Why the Pirates Gifted Juan Nicasio

Juan Nicasio is arguably having his best major league season. (Photo: Keith Allison)

As FanGraphs managing editor Dave Cameron wrote Wednesday, we are seeing fewer “bewildering” transactions in baseball these days. Many teams are thinking in similar ways, hiring similar people, and using similar information to make decisions. While that makes for more efficient decision making, it also makes for fewer controversial and/or head-scratching decisions.

While relatively minor in scope, we were given an unusual transaction when the Pirates — who have fallen out of contention — elected to place Juan Nicasio on irrevocable outright waivers this week, not revocable waivers, which teams usually employ this time of year to pass players through waivers but are able to pull them back if claimed.

The Pirates were willing to give away Nicasio — a failed starter turned into a useful reliever — for free and the Phillies took them up on it Thursday, claiming the free-agent-to-be and the remaining $600,000 he is owed.

In a year when every contender is trying to at least improve their bullpens, if not build super pens, Nicasio was a gift, though he was claimed by another non-contender, the Phillies. Nicasio has a 2.85 ERA, 3.00 FIP and 17.3 K-BB%.

Until I move to Cleveland in the middle of September, I am still a resident of Pittsburgh. Many of the good people of Allegheny County and the surrounding areas are not happy with this deal, viewing it like Yahoo! columnist Jeff Passan:

Many in Pittsburgh are skeptical — whether just or misguided — that Pirates ownership isn’t overly interested in competing when it comes to spending on payroll, and to that point, the Pirates have generally run some of the smallest payrolls in the sport. And while there are real revenue challenges that extend beyond market size (the Pirates control little parking, for instance), one could argue payroll commitment has not climbed commensurate with attendance growth in recent years and the additional national media dollars pouring into the industry. The Pirates opened the season ranking 25th in payroll.

The “cheap” label was not helped when when Gerrit Cole voiced his displeasure regarding his near-the-minimum pre-arbitration salary last spring. Perception was not helped when Francisco Liriano was moved to Toronto along with prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez last deadline period, in what looked like a salary dump. And now many feel the Pirates are trying to save a relatively modest $600,000 with this waiver move.

On the other hand, Cameron notes teams can actually do quite a bit with $600,000. Wrote Dave:

Given that those innings don’t really mean a lot now, it can reasonably be argued that the $600K in savings, if spent to acquire new talent — that’s enough to sign a significant international free agent, for instance — could help the team more than keeping Nicasio around for the final month of a lost season.

But while you can kind of see why the Pirates would do this with no real alternatives for turning him into any long-term value now, it’s pretty weird for every other contender to essentially get a chance to grab a quality reliever for nothing. Because Nicasio isn’t just some random waiver-wire arm. So why would the Pirates do this if not for saving a rather small amount of dollars?

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington explained the decision Thursday in a statement:

We took the unusual step of placing a quality person and pitcher in Juan Nicasio on outright waivers for a variety of reasons. Given our recent record and regression in the standings, we intend to give the higher leverage innings to other pitchers that may or will impact our 2018 club. We acknowledge the minimal amount of money saved by making this move, however, as a result of our decision and Juan’s pending free agency at the end of the season, we felt it appropriate to attempt to move Juan to a better situation for him.

We recently requested trade waivers on Juan and he was claimed by a playoff caliber club that indicated to us their primary motivation was to block us from being able to trade Juan elsewhere and that they were not willing to give us more than very marginal value in return if we chose to trade Juan to them. Rather than help a direct competitor and recognizing the difference in claiming order between trade and outright waivers, we chose to take the chance to see if by placing Juan on outright waivers he would end up with a different playoff contender, preferably one in the American League.

We appreciate all that Juan has done for our team and our organization. We wish him the best.

Huntington said another contender claimed Nicasio as a blocking maneuver on revocable waivers with little interest in surrendering a prospect of value in return. Perhaps this was a message sent that the Pirates are willing to dump players for nothing rather than be pinned down to ‘meh’ returns in revocable waiver deals. Huntington said the Pirates wanted to give innings to younger arms in September, and also allow Nicasio a chance to pitch for a contender (that didn’t happen).

It’s an unusual move. Are the Pirates being cheap? Was saving $600,000 a primary motivation? I don’t know. Many see the move through that lens.

Where the Pirates might have erred is in electing not to move Nicasio prior to the non-waiver deadline when they could have got some sort of return from a club of their choosing.

Back in late June I proposed the Pirates ought to consider selling “softly,” meaning that with the club once again on the outskirts of contention, they should keep assets like Cole and Andrew McCutchen but move their free agents to be like Tony Watson — whom they did — and Nicasio, whom they did not.

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.

The Pirates were 5.5 games out of the NL Central race on July 31, and 8.5 games out of the Wild Card race. It was not likely they could would advance to the playoffs, and while plausible, they did not look like a team that could push deep into October should they advance there.

There was a great seller’s market for relievers.

Of the 30 major league players traded from July 26 to the 4 p.m. trade deadline on Aug. 1, 16 were relief pitchers. But Nicasio stayed put. Perhaps there was little demand but it seemed like there was great demand for every reliever with a pulse. Perhaps the ask was too high.

A year earlier, on the fringe of contention, the Pirates upset many in Pittsburgh by trading “proven closer” and free-agent-to-be Mark Melancon for a package that contained Felipe Rivero. While it was something of a tactical retreat, it was absolutely the right decision and Rivero has become a controllable star-level reliever.

Under Huntington the Pirates have done an excellent job of finding value and building bullpens. They did not seem interested in extending Nicasio and likely view him as easily replaceable. Still, perhaps the Pirates should have been more aggressive as sellers prior to the deadline, particularly given the fact they had what the market coveted. The Pirates are a club that must extract value where and when they can.

Perhaps the mistake was not parting ways with Nicasio, but waiting too long to do so.

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

Given the strength of the Cubs and apparently now the Brewers, not to mention the Dodgers or the Nats they should have gone into complete rebuild. Pretty sure that was my comment 2 months ago when you wrote the soft rebuild column.

6 years ago

Couldn’t agree more. Management could have capitalized on 2020 value while awaiting the reasonable chances of the Cubs falling off, Harper leaving, Kershaw/Scherzer regressing, etc..

But no, the outside shot at winning 86 games and getting swept by WAS in the NLDS took precedence.