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I don’t know how many times I’ve typed “No Man’s Land” on the site in the last six months. I just know that it’s beginning to sound like a catch phrase.
The Pirates entered the trade deadline this year in a place that I’ve referred to as No Man’s Land. They were on the outer edge of being contenders, but not strong enough to go all-in for the 2017 season. They had some players to trade away and rebuild for the future, but they weren’t far enough out to justify a total blowup. So they played the middle. They traded Tony Watson for Oneil Cruz and Angel German. But then they traded for Joaquin Benoit to take Watson’s place.
Trading Watson makes sense. They probably weren’t going to contend, and they got a high upside infield prospect in the lower levels in return. Adding Benoit didn’t make sense. It didn’t cost much, but it still made you wonder why they were wasting a roster spot, rather than giving additional time to one of their young relievers.
In the following week, they added Sean Rodriguez and George Kontos in more smaller deals. Kontos came for free, while Rodriguez was added for Connor Joe. Both moves were more aimed for the 2018 season, with Rodriguez under contract through the 2018 season, and Kontos under team control through 2019.
So now we enter an offseason where it hasn’t been clear what direction the Pirates are headed in, and those moves at the deadline didn’t make it easier to figure things out. If they’re planning on selling for the 2018 season, then why add Rodriguez and Kontos? Those are moves that should be precursors to bigger moves allowing you to contend. Granted, the Pirates could try to get the best performance out of each player, then flip them in 2018 for a bigger return than what they got them for in the first place. But it doesn’t seem like that is their main priority. That’s a strategy the Oakland A’s and other teams have employed in the past, but when the Pirates add players, it’s aimed at helping the team, rather than future trade value.
Neal Huntington’s public comments don’t exactly clear up the confusion of where the team is headed.
Neal Huntington basically said the Pirates have yet to determine which direction they'll go this offseason — add for 2018 or retool for 2019 and beyond. "Depending upon what we’re able to do in this market, that goal (postseason success) may be ’18, that goal may be ’19."
— Adam Berry (@adamdberry) December 14, 2017
Huntington also expanded on that topic, saying that they are comfortable going in either direction, but did have this notable quote, via Adam Berry:
“We’re not looking at ‘all-in’ or ‘all-out’ because we believe this is a good group to build around.”
Before I get into that, I’m going to start with a disclaimer. I generally don’t put much weight into public comments like this. Actions speak louder. All we’ve heard so far are rumors where other teams are asking about the Pirates’ bigger names, such as Gerrit Cole, Andrew McCutchen, and Josh Harrison. We haven’t heard rumors suggesting the Pirates will be buyers. The market indications are that the Pirates have a better opportunity to sell.
We also haven’t heard from the Pirates what direction they’re headed in, and all of the selling rumors come with the point that the Pirates aren’t actually shopping players, but just listening to offers.
I don’t buy that Huntington is undecided on their direction. I think he knows the direction the team is headed in. I just don’t think we know that direction, because there’s no incentive for him to make it public. He is asked questions, and he has to give an answer, which can be tricky if you don’t want the honest truth out there about the offseason plans. We’ll find out eventually what their plan is, but we’re going to find out from actions, rather than getting an early preview from words.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s break down that quote. I believe the second part is true, no matter what direction we’re talking about here. This is a good group to build around, whether the Pirates are buyers or sellers.
If they try to contend, this is a group that I calculated at 85 wins, based on the depth charts and ZiPS WAR. You can add to that group and try to contend.
If they decide to sell, they still have a lot of long-term pieces in place to contend in the future, and maybe as early as 2019. You can trade a lot of players and still have core people like Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, plus top prospects like Mitch Keller, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Austin Meadows, and Ke’Bryan Hayes in the mix for the future.
I believe this team could try and contend in 2018 as buyers this offseason, or they could contend in future years, even if they sold. But now let’s go back to that first part of the quote.
“We’re not looking at ‘all-in’ or ‘all-out'”
Again, public comments disclaimer applies, but if this is something the Pirates believe, then they’re not trying to contend in MLB in 2018 and beyond. They’re trying to contend in MLB circa 2013-2015 and before.
This is an “all-in” league now. You have teams like the White Sox blowing it all up, going hardcore on a total rebuild, and caring nothing about the MLB results until that rebuild is finished. They pair that with spending when it’s time to compete. We haven’t seen the end results for the White Sox, but this same approach led to the last two World Series winners.
You’ve also got mega-spenders playing with small market strategies. The Cubs and Astros benefited from this, with their high local revenues leading to the ability to boost their team in a big way when it counts. The White Sox will be able to do the same thing. Then you’ve got the Dodgers and Yankees with similar strategies. That makes it even more difficult on small market teams like the Pirates when they want to contend.
If the Pirates want to contend in 2018, they need to go all-in. That’s just because this team isn’t a small addition or two away from being a strong contender. In order to be a strong contender, and in order to justify keeping McCutchen and Cole, they’re going to have to trade a lot of valued prospects and spend a lot of money to make it work. They could try to edge their way into a Wild Card spot, which would technically be contending. It would also be the same strategy they’ve had the last two years, which didn’t work out well.
If they want to rebuild, then I don’t know if there’s a definition of “all-out”, but there are players they’d have to move. If they move Cole, then McCutchen, Harrison, Francisco Cervelli, and others who are under control through 2018 and 2019 should be on the move as well. There’s no use keeping any of those options if you’re not going to be contending. If you’re not worried about contending in a certain year, then you don’t need to worry about how many wins you’ll have in that year. Anything below the amount needed to make the playoffs is irrelevant, and not worth paying for or keeping players around for.
We’ll find out soon enough what direction the Pirates are actually headed in. But we already know what direction MLB is headed in. It’s now an all-in or all-out league, and any team playing the middle is in serious danger of being stuck in No Man’s Land.