I’ve written many times over the past six months that the Pirates appear to be in No Man’s Land. We’re in an era in MLB where you’re either fully committed to a rebuild, or you are one of the super-teams that is all-in. The middle ground — where you’re trying to remain competitive for the long-term, and by doing so, you are falling short of trying to be one of the best teams in the league — is not a good place to be right now.

The Pirates have been in that middle ground the last two years. They’ve been waiting for prospects to arrive and get established, while holding onto their prospects for future years. They’ve traded players on expiring contracts to build for the future, and at the very same time added players aimed at competing in the present. They’ve topped out at a $100-110 M per year payroll range aimed at contending for the long-term, rather than going bigger in contending years and going smaller in rebuilding years. That last part currently has them in a rebuilding year, projected to spend around $80 M, with the possibility that they could shed more salary in future deals.

I used to believe that the best approach for small market teams was to try and be competitive for the long-term, rather than going all-in. I don’t believe that anymore. But I’m concerned that the Pirates are still taking this approach, despite clear signs that this approach isn’t the way to go in today’s MLB.

I’m concerned the Pirates are still stuck in No Man’s Land.

The Trades Didn’t Provide a Clear Path

I wrote at the start of the offseason that I hoped to see the Pirates take a clear direction one way or the other. Either add to the team and try to contend with Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole in their final years, or trade guys away and go for a rebuild — similar to what teams like the White Sox, Astros, Yankees, and others have done around the league.

The Pirates opted to trade Cole and McCutchen, but didn’t exactly make their path clear.

First of all, the trade returns largely got guys closer to the majors, with the Pirates getting higher floors rather than higher risk/higher ceiling guys. Part of this could have been because so many of the top prospects from the Yankees and Astros were reportedly off-limits in the Cole trade. But there were also reports that the Pirates passed on a higher upside package from the Yankees to get the return they got from the Astros.

I like the return of Colin Moran. The more I think about it, and the more I read about the changes he made with his swing to add power, I think he could have been a really good pickup. As in, the type of guy you want headlining the Cole deal. It doesn’t matter that he’s close to the majors. There’s still upside here, and that’s what matters.

The other part of the deal was what didn’t add up. The Pirates got Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin in return. Musgrove looks like a back of the rotation starter. Feliz has the stuff to be a late inning reliever, and the Pirates have had success fixing his biggest flaw — a lack of control. Martin is a Grade C hitting prospect in Double-A who might have a shot at starting, but probably doesn’t profile as more than an average starter, and is more likely to be a bench guy if he makes it.

I could be wrong here. Maybe the Pirates see something in Musgrove where he could be more than a back of the rotation guy. I don’t see it, and I look past his strikeout numbers to see reports that he doesn’t have an out pitch. Typically that doesn’t lead to long-term results in regards to strikeouts. Steven Brault is a guy who has gotten strikeouts due to good control of his fastball in Triple-A, but that control didn’t carry over to the majors. Even if it did, the lack of an out pitch wouldn’t allow him to continue getting strikeouts.

And maybe Martin has a good chance at being a starter, and maybe he could be more than an average starter. I really don’t think they’re banking most of the trade on him though.

The thing that I can’t get past is Feliz. I’m sure the Pirates are thinking what I’m thinking: He’s got late inning stuff, and maybe they can make an adjustment where he becomes a late inning reliever and a great complement to Felipe Rivero. The problem is that Feliz has four years of control remaining. So even if that works out — and there’s no guarantee it does — you’re looking at a short window where Michael Feliz is part of your competitive team.

I’ve felt the Pirates might be competitive in 2019, and are more likely to compete in 2020. If that’s the case, then they’ve got Feliz on a contending team for 2-3 years at best. And that’s great if he’s a guarantee to be a complement to Rivero. But the Pirates are taking risk here, since he isn’t a guarantee, and if they’re taking risk, they need to be getting more than two years of upside as a contender.

Unless they believe they can be contenders before 2020. And that brings me to the second part of this section.

By all public statements, the Pirates do believe they can contend before 2020. Neal Huntington has said that they believe they can contend in 2018. His comments:

“There’s a lot of misinformation, and a lot of false narrative out there about when we are looking to compete again,” Huntington said. “We’re looking to compete again this year. We believe this club is a lot closer to the ’11, ’12, and ’13 Pirates than we were to the ’07, ’08, and ’09 Pirates. There was enough talent at the Major League level, on the verge of the Major League level.”

I wrote more in detail about that earlier this week, looking at what the Pirates would need in order to contend in 2018. The summary: Not only do they need a lot to go right internally, but they need to add pieces from the outside.

So you’ve got Huntington not only saying that they believe the team can compete in 2018, but making trades where they got guys close to the majors in return, rather than going for higher upside guys who are further away. I wasn’t a writer during the Dave Littlefield years, but my biggest complaint during that time was that they were looking for quick fixes, rather than taking the time to rebuild properly.

Huntington isn’t Littlefield. He actually focuses on the farm system. He also took the time to rebuild once. But this time seems different. This time it seems like they don’t think they need to rebuild. That they’re in the same mindset where they can try to contend while trying to build for the future.

The problem there is that this is difficult to pull off, and can lead to issues where your two paths have a conflict — like perhaps trading guys away and getting lower-upside, closer to the majors players in return in aims of trying to contend quicker.

The Payroll Factor

One thing that is really confusing about Huntington’s comments about contending in 2018 is that they came after trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.

Think about that.

Huntington traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Then he said they believe the team can compete in 2018. If that’s true, then why would you trade the two best players from the team?

Again, I’ll point to my article from earlier in the week saying that the only way the Pirates really can contend in 2018 is by having a lot going right internally, and by adding from the outside. But part of those additions are only going to be making up for what was just traded away. It doesn’t make much sense to take a step back here if you think you can move forward.

Maybe the Pirates felt Cole and McCutchen weren’t reliable, given their performances over the last two years. Maybe they felt that the additions from these trades (Moran, Musgrove, Feliz, and Kyle Crick can all help this year), plus outside additions could be better than Cole/McCutchen and the outside additions needed for those other spots.

The one thing I’ve seen floating around — and I’ve suggested it as well — is that they didn’t have room to add with Cole and McCutchen on the team. This is correct if you assume they would continue to spend $100-110 M in payroll as a maximum.

I hate the payroll arguments in this town. It’s too often focused on spending money, rather than the more important things of spending money at the right time, and spending in the right way.

The Brewers just spent some money, trading for Christian Yelich (which was more about spending prospects) and signing Lorenzo Cain. Their payroll is now in the mid-$80 M range, which is about $5 M more than where the Pirates are currently at. The Brewers started the last two seasons at $63 M while they were rebuilding. They haven’t gone over $110 M, and have only gone over $100 M once. Their numbers are comparable to the Pirates, but they spent when it was time to win, and when it was time to rebuild, they didn’t play the middle ground.

The Indians also did this. They gradually increased their payroll from $53 M in 2011 to $69 M in 2012, and then moved to the mid-$80 M range from 2013-15. That coincided with a team that started to get competitive. They had a shot at contending in 2016, and made moves at the deadline to increase the payroll to $117.5 M — the first time they were ever above $100 M. They opened with $124 M in 2017, and finished with $151.8 M. They will eventually come down from those figures when they rebuild. And the overall average when you factor in the rebuild years might be around that $100-110 M per year range.

The Royals have almost an identical story. They increased their payroll, then got to a record $97.7 M in 2014 when they had a shot at contending. They opened 2015 at $112 M, and finished at $128.9 M and a World Series. Their payroll has gone up in the following years, to the point where they spent $185 M by the end of 2017. Their owner has said it will drop, and that will probably start to happen now after they’ve lost so many free agents.

The Royals spent big when it was time to contend. They kept players through free agency, then let guys like Lorenzo Cain, Mike Minor, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and others walk. They contended through their window, and now they’re going to be in line for a rebuild. The same will be true of the Indians soon. The same will probably be true of the Brewers.

Spending to a set limit every year makes sense in a world where you can contend every year, and never have to worry about a rebuild. But that’s not the world MLB is in. That may have been the case in the past, but we’re now in a time where teams have definitive directions and shortened windows. You can either spend and add when you’re trying to contend, or cut payroll and rebuild when you’re not contending. Trying to extend the window by playing the middle ground isn’t a viable approach. Thus, any approach aimed at spending to a figure that allows you to contend with that figure year-after-year is a bad approach.

The better approach is spending money when you’re competitive, knowing that you’re going to take a loss, but also knowing that those losses will be offset when you’re eventually rebuilding and cutting payroll — assuming they haven’t already been offset by cutting payroll when you were rebuilding before.

So if the Pirates really did think they could compete in 2018, the better approach would have been to keep McCutchen and Cole, spend to add to those players, go over that $110 M figure, and try and finish out the current window, knowing that payroll would drop drastically when they eventually rebuild. I don’t think that was the approach they should have taken. But I also don’t think they should be focusing on contending in 2018 or entertaining that idea after trading their two best players away.

I know the knee-jerk response from some is going to be “The Pirates will never spend over $110 M and will never do what the Royals and Indians did.” I’m not here to say what the Pirates will do. I’m saying what they should be doing, based on what works in today’s MLB. The approach from the Royals and Indians works in today’s MLB. The approach of spending up to a certain limit doesn’t work.

I don’t get into the Bob Nutting discussions because it’s about as nuanced as the payroll discussions, and not as cut and dry as it’s made out to be. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying “Nutting needs to spend his money.” The Pirates need to work within their budgets in the short-term and long-term, and there are a variety of reasons why Nutting can’t just drop his own money into the team in any given year.

He can choose to take a loss in some years, and make up for that in other years, which is similar to what the Royals and Indians have done. The Pirates have said in the past that they don’t do deficit spending in any year. If that policy is still in place, then it’s not in line with how successful teams are run, and it’s fair game to criticize Nutting for that approach.

No Man’s Land

I could be wrong about the Pirates and their direction right now. Maybe they’re looking at this free agent market, knowing they can get some deals for 2018. Maybe that’s combined with the idea that Cole and McCutchen weren’t reliable after the last two years. And maybe there’s the big picture factor, where the guys they got in return (third baseman, late inning relievers) would have been harder to acquire in this market than an outfielder and a starting pitcher (where they could get a reclamation project).

That gives them the benefit of the doubt, while also acknowledging that I don’t know every detail of what is going on with their plan, or with any discussions they’ve had.

But here’s what we do know.

**The Pirates traded their two best players away.

**The returns mostly involved players who were closer to the majors, and there weren’t a lot of high upside players involved, with more low-risk/lower upside guys who will be able to help immediately.

**Neal Huntington came out after the trades and said they expect to compete in 2018.

**There have been rumors that they’ve discussed trading Josh Harrison as well, but Huntington has also said that they want Harrison to help them contend.

**There haven’t been any rumors that the Pirates are looking to add to the team from the outside.

**The guys they’ve added in the last six months include Sean Rodriguez (under control through 2018), George Kontos (2019), and now Feliz in a trade (2021).

I take the approach where I give the Pirates the benefit of the doubt sometimes where there’s information I don’t have, rather than thinking my theory is correct. But it’s impossible to look at those things that we know above and not come away with the idea that the Pirates are still stuck in No Man’s Land.

We’re in a time where the most successful teams go all-in when they’ve got a window to contend, and the teams with the best future outlook are the teams who are fully focused on rebuilding and getting the highest upside guys they can get. If you’re not taking one of those paths, you’re doing it wrong in today’s MLB. Unfortunately, the actions from the Pirates don’t point to one of those paths, but instead still point to the idea that they’re still trying to play the middle ground, which probably won’t end up well for them.