Williams: The Pirates Have a Chance to Do It Right This Time

Three years ago today, the Pirates traded Charlie Morton to the Phillies in exchange for David Whitehead. Looking back at my thoughts on the deal at the time, I felt Whitehead would get lost in all of the pitching prospects in Bradenton/Altoona (he did, and eventually worked his way completely out of the mix with control issues), while the trade of Morton was largely based on salary.

In every deal, I try to get two different views. One view is how I see the deal. The other is trying to see what the Pirates are attempting to do. Sometimes it works out that those views are the same. Other times, my view of a trade is different from what I think the Pirates are seeing.

In that case, I liked Charlie Morton. I felt that he could be a better pitcher than the guy we saw in 2015. I didn’t imagine the pitcher we’ve seen the last two years with the Astros, but better than a 1.0 WAR. My feeling at the time was that it made sense to trade Morton if the Pirates were going to use his money on a better starter, but that it might not make sense to move him without that starter in place. There was also an injury risk with Morton, and he ended up only pitching 17 innings the following season due to another injury.

The Pirates were linked at the time to a lot of starters who were seen as upgrades over Morton. In the days leading up to the Morton trade we heard rumors about Scott Kazmir, Mat Latos, and Kyle Kendrick. We also learned that they were going for Rich Hill, but that he took less money to go to Oakland.

What they ended up with was Ryan Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio. It might not be fair to say that this is where Morton’s money went. You could just as easily say that his money went to Sean Rodriguez, David Freese, and Matt Joyce. But let’s ignore the financials and just focus on the fact that the Pirates didn’t upgrade the rotation over Morton. Instead, they ended up with lower upside guys who were only there to bridge the gap until prospects like Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow arrived mid-season. That ended up being a mistake, and Pirates fans still talk about it on an almost daily basis three years later.

Three years later, the Pirates are in almost the exact same situation. Yesterday they traded Ivan Nova in a deal that was largely about clearing salary. The return was lower level pitcher Yordi Rosario plus $500,000 in international bonus pool money. I do have some thoughts on getting a projectable guy like Rosario, rather than a lower upside guy like Whitehead, but I’ll save those for a later article. Ultimately, the return was minor, and all about clearing a rotation spot for an upgrade while clearing salary.

On the prospect side, that cleared rotation spot will eventually go to Mitch Keller, who probably won’t be ready until the middle of the season, similar to Taillon and Glasnow three years ago. I think Keller will be more like Taillon than Glasnow, in that he will make an easy transition to the majors and help out right away. Despite that, it would be a mistake for the Pirates to just wait it out for Keller to arrive, since the potential for injuries or slower development can easily derail that plan.

I don’t think the Pirates will repeat that part of what happened three years ago. We haven’t heard that they’re linked to any pitchers yet, but that’s not uncommon for this team. You rarely hear any rumors about their deals until the day they are made. The Nova trade and the addition of Jordan Lyles had no rumors until the deals were agreed upon. So I wouldn’t take the lack of rumors right now as a sign that they won’t add anyone.

It is possible that they won’t add anyone to replace Nova. Neal Huntington said that the team was exploring the idea of using an opener, which has been a growing trend among the more advanced analytical teams in the game.

The opener idea would be interesting, and when done correctly with the right guys, it could lead to better results than an average MLB starter. That’s what Nova essentially was, putting up numbers around the league average the last two years. If you can replicate or improve on those results with the opener strategy, while saving some money for upgrades elsewhere on the team, then that wouldn’t be a bad result. I don’t think the Pirates should avoid looking for an actual starting pitcher if they can find an upgrade over Nova. But I am very interested in seeing how the opener strategy would work for them.

Bigger picture, the Pirates are in almost exactly the same situation they were in three years ago. They’ve got a chance to contend in the upcoming year, but need some key offseason additions to make that happen. They just dumped one of their back of the rotation starters, clearing salary for some of those additions. They have a top prospect who can take over mid-season, but need someone to fill that spot until he arrives.

Money wasn’t the issue in 2016. The Pirates spent more that year than they did in 2015. And the 2016 season was definitely filled with key players who under-performed, which may have made any good offseason moves irrelevant. But there is definitely a lot of blame to place on the poor moves the Pirates made heading into the season.

They went for lower upside guys, rather than their usual high upside reclamation projects. They based too much of their plan to contend on prospects. They tried to fill a need in the Neil Walker return, rather than going for prospects who might have had more upside than Jon Niese, and filling their need for a better starter elsewhere.

Now they have a chance to do it different. I expect them to spend money again this year, although I’m not sure where they will end up in payroll, and I definitely don’t think it will be at 2016 levels, where they finished at $109 M. At the very least, I expect them to spend the money they just saved from the Nova trade, and probably a bit more.

As 2016 showed us, spending money really doesn’t matter if you’re not spending it wisely. I don’t expect the Pirates to take the same approach they took in waiting until the prospects arrive. But they’re still left with the challenge of finding good players with a higher upside than the guys they have right now, or have moved on from. Maybe that can be done with an opener in the rotation, allowing them to use money on upgrades elsewhere. Maybe they’re better off adding a starter who is better than Nova.

What we do know is they have the resources to add to this team this offseason, and with the right moves they could strengthen their chances of making the playoffs in 2019.

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.

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