Small market teams have to deal with harsh realities sometimes. One of the biggest of those harsh realities is that they won’t be able to afford certain players when they reach free agency. They also must get most of their talent from the farm system, as a small market team can’t afford to build a contender through free agency. When those two realities combine, you get a situation where small market teams trade a player with a year or two left on his deal to actually get something in return for the player, all while restocking the farm system.
I’ve been an advocate for this approach. It’s something that all small market teams should do in order to stay competitive for the long-term. But there is a third piece to the puzzle. These teams must have an internal replacement for the player they trade away. You develop a replacement for your current talent, trade the veteran player to clear space for the young prospect, and then restock the farm system in the trade, getting ready for the next cycle.
This key part often gets lost when discussing when the Pirates might trade certain players. The normal talk surrounding guys like Gerrit Cole or anyone else under team control for multiple years is that the Pirates will trade them a year or two before free agency, just to maximize the return. No other consideration is given, except that when a player is about to be a free agent, he will be traded.
That’s not always the case though. The Pirates have taken several approaches to pending free agents. Some of them were traded early, while others were retained through free agency. They didn’t get a trade return for those players, but they did get one or two more years of production from them.
One thing to consider in the discussion of how the Pirates handle free agents is that they’ve only been competitive for a short amount of time. Prior to the 2013 season, it made sense that it was automatic for them to trade guys when they were a year or two away from free agency. They didn’t have a shot at contending, so there was no value in keeping a player around. The only value they could get from a player was trading him for prospects who could help when they would eventually contend. That kind of approach led to trades like Nate McLouth going a year after signing his extension, and bringing in Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, who would help the Pirates fill out the rotation when they started contending.
The Pirates are now expected to be contenders on a yearly basis, and so the approach has changed. Gerrit Cole is under control through the 2019 season, and the 2007-era line of thinking would automatically trade him a year or two before he was a free agent, just because the Pirates weren’t going to be competitive in the next year or two. But the 2017-era line of thinking is that the Pirates could be competitive in the next year or two, meaning that Cole’s value isn’t just what he could bring back in a trade for the future, but also what he could provide in those years.
The Pirates have had a small sample size of dealing with free agents while they were a contender. To get an idea of how they have handled these situations, let’s look at what they did with their past examples. I’m focusing primarily on starters here, rather than bench players and relief pitchers, since those two areas are easier to fill.
There have been some cases where the Pirates tried to maximize value. They even tried this over the last offseason in their attempts to trade Andrew McCutchen with two years of control remaining. In that case, they had Austin Meadows waiting in the wings, and the rumors around that time had them looking at outfielders, likely to provide a stopgap until Meadows was ready.
They’ve made similar trades in the past, going back to Joel Hanrahan prior to the 2013 season. The team was trying to get over the hump of a winning season, and trying to make the playoffs. They had Hanrahan for one more season and about $8 M expected in arbitration. They traded him and Brock Holt and received Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus, and Stolmy Pimentel.
Hanrahan fell apart with the Red Sox, while Melancon went on to become one of the best relievers in baseball. Holt became a valuable utility player for two years, and none of the other guys really worked out. But getting five years of control of Melancon for one year of Hanrahan, plus saving money on Hanrahan’s contract (which was used to sign Francisco Liriano) was a good move.
They continued that chain last year. Melancon had two months of control remaining, and the Pirates weren’t going to be able to re-sign him. So they traded him to the Nationals for five years of Felipe Rivero, plus Taylor Hearn. Even if Hearn doesn’t become anything, Rivero’s performance is showing that the trade could be a steal, potentially getting another top reliever on the rise in exchange for a guy they were about to lose to free agency.
Of course, not all of the trades have been good. They traded Neil Walker prior to the 2016 season, getting Jon Niese in return. It would have been a better approach to trade Walker for some projectable guys in the lower levels of the minors. Dealing Walker wasn’t a huge mistake in terms of getting rid of him, since they had Josh Harrison able to take over. The mistake was trying to use that trade to fix another problem — the rotation — which ended up making it a bad deal.
In all of these cases — including the attempted McCutchen trade — the Pirates had guys waiting in the wings. Jason Grilli took over as the closer for Joel Hanrahan, with Melancon becoming a set-up man. Tony Watson took over for Melancon, with Rivero becoming a set-up man. Josh Harrison took over for Walker. Austin Meadows would have taken over for McCutchen at some point, with a likely stop-gap in between. The Pirates didn’t trade any of these guys with a question mark about who would take over.
No Value Remaining
There were a few other cases where the Pirates held on to players until they had little to no value remaining. In some of those cases, such as Pedro Alvarez and Jeff Locke, they just non-tendered them. In other cases, when a player was under contract, they traded them in what amounts to a salary dump.
That happened with Charlie Morton prior to the 2016 season. He was owed $8 M, and was traded to the Phillies for David Whitehead. The prospect side of the deal didn’t work out, but Morton also didn’t work, getting injured early in the season, and would have been a waste of money. That contract may have prevented the signings of David Freese and/or Matt Joyce later in the offseason.
They also had the infamous salary dump of Francisco Liriano, trading his final year and a half of salary, along with Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez, in exchange for Drew Hutchison. Liriano is now struggling again, and his injury issues are back. McGuire and Ramirez have both struggled, continuing their decline as prospects, which began before the deal. Hutchison hasn’t worked out as the Pirates had hoped. The only value in this deal is that they saved money, which they used to bring back Ivan Nova and David Freese.
The hope with all players is that the team can trade them before they lose value, or continue to get value from them on the field if they aren’t traded. The fear of keeping a player and watching his value plummet may actually be happening right now with Andrew McCutchen, although the Pirates certainly tried their best to deal him, and received plenty of criticism about their loyalty for shopping him.
In each of these cases, the Pirates held on to players who didn’t have a replacement. They kept a struggling Pedro Alvarez for one more year before they non-tendered him, as there was no internal option at first base. They haven’t really been in a situation where they’ve had plenty of rotation depth, leading to them keeping Morton and Locke until they became too expensive. That’s kind of typical for back of the rotation guys though. Liriano was a different case, seeing a sudden decline in a year where he was expected to help carry the rotation. They could have gotten more value from him by trading him prior to the 2016 season, but he was viewed as a key piece for 2016 and beyond, so he stayed.
Sticking Around Until the End
It’s not inevitable that the Pirates trade away their pending free agents. They’ve kept a few players around, although all of the examples were with the team on short-term deals to begin with.
The most notable guys were Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett, who both had two years with the Pirates, and both departed as free agents. Burnett was offered a contract to return at a price he thought was too low. He signed with the Phillies, then opted out to return to the Pirates for one more year at a reduced rate. Martin was too expensive, and the Pirates replaced him by trading for Francisco Cervelli.
Cervelli had two years of control remaining, and at the start of the second year, they extended him for three more years. They did the same thing with David Freese, who was on a one-year deal, and received a two year extension with an option for a third year.
You’ll start to notice a trend here. All of these cases are examples where the Pirates didn’t have good depth at the position. They signed Russell Martin because none of their catching prospects had worked out. They traded for Cervelli for the same reason. They kept Burnett until the end, tried to bring him back, and then did bring him back because they didn’t have a lot of strong top of the rotation options.
Keeping Cervelli and Freese strays from this a bit. They could have gone with Elias Diaz (who was actually injured with an elbow issue at the time of the Cervelli extension), but extended Cervelli and made Diaz a depth option out of Triple-A. He could still take over in the future. They had Jung Ho Kang, and extended Freese for the same amount of time. At that time, the DUIs were unknown, although there were the accusations of sexual assault out of Chicago. There were also concerns about Josh Bell’s defense on the other side of the diamond. Freese was more of an insurance policy to add depth, and that paid off.
When Do the Pirates Trade Players?
The Pirates pretty much follow the trend of most small market teams, trading players or attempting to trade them only when an internal replacement is ready, or dumping them when they aren’t productive enough for their salaries. If you’re looking for a guide to when Player A might be traded, the best thing to do is to look at who would be in line to replace him if a deal is made.
If there is no replacement, expect him to remain with the team, where his value would be the production he has on the field. If a replacement is available, or about to be available, then there’s a good chance the Pirates will look at dealing him. The amount of time left on his deal really is useless when compared to the factor of who they will replace him with.
Of course, most of the rumors this year surround Gerrit Cole, and it’s difficult to judge whether a replacement is available. The Pirates have pitchers who can step into the rotation, but none who match Cole’s upside. The best long-term option would be Mitch Keller, but he’s not ready for another year, at the earliest. And then you’d have to ask how many top of the rotation guys they’d need. Do they trade Cole if Tyler Glasnow emerges to join Taillon and Nova at the top of the rotation? Or do they go with four guys in a stacked rotation at that point?
Perhaps this is why they haven’t seen a trend of trading starting pitchers with years of control remaining, but instead took the value that those guys brought to the field. If they did trade Cole early, it would be a change from their approach as contenders so far.