season, which isn’t far off from that 1.8 total. So Liriano had zero trade value after Toronto took on his remaining salary. And the deal is still either an overpay for Hutchison, a payment of prospects to dump Liriano’s salary, or a bit of both.
I think it’s the last one. No one would complain that it was a lopsided deal if they traded Harold Ramirez straight up for Hutchison. But when you add in McGuire, that’s where things become a problem. And that’s really what my criticism of the trade came down to when it happened, that McGuire’s inclusion really put it over the top.
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.
From Toronto’s side of the trade, nothing has really changed based on the expectations at the time of the deal. McGuire and Ramirez were injured shortly after the deal, so their prospect status remains the same, and it’s hard to say what that status was, since it was mixed at the time of the deal (we were, by far, the highest on McGuire). Liriano has improved since leaving Pittsburgh, but that was seen as a likely possibility.
From the Pirates’ side, not much has changed either. They’ve signed David Freese to a three-year, $18 M deal, which coincidentally was the amount Liriano was owed. But I don’t think that’s where the saved money went, as I think they’ll continue to spend this off-season. There’s also Drew Hutchison, who didn’t have a good debut with the Pirates in 11.1 innings in the majors, or 36 innings in the minors. But the Pirates haven’t really started working with him on changes, as they’ve mostly been in the evaluation period with him.
So we’re waiting on both. We’re waiting to see what they spend this off-season, and we’re waiting to see how Hutchison performs next year, after the Pirates make the necessary changes with him. One thing I couldn’t help but notice with him was the decline in his slider’s production the last two years. Here were the stats for the slider in each of his four seasons in the majors.
2012: 34% strikeout, .608 OPS, .261 wOBA, 74 wRC+
2014: 39.7%, .482, .215, 46
2015: 28.8%, .726, .315, 111
2016: 27%, .736, .309, 101
The pitch looked like an out pitch up until that 2015 season. So if the Pirates are going to start somewhere, it should be looking at that slider, and rediscovering where the effective pitch that existed prior to 2015 went.
Overall, this is very similar to what I said after the 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.
I think the first part of that just became more real for a lot of Pirates fans. I still have no problem with trading Liriano, especially if they didn’t believe he’d bounce back. The fact that he did turn things around with Toronto over a short time span doesn’t mean he would have turned it around with the Pirates. Sometimes, guys just need a new change in scenery. So if the plan was to deal a guy who wouldn’t turn it around here, but could turn things around elsewhere, and then use that money on someone more likely to help, that’s fine. But now that Liriano has reclaimed some value with Toronto, the pressure is on for the Pirates to hold up their end of the deal this off-season.
I know that will be met with skepticism that they’ll spend, and if they don’t, that will be a problem. But looking at their approach until now, something was off about this trade. It didn’t match their history of taking on salary to save prospects, and was the exact opposite of that. I don’t think this means we’re seeing a new approach going forward (AKA, please save your lame, unoriginal “They’ll just trade this prospect to get rid of this other guy’s salary” jokes). I think this was case specific, and reflected on how they felt about Liriano going forward, and how it would be a waste of funds to keep him around. That’s fine, but it also means they need to spend those funds on another pitcher this off-season. Because personally, I’d rather have Liriano, McGuire, and Ramirez — even if Liriano has very little shot of rebounding in Pittsburgh — as opposed to Hutchison and money that didn’t get put to use on another pitcher.
**Pirates Acquire RHP Brady Dragmire From Toronto, DFA Phil Coke. The start of the minor off-season transactions, as the Pirates add a pitcher with a sinking 93-96 MPH fastball.
**Instructs Report: Max Kranick Showing Promise With His New Curveball. A breakdown of 11th round pick Max Kranick’s pro debut, and what he’s focusing on this off-season.