Worst trade of the Neal Huntington era? Worst trade in Pittsburgh Pirates’ history? Worst trade in Pittsburgh sports history? Worst trade since the Louisiana Purchase?
With the news of Chris Archer’s season-ending (can we call it that?) surgery in the rearview mirror and his future with the team in reasonable doubt, it’s time for the hyperbolic analysis to fly. I’m here to tell you to slow down, that these opinions kind of seem a little too in the moment.
I’m not even sure the Archer trade was a bad trade.
A good trade? I’m not sure I can say that either.
You may think this an absurd take; in fact, I’m sure you probably do. Heck, you are talking to the guy that to this day will tell you that the Neil Walker trade was a good one.
You may find this take to be “hot”, but trust me, that’s not my intention. It’s simply how I truly feel, as I’ve been wrestling with how to evaluate the trade since the day it happened.
My whole argument hinges on what many may find to be semantics—that trades can only be graded as “good” or “bad” at the time they are made. Anything after that simply implies how the trade turned out, not the quality of the trade itself in the moment. There are plenty of factors that make a trade good or bad, including but not limited to:
What was the market like at the time?
Was there a plethora of options to choose from, driving down the price due to increased supply, or one big fish everyone wanted to catch? Or, more specifically, how had the market been valuing a certain player or position? For example, power is easier to come by, so don’t pay for it, or don’t give up too much for an expiring corner outfielder, because you can get J.D. Martinez for three nondescript prospects from a bad system.
Did the team have an abundance of riches—typically prospects—in one area or another that they could trade from and still be okay after the deal was done, or were they giving up the only player for a particular position in the pipeline?
Was there a player ready and waiting in the wings to replace what they were giving up (i.e. Josh Harrison for the aforementioned Walker), hopefully while filling a need (i.e. starting pitching), killing two birds with one stone?
State of the team
Where was the team in the standings and would that player theoretically “put them over the top”? Or were they making a trade with the future in mind, trading away a good player that wouldn’t be around the next time the team was good, or trying to restock organizational depth?
Value received versus value traded
Was the team receiving a rental, or a player with more control? If said player had control, was it cost-controlled, and if so, for how much? How old was the player? Cheap, young players with years of control cost more, so if the team gave up the same package for a rental as they would have for a player with multiple years of control, they probably made a bad trade. Also, were any prospects involved in the trade highly ranked? Trending down? Trending up?
As you can see, none of these include how a trade does or doesn’t turn out, because then you have the benefit of hindsight, which doesn’t matter. Look at it this way—if you get a good or a bad grade on an exam, does how you did on that test change if you learn the material better later, or forget it after you take the exam? No, it’s simply a snapshot of what you knew—or didn’t—at that particular time, with no benefit of hindsight later.
So, how does the Chris Archer deal rate on this scale? Of course, this is simply my opinion—agree or disagree—but I just want to be as fair as possible, without jumping to what I see as the aforementioned hyperbole.
What was the market like at the time?
Archer was in a group of middling starters where he may have been the most recognizable name. Included in the group of starters traded at or around the deadline were Cole Hamels, Lance Lynn, JA Happ, Nathan Eovaldi, and Kevin Gausman.
While Lynn, Happ, and Eovaldi were all rentals that didn’t come with high acquisition prices, Hamels had a year of control, which was a large option year with a significant buyout. The Rangers paid a large chunk down just to get out of the contract and received little in return. The only real comparable to Archer was Gausman, but while this is completely subjective, I think it’s fair to say that Archer had more name recognition at the time.
Again, this is anecdotal, but I can remember the excitement that day came with, constantly refreshing my Twitter feed, waiting to see what the Pirates were going to do after already making a big trade overnight and more rumors swirling. It felt like the team got the best name on the market, even if he wasn’t on the levels of Yu Darvish in 2017 or David Price in 2015.
At the point of the trade, Tyler Glasnow was no longer a prospect, and Shane Baz was so far away that depth wasn’t as much of a concern—even though Mitch Keller, Cody Bolton, and newly drafted Braxton Ashcraft may have eased the pain a little—that Austin Meadows was the big prospect to analyze depth wise.
Jordan Luplow (#13 in the Pirates Prospects Mid-Season Top 50) had had his fast-track ascent in 2017 at this point and was part of the outfield picture, along with Bryan Reynolds (#12) in Double-A, Cal Mitchell (#9) in Single-A, and freshly selected Top-10 pick Travis Swaggerty (#5) in the mix as well. Heck, even Jason Martin (#14) had broken out in Altoona at the time. So, while Meadows outranked all of them, depth wasn’t an issue at that point, and if you were going to trade from a position of strength, outfield wasn’t a bad place to do it.
Not to pile on Glasnow, but he was a middle reliever at this point—not hard to replace in baseball terms—so Meadows is the big key here again. While he wasn’t starting full-time and there wasn’t really anyone ready in the wings—he really was the one in waiting—he was part of the controversial four-man outfield rotation that Clint Hurdle was utilizing. Meadows was succeeding but wasn’t able to find full-time playing time in the crowded outfield, where the aforementioned Luplow was also part of the mix.
Perusing his game logs, Meadows hit a high point on June 21, slashing .340/.363/.598, at which point his performance started to fall off until he was optioned in mid-July for performance (or service) reasons. The Pirates never gave Meadows the opportunity to punch back after his initial success, but there also wasn’t a clear-cut opening waiting for him at the time.
State of the team
Here is a big bugaboo for many fans—why 2018? Personally, I didn’t think the time was right, as I wrote at the time:
My bigger issue is with the team’s place in the standings. Sure, they are playing great, but they are still a few games out of the second wildcard with several teams to catch, and what happens when they eventually come down to Earth? You don’t want to have to rely on such streaks just to get the chance at a one game playoff on the road. Basically, was all this worth it?
If you’re being honest, this team wasn’t good enough to finally make the “big move” everyone always wanted. They were wildly inconsistent, and if not for an unfortunate (that’s right, I said it) 11-game winning streak preceding the trade deadline that took the team from 12.5 out of the division to only 6, this trade may never have happened. Neal Huntington went from burying the team on his July 8th radio show to praising the team on the 22nd and talked about the idea of adding to the squad.
The Pirates shouldn’t have acquired Archer in the first place, but nothing can be done about that now.
Value received versus value traded
While his actual value as measured by his performance was up for debate at the time, Archer was still perceived as a front-line, innings-eater who had been successful in a tough American League East. That is where most of the name recognition came from, but a lot of Archer’s value was tied to his contract. The Rays bought him out early and on the cheap, and Archer was controllable for at least three additional seasons at extremely reasonable prices for his level of starter. That cost comes with a premium, which, in theory, the Pirates paid.
This is where, in my opinion, the rubber really meets the road as far as how you should view the trade. Yours truly wrote this in his analysis of the trade in 2018:
I believe there is a valid level of skepticism at this point regarding the ceiling of Tyler Glasnow, along with substantial injury risk—as well as lagging performance—for Austin Meadows that depressed their values enough to the point where they’d be available now.
I believe this is a far critique of where both stood at the time. While the sample wasn’t big enough to mean a lot, Glasnow struggled mightily over parts of two seasons as a starter and had been moved to the bullpen in 2018 to try and work through those struggles. He wasn’t exactly doing that either up to the point of the trade, and I think it’s fair to say that many fans had seen enough of him at that point (which is also a reason why I don’t think the revisionist history is quite fair).
While I personally thought they gave up too early on Meadows, the fact was that some of the shine was gone as a prospect due to his major injury concerns—Baseball America had him #6 prior to 2017 before dropping him to #44 before 2018—and I could at least talk myself into the idea that there was enough valid concern to make this risk worthwhile.
Obviously, with the cheap control for a pitcher in his age 29 season, the team was going to have to trade something to get something, and at the time, I wasn’t sure Glasnow and Meadows were huge losses compared to what they received. Honestly, when Baz was the player to be named, I thought that kind of tipped the scales as far as value goes; however, readers of this site will know that this was after Baz had struggled in his early impression with the team and Bolton had spring boarded him to full-season West Virginia (I also recall hearing a story about Baz reacting poorly to a question during a meeting about why he wanted to be in the organization—something to the effect of “You’re the ones who drafted me, why don’t you tell me,” before storming out. Maybe that had something to do with the trade?).
Basically—disregarding Baz, whose value is mostly the same now as then (fringe Top-100 prospect)—looking at the trade now in terms of 2018 and 2019 are two completely different animals. After 2019, Archer was acquired for a Cy Young candidate and a young, power hitting all-star, but it’s just as easy to claim the 2018 version of the trade—struggling former top prospect who needed a change of scenery and an injury-prone prospect on the downslide. Is that 2018 evaluation a fair one? That’s a question that I’ve never been able to determine, but I think it’s more representative when trying to assign a fair grade to the trade.
So, even if it may not have been the year to make the “all-in” move, the Pirates acquired one of—if not the—best starting pitchers on the market at the time by trading from a position of depth at both the minor and major league level, for players with major question marks to boot. So, this trade had to be good, right? The question of value tips the scales for me, wondering if Glasnow and Meadows were really as down as we thought they were. Were they truly given enough opportunity, enough chance to succeed? Obviously, they weren’t, but we didn’t know that then, and this has been my argument all along. Therefore, I personally can’t call it a bad trade but can’t call it a good one either. I’ve been wishy washy on that since Day 1, and probably always will be.
While I may never understand how I truly feel about the trade, I always thought I had a good idea how the fans felt about it. I don’t know why fans hate it so much, because I was of the opinion—and still am—that it’s what they wanted all along, right down to the player acquired and the players given away. Again, I wrote this at the time of the trade:
I’ve always been on the side of keeping prospects, especially in a small market. This provides the opportunity to see if I’ve been wrong, and if a large portion of the fanbase has been right all along. With that being said, those same fans need to realize something—this is what you’ve wanted, so go out and support the team, cheer them on, but don’t be upset if this doesn’t work. If Archer doesn’t get the team over the hump. If Glasnow turns it all around and Meadows becomes a star. You’ve said that doesn’t matter, so we’ll see if you were telling the truth.
Will this all be remembered differently simply because of the names involved? Fans always complain about how much money the Pirates don’t spend, but they spent far more at the deadline in 2015—about four times as much—and it’s remembered with disdain because no top prospects were traded, no big names were acquired, and the team ultimately failed.
The same fate is obviously on the table now, but my feeling is it’s all about perception. The Pirates “went for it.” Nothing else matters. Now it’s time to enjoy the ride.
Prescient? Maybe, maybe not, but I did make wide, sweeping generalizations then, so allow me to now. After years and years of wanting the Pirates to stop hoarding prospects, spend some money, and make the big acquisition at the deadline to get them over the hump, they did. Was it the best decision at the time? It’s debatable. Did it work? Obviously not, only a fool could suggest it did. But we were rapt with attention that day, collectively celebrating the team and hopeful for what the future might bring. The collective “We” got what they always wanted.
How could that make for the worst trade ever?