This week I’ve written a lot about a potential Pirates rebuild, which seems likely to take place in some fashion. Rebuild is a word that can come with many definitions. It could mean a total “blow it all up, trade every player away, and contend somewhere down the line” or it could just be a retooling where you trade a few players, and hope for a quick turnaround.
A lot of the rumors surrounding the Pirates have focused on guys who are only under contract for the next year or two. Andrew McCutchen is under control through the 2018 season. Gerrit Cole through 2019. Josh Harrison through 2020, with two of those years being option years. It seems that if the Pirates are going to be sellers, and are going for a rebuild, they will be going for more of the retooling approach, rather than blowing it all up.
I wrote on Tuesday that I felt the Pirates could turn things around quickly and put themselves in position to contend as soon as 2019. If we’re doing a comparison to the previous timeframe where they were contenders, the 2019 season could be the 2012 year where they get close, but don’t have enough. The 2020 season could be the 2013 year where they finally become contenders all year.
That raises a question: What do you do with the guys under control through the 2021 season? Do you keep them around and go for another 1-2 years of contending, hoping that you can stretch it beyond those years when those players depart? Or do you trade them now, and go for that total rebuild?
I bring up the 2021 players because there are two important players who are under team control through those seasons: Starling Marte and Felipe Rivero. Marte is arguably the best position player on the team right now when he’s at his full potential, with the chance for a 4+ WAR on an annual basis. Rivero is one of the best relievers in the majors, after having a breakout year in 2017. If the Pirates want to contend in the future, these will be two key players who can get them there.
But would it make sense to hold onto these two players for 1-2 years of rebuilding, just to keep them around for the final two years of control where the team might be contenders? Or would it make more sense to trade them now, and maximize the prospects in the system, hoping that the next contending team can all come up around the same time?
That last thing was an issue with the previous contending Pirates team. The Pirates had top prospects arriving almost every year. Andrew McCutchen was up in 2009. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez joined him in 2010. Starling Marte arrived in 2012. Gerrit Cole in 2013. Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison became starters in 2013/14. Gregory Polanco was up in 2014. Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell were among the prospects that arrived in 2016.
It’s good to have a continuous flow of prospects arriving year after year. But when you’re building a team of prospects, this becomes an issue.
By the time Taillon and Bell arrived, Walker and Alvarez were out the door, and McCutchen was into his extension years. The Pirates had Bell to replace Alvarez, and used Harrison to replace Walker. But they found themselves with a window closing. They had younger guys like Polanco and Bell adjusting to the majors, while older guys like McCutchen and Cole were nearing free agency. They made some bad calls as far as the direction of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and had some bad luck to go with that in the form of injuries, poor performance, and suspensions. And as a result, they had three years of contending, and now find themselves sellers, hoping to build another window sooner than later.
You don’t want the same thing happening again in the future. Fortunately, a lot of the prospects in the upper levels are set to arrive at the same time.
The 2018 season could see the arrival of Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer, with the latter arriving as a starting option only if Max Moroff doesn’t hold down the second base job. Austin Meadows should finally arrive, along with several of the rotation prospects, including Clay Holmes, Nick Kingham, and the potential for Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault to stick in the majors.
The 2019 season could see the arrival of Mitch Keller, Cole Tucker, and Ke’Bryan Hayes. That might be a year too early for Hayes, and a year too late for Keller as far as predictions go. It all depends on their performance in 2018.
Those arrivals could give the Pirates three of their starting infielders, one of their starting outfielders, one of their top of the rotation starters, a few other rotation options, plus bench and bullpen options. That could be a core group to create a new window. And that doesn’t include prospects they could get back in trades this offseason, or MLB players they could sign or trade for before they are ready to contend.
But if that group isn’t ready to contend until 2020, does it make sense to keep Marte and Rivero around to join that group? Or does it make sense to trade them, and hope to add a few future impact players to that future team?
I think the Pirates could afford to wait on those decisions for a year. First of all, there’s value in waiting for both players.
Rivero was one of the best relievers in the game this past year, and there’s obviously value for an elite reliever with years of control. But there would be even more value if he could repeat his performance for another season, and show it wasn’t a one year deal. Considering his stuff, I could see him easily repeating the 2017 results.
Marte had the PED suspension, and then struggled in large part in 2017. He finally looked like his old self in September, and could use the 2018 season as a rebound year to show that he’s really back.
Both players could improve their trade values in 2018. But there’s also value to the team waiting and seeing how things go in 2018.
I mention 2020 as the potential 2013 year where the Pirates return to contending. But it’s possible they could do this in 2019. That would require some combination of the following:
**Mitch Keller showing that he’s ready for the majors by the end of the 2018 season, and making a seamless transition, similar to what Cole and Taillon did.
**Kevin Newman stepping up in 2018 to replace Jordy Mercer as a league average starter at the least.
**Either Max Moroff or Kevin Kramer replacing Josh Harrison as a league average starter at second.
**Elias Diaz showing that he could hit enough to start, even if he’s still more of a defensive-minded starter in the majors.
**Ke’Bryan Hayes having a big year in Double-A, showing that he could be ready to take over at third at some point in 2019 — combined with one of the infield prospects providing a stop-gap until he’s ready. David Freese could even combine with one of the infield prospects in this scenario, as Freese would have more value to the Pirates in this role than he would in a trade.
**Gregory Polanco and Austin Meadows showing that the 2017 season was the extreme for their injuries, and that they can be somewhat healthy and productive, even if there are the inevitable injuries to come.
**Polanco and Josh Bell continuing to take strides in the majors to improve their performances.
**Jameson Taillon showing that his 2016 debut, and his 2017 season before the cancer diagnosis is what we can expect from him going forward.
**Someone from the Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow, Clay Holmes, Nick Kingham, and “all of the other starting prospects” group stepping up as more than a back of the rotation starter, providing a solid number three to the combo of Taillon and Keller.
**Someone from the Edgar Santana, Dovydas Neverauskas, Nick Burdi, and “the starting prospects in the top levels who become relievers” group becoming a solid late inning option to pair with Rivero.
**Plenty of breakouts from the young prospects in West Virginia, along with consistent progress from the other guys in Altoona and Bradenton, showing that more help is on the way, and that the above players aren’t the end of the talent run for the next window.
**Plus the impact of the prospects acquired this offseason, with their potential to be ready in 2018 or 2019.
Some of the above things are easier to imagine than others. For example, I could see Keller’s situation playing out a lot easier than I could with Elias Diaz’s situation. And not all of these things need to work out in order for the Pirates to have a shot at contending in 2019.
The 2018 season is going to be a huge evaluation year. It’s going to be a huge evaluation year for the young players on the MLB club, along with the farm system taking a step back toward being one of the top systems in the majors, rather than a middle-of-the-pack group. If things go well, then it’s not hard to imagine the Pirates being buyers next offseason, hoping to build on their young talent and start the next window as early as possible.
Or, I should say, if things go well, then the Pirates SHOULD be buyers next offseason, hoping to build on their young talent and start the next window as early as possible.
And if things don’t go well in 2018? Then the 2018-19 offseason would be the time to discuss trading Marte and Rivero, and trying to maximize that next window of contention.
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.