I’m a fan first and an analyst second. I’m also an independent thinker who is usually skeptical of the mob reaction. Since many people are negative and like spewing their negativity over everything, the mob will be out in full force cursing this trade. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t mean they’re right either.
The mob will point towards the Pirates’ history for validation of their views. The Aramis Ramirez trade alone is proof enough right? It is, if not from so long ago. We need to start our focus on what has happened since the last playoff season of 2015. That rotation included three pitchers the team lost after the season: Charlie Morton, JA Happ, and AJ Burnett.
- Charlie Morton has bulked up (suspiciously so?) since 2015 and subsequently joining the Houston Astros for a World Series Championship last year. But, he missed all of the 2016 season with a torn hamstring. He wouldn’t have helped the Pirates’ rotation from the disabled list. And his injury history showed he was an injury risk throughout his career. What Morton does demonstrate, however, is the question to the Pirates’ strategy to pitch to contact. Morton pitched to strikeout for the Astros. Perhaps, this is what the Pirates should do more of. A strong bullpen can allow starters to be more aggressive at the risk of leaving the game earlier due to pitch-counts.
- JA Happ represents the Pirates getting no credit for trading for him in the first place. They traded Adrian Sampson for him. Remember Sampson? Nope. The Bucs resurrected Happ’s career in 2015 and he was rewarded with a 3-year deal worth $36m the following off-season. Should the Bucs have signed him? Perhaps. He earned the entire contract in 2016 winning 20 games. He regressed in 2017 with a solid, yet mediocre performance.
- AJ Burnett is another player the Pirates seem to get no credit from the mob in trading for in the first place. The Yankees even paid $20m of his $33m contract when trading him to the Pirates for Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno. After losing him to free agency in 2013 they resigned him in 2014. He retired after the 2015 season.
So, the criticisms here are both fair and unfair. AJ retired. They didn’t sign JA Happ for what was a fair value upfront and a steal in retrospect. Morton did well last year, but were the Astros really smart or lucky? A lot of professional baseball is about catching lightning in a bottle. Even the best players have off years. The high dollar clubs can increase their opportunities and mitigate their risks, but timing is everything.
The other criticism was the trade of Neil Walker for Jon Niese. Obviously Niese was a debacle. The Pirates’ history in turning around starting pitchers gives them no reprieves. Nothing short of a 100% success rate will suffice. Trading a solid everyday player for a reclamation project that doesn’t pan out was bad. Walker had a very solid season in 2016 for the Mets. The Pirates replaced Walker with Josh Harrison and Jung Ho Kang. Let’s compare 2016 stats.
- Neil Walker, 113 games played, 23 HRs, 55 RBIs, .282 BA, .823 OPS, 2 SBs
- Josh Harrison, 131 games played, 4 HRs, 59 RBIs, .283 BA, .699 OPS, 19 SBs
- Jung Ho Kang, 103 games played, 21 HRs, 62 RBIs, .255 BA, .867 OPS, 3 SBs
My argument at the time was Walker should’ve been kept and moved to 1B. Here’s what the Pirates did instead. They acquired John Jaso. He was adequate defensively only committing 5 errors in 108 games at 1B. Offensively he was below average. David Freese and Sean Rodriguez also spent time at 1B. Josh Bell arrived and was quickly the heir apparent at position. Here are each of their stats as a whole and not specifically while at 1B.
- John Jaso, 132 games played, 8 HRs, 42 RBIs, .268 BA, 766 OPS, 0 SBs
- David Freese, 141 games played, 13 HRs, 55 RBIs, .270 BA, .764 OPS, 0 SBs
- Sean Rodriguez, 140 games played, 18 HRs, 56 RBIs, .270 BA, .859 OPS, 1 SB
- Josh Bell, 45 games played, 3 HRs, 19 RBIs, .273 BA, .775 OPS, 0 SBs
So, would Walker have improved the offense? Perhaps a little. Would he have blocked Bell? Not likely. Walker likely would’ve moved to 3B when Kang went missing due to his visa issues. I’m not sure how predictable Kang’s visa issues were. Niese obviously stunk and Walker was traded for nothing. We judge trades on results and not intentions. But, this trade had little impact on actual results. Walker was adequately replaced offensively and defensively. It was a low risk, moderate potential reward, zero actual reward.
There were also criticisms of not having the depth to withstand the Kang visa issue, Starling Marte’s suspension, and Gregory Polanco’s repeated time spent on the DL. How many teams do have that depth? If the Pirates had kept Walker, that would’ve helped free up Josh Harrison to be a 4th OF and allowed Alex Frazier to be a 5th OF. Freese wouldn’t have had to play as much as he did. Would it have been season saving? Nope. Should the Pirates have traded for starting pitching? Not likely. Should they have been more aggressive signing FA pitching? Probably.
They had/have a fair amount of potential of starting pitching coming through the minors, but known talent matters. How many FA pitchers should they have signed? Enough to compete? That would’ve cost a lot of cash, would’ve required they hit 100% on the signings, likely would’ve required multiple year deals, and may have blocked some of the potential youth who mostly arrived and pitched well in 2017. Arguably, the could’ve then traded the veterans signees, but value would’ve depended on production. And who would want them to trade veterans who were producing? Would it be worth blocking the youth? Not in this market. There are certainly fair criticisms on how the Pirates handled these past off-seasons, but there is also room to understand their thought processes.
Which brings us to the trade of Gerrit Cole. Did they get fair value? I guess that all depends on how you value Cole. Is he an ace? Can he be an ace? I think Cole is best suited to be a #2 or #3 pitcher. I think he is mentally tough, but not so mentally tough to be a #1. That being said, I do think he is among the top 30 starting pitchers in MLB. Does that constitute being an ace?
Cole will be the #3 pitcher on the defending champions. Is that what it takes to win in this game? Do you need a top 30 starting pitcher to be your #3? Pretty much. Which is why the Pirates have an uphill battle. The game simply isn’t set up for teams like the Pirates to have an easy road. Even the high dollar teams have a tough time. Here are 2017 opening day payrolls and 2017 record with results.
- Dodgers, $242m, 104-58, NLC Champions
- Yankees, $202m, 91-71, wild card
- Red Sox, $200m, 93-69, Division Champ
- Tigers, $200m, 64-98, last place in Division
- Blue Jays, $178m, 76-86, 4th place in Division
- Rangers, $176m, 78-84, 4th place in Division
- Cubs, $172m, 92-70, Division Champs
- Giants, $168m, 64-98, last place in Division
- Nationals, $168m, 97-65, Division Champs
- Orioles, $164m, 75-87, last place in Division
- Angles, $160m, 80-82, 2nd place in Division, no playoffs
- Mets, $155m, 70-92, 4th place in Division
- Mariners, $152m, 78-84, 3rd place in Division
- Cardinals, $152m, 83-79, 3rd place in Division, no playoffs
- Royals, $141m, 80-82, 3rd place in Division, no playoffs
- Rockies, $131m,87-75, Wild Card
- Indians, 102-60, Division Champs
- Astros, 101-61, World Champions
- Braves, skip down to playoff teams and Pirates
- Marlins, skip
- Phillies, skip
- Twins, $108m, 85-77, Wild Card
- Pirates, $101m, 75-87, 4th place in Division
- White Sox, skip
- Reds, skip
- Diamondbacks, $93m, 93-69, Wild Card
- A’s, skip
- Padres, skip
- Rays, skip
- Brewers, $63m, 2nd place in Division, no playoffs
I included the Brewers to show how close they were with the lowest payroll. It isn’t about payroll folks. It is about catching lightning in a bottle. See the Astros? They caught lightning and then were aggressive. They were selectively aggressive. The Pirates had a great 2015 season because they caught lightning in a bottle. They made trades that panned out. This team wasn’t prepared for a 2016 run without jeopardizing the future. They were right to not be aggressive at that time. Last season was a debacle for a lot of reasons outside the Pirates’ control. But, it also showed potential with the youth movement in the rotation. Last season also displayed some holes. Which leads us to this trade.
Gerrit Cole was traded for SP Joe Musgrove, RP Michael Feliz, 3B Colin Moran, and OF Jason Martin. Based on all the “professional” opinions I’ve read Cole has #1 upside and #3 floor. Musgrove has the upside to be a very strong #3 starting pitcher and a floor of a reliever. Musgrove comes in with great control and command of his pitches. He has a decent fastball in the consistent 92-93mph range hitting 95 at times. His slider is strong as well if not an out-pitch. He needs to improve on his change-up to take the next step. He barely walks over 1/inning. Many scouts consider him one of the safest bets in the minors to be a solid major league pitcher likely as a #3.
Feliz is seen as a starter in the long term. At least, he was before last season while with the Astros. Feliz has a 4th starter ceiling and a reliever floor. His fastball is consistently in the mid-90’s topping out at 98. He has good secondary pitches, but needs to improve his change-up. He has good control for a power pitcher. He immediately upgrades the back-end of the Pirates rotation by being able to pitch multiple innings in high leverage situations.
Moran may have found his stroke last season and be a solid starting 3B or an average platoon player batting left-handed. Moran also has the ability to play LF and 1B. This provides sorely needed depth. Moran has long been a contact hitter, but last season in AAA flashed power and lessened his strikeout percentage. In AAA Fresno last season he had a .901 OPS. Hitting left-handed in PNC provides potential to enhance the lineup as well.
Martin is seen as a solid 4th OF arriving as early as 2018. This provides OF depth the Pirates lacked last season. If McCutchen is traded he and Jordan Luplow could hold down the fort until Austin Meadows is ready. I don’t see McCutchen being traded until mid-season unless a team offers something too good to pass up. I think Martin provides necessary depth to weather some of the things the Pirates couldn’t weather last year.
The 2018 Pirates team is no better or worse for the trade of Cole as it stands. They improved offensive depth and bullpen quality. They sacrificed rotation depth and rotation quality. When you look across the baseball spectrum, you see teams catch lightning in a bottle and then make moves to capitalize on it. But, lightning is difficult to catch. I think this trade fits in with exactly what the Pirates’ strategy has been the last few years. Take calculated low-risks while balancing the now with the later. I understand I am in the minority in agreeing with this approach. Going all in for now guarantees nothing now and pain later. Going all in for later guarantees nothing later and pain now. The best approach is to bide one’s time and attempt to catch lightning.