There’s a narrative that has existed in Pittsburgh for the last few years that I used to think only existed in Pittsburgh. That narrative is that the Wild Card game is not the playoffs.
The Pirates hosted the NL Wild Card game from 2013-2015, which means they hosted it three of the first four years the one game playoff was in existence. They won it once, and lost the second two years when they had the misfortune of going up against the hottest pitchers in baseball at the time. That’s just the downside of a one game playoff. And yet, there are a lot of people in Pittsburgh who don’t even acknowledge that they made the playoffs, saying that the Wild Card game is a play-in game.
This playoff truther movement is pretty ridiculous, since MLB officially considers the Wild Card game to be part of the playoffs. The Wild Card game does not count toward regular season stats. When you buy a playoff package, you get the Wild Card game. There are so many other things I could mention that show the Wild Card game is the playoffs, and saying otherwise is just stretching to try and avoid giving credit to how good the Pirates were from 2013-15. But I’d rather focus instead on understanding why people feel this way.
I talked about this on Twitter a few weeks ago, and in the process, Doug Gray, who runs Reds Minor Leagues, said the same narrative exists in Cincinnati. The Reds made the Wild Card game once under the new format, while also winning the NL Central in 2012. They lost the NLDS in five games in 2012, and as we all know, they lost the Wild Card game in 2013. They haven’t had a winning season since.
The trend here is that fan bases that lose the Wild Card game don’t consider that the playoffs. Fans who win the Wild Card game don’t care, because they advance further in the playoffs. You can see why fans don’t think their team really made the playoffs if they made the Wild Card game. It sucks when you lose. You win 98 games, which is the second best total in baseball, but the team with the most wins is in your division, so you play a one game playoff. That one game playoff puts you against the hottest pitcher in baseball, who continues his amazing stretch and eliminates you. One night, and your playoff run is over.
The Wild Card game can be enormously frustrating, to the point where you don’t even want to acknowledge that it’s the playoffs. Teams should try to avoid it and win the division, because there’s nothing worse in the game of baseball than having your entire season boil down to one game. You want the “real” playoffs, where you get a best of five series and where every starter in your playoff rotation gets a chance to go, with your best guy going twice if needed. The thing is, the Wild Card game is also the “real” playoffs. It’s just that winning the division leads to a much better version of those same playoffs.
But there’s a problem with winning the division. The complaint in Pittsburgh has been that the Pirates just settle for the Wild Card game, and don’t try to win the division. They don’t do enough in the offseason to try and go for the division, or they don’t make the right moves at the trade deadline to make that run. We’ll ignore that they won 98 games in 2015, and losing their division was just the bad luck of having the best team in baseball in the same division. We’ll also ignore that they tried to win the division the final series in 2014, which led to Edinson Volquez as the Wild Card game starter, and not Francisco Liriano or Gerrit Cole.
But the problem with this line of thinking that they don’t do enough to compete for the division ignores their exact situation. It can best be summed up in the following way:
Winning the NL Central isn’t an easy task. First of all, you now have the Chicago Cubs, a team with the capability to spend among the top ten in baseball, with a smart General Manager who combines all of the best tactics that were formerly reserved for small market teams, and combines that with the ability to add impact players through free agency. The Cubs have built up a power house through the combination of drafting and trading for young talent, and then supplementing that talent with high-priced free agents to fill their final needs.
Then there’s the Cardinals, who are guaranteed for 3.5 million in attendance each year, giving them more revenue than most teams in their market size receive. The Cardinals are also incredibly smart to the point where they have plenty of home-grown players on their roster, which combined with the added revenue from attendance, allows them to splurge from time to time on the open market to fill their needs. If the Cardinals had the budget of the Cubs, things might get extremely scary in the NL Central.
So that’s your competition. A team that is the instant favorite to win the World Series a year after they already won the World Series, and a team that is always in contention, to the point where they have won the most games in MLB since 2010 (I went back until that statement wasn’t true, and if you include 2009, the Cardinals only finish two wins shy of the Yankees, and still 16 ahead of the Dodgers). When you’re a team like the Pirates, with a smaller budget, then winning the division isn’t something simple, and winning the Wild Card isn’t settling.
But I’m not here to say the Pirates have no shot at the division. Because in the past few days, there has emerged a path for them to be a serious contender.
Wednesday morning started out with the rumor that the Pirates were trying hard for Jose Quintana. Thursday morning opened with the news that they agreed to a three-year deal with Ivan Nova. That was followed by the news that they were still going after Quintana. All offseason, the talk has been that the Pirates need rotation help, and not even the addition of one starter would have made things look optimistic, considering the division they’re in. But if you add Quintana to the mix? With a rotation that also includes Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and now Ivan Nova? Suddenly, that’s a rotation that could contend.
I wrote the other day that I think the Pirates could add Quintana. They’ve got the prospects, and if they trade the right combo of those prospects, they could add Quintana without really losing anything in the short or long-term. My suggestion was a package around Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell. With Cole, Quintana, Taillon, and Nova all under control for at least the next three years, you don’t really have an immediate need for Glasnow. I also don’t think that he’s a guy who will have an easy transition into the majors. Could he still reach the upside of a top of the rotation starter in the long-term? I think he could. But if the Pirates keep him, I don’t see him being a guy who would provide top of the rotation production for all six years of control. I think they’d be lucky to get four years of number three starter production or better, unless they kept him in the minors a few years. He just seems like a guy who is going to take some extra time to develop, and when you have a shot to win now, and a shot at a rotation that doesn’t need him, that’s the type of guy you trade.
Then there’s Josh Bell. I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing his full offensive upside. At the same time, I don’t know how much his defense can improve going forward. I’m not as down on Bell as some who predict a 1.0 WAR upside with his defense. I think he could eventually get to a 2-3 WAR player, through a combination of improved offense and slightly improved defense. But that would require a lot of improving on both sides of the ball.
The Pirates now have David Freese under control for the next three years, and he’s been pretty consistent as a 2 WAR player the last few years. He doesn’t do it in a flashy way. He doesn’t hit for a lot of homers, and doesn’t have the highest average. He gets on base, has some power, and plays solid defense. Bell is the type of guy who could be flashy on offense, and frightening on defense. Freese gives up the flash on offense and greatly improves the defense. The end result is that Freese could give you about the same production as Bell for the next three years, albeit in a different way. And then, the Pirates have prospects waiting in the minors who could take over, with the top long-term option being Will Craig.
I think you could lose Glasnow and Bell, and not really feel the impact in the short-term or long-term. It will probably eventually hurt to see them playing so well with another team. But it would also feel really good watching Jose Quintana on the mound at PNC Park over the next four years.
So a rotation of Cole, Quintana, Taillon, Nova, and Chad Kuhl, with Steven Brault, Drew Hutchison, Trevor Williams, and many others trying to take the final spot from Kuhl, or adding depth (add Nick Kingham to that mix by mid-season). That’s a rotation that can contend, not only during the season, but during the playoffs.
But what about the rest of the team? If we’re being realistic, this is a team that is already projected for $102.6 M, and their budget is probably around $100 M. We could say it should be higher, but the facts show that a good amount of teams in baseball max out at around $100 M in payroll, and half the league doesn’t go above $115 M. I don’t think the Pirates would add Quintana without cutting salary elsewhere. That would most easily come from trading Tony Watson and Antonio Bastardo. You add Quintana and remove those two, and the payroll drops down to $96 M. That leaves just enough room to add a cheap bullpen or bench piece, and maybe two if they go a few million over $100 M.
But here’s the problem with that: I don’t think the Pirates would have enough depth in this scenario. Sure, the rotation looks great. The offense returns most of the starters from last year in this scenario. But the bullpen is weakened, and the bench depth is thin. I think an addition of Quintana would also require a trade of Andrew McCutchen, to go with the trade of one or two of the lefty relievers.
That wouldn’t be popular, but I think the Pirates could be better in the aggregate without McCutchen. As I wrote this week, the market is shaping up for some discounts on the free agent outfielders. None of them would be as good as McCutchen, which is why he’d still have value. But you could still get a good player. You could also add a good bench player or two, trying to get the next Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, or David Freese. And you could boost the bullpen.
If McCutchen is traded, along with Watson and Bastardo, that gives the Pirates $18 M to spend to get to $100 M. Last year they got Freese, Joyce, Rodriguez, Neftali Feliz, and Juan Nicasio for a combined $13.4 M. You could probably get four similar players for the bench and bullpen, plus a starter for the outfield until Austin Meadows is ready, and spend around $18 M. And you’d have a much stronger overall team. This is all without a dream scenario where the Pirates add another young starter to the rotation in a McCutchen trade, or another young reliever in a Watson trade, or any other trade additions they could make.
In summary, the Pirates have a path to a team that could look like this:
C – Francisco Cervelli
1B – David Freese
2B – Josh Harrison
SS – Jordy Mercer
3B – Jung Ho Kang
LF – Gregory Polanco
CF – Starling Marte
RF – Free Agent (Eventually Austin Meadows)
Bench – Chris Stewart, Adam Frazier, Jaso, Alen Hanson, Free Agent
Rotation – Gerrit Cole, Jose Quintana, Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl
Bullpen – Daniel Hudson, Felipe Rivero, Juan Nicasio, Free Agent, Free Agent, Jared Hughes, Wade LeBlanc or Tyler Webb
This is getting into fantasy/Out of the Park Baseball territory, but I don’t feel this scenario is out of the question. The biggest hurdle here would be adding Quintana. The Pirates have the prospects needed to add him, and could add him without hurting the team in the short-term or the long-term. From there, it gets harder to project, since it dives into a lot of theories about who could be available and for what price.
But the key thing here is that the Pirates actually have a path to forming a team that could contend with the Cubs and Cardinals. And that’s not just for the 2017 season, but for 2018, 2019, and maybe even beyond if the remaining prospects in the system worked out as expected. It won’t be easy to accomplish.
Then again, it’s never easy in the NL Central.
**Order a Last Minute Pirates Prospects Gift Subscription. Get a gift subscription for a friend or family member, and help expand the site’s content in the process.
**Pirates Reportedly Still Trying to Acquire Jose Quintana After the Ivan Nova Deal. Analysis on the latest Quintana rumor, after the Nova signing.
**Pirates Signing Ivan Nova to a Three-Year Deal. Analysis on the Nova deal.
**Dean Treanor Joins the Miami Marlins as a Bullpen Coach. This news kind of flew under the radar, but Dean Treanor has moved on to accept a big league job with the Marlins.
**Pirates Release Nine Minor League Players. News from last night about the Pirates releasing nine minor leaguers, with one other retiring.
**Pirates Announce Daniel Hudson Deal; DFA Brady Dragmire. They’ll probably announce the Nova deal when they figure out how they can DFA Dragmire again.
**Pirates Reportedly Working Hard to Acquire LHP Jose Quintana. The original Quintana rumor, and my thoughts on what the price could be.