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.
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.
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.
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.