After trading away two of their most prominent players, I keep seeing assertions that the Pirates are going into a rebuild like the White Sox did only with fewer assets to trade. I just can’t bring myself to believe that; Cole and McCutchen were short term assets with somewhat limited trade value. A true tear-down would put the likes of Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli, Felipe Rivero, Ivan Nova, and Starling Marte on the block. That not being the case, what is going on in Pittsburgh?
The Pirates are coming off a 75-win season in which the aforementioned Marte, perhaps their best player, was suspended for half the season due to a failed drug test. Sub-par years from Cole and Polanco as well as the failure of some of their younger players to break out as hoped (particularly Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow) led to their disappointing fourth place finish. Given where they were at, it did look like a rebuild was in the offing.
What we’ve instead seen is the infamous “retooling” of the roster with younger players. The Cole trade return was considered a bit light, but they added a starting pitcher in Joe Musgrove who has a better projection for 2018 than Cole does as well as a new starting third baseman in Colin Moran, who might be a minor upgrade from David Freese while allowing Freese to act as more of a utility player, thus increasing his value to the team overall. Michael Feliz is an interesting toss-in, because though he’s been bad, he has the kind of arm that can provide huge impact if he’s able to put it all together.
The McCutchen trade, however, is really impossible to defend in isolation. They got back a good young reliever (Crick) and an intriguing prospect for the face of their franchise. I can understand why fans would be ready to riot given his importance to their return to prominence after two decades of futility as well as the contributions he’s made to the Pittsburgh community outside of baseball. From a practical standpoint, though, he was in his last year of control (and highly unlikely to re-sign), he’s no longer cheap, and that $14.5 million he was due could be used to fill in other holes on the roster. Therein lies the rub: if the Pirates stand pat, this is utterly indefensible. If they sign, say, Lorenzo Cain and maybe another player or two, the plan starts coming much more into focus.
Pittsburgh is in a difficult spot, knee deep in one of baseball’s tougher divisions (the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers are all fielding darn good squads still), so 75 wins as a jumping off point is less than ideal. Let’s say they actually sign Cain to the squad, though. Just as a direct replacement for Cutch that’s potentially a two win jump. A full season of Marte, now shifted back to left field, would add another win (or two) and leave them with one of the better defensive outfields in the game. I’m calling Musgrove replacing Cole a wash. He doesn’t have Cole’s upside, but we’ve really only seen Cole at his peak for one season, and that was three years ago. Mix in the additions of Crick, Feliz, and Moran, and you could be looking at another win or two to bake up.
This gets the team to about maybe 80 wins. Still not great, but a team with Pirates’ limitations is bound to be competing on the periphery most of the time, and this is not a terrible projection for them all things considered. At a minimum, fielding an above .500 team after all those years of losing is an accomplishment in and of itself. Besides, this allows them to dream on a few things falling there way, for example:
-Josh Bell and Jameson Taillon build on their solid 2017 seasons
-Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow start delivering on their former hype
-Polanco returns to being an average-ish right fielder
-Veteran players (Mercer, Harrison, Cervelli, Nova, Rivero, etc.) maintain their production moving forward
-One or two players have a surprising breakout (Cole Tucker? Mitch Keller?)
Yeah, that’s a lot of wishcasting, but given where they started at, that’s probably a lot better than simply a retread of the Cole/Cutch roster. For the sake of their fans, I hope they can at least keep it interesting. Lord knows we’ve gotten burned by retools around these parts plenty in the past.
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