Despite taking two of three from the Washington Nationals this week, the Pirates find themselves in last place in the NL Central, and sitting five games under .500. The losing record, and the upcoming trade rumor mill season, has led to a lot of speculation trade rumor articles. I’ve written before about how this time of year can lead to trade rumors that aren’t really rumors, but instead just filling the void of articles until there are actual rumors and trades to discuss.
The current version of those events involves polling executives around the league to see who they think will be buyers and sellers. In this process, you get cases where an executive might think the Pirates will trade or at least shop someone like Gerrit Cole, for example. It’s not really a rumor, because it’s just someone inside the game taking a guess at what might happen. It doesn’t mean the Pirates have shopped Cole, or that they will shop him. It just means the thought is that they could do it.
That’s not really an original thought. It follows a cookie-cutter approach that takes place every year. If a team is losing, every player who is not under a long-term contract gets discussed as a trade option. The team is losing, and thus they have no choice but to blow it all up and start over. It’s the opposite approach for buyers. They have to trade every prospect they can to upgrade in every possible way to make a run for it that year. These extreme approaches lead to easy black and white discussions about teams and their futures.
The reality is that teams generally operate in shades of gray. There will be teams that go all-in one year, and there will be teams that blow it all up. Most articles suggesting either approach are only focusing on the current season. Teams have to focus not only on the current season, but their chances in future years. The teams who take the extreme approach do so because they are considering both, and came to a conclusion that this is their last shot to win (all-in), or that they really don’t have a strong chance to win in the next few years (rebuild).
The rumor mill is starting up with speculation about which teams could be buyers and sellers, and with the position the Pirates are in, they’re starting to get the “blow it all up and rebuild” treatment. That doesn’t mean they will do it. And I’m not here to say whether they will or won’t take that approach. I do think we should ask whether they should take that approach.
The Pirates have faced a lot of unfortunate circumstances this year. They lost two of their top hitters to a DUI/visa issues and a PED suspension. They have seen most of their other hitters under-performing, or injuries to the productive hitters. Their top young MLB starter was shut down with testicular cancer. It makes you wonder where they’d be right now if a few of those things went in their direction. And that makes you wonder whether they are a team that has no shot going forward, or a team that can contend outside of a season where everything goes wrong.
To get an answer for that, we need to take a look at each position now, and in the future. With all of these positions, keep in mind that I’ll be discussing prospects who can eventually come up and help. The unwritten truth about prospects is that they aren’t guaranteed (not that MLB players provide a guarantee either, as we’ve seen from the difference in projections on Andrew McCutchen from three years ago and now). That said, teams need a plan at each position, and ideally a few backup plans. Get enough options in place, and you’ve got a good shot of things working out for you. And if it doesn’t, it’s something to address at the time, either by trade or free agency (like when Tony Sanchez didn’t work out and the Pirates added Francisco Cervelli to replace Russell Martin).
Here is the rundown of each position, only considering the starting options for each spot.
Cervelli is under team control through the 2019 season. The Pirates have Elias Diaz in Triple-A as a potential starter in the same mold as Cervelli, with strong defense and the offense being a bonus. Depending on the injury situation, Diaz could take over at times before 2019, and he’s the best bet right now to be the long-term starter. The Pirates do have catching prospects below Diaz, most notably Jin-De Jhang in Altoona, and Christian Kelley in Bradenton. I’m not sure I would project either guy as more than future backups at this point, although if Kelley’s hitting this year is a sign that he’s figured it out, then he could emerge as a starter option as well.
I would say the catcher position is locked up for the short-term and the long-term. I think Diaz’s defense will transition well over to the big leagues, and I don’t think the Pirates will be looking for a ton of offense from him beyond that, with any offense he does provide being a bonus.
The Pirates have Josh Bell under team control through the 2022 season. He’s showing a lot of positive signs this year, finally seeing his power translate into games at the MLB level, and seeing improvements with his defense. It’s a small sample size with both, although it provides reason right now to pencil him in as the long-term first base option.
The Pirates also have Will Craig in the minors, along with Connor Joe in Altoona. Joe can play other positions. They can take their time with Craig, eventually using him as either a trade chip, or a guy who could take over for Bell.
If you haven’t read Travis Barnett’s latest article about Josh Harrison, you should check it out. While I don’t believe Harrison is going to continue putting up his current numbers going forward (matching or exceeding his 2014 production), I also think there could be reason to expect him to do better than 2015/16. The Pirates have some middle infield prospects in the minors, along with some help that is big league ready. Harrison has two option years for $10 M and $10.5 M. With his defense, the 2018 option could be picked up if he continues this hitting, providing a bridge until someone is ready.
Adam Frazier isn’t a prospect, but could be an option to take over for Harrison. His defense would be a big downgrade, and I think the team is stronger with him as a super utility player. Max Moroff is showing some power in Triple-A this year, but I’m not convinced yet that he will hit enough in the big leagues to be more than a utility infielder.
The best prospect option emerging might be Kevin Kramer, who Sean McCool wrote about today. I had him pegged for a breakout season last year, and while he was making hard contact throughout the year, his numbers didn’t reflect what he showed in the games. He’s now seeing his production translate over to the stat line, and after seeing him make consistent hard contact for the last two years, I don’t think the performance we’re seeing is a fluke. I could see Kramer emerging as a starting option, possibly by the middle of next year. The Pirates have some backup plans for him, which I’ll get to in the shortstop section.
I don’t know what to expect from Harrison next year, or the rest of this year. I could see the Pirates either holding on to him for another year, or going with Frazier as a stop-gap until a prospect is ready. The long-term here is reliant on prospects working out, but I think there’s good depth at this position.
Jordy Mercer is under team control for one more season, and I think at some point in the next year he will be replaced by Kevin Newman. If Newman doesn’t work out in the long-term (I see him being a better version of Mercer on offense, with the chance to have the same defense), then Cole Tucker is another option in the system. Tucker’s offense is doing better this year in Bradenton, and is becoming a legit stolen base threat. If the Pirates are fortunate enough for both Newman and Tucker to work out, then one of them could move over to second base if Kramer doesn’t work out. I don’t think Tucker would arrive until 2019, so that’s not a short-term solution.
Stephen Alemais and Adrian Valerio are two other interesting middle infield options who are primarily shortstops. Alemais is one of the best defenders in the system, and has been working on his hitting. He’s shown flashes of his ability to hit, but nothing consistent yet. His defense will get him to the majors, but he’ll have to improve at the plate to be a starter. Valerio is raw on both sides of the ball, showing good tools, but lacking consistency on both sides, sometimes even in the same game.
The Pirates aren’t getting great production from this position right now, and will probably have average production going forward, at best.
At this point, I’m not expecting Jung Ho Kang to be back with the team at all in future years. If he is back with the team, that would be a nice bonus. They do have David Freese under team control through the 2019 season, and while he continues to hit well, his age is a concern. Eric Wood is the only prospect close to the big leagues who has a shot at starting, but right now I’d pencil him in as a utility guy on the corners, or an average starter at best if everything clicks. The latter hasn’t been the case so far, but the Pirates have plenty of time with him.
Ke’Bryan Hayes is the best third base prospect in the system, with the defense at third to get him to the majors. His offense hasn’t been consistent, with a decent average and a good on-base percentage this year, but a lack of power. He did lose a lot of weight over the off-season, and not all of that was intentional, but was a side effect of a cracked rib last year. He should eventually add some muscle back to his frame, and could increase the power production. If he’s only a guy who hits for average and gets on base, then I think he could have the defense to justify being a starter in the big leagues. But he will have to add some power to get close to the overall value that Kang, or Freese, provide.
There’s not much beyond Hayes at this point, although that can change in a few years. We’re talking about a replacement needed for three years from now. Three years ago, Kang and Freese weren’t in the picture, and Hayes was a year away from being drafted out of high school. This is an area to focus on, but there’s some time to find an eventual replacement.
I’m not going to break the group up by positions here. The Pirates have Starling Marte under control through 2021, and Gregory Polanco under control through 2023. Andrew McCutchen is under control for one more season, and I can’t see him with the team in 2018. Austin Meadows is the eventual replacement, and could be ready by the middle of this season, at the earliest.
Beyond Meadows, the Pirates do have some outfield options. Barrett Barnes is still an interesting prospect, although injury issues hold him back. Jordan Luplow is showing some power in Altoona, and can handle left field without taking much value away from his offense. Logan Hill is showing some nice power, and has a good frame, although I’d want to see him do this at a higher level before fully buying in. Casey Hughston is a very toolsy player, but I question if he’ll ever get over his strikeout issues. With all of these options, you’re looking at average starters, or maybe above-average production in some cases if all goes well.
The hope is that Meadows works out. Otherwise, our expectations of having three outfielders with impact upside won’t be met.
The rotation is tricky. When it comes to first base, you just need one guy to step up and be a starter. In the outfield, you don’t necessarily need three impact guys. But the rotation has five spots to fill, and there’s a constant moving of the goal posts when it comes to the quality of the starting staff.
It wasn’t long ago that the Pirates had zero top of the rotation options, and that was a big reason they could never win. They slowly started adding players — A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Gerrit Cole — but never really had more than two guys performing as top of the rotation options until the 2015 season. That’s when Cole, Burnett, and Liriano all stepped up to be three of the top pitchers that year (ranking 13, 14, and 26 in xFIP).
The Pirates don’t need three guys performing like top of the rotation options to win. But when you have that production one year, it starts to be viewed as the norm, and something to build upon, especially when you’ve got pitchers with top of the rotation upside lined up in the system going forward.
They currently have Cole and Ivan Nova under team control through the 2019 season, with Jameson Taillon under control through the 2022 season. That’s a pretty strong top three, and that leaves Tyler Glasnow as a bonus if he can figure everything out.
I would think that you’d want at least two top of the rotation starters, as long as the rest of the rotation has some quality options. Glasnow is under control through the 2022 season along with Taillon. Mitch Keller is the top prospect in the system, and I view him in the same way I viewed Cole when he was in High-A. The expectation is that he will spend half a year in Bradenton, half a year in Altoona, half a year in Indianapolis, and arrive in the majors a little over a year from now, if all goes well.
Obviously a lot can happen at each stop, but I view Keller in the same way I’d view a college pitcher taken at the top of the first round last year. If you go with that view, then a quick future path doesn’t sound extreme.
The key here is that the Pirates will need two replacement starters by 2019-2020, depending on whether they hold on to Cole/Nova throughout their contracts. I think Keller will be ready by then, and it’s possible that Glasnow could figure it out by then. If the Pirates have one of those two guys work out to join Taillon, they’ll continue with a solid top of the rotation. From there, they have a ton of pitching depth throughout the minors, with a few guys who project as middle of the rotation options. The two guys closest to the majors are Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes. Then they’ve got some higher upside guys in the lower levels, with Gage Hinsz, Taylor Hearn, and Luis Escobar leading the way.
The future of the rotation is heavily relying on prospects, but the good news is that the Pirates have a lot of options for when most of those options inevitably fall short of their upsides, or fail to make it at all. One good thing here is that they’ve shown the tendency to add talented starters from the outside for very little. So they may not actually have to rely entirely on prospects, and could go with a trade or a reclamation project to boost the rotation. I think there are some good reasons to be optimistic about the strength of the rotation continuing going forward.
The One Argument in Favor of Blowing it Up
I look at the Pirates and see a team in good position to contend moving forward. Assuming they don’t continue having the worst luck in future years, I think they’ve got enough pitching, enough potential impact bats, and enough players who fill in value on defense and other areas to be a contender. That is the way they are seen outside of Pittsburgh, both by opposing teams and by national media.
But the Pirates aren’t held to a “contender” standard in Pittsburgh. Being a contender is relative to the rest of the league. The only thing Pirates fans focus on is their chances against the Cubs, aka the best team in baseball. It’s a very real problem to play in the same division as the best team in the league, since it alters perception on how good a team is, and how good a team needs to be to win a division or get beyond the top team in the playoffs.
That would be the one argument to blow everything up right now. I could see the Pirates trading Andrew McCutchen, Tony Watson, Juan Nicasio, and other players who are only under control through the 2017 or 2018 seasons. But the argument for trading guys like Cole or Nova (side note: funny that you never hear the same arguments about trading Nova, even though they both have the same years of control remaining) is that you’re not contending while they are here. I think the Pirates still can contend in 2018 and 2019.
But if your standard is to beat the Cubs and try to become the best team in baseball, rather than one of the best teams, then blowing it up might be the best path. The team is still relying on prospects for a lot of positions moving forward, and the current MLB landscape — with more teams in contention due to the second Wild Card, and thus more buyers and fewer sellers — leads to a year-over-year seller’s market that the Pirates could take serious advantage of (which they did last year with the Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn trade).
If you’re looking for a way to be the Cubs, then making the hard choice of punting on 2018 and maybe even 2019 to aim for 2020 and beyond is the way to go. That would involve trading guys who are under team control beyond the 2018 season, maximizing the potential return, and loading up for the next core group that will be arriving in the next 2-3 years.
That said, I think the Pirates could do both. I think they can try to contend in 2018, and then if they have a replacement already, trade Cole prior to the 2019 season and still get a pretty big return. The downside to this approach is that Cole isn’t guaranteed to continue his production going forward (SEE: MLB players, like prospects, aren’t guarantees either), and you run the risk of losing a lot of value that you could get now.
Overall, the issue comes down to a matter of personal preference. Would you go for a team that has a shot at contending for years, with the chance that some bad luck or poor performances would put them out of contention in any given year? Or would you blow it all up, punt for a year or two, and have a non-guaranteed but appealing sounding shot at being one of the best teams in baseball?
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.