My interest in baseball growing up was always on the business side of things. I enjoyed watching the games, and played the game some when I was younger. However, I was always more interested in trades, how teams were built, lineups, and so on. The sport I actually played through high school was tennis.
There’s a place on the tennis court called “No Man’s Land.” It’s the place between the baseline and the service line, and is not where you want to stand. When you’re playing the baseline, you’re being a bit defensive, standing back and returning shots. When you’re up closer to the net, you’re going on the offense, trying to put the ball away.
But No Man’s Land leads to some difficult shots. The ball is going to be landing at your feet, meaning you’re going to have to crouch low for a volley, or time the bounce perfect for a return shot. The longer you stay in No Man’s Land, the more difficult it becomes to compete, since those awkward shots are hard to pull off on a consistent basis.
Over the last month, while watching the Pirates go from definite sellers, to a big run towards .500 and becoming potential buyers, then back to a situation wondering if they’d buy or sell, I came to a realization: The Pirates are in No Man’s Land.
No Man’s Land at the Deadline
This is now the second year in a row where the Pirates entered the trade deadline in a situation where technically they are contenders, but in reality they don’t have a strong chance to contend. Each year they made moves attempting to sell and build for the future, and add to the current team.
The 2016 deadline was more extreme on either end. They traded Mark Melancon to get five-plus years of Felipe Rivero. They also traded for Ivan Nova, who they later extended. The 2017 deadline was a smaller scale of this. They traded Tony Watson, getting two A-ball prospects in return, including one that ranks pretty high in our system already. They then traded for Joaquin Benoit, which is a pretty minor move.
The Pirates didn’t go all-in and trade their top prospects to try to contend in either year, and honestly, I don’t think they should have. They also didn’t go for a full rebuild and trade all of their expiring contracts, along with guys like Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, and anyone else who might be around only for a losing season or two while they reload. Instead, they played the middle ground, which I’m afraid is starting to look like No Man’s Land.
Just like the shots in tennis, it can be difficult to consistently compete when trading in this area. Yeah, they made a great move last year by landing Felipe Rivero for Mark Melancon, and they also landed Ivan Nova as their latest rehab project. But those shots are difficult to consistently pull off. This year they didn’t have a set direction, and the moves were pretty low-key. It was good to get something for Watson, but it was kind of pointless to get Benoit. Meanwhile, they’ll get nothing from the likes of John Jaso, Juan Nicasio, and so on, now that those pending free agents have been retained.
No Improvements For 2018
The result here is that the Pirates didn’t improve their chances for the 2018 season, unlike what happened last year with the additions of Rivero and Nova. Neal Huntington said yesterday that they still like the team for 2018, pointing often to the young players on this club.
“We still like the core of this club,” Huntington said. “We still like the depth and quality of the position player group. We’ve got some young players that we feel are continuing to grow and continuing to develop at Triple-A, and have the opportunity to step in and help us next year. We’ll look for opportunities to add to this club in the offseason. We did take two players out of Low-A ball, so they’re not going to factor in for us at the Major League level. We do like the core, and we do like what we have coming, and really want to continue to push this team forward and be in a position to be on the inside looking out as we sit here a year from now and add to a club that has positioned itself to be headed to the post-season again.”
Huntington has something of a point. Every single member of the current starting lineup is under team control through at least the 2018 season. Every member of the current starting rotation is under team control through at least the 2019 season. They’ve got one of the best relievers in the game in Felipe Rivero under control for four more seasons. Then they’ve got guys in Triple-A like Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, Elias Diaz, Kevin Newman, Steven Brault, and others who might be able to add to the team if enough of them reach their upside.
Then there’s the fact that the Pirates absolutely have money to upgrade this team over the offseason. They saved about $5 M from Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte this year, plus a little over $2 M from Jared Hughes. By my estimates, they added about $1 M at the trade deadline by switching from Watson to Benoit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that difference was negated by the unknown sum the Phillies are sending over with Benoit. They’ve been spending up to a little over $100 M the last few years. They planned to spend up to that amount this year, but got those financial breaks. It’s going to be extremely difficult to believe that they can’t go up to a figure around $110 M next year when considering all of the factors. That amount could allow them to target an upgrade for the current lineup or rotation.
Combine the young players on the MLB team, the young players coming up, and the money they have to spend to improve the team, and you could see how the Pirates would consider themselves contenders.
I just can’t help but look around at some of the top teams in baseball and think about how they got there, and in doing so, I can’t help but think that the current path the Pirates are on will lead to them contending and fighting for a Wild Card or Division, but never really being strong contenders in the playoffs. It could also lead them to the exact same No Man’s Land at next year’s deadline.
The Astros are the best team in the American League right now. It wasn’t too long ago that they were going for a total rebuild, loading up on top prospects in both the draft and in trades. The Cubs might not have the best record, but they’re one of the best teams in the NL. They got to this point through a total rebuild at the MLB level, adding top prospects along the way, combined with the high draft picks that came with the total rebuild. Even teams like the Yankees, with money to spend, have gone for the total rebuild approach in a year where they were technically contenders.
If trading prospects to go all-in one year is the equivalent of charging the net in tennis, then going for a rebuild where everything comes together in a few years is the equivalent of playing the baseline. You’re standing back, being patient, setting things up, and waiting for the right time to attack.
The Problem With the Last Rebuild
The Pirates went through the rebuild process, and they were objectively successful. They took one of the worst farm systems in baseball and one of the worst teams in baseball and turned it into a top farm system and one of the best teams in baseball over a three-year period. They still have talent in the system, and they’re still technically contenders, with a legit shot next year.
The problem is that their rebuild efforts have been too spaced out. They’ve graduated top guys each year, with Starling Marte in 2012, Gerrit Cole in 2013, Gregory Polanco in 2014, and Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell in 2016. The problem with this slow and steady approach is that not every prospect will work out, and definitely won’t work out right away.
I don’t think we’ve seen the best from Polanco yet, and we might be getting to the point where you can honestly ask if he’ll just end up an average MLB starter, despite the tools to be more. Bell is just coming into his own, and could have more production on the way. But then you’ve got Cole with only two years of control remaining by this point. Add in delays from guys like Tyler Glasnow, who struggled to make the jump to the majors, and a guy like Austin Meadows, who dealt with injury issues, and the Pirates are just treading water. By the time one prospect makes it, another is on his way out.
Maybe Glasnow figures it out, but by that point it seems he’d only be replacing Gerrit Cole. The hope would be that Mitch Keller would join him at the same time, making a seamless jump to the big leagues. Austin Meadows is already the replacement for Andrew McCutchen, so it’s not like the Pirates are getting an upgrade here. And then Josh Bell and/or Gregory Polanco might reach their upsides, but the Pirates would have to hope that Starling Marte maintains his production, Meadows works out, or that no other player slumps and offsets the increase in production from those two players.
It would be a lot easier if the Pirates had a big group of prospects arriving at the same time, allowing them to go through the growing pains together. And if you remove Cole and Marte from the equation, they kind of have that happening right now.
A Big Wave of Prospects While Trying to Contend
The big wave of prospects arriving has led to what we’ve seen in each of the last two years.
They tried to contend in 2016 by adding Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong for the first half, while waiting for Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon in the second half. Taillon wasn’t going to be ready until mid-season due to his return from Tommy John, and Glasnow was never really ready, and still isn’t.
They had Austin Meadows ready to come up this year if they needed outfield help by mid-season. Meadows wasn’t hitting, and then was injured this year when the Pirates needed an outfielder.
Glasnow and Meadows are examples that prospects are not going to be ready at the exact time you need them to be ready. The Pirates did have many other things going wrong each season — McCutchen struggling in 2016 and part of 2017, the entire rotation under-performing in 2016, injuries to key players n 2016, Jung Ho Kang’s visa issue in 2017, Starling Marte’s suspension, Jameson Taillon’s cancer diagnosis, Tony Watson declining from his former elite reliever status in both years, and the list could go on. Relying on prospects as their only depth in these matters can be risky, as those prospects might not be ready when you need them.
I don’t think you can fully fault the Pirates for everything that went wrong. No team is going to go through a season with everything going right, and a small market team like the Pirates has to rely on prospects. But again, this points to them being in No Man’s Land.
Right now they’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of margin for error. They can have some things going wrong, but not too many. And even if most things are going right, they’re still a team that has an uphill battle against the Cubs.
Getting Out of No Man’s Land
The Pirates have a decision they need to make.
They could “play the baseline” and sell. They could trade Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Cervelli, David Freese, Ivan Nova, and anyone else who is under control only through the 2018-2019 seasons. They could rebuild in the same way that the Cubs and Astros did, hoping that the rebuild all comes together at the same time, with newly added prospects joining the current group of players as those players all hopefully reach their upsides in a few years.
Or they could “charge the net” and get aggressive. They could spend the money that they have definitely saved this year and boost the team this offseason. They could trade some prospects and add to the 2018-2019 clubs. They could keep McCutchen, Cole, and everyone else through the expiration of their contracts — or until a prospect is actually ready to take over — and go for it while those players are here.
I’m not saying the Pirates should necessarily go all-in here and create a window, where a total rebuild would be necessary after 2019. They still would have plenty of young prospects in the system, and plenty of young players in the majors.
What I am saying is that if the Pirates are looking to contend in 2018, they need to drastically boost their team, getting them over this hump where they’re a fringe contender hoping that more things go right than wrong. And if they don’t boost their team over the offseason, then they’re better off selling and going for a full rebuild, allowing them to become a team like the Astros or Cubs in 2019 or 2020 (at which point they would hopefully have a better local TV deal that would allow them to boost their chances to compete).
This is all kind of unfair to the Pirates, because they are a team that can actually contend right now, and in 2018. It’s not like this is a 72 win team playing pretend. But that’s just because the current landscape in MLB is unfair. This is no longer a league for the middle ground. It’s a league where you have teams like the Dodgers and Cubs gearing up for dynasty runs, and with loads of money to support those efforts. You’ve then got teams like the White Sox who are currently going through the same process, and teams like the Astros and Yankees that are starting to emerge closer to Dodgers and Cubs territory.
The Pirates need to make a decision to try and be one of these mega-teams, regardless of when it happens. They either need to spend money and trade some prospects to bridge the gap in the next year or two, or they need to go for a quick rebuild to improve their chances starting in 2019-2020. If they don’t do either one, they could very well be stuck in No Man’s Land again, finding themselves in the exact same situation at next year’s trade deadline for the third year in a row.
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.