The Pirates are not giving up, they are operating within a budget

The underlying implications of what the Pirates did at the trade deadline are still awfully worrisome to me, 48 hours later. By trading Mark Melancon while still in the Wild Card race, the Pirates more or less said that future value will always be considered vs. present value, even when present value has a direct effect on a playoff race. By trading Francisco Liriano and prospects for Drew Hutchison, the Pirates basically set out a zero-tolerance policy for bad contracts and showed a willingness to draw from their prospect reserves to enforce that policy.

This gives us two pretty straightforward equations to consider:

  • Melancon trade: future > present
  • Liriano trade: money > future

Therefore, the Pirates’ priorities are: money first, being able to maintain contention long-term second, and winning in any individual year third.

This is not necessarily new news; small market teams consider money first, and the Pirates have always prioritized future considerations under Neal Huntington (and with good results, mind you; after 20 losing seasons, the Pirates have a competitive core assembled that should keep them in the playoff hunt every year between now and at least 2020 or so, depending on unmeasurable factors we don’t need to get into from here). What is upsetting, at least to me, about this deadline is that it makes two things explicitly clear:

  1. That money > future> present hierarchy is cast firmly in stone, and will be enforced as such.
  2. The Pirates’ recent change in circumstance (ie, they are good at baseball now, and could conceivably win a World Series at some point between 2016 and 2020) have not shifted that hierarchy at all. Meaning that whatever the budget is is the budget, and it will not change by 5% or 10% to allow for a bad Francisco Liriano contract to be covered up by acquiring another player on a team that might otherwise be set, and that the Pirates will not risk their ability to remain contenders long-term for the uncertainty of the efficacy of a short-term fix.

In much clearer terms, what I mean is this: when you look at the Liriano trade and you go through the committed salary numbers and arbitration estimates and what-not, you come to the basically unavoidable conclusion that if the Pirates’ front office felt like Liriano’s contract had to be moved at all costs (and they obviously did feel that), then the Pirates’ payroll is not significantly rising in 2017. This is depressing. The nebulous future that we’ve waited for for an entire generation is officially arriving with no further qualifications alongside Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Gregory Polanco’s breakout season. The Pirates will enter 2017 as a fully armed and operational battle station, from a small market team building perspective. The thought that the payroll must stay its current low level even under those circumstances is unpalatable at best.

I’m sure this will not be a hugely popular opinion, but even with all of this being said, I don’t see anything that the Pirates did this week as a capitulation by the front office, nor do I suspect that it was done by a forced edict from the ownership.

Heading into the trade deadline, what I wanted to see the Pirates do was add an arm to the rotation and deepen the bullpen, so as to blunt the effects of a rotation that has almost always been either young, bad, or both. The Mark Melancon trade didn’t help bullpen depth, but it probably didn’t hurt it given the acquisition of Felipe Rivero. When you add in the Antonio Bastardo trade, though, it does change the composition and depth of the bullpen quite a bit. Both Bastardo and Rivero are capable of working multiple innings out of the bullpen, if necessary, as are the newly promoted Neftali Feliz and Tony Watson. This Pirate bullpen can cover a lot of ground at this point, and it’s depth is such that they almost never have to stick with a struggling reliever in a big circumstance (last night was a perfect illustration of this).

The rotation question was not as deftly answered at the deadline, but it was at least addressed. The Liriano trade muddles it a bit, as it removes an arm from the mix, but it doesn’t remove an arm that’s been useful in 2016. A lot of where the rotation goes from here depends on how the Pirates turn Ivan Nova around, but since Nova’s got a heavy fastball and a high ground ball rate, I won’t count out the Pirates turning him around when they’ve gotten similar results from other seemingly improbable sources going all the way back to 2012 at this point.

If Nova turns around and slots in behind Cole and Taillon, that’s more than half of a solid rotation. The Pirates can fill the back half from there with Brault and Kuhl and Williams and maybe even Glasnow. I think that having Locke and Vogelsong make spot starts, like they are this week, is probably unavoidable given the age and experience of the Taillon et al., and it’s hard to really protest that given that Taillon, Kuhl, Glasnow, and Williams have all had arm issues this season and that Brault has dealt with an injury as well. Drew Hutchison will come into the equation at some point, as well. It’s all too easy to conflate the rotation today with the rotation two months from now, and if Nova turns around and Taillon continues his strong debut and improves on his home run problems (which seem reasonable, given his ground ball rate), I think the rotation looks a lot different.

This is, for the nth time, not to say that the Pirates are slam dunks for a playoff spot or that I think that if they make the playoffs that this year will be different than the last two years or that my assessment of Nova and Rivero and Bastardo is that they are “enough” to put the Pirates over the top, or any such thing. It’s to say that my main thought ahead of these deadline shenanigans was to not count the Pirates out if they found a way to add pitching depth, and that they have at least somewhat paved themselves a path to that. The Pittsburgh Pirates as constructed and assembled on August 3rd are an average-ish team that would likely not be much of a playoff threat in the National League, but that doesn’t mean that the same has to be true on September 30th. It certainly might be, but there are lots of things that can break better for this club in the next two months.

To finally bring this all home, this isn’t to say that I like the Liriano trade, because I don’t. I don’t like it as a baseball trade, I don’t like it as a statement on the Pirates’ long-term payroll or the way they prioritize that payroll above other things. It’s very concerning to me that whatever the Pirates’ theoretical payroll ceiling is is so immutable that they have to sell prospects to dump Liriano’s money instead of possibly slightly exceeding that number in 2017.

But one thing the Pirates certainly did not do here is give up on anything. My concern with the Melancon trade was that they were opening themselves up to being worse in 2016 than they were pre-deadline, and I don’t think they did that. Depending on Nova, they might have made themselves better. A lot of where they go from here will rely on those rookie pitchers and on Andrew McCutchen’s ability to hit himself out of his slump, but that was always going to be true of this team either way. They’re probably not worse for 2017 without Liriano, either, and while they have fewer trade options to fortify that team without Ramirez and McGuire, it’s not like that trade stripped the cupboard bare. What the Pirates did at this deadline was to operate with a budget in mind. We now have a better idea of how strict that budget is, and said strictness creates a lot of concerns for how the front office improves better Pirate teams than this one in the near future, but I don’t think that this is the same as the ownership mandated blood-letting of 2003, and I don’t think that this trade necessarily portends the return of the Bad Old Days in Pittsburgh.

Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.