Williams: Not Much Has Changed Since 2017 and the Pirates Are Still Stuck in No Man’s Land

The Pirates have a decision they need to make.

That’s what I wrote on August 1st, 2017 in a column titled “The Pirates Are in No Man’s Land.” In case you’ve missed the many references on this site to “No Man’s Land”, it’s pointing out how the Pirates are sticking to the middle of two winning strategies in baseball right now.

Both of the winning strategies involve embracing windows of contention. The idea is that when your team is ready to contend, you will only have a few years to have a great shot at contending, and you need to make the most of those years. If you’re ready to contend now, the strategy is to go all-in, forget about the future, and embrace the window in front of you. If you’re not ready to contend now, the strategy is to trade away any valuable player who will be gone by the time you’re winning again, and load up for a future window.

The Pirates don’t embrace windows. They believe that they can contend every year with the right moves. An established player leaves, and if they play things right they have a replacement ready to step in, extending the window. The theory would be that the only way the window would close is if they made a poor move, either by not having a replacement ready, or by making a poor trade.

It’s not a bad theory. It worked for small market teams for many years, including the years where Neal Huntington took over this franchise and rebuilt them to a very strong team from 2013-15.

This theory now has many problems that make it flawed. The biggest issue is that the Pirates’ strategy doesn’t actually make them contenders each year. It just gives the illusion that they are contenders.

Here’s something else I wrote in that 2017 article:

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.

–CUT–

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.

That was right after the trade deadline in 2017. The Pirates had a totally different approach in 2018. They went big, trading for Chris Archer and Keone Kela. Those two moves aren’t looking good right now. That is in part due to struggles and an injury to Kela, and major struggles from Archer. I’ll leave the trade analysis for another article and focus on the other part that makes these trades look bad — the lack of action in the following offseason.

The Pirates didn’t show that they were the next Brewers or Royals or any other small market team that went big when it was time to contend. They entered the season with the second lowest payroll in baseball, and will likely end up about $30 M lower than where they ended up in 2016 and 2017.

The big issue here is that the Pirates don’t believe in deficit spending. That’s solely placed on Bob Nutting as the owner, and when I’ve asked him about this in the past, and pointed out the success of teams like the Royals who have embraced windows, he’s stuck to their approach.

This is not a league where you spend a flat amount each year. You spend bigger when your window is open to improve your chances, and you spend much smaller during a rebuild because most of your players are league minimum, and it doesn’t matter how much you spend if you’re not making the playoffs.

That strategy needs to change, or the Pirates will never truly contend in today’s MLB. I probably should stop the article here, because I don’t think this approach will change under Nutting. So it doesn’t matter if the Pirates can go all-in for the next few years, or build up for a future window, because they’re unlikely to take either approach due to the costs.

This is a big mistake, as recent history has shown. The Pirates are still in the same position they were in at the 2017 deadline. They’re in the same position they were in at the 2016 deadline. They’ll be in the same position next year, and every other year they try the “no windows” approach. That position is hovering around .500, only a few games out in the standings, but with a lot of teams between them and the Wild Card game.

That’s not even a desirable position. MLB changed the Wild Card system in 2012, adding an extra Wild Card team. Since that time, only one Wild Card team has won the World Series, which happened in 2014 with the San Francisco Giants. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think it’s because the teams winning divisions are set up to be powerhouses, and are a tier above the Wild Card teams.

The second Wild Card creates the illusion of contending for a lot of teams. It’s a difficult situation to navigate, because for years we’ve been trained to look at how many games back a team is, and determine their playoff chances from there. The Pirates enter the second half only 2.5 games back from the Wild Card and the division. Sounds like they should go for it, right?

The games back stat doesn’t show that they’re 44-45. It doesn’t show that they have three teams to pass in the division, and one team just two wins behind them. It doesn’t show that they have to pass six teams to get the second Wild Card spot. The Pirates aren’t in a unique situation. Almost the entire league is stuck in this middle ground that I call No Man’s Land. MLB even has an article about those teams, pointing out 11 teams in baseball who could be either buyers or sellers. That article still spends a lot of time focusing on games back, rather than how many people you’d need to pass.

You need to focus on the latter part, since it tells the true story of your chances. Focusing only on games back leads to the idea that if you put together a strong run, you’ll be in the playoffs. But that requires that everyone else continue their same pace, and no one else goes on a strong run. What are the odds that the Pirates will surge while all six teams ahead of them for the second Wild Card will continue their current pace? Focusing on games back is a good strategy when you have one or two teams to pass, but when everyone is in the same situation, you are better off looking beyond that stat.

I’m not saying the Pirates should definitely be sellers. They could have a legit shot at the division or Wild Card game. The first half was mauled by injuries to the entire team and poor performance from the pitching staff. That can change in the second half. Players could improve, the team could stay healthy, and the Pirates could have a good shot at the playoffs. But they can’t rely on the current team alone.

The Pirates would need to be buyers at the deadline, either going for another big trade, or going back to their older ways of finding hidden value for much less in prospect return. As we’ve seen with the Archer trade, nothing is guaranteed when trading for a big name. That shouldn’t turn them off to the idea, just like adding guys like Jonathan Sanchez and Erik Bedard shouldn’t have turned them off to the idea of reclamation pitchers back in the 2012-15 era. Obviously the stakes are higher if you miss on Archer versus Sanchez and Bedard, so that’s something they need to consider, while only dealing guys who won’t help the current window.

At the same time, it’s difficult to look at this roster and dream about the return some of the players might get. The Pirates have some good players — they wouldn’t be in this position if they didn’t have those players. You could get a huge return for guys like Felipe Vazquez, Starling Marte, and anyone else who doesn’t project to be around for the next window. That’s even more likely in a market where there are so few guaranteed sellers.

Combine the high upside guys from those trade returns with the guys currently making their way through the lower levels of the system, and you could see the Pirates with much better chances at the division in a few years.

But I feel like I’m just repeating myself from that 2017 article. And my concern is that I might be writing the exact same article in 2021, with the Pirates in the same situation, wondering if they should go for it while Josh Bell and Jameson Taillon are still here, or trade them and get value on their remaining 1+ years of service, while aiming to contend the following year.

I hope the Pirates are out of No Man’s Land by then, but nothing they’ve done to date has suggested anything will change with their strategy. Perhaps we’ll see a change in the next few weeks leading up to the deadline, with a clear path to embracing a window now or in the future. That would require a 180 turn in strategy for a team that still embraces their “no windows” strategy, making it unlikely.

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