The Pirates Should Sell, Softly

In the coming days and weeks, you will read quite a bit about which teams should buy and which should sell, at FanGraphs and elsewhere. As the midpoint of the season approaches, the Pirates once again reside on the bubble. They’re a team once again with a slim but mathematically possible path to the postseason — a 2.9% chance, according to FanGraphs projections — a team that most expect to sell prior to the deadline.

Dave placed the Pirates in his sellers bucket earlier this week in his examination of the forming market, also noting that Andrew McCutchen had rebuilt some trade value due to his recent improvement — possibly a result, that improvement, of McCutchen having finally identified a swing flaw. After a lengthy down period, which included his baffling age-29 decline last season and an even worse start to the 2017 season, McCutchen more resembles his former self. The Pirates tried to move him last winter without success. If teams believe his current run is a result of tangible change, that could make him more appealing.

Retaining a resurgent McCutchen for 2018 might be Pittsburgh’s best plan. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Jon Morosi of FoxSports reports that the Pirates will listen on Gerrit Cole

Executives from other Major League teams said this week they expect the Pirates will listen to offers for Cole ahead of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, and that the A’s will do the same with Sonny Gray. …. For both the Pirates and A’s, a crucial part of the Trade Deadline calculus must be the opportunity to capitalize on an apparent shortage of No. 1 — and even No. 2 — starters available on this year’s trade market.

So what should the Pirates do?

They should sell, probably, but in a particular sort of way. In fact, they might have created a model to follow last deadline.

Last summer, the Pirates were in a similar situation in the standings, were in a similar predicament, on the outskirts of contention. The club ultimately decided to become a “soft” seller, to take a step back with the hope of taking two steps forward the following season. They kept their core players with control remaining, they sold a key free agent to be, and even partook in some opportunistic buying.

They began by moving two months of control over Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn several days before the deadline, a trade that looks like a major win at this point for the Pirates, even though it was widely unpopular in Pittsburgh at the time.

Then, hours before the Aug. 1 deadline, they completed what most believed was a salary dump by sending prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez — along with Francisco Liriano and his $17 million in remaining guaranteed dollars — to Toronto in return for Drew Hutchison. But the Pirates also acquired Ivan Nova from the Yankees for middling prospects Tito Polo and lefty Stephen Tarpley. The Nova deal wasn’t the sort executed by a club merely looking to save some money. It was an unusual day of buying and selling.

The Pirates were able to work their magic and revitalize Nova in his short time in Pittsburgh. In part because of that experience and the pitching-friendly environment of PNC Park, Nova re-signed with the club in what has become a club-friendly, three-year deal.

The Pirates front office says it used savings from the Liriano deal to sign Nova, and to extend David Freese, who became important insurance for Jung Ho Kang at third base.

Those maneuvers might have set the Pirates up to be a real division contender had Kang not been denied a visa, had Starling Marte not earned an 80-game PED suspicion, had Jameson Taillon not been diagnosed with cancer, and had McCutchen not continued his perplexing struggles early this season. This is a snake-bit team.

Still, perhaps the approach to last year’s deadline is a model the club should look to follow again, though that’s easier said than done in the frantic ebbing and flowing period leading up to the deadline. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said his club must always hunt for opportunity, hence the buying and selling at last year’s deadline. And the Pirates will certainly again be looking for opportunity.

The Pirates rightly identified that their season was not worth betting on a year ago, and they should make the same assessment early this summer. The Pirates should do more selling than buying, and they should once again have a preference for young major-league talent or near-ready prospects to bolster a team that, on paper, returns a solid core. The Pirates should not sell everything.

They should certainly listen — does any club not listen? — they should be opportunistic if an overwhelming offer is made, but I would be surprised if a team is willing to meet what I assume would be a high bar, a significant ask, on Cole.

The Yankees, to me, seem committed to their plan. Would they surrender significant prospect treasure for two-and-a-third seasons of control over Cole? The Yankees rank seventh in starting pitcher WAR. If the Astros have a healthy Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton, Cole would seem to be a luxury entering the postseason. And in the postseason, a sequence of Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski and Ken Giles will shorten games. Would the Astros meet a steep price? The Dodgers have pitching depth. The Rockies have the best ERA- in their history. An intra-division trade to the Cubs seems like a non-starter.

Moreover, Cole has not pitched like an ace this season, or since 2015, so to expect an overwhelming return even in a market short on top-of-the-rotation arms could be overly optimistic.

The Pirates should listen, but they will likely be best served by bringing Cole back to have him join Nova and Taillon at the top of their 2018 rotation. If the Pirates want to be competitive in 2018, replacing Cole’s innings would be a challenge. Cole is under control through 2019, so holding and selling next deadline if the club is out of the race again next summer, seems more pragmatic.

After all, said Huntington earlier this year: “It’s no coincidence that we were good when Gerrit was good.”

The Pirates might also think about keeping McCutchen.

They were motivated to move him in the offseason, and many presume the club will look to deal him prior to the deadline. And in a vacuum it makes sense to move McCutchen at some point, since he’s unlikely to be with the club beyond 2018 and his June surge has improved what was severely depressed value. But with a lesser market for position players, and presumably plenty of skepticism still clouding McCutchen’s value at the moment, the Pirates might do well just to see if he is really back, pick up his $14.5 million option for 2018, and hope he’s a four-win-or-better player in 2018.

If the club really wants to move him, his value could be higher this offseason if he continues to prove his bat is back. His plate discipline is certainly back, and on a team devoid of power — in a game trending toward the home run — he and Josh Bell are the only reliable power threats.

So who should the Pirates move? The players on the fringe, the periphery.

One of the more attractive chips the Pirates have is Juan Nicasio (2.11 FIP, 56 ERA-, 18-point K-BB%), who has rebuilt his career as a quality bullpen option. Nicasio excelled in a multi-inning relief role last season. He’s a free agent after the season. There should be a motivation — and a market — to pick up a controllable asset for Nicasio.

Freese could draw interest from teams in need of third base and bench help, though given the Pirates’ lack of third-base options in the upper levels of the system, and the uncertainty of Kang, it’s unclear how the club would fill the immediate void. (I, personally, like Josh Harrison best as third-base defender, and according to DRS he rates equally well at second and third.) Still, if the Pirates can get a prospect of any significance, they ought to consider it. They would be cashing in on a veteran free agent who was still available in March last season.

Perhaps an asset to consider selling high on is Harrison, given Adam Frazier’s presence and that Harrison is performing better than a league-average bat for the first time since 2014. Harrison is owed $10 million next season with club options in 2019 and 2020.

The Pirates are likely motivated to move Antonio Bastardo and Tony Watson, but there would only be a modest market — if there’s any, at all — for either arm.

The Pirates perhaps would be wise to return to the deadline market as soft sellers. They ought to consider following the hedge of a bet they made a year ago. They would do well to pick up some controllable near-ready ML assets but also keep the majority of their 2018 team intact.

The Pirates have needs. They have questions in the back of their rotation, their bullpen, and at third base moving forward. This is a club that could use more power. But there’s also enough of a core — and this was one of the toughest-luck teams of 2017 — to believe a bounceback could be in store in 2018. This is a core that includes recent No. 1 (Cole) and No. 2 (Taillon) overall picks, one of the game’s best reliever (Rivero), a former MVP (McCutuchen) who may or may not be back, and an All-Star-caliber outfielder in Marte. It’s hard to imagine the Pirates developing a better core in the mid-to-near term.

The Pirates should be sellers, soft sellers, unless they are made some offers they cannot refuse.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Beyond McCutchen and all the issues around that, Harrison was the first name I thought of when I thought of the Pirates selling. Not sure what he would bring with his salary attached, and the Pirates are clearly selling him at his peak so I’m not sure how much teams want to buy his inevitable decline. But as the final piece for a playoff-bound team, he’d make sense to somebody.

6 years ago
Reply to  Joser

If people thought that the backlash of trading Melancon was bad last year, I can’t wait to see what it would be if they dealt Harrison this year…..

He’s got all of the attributes that the “non-analytics” crowd gushes over….

6 years ago
Reply to  ej6687

So in other words, he is short.

6 years ago
Reply to  ej6687

??? I didn’t know he was white. (only kidding, only kidding)