Moving Forward

The 2018 Pirates are not a good baseball team. Shocking I know. They also aren’t a terrible baseball team or even an interesting baseball team which makes it extremely difficult to follow them at the moment. There is no shortage of people to blame for the current state of the ball club but my focus is on what the team needs to do moving forward.

1, Commit to a direction

A large part of the Pirates problem has been their unwillingness to actually decide on what they want to be. Do they want to compete in the short term or do they want to look ahead to the future. It appears the time has finally come where the decision has been made for them. The team needs to turn its focus towards the future.

2. Bring in some new voices

Look I felt after last season it was time for Huntington and Hurdle to go but the club opted for a different direction. However this isn’t necessarily a call for them to go. If the team wants them to stick around fine (wouldn’t be my preference but whatever) but their advisors/assistants/the people who have their ear are in dire need of a shake up. A new hitting/pitching coach and some new player development people sounds like a good start to me.

3. Remove the clutter

Any player on the current roster who isn’t going to be an asset to the club in 2020 should be traded or released. This isn’t just talking about pending free agents like Harrison, Freese, Cervelli, etc but also borderline depth guys like Schugel and Smoker. There is just no need for these guys.

4. Sort through the remainder

The team has a decent assortment of marginal talent and over the next year and a half an attempt needs to be made to find out which of the players in that group are actually useful piece. Is Josh Bell an answer at 1B? What about Will Craig? A similar discussion can be had at virtually every position.

5. Aim for a window

The economics of baseball prevent the Pirates from having a realistic shot of building a sustained winner. That is just the way it is. The Pirates have to try and carve themselves out a window of some sort. Right now the most promising window for the Pirates probably rests with prospects such as Oneil Cruz, Cal Mitchell, Shane Baz, Cody Bolton and Travis Swaggerty. All of those guys are far enough way that anything can happen but right now that is probably the best collection of talent the Pirates have. Adding a few college picks high in the next draft or two to supplement the group would be a good idea.

6. Be prepared to take an opportunity

Its no secret this past offseason was very slow. If that should happen in the next year or two the Pirates need to be prepared to take advantage of it. They choose to sit this past off-season out but with a good bit of money coming off the books the next year or two could be a great time to try and find a good value. A 3-4 year deal for a starting pitcher and/or an infielder could go a long ways to patching up potential weak spots for the window the Pirates should be aiming for.

7. Take advantage of the window

If the team somehow manages to open a window they need to do what they can to take advantage of it. Trade away prospects, stretch the budget for a year or two. Yes this likely means we will see a sharp drop off in both payroll and talent once the window closes but the Pittsburgh market has made it abundantly clear that they see no difference between a 115 loss club and an 85 loss club.

8. Show they’ve learned something

The Pirates made a bunch of good moves for a few short years but have since shown an unwillingness to adapt to the realities around them. The most important thing of all which basically summarizes all previous 7 points is the team needs to show they have learned the need to be adaptable and adjust course on the fly when necessary.

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The Pirates And Finances

I don’t talk about it directly much because honestly there isn’t much point in doing so but the always present cloud around all Pirate related conversations always seems to be finances. A large segment of the fan base seems to think Bob Nutting is a Scrooge McDuck like character swimming around in his massive vault of gold coins. They would like to see the team sold to some benevolent billionaire willing to sink his money into the team and accept a loss year after year. I’d love that too but I’m realistic enough to know such a person does not exist.

I’m not naive enough to believe the Pirates are doing all they can from a financial stand point but I also think it is rather comical how some paint this ownership as not wanting to win. They suggest Nutting consistently takes money out of the franchise for his own personal gain despite all evidence (limited as it may be) pointing counter to this.

So what is going on here? Why don’t the Pirates spend more? We may never know the real answer but I have my own thoughts on this subject and thought I’d put them out there. Basically it comes down to 5 reasons and I’ll lay them out below in no particular order.

1. Ownership – Ah yes the evil villain in our story siphoning cash out of the organization for his own personal gain. That is how Pittsburgh paints him but I don’t buy this story. The more likely explanation is that Bob Nutting is simply put a businessman. Not only is he a businessman but he is a risk averse one. My opinion is Nutting sets a budget so that the team is almost certain not to lose money in a given year. Basically I think the team builds their budget around essentially a worst case scenario from a revenue perspective. If things go well they have shown a willingness in the past to add payroll in season (they added more at the 2015 deadline than any team in baseball). This obviously isn’t what you want a sports owner to be but it is far from the image a large segment of the fan base likes to paint.

2. DebtIt may be boring but we know for a fact the Pirates had a seriously debt problem just a few decades ago. Remember the Aramis Ramirez trade? While the situation has undoubtedly improved over that time it is reasonable to assume the club still carries a significant portion of debt that they are working to pay down to a more reasonable level. There is no real evidence to support this idea though it seems reasonably likely to me.

3. Television Deal – The Pirates are never going to get a deal comparable to the large market but poor timing meant they missed the height of the boom leaving them with a lesser deal than even similar sized markets. A team’s television deal is a huge part of their revenue and lagging here is obviously going to limit expenditures. If you are looking for someone to blame here, Frank Coonley would likely be your man as he negotiated the last deal and a case could be made that he should of seen the boon coming.

4. The City of Pittsburgh – People are not going to like to hear this but Pittsburgh isn’t a baseball town and due to that attendance is limited. Some would be quick to point out the surge the Pirates received in attendance when they were winning but those people fail to look at the actual numbers. The Pirates peaked at 2.4 million whereas other small markets with good teams, such as the 2008 Brewers, cross 3 million. That is a huge 20% difference which again has a big effect on revenue streams and therefore expenditure.

5. Major League Baseball – The single biggest reason the Pirates finances are always discussed is because that is the way the league is set up. Big market teams have a built in advantage and small market teams like the Pirates are always going to be stuck looking for a small window in which they can compete.

The above 5 reasons make the Pirates financial situation frustrating and that is why it is always forefront in any discussion. The ownership is certainly part of it and needs discussed but a large section of Pirates fans tend to ignore the other issues I outlined above which is a disservice to the conversation and is why I tend to avoid mentioning the topic at all.

When you find yourself thinking about the Pirates financial situation the easy thing is to default to the owner and while that is indeed the cause in some cases it isn’t right to think it is always the case. Basically I view it like the driving factor for the Pirates financial shortcomings comes down to what question you are asking:

Why aren’t the Pirates more active in free agency and why are they likely embarking on another rebuild?

The Driving Factor – Major League Baseball

What don’t the Pirates generally spend more?

The Driving Factor – Lower Revenue (TV Deal and City of Pittsburgh)

Why weren’t the Pirates more aggressive when they had a good team?

The Driving Factor – Ownership

This is just my view of the situation. Others will undoubtedly have their own but it is foolish for anyone to think there is just one root cause to the Pirates financial situation. The truth is there are many factors at play including several I probably forgot about it or simply do not know. The topic has lately became too focal (every story) and too focused (just ownership) in every Pirates discussion. It makes discussing the Pirates difficult and is why I tend to avoid the topic of finances as few can carry on a rational discussion about it. Hopefully this will make at least a couple people reconsider always reflexively turning Pirates conversations towards the financial side.

Four Paths Forward

When the Pirates season was winding down I began thinking about what options the Pirates had moving forward. The team finds themselves in an interesting predicament as they don’t have any major holes but are lacking star power. The structure of a possible contender is in place but the foundation which it is on is quickly crumbling. To end the metaphors this Pirates team is capable of competing but only barely and that is an awkward position in the present day MLB.

How a team attempts to move away from this awkward position can be a defining moment in a front office’s career. I will readily admit I am ready to move on from the Huntington/Hurdle era but them being retained is something I understand (even if the 4 year extension was a bit of a head scratcher). This offseason is vital for the future success of the Pirates and it will be interesting to see how this group decided to approach it. I’ve identified four broad ways in which I feel they could approach it.

Blow It Up!

We may not like it but the Pirates are a small market team and as such barring ideal conditions they are only going to be able to have a small window (3 to 5 years) in which they can really compete. Mistakes were made that hurt the Pirates chances the last two years but that is the past and we must now recognize the window is either closing rapidly or closed altogether. Trading away core players who only have a year or two of control left like McCutchen and Cole are what teams should do when they reach the end of their window. In addition other useful veteran pieces like Harrison, Nova, Rodriguez and Freese should be shopped. Higher end assets like Starling Marte, Jameson Taillon and Felipe Rivero shouldn’t be necessarily shopped but the Pirates should be willing to move them in the right deal.

Essentially this would be starting over. I wouldn’t call it a 5 year plan as I think if done right the Pirates could find themselves back in the mix of things as earlier as 2020 but admittedly it would be a tough sell to the Pirates fan base. Had a new regime been put in place I think this would likely be the direction the club would take but with Huntington and Hurdle returning this seems highly unlikely to me.

Do Nothing!

So I don’t literally mean nothing but I mean nothing radical that really moves the needle. If things go really right for the Pirates next year the core of a possible contender is in place. There are a few areas the Pirates should and probably would try to patch up. For example I could see something like Josh Harrison being traded and replaced with a Sean Rodriguez and Max Moroff time share (with Adam Frazier being a possibility as well). Meanwhile the money saved is used to bring in someone to share 3B with Freese and a bullpen arm. Of course something unexpected like Kang getting granted a visa could change the specifics here.

Essentially this would be a continuation of the last two years with one foot in the present and one in the future. Make no mistake the Pirates will often have to operate this way and can be successful doing so it is just they have had two years of very poor execution while exploring this path. One could also argue that is was the wrong path for those teams to be on in the first place but I digress. Regardless continuing down this road would be insane but unfortunately it is exactly what I expect will happen.

Get Creative!

In order to succeed the Pirates have to consistently stay one step ahead of the league. Their success in 2013-2015 was largely depended on a rock solid bullpen and this happened right before teams started trending that way. This year the trend appears to be home runs and power and some will say the Pirates have to compete in that area but in reality that is simply not a viable option. What they need to do is start the next trend.

This has to be a two prong approach. The first prong is looking at players who might be undervalued. Someone like Miles Mikolas returning from the Japanese league might work as might Ah-Seop Son coming over from the KBO. My early feeling is neither will require a large commitment but both have a fair amount of upside. There are of course quite a list of players who can fit the undervalue description the two names I gave are just examples.

The other part of this approach is to go with a different style while playing. Defensive shifts are naturally what comes to the mind of most people but there are other ways to do it. For example the Pirates have two players, Josh Harrison and Starling Marte, who lets say have a knack for getting hit by the baseball. Emphasizing this skill and trying to get the most out of it could be a way to get extra base runners over the course of the season. Perhaps changing the nature of the pitching staff is in order. Five starters and seven relievers have of course been the standard but what if a different approach was tried. Say four starters, four swingmen and four relievers. From there you could do all sorts of things like piggybacking or maybe having a swingman pitch a couple innings before turning it over to an opposite handed starter to get the platoon advantage. Thinking outside the box here is key.

When it comes to player moves keeping core guys like Cole and McCutchen would obviously be a necessity but looking into the possibility of moving guys like Nova, Harrison, Freese, Rodriguez or Cervelli with the intent of going with younger guys or potentially hidden valued guys are things that need to be considered.

Be Bold!

Here the team makes a statement move. Maybe its extending Andrew McCutchen, going out and signing a Mike Moustakas or trading a high end prospects package for a star performer. Conversely a series of smaller moves like signing Todd Frazier and trading a good package say centered around Glasnow for a SP could work as well. Essentially this would mean making a real splash and adding to the team. Personally I think the time has come and gone for this particular path but I know a large segment of the Pirates fan base would be happy to see it.

 

Now the question becomes which path will the Pirates take this offseason? I think its fairly obvious I’m in favor of either blowing it up or getting creative but I understand the arguments against both of those paths. It is a precarious position the Pirates find themselves in and there is no good options yet the team has no choice but to try and move forward. What Huntington does this offseason may very well define his career as the Pirates general manager. No matter what moves we get (or lack there of) this is going to be an interesting couple months to see what this Pirates team chooses to do.

Lost At Sea

The Pirates front office has fallen victim to their own overconfidence. The way baseball is currently structured it is nearly impossible for a team like the Pirates to compete year in and year out over an extended period of time. At most these teams get a 3 to 5 year window where they can make a true run. The Pirates have tried to chart a path in which they could avoid or at least minimize the pitfalls that naturally occur during this cycle. It obviously hasn’t worked and they now find themselves lost at sea.

The Pirates have no obvious direction to take from here. Had the current regime been let go I think that would have been enough pretense to start a reset/rebuild and personally I think that would have been the best route to go. Without the regime change I don’t see how the Pirates choose to go that route. Conversely while its close the current core of the roster doesn’t seem strong enough where realistic moves the Pirates could make would put them over the top. Sure if they added 1 or 2 core players and then supplemented that group this team could compete but no matter what you think about the Pirates ability to spend I don’t see how they could realistically do that at this point.

This leaves the Pirates with only one option and that is to try and supplement the current roster while recognizing that it probably isn’t going to be enough. How does a team do this? They make high risk moves while keeping their minds open to dealing players off the current roster.

Specifically for the Pirates this means looking to move mid tier veterans like Harrison, Cervelli, Mercer, Freese, Rodriguez, Hudson and Nova while holding on to potential top end contributors (McCutchen and Cole) and hoping young guys (Bell, Polanco, Frazier, Glasnow, etc) step up. You then supplement what is left with some trade or free agent targets that have a decent chance to blow up in your face but also some real upside.

Not really sure who that may be but maybe someone like Ian Kinsler. He started showing his age this year but is just one year removed from an awesome season. Another name is Miles Mikolas. He is coming off three strong years in Japan following a fairly pedestrian showing in the big leagues. Perhaps he has learned something in that time. I’m sure there are many others. If most of these moves hit and the younger players step up the team should compete.

This isn’t a good plan or one likely to work but the only other real alternative at the moment is probably to continue on the same course they are now and as we can all tell this is a really bad idea. The longer they stay on this course the farther they drift out and the farther they drift out the longer they will be lost at sea.

Minor League Awards

Every year I do a meaningless exercise where I hand out awards to each Pirate affiliate. There are 4 but I select both a hitter and a pitcher so in essence there are 8. Simply put I select the best player, top prospect, breakouts and disappointments. In a lot of cases the breakouts may seem like reaches because there were no great choices and some of the disappointments stem largely from injuries. I’m not going to give any commentary on these awards as I will have additional posts later covering the minor league season.

AAA

Best Hitter/Pitcher – Chris Bostick/Steven Brault

Top Prospects – Austin Meadows/Nick Kingham

Breakouts – Max Moroff/Angel Sanchez

Disappointments – Austin Meadows/Clay Holmes

AA

Best Hitter/Pitcher – Jordan Luplow/Austin Coley

Top Prospects – Cole Tucker/JT Brubaker

Breakouts -Jordan Luplow/Tate Scioneaux

Disappointments – Kevin Newman/Yeudy Garcia

A+

Best Hitter/Pitcher – Logan Hill/Pedro Vasquez

Top Prospects -Cole Tucker/Mitch Keller

Breakouts – Logan Hill/ Pedro Vasquez

Disappointments – Will Craig/ Gage Hinsz

A

Best Hitter/Pitcher – Hunter Owen/Eduardo Vera

Top Prospects – Adrian Valerio/Luis Escobar

Breakouts – Adrian Valerio/Oddy Nunez

Disappointments – Sandy Santos/Blake Cederlind

A-

Best Hitter/Pitcher – Tristan Gray/Scooter Hightower

Top Prospects – Dylan Busby/Ike Schlabach

Breakouts – Tristan Gray/ Ike Schlabach

Disappointments – Dylan Busby/Sergio Cubilete

Rk+

Best Hitter/Pitcher – Edison Lantigua/Evan Piechota

Top Prospects – Edison Lantigua/Braeden Ogle

Breakouts – Edison Lantigua/Alex Manasa

Disappointments – Yondry Contreras/Max Kranick

Rk

Best Hitter/Pitcher – Mason Martin/Samuel Reyes

Top Prospects – Calvin Mitchell/Shane Baz

Breakouts – Mason martin/Samuel Reyes

Disappointments – Connor Uselton/Austin Shields

fRk

Best Hitter/Pitcher – Sherten Apostel/Oliver Garcia

Top Prospects – Jean Eusebio/Noe Toribio

Breakouts – Sherten Apostel/Jose Marcano

Disappointments – Larry Alcime/Osvaldo Bido

Time To Hit Reset

I’ve tried attacking this same essential article from many different ways but I decided it best just to go with the direct approach. The Pirates are quickly approaching a point where it is going to become imperative they make a decision between rebuilding or doing something to solidify the group on hand. The fan in me wants to see the team make a bold move and give it another shot in 2018 but the realist in me realizes the time has come to do a reset.

A reset isn’t the same as a complete tear down/rebuild but it has some of the same essential components. I want the Pirates to trade away some key contributors and essentially give up on 2018 and probably 2019. I also want them to undergo a regime change. This doesn’t mean I think Huntington and Hurdle have done a bad job overall; they haven’t. Their work especially as of late hasn’t been exceptional and the time has come for a different direction and a new lead.

There is a certain segment of the fan base that believes to see real change something needs to be done at the top. They specify the majority owner but in reality the focus should be on the entire ownership team. Unlike some I don’t share the view that the owners are a Scrooge McDuck type taking huge profits out of the organization (we have disgruntled ex minority owner Jay Lustig telling us that doesn’t happen) but they are definitely a risk averse group which doesn’t jive well with a small market that let’s face it isn’t a great baseball market.

In order for a team in the Pirates situation to be successful over an extended period of time an owner needs to be an active participant and willing to take a chance that the club may lose money in a given year. This isn’t saying an owner must go into a year expecting to have to put his own money into the team or take on additional debt but they must be at least willing to do so should things not turn out as expected. Basically budget semi-aggressively when you find your team in contention and be willing to do what is necessary to make up any potential shortfalls.

Anyway owner tangent aside when thinking of the reset that is needed I’d like to see a new GM and manager in place and as far as the players are concerned I believe there are only two who its necessary to trade and that is Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Those two players are easily the Pirates best trade chips and with my thought of basically pulling back the reins for the next two years it makes little sense to keep them so they should be dealt.

As for other players I’d look to move anyone who isn’t controlled through 2020 but aside from Cutch and Cole I don’t expect anyone else to bring back a great haul so that is more of an individual basis. The list of other guys not under team control in 2020 are: Jordy Mercer, Francisco Cervelli, David Freese, Wade LeBlanc, Daniel Hudson, Ivan Nova, Sean Rodriguez and George Kontos. I don’t see really see anyone there who is going to get a great return but if there is an interesting prospect to be had for one of them you need to make the deal (even if you have to pay part of the contract).

Assuming it does prove fruitless to move any of the above guys I envision a 2018 Opening Day roster of something like:

Lineup: C Cervelli, 1B Bell, 2B Moroff, 3B Harrison, SS Mercer, LF Luplow, CF Marte, RF Polanco

Bench: C Diaz, 1B/OF Osuna, 1B/3B Freese, 2B/OF Frazier, U Rodriguez

Rotation: Taillon, Nova, Williams, Glasnow, Kingham

Bullpen: Rivero, Kontos, Neverauskas, Kuhl, Brault, Schugel, Free Agent

Diaz would split time with Cervelli and Frazier split time with Luplow. Ultimately the hope would be Meadows replaces the Luplow/Frazier split and Newman replaces Mercer. By no means is that an exciting roster but the pitching is very young and has some upside and hopefully trading Cutch and Cole would give the team some additional high upside position players to add to Newman and Meadows.

I’m not going to dive into any more specifics as this piece is already long enough for me and my writing style but I do realize this isn’t what most fans want to hear but unfortunately it is probably the best path forward for the Pirates. My fandom along with many others is irrational so we will remain no matter what course the Pirates take but it would sure be a nice change after two rough years to see the team do the right thing.

2018 Roster

While all hope of the Pirates contending in 2017 isn’t gone I find myself on the side that believes this team just isn’t good enough right now. Who knows maybe they get hot win 9 out of the next 10 and find themselves right on the division door step but until they get and stay above .500 for a little while I’m going to go on thinking this season is over.

With that in mind I figured I’d play with the the potential 2018 roster a little. None of this is to be taken as anything more than just some slightly educated guesses on my part but it should still be a fun exercise. So let’s start by breaking down players by their status heading into next year.

Free Agents: Juan Nicasio, John Jaso, Joaquin Benoit

Players With Team Options: Andrew McCutchen, Chris Stewart, Wade LeBlanc

Under Contract: Francisco Cervelli, Josh Harrison, Ivan Nova, David Freese, Daniel Hudson, Starling Marte, Sean Rodriguez, Gregory Polanco, [Jung Ho Kang]

Arb Eligible: Jordy Mercer, Gerrit Cole, Drew Hutchison, George Kontos, Felipe Rivero, Phil Gosselin, [Wade LeBlanc]

League Min – Out of Options: AJ Schugel, Nick Kingham, Elias Diaz

League Min – With Options: Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Adam Frazier, Josh Bell, Trevor Williams, Jose Osuna, Jordan Luplow, Max Moroff, Edgar Santana, Tyler Glasnow, Gift Ngoepe, Johnny Barbato, Jacob Stallings, Steven Brault, Chris Bostick, Dovydas Neverauskas, Clay Holmes

Notable Rule V Eligible: Edwin Espinal (MiLB FA), Angel Sanchez (MiLB FA), Austin Meadows, Luis Escobar, Eric Wood, Adrian Valerio, Tyler Eppler, Dario Agrazal, Jake Brentz, Montana DuRapau

Now lets go through the categories one by one and speculate on what the Pirates may do.

Free Agents – I could see them making a play to retain Nicasio but in the end I think we will see all three players move on

Players w/ Options – Regardless of if he is with the team next year picking up McCutchen’s option is an easy call. As for the other two I think we are looking at the end of the line for Stewart and while I’d like to see them pass on LeBlanc they have a dearth of left handed bullpen arms and he is cheap so I bet they pick it up.

Under Contract – Though we’d probably all like to see them cut bait on Hudson chances are everyone under contract, save Kang, will return and be a part of next year’s roster.

Arb Eligible – These all appear to be fairly easy calls. Cole, Mercer and Rivero are important players on the Pirates so all will be tendered. Kontos looks good so far so I expect them to tender him as well. Hutchison hasn’t played in the majors yet this year so tenderin him doesn’t seem likely. LeBlanc only becomes an issue if they decline the option and if that were to happen they will obviously non tender him. That leaves Gosselin who to be honest I’m not even sure is arb eligible yet but a September call up would erase any doubts with that. Regardless with Rodriguez back I can’t see him returning.

Out of Options – Diaz and Kingham are high pedigreed enough that the Pirates just aren’t going to let them go. Bet on them being on the Opening Day roster next year. As for Schugel he has been solid enough that the Pirates should at least hang on to him and let him compete for a bullpen job.

The Rest – Cheap guys who can easily be stashed in the minors. These guys remain on the roster unless a roster spot is needed. Looking over the list it would appear Barbato, Ngoepe, Stallings and Bostick represent the bottom of the group so they may be in danger but the rest will likely stay.

Rule V – I listed the 10 players I feel are the biggest decisions facing the Pirates here. Obviously all won’t be added to the roster but expect a lot of them to be. Austin Meadows is the one no brainer in the bunch. Outside of him Luis Escobar appears the next most likely. He is a bit far away but is a good enough prospect the Pirates likely won’t risk losing him. Outside of those two I’m going to say they keep 4 more and my guesses are Sanchez, Valerio, Brentz and Eppler. Sanchez and Eppler look like they could help as bullpen depth options next year and Brentz and Valerio look like prospects with some upside who could be fairly easily hidden by someone.

So all in all there we lose 3 to free agency, decline one option and non tender two guys. That leaves 6 open roster spots and conveniently we have 6 additions to the roster. I highlighted four potential guys to drop from the roster but obviously there are a couple more who could be (Schugel and LeBlanc come to mind) and there are of course trade possibilities.

In my next post I’ll discuss whom I see the Pirates potential trading and who I could them potential signing as a free agent (with maybe a trade target or two included).