The date was November 30, 2012.
The Pirates were coming off a losing season. It was their 20th losing season in a row, and it ended in horrible fashion. They were contenders at the end of July that year, and in first place at one point. They followed that up with a horrible collapse during the final two months of the season that really added the sting.
And then, on November 30th, the Pirates non-tendered Jeff Karstens, and mass hysteria followed.
They did sign him back to a smaller deal about a month and a half later. He then got hurt, and outside of the seven rehab innings he pitched in the minors that year, he has never pitched in pro ball again. The Pirates, meanwhile, got some good results that year from Charlie Morton — who they did tender, despite similar injury concerns — and Francisco Liriano, who they signed during the offseason.
But that doesn’t erase all of the outrage over the decision to let Karstens temporarily walk. The Pirates were incompetent for letting someone with such value go, while keeping a guy like Morton. They didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t have a plan. It was just another example of how this management group would never be able to bring a winning team to Pittsburgh.
Of course, people probably don’t remember the Karstens outrage much. That will happen when the results turned out the way they did. I could probably find other examples of over-the-top outrage that year, and maybe a few examples from before that year. (Anyone remember the outrage over letting Doug Mientkiewicz walk as a free agent?)
When you’re in the moment, these moves seem huge. The Pittsburgh media and fan base can create an echo chamber of anger sometimes, where even the smallest and most meaningless moves can blow up into “FIRE EVERYONE!” hysteria. That anger manages to stick around, even though the reason for the anger gets forgotten and chalked up as meaningless with the passage of time.
In the long-term, if Juan Nicasio and/or Wade LeBlanc get claimed off of waivers, I doubt anyone will really remember. But the anger will probably stick around.
Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last night that the Pirates placed Nicasio on irrevocable waivers, which means if another team claims him, they would lose him for nothing. It was later reported that Wade LeBlanc was also on irrevocable waivers.
Before we continue, here is a quick primer of how the August waiver process works:
**Teams can place players on revocable waivers. If a player is claimed, a team has 48 hours to work out a deal with the claiming team. If no deal is reached, they can pull the player off waivers and keep him.
**A player can’t go on revocable waivers twice. Placing a player on waivers a second time would put him on irrevocable waivers. I don’t know if this is what happened with Nicasio/LeBlanc, as players can go on irrevocable waivers at any time. I just wanted to point out this rule that players can’t have multiple trips on the revocable waiver list.
When I saw the news that Nicasio and LeBlanc were both placed on waivers, I was surprised. I thought Nicasio at least would have some trade value down the stretch. It’s kind of similar to the Karstens situation from a few years ago. I thought Karstens would have some value as a starter, and was surprised he was non-tendered at the time.
I don’t bring Karstens up again to suggest that the Pirates have been correct in their assessments before, and that they would be correct now. I bring it up to help illustrate my thinking in this case. I bring it up not to try and defend the Pirates and their moves, but to try and challenge my reactions to those moves.
I had a belief in both scenarios — Karstens had value in the Pirates’ rotation, and Nicasio would have trade value. The Pirates made moves that challenged those beliefs — non-tendering Karstens, and placing Nicasio on waivers to lose him for free.
In each case, I was surprised by the move and initially disagreed in some part with it. But in every move, I try to objectively look at all sides of it. Sometimes that changes my opinion and sometimes it doesn’t. My opinion wasn’t really changed with Karstens, as I thought (incorrectly) that he would be a help to the Pirates, and wasn’t any more of a risk than Morton.
In Nicasio’s case, there was my initial reaction that the Pirates should have been able to get something in a trade for the reliever. But rather than fit every bit of information around that belief to try and prove the belief correct, I tried to prove it wrong.
If the Pirates could have gotten something in return for Nicasio, then what would their motivation have been to turn that down and let him walk for free? They actually would have every motivation to get some sort of value in return for him. They’ve done this in the past with other players, and did it just last year when they traded Arquimedes Caminero for two lottery tickets in Low-A ball, getting Pedro Vasquez and Jake Brentz.
So then why wouldn’t they place Nicasio on revocable waivers and try to trade him? No one has an answer for this, but my guess is that they didn’t get an offer, and decided it was better to keep Nicasio until they felt they were out of the mix.
But how could they not get an offer on Nicasio? That’s actually pretty reasonable to imagine.
The Pirates got Nicasio as a free agent prior to the 2016 season when the Dodgers non-tendered him. He was coming off an 0.9 fWAR season in his transition to the bullpen, but the Dodgers gave him up for nothing. All of the questions above would apply to that decision that the Dodgers made, and the simple answer would be that the Dodgers let Nicasio walk because he had no trade value.
If Nicasio had no trade value with two years of control remaining and coming off an 0.9 WAR in his first year as a reliever, then why would he have trade value now, with just one month of control remaining?
It’s not just Nicasio. The Pirates added Wade LeBlanc last year around this time for nothing at all. They added George Kontos earlier this month for nothing at all. Nicasio was better than both, but those two had years of control remaining and were both serviceable relievers.
Maybe we need to stop being shocked when the Pirates get a middle reliever for free, or outraged when they let one walk for nothing, and instead realize that middle relievers just have no trade value. I do emphasize trade value there. I believe relievers like Nicasio, Kontos, and LeBlanc have value to a contender, but they’re also a dime a dozen, which is why teams don’t usually trade for them, or trade much for them.
The problem here is that the Pirates are not a contender. They have a ton of MLB-ready arms in Triple-A, and the month of September would be better used giving them innings, rather than using them on guys like Nicasio and LeBlanc who probably won’t be in the mix next year. It would be unfair to those relievers to bury them on the roster, rather than allowing them to move elsewhere and get innings. And unless we’re assuming the Pirates have no interest in adding any kind of value to their organization, we can then assume that they tried and were unsuccessful at making a trade — which fits the large middle relief value trend.
I think that problem is where the anger comes from, just like in 2012. The big issue here is that the Pirates aren’t contending this year, and have some work to do to get back to being contenders. Nicasio and LeBlanc don’t matter this year, and probably won’t be factors next year. The Pirates could always sign Nicasio back in the offseason if they felt he could play a big role for the 2018 squad.
But just like 2012, we’re currently reacting to a plan without knowing the plan. It seems that the plan in this case is to get rid of the veterans and let the young guys play in September. If that’s the case — and we’ll find out in due time — then it’s a plan I support, as I wrote about last week. I’d like to see that plan taken to more of an extreme, with guys like Elias Diaz and Jordan Luplow getting playing time over Chris Stewart and John Jaso.
I think the real anger and frustration here is that the Pirates have made moves or have lacked the moves that put them in this position of being stuck in no man’s land for the second year in a row — not really full-blown sellers, but also not really contenders. It’s hard to see the plan and the absolute direction the team is heading in right now, and it’s impossible to point to one single thing and conclusively say that it is the reason they aren’t winning.
But it’s easy to see Nicasio placed on waivers, think a thought of “I figured he would have trade value”, and then allow the anger of the overall situation to take over for this nothing move, rather than just saying “Huh, I guess he didn’t really have any trade value.”
It won’t matter if Nicasio and/or LeBlanc are lost to waivers, and we can safely say that they didn’t have value, since the Pirates would have traded them if they had value. Even the debate on value doesn’t matter, because no one would be celebrating or even caring about getting one low-level wild card prospect with a limited upside if they could get any small amount for Nicasio.
Keeping Nicasio for the final month of a losing season doesn’t help the Pirates. Letting him go for a month doesn’t hurt the Pirates. In fact, giving his innings away to younger players who can help beyond 2017 might actually help the team a small amount. The thing that does matter here is the overall situation, with the Pirates needing to get back to being a strong contender like they were from 2013-2015.