By Jared Lankes
First and foremost, the MLB’s, a league without a salary cap, landscape is a tough one to navigate. The lack of such a competitive balancing tool like a salary cap is an extra obstacle for small-market teams, who can’t go out and get big-name free agents or part with major prospect hauls to get the top talent they could potentially desire. Additionally, these teams constantly have to be on the lookout for any deals and moves they can make to gain any sort of edge, even if it’s unpopular and very unorthodox in nature.
This is just the dilemma that Neal Huntington, long-time General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, has had to deal with for many years now. He has needed to navigate a very unfriendly landscape on the road to building a consistent contender in a market where it’s very hard to. It lead to three consecutive playoff appearances from 2013-2015, but an injury-ridden 2016 and a 2017 highlighted by Kang not being allowed in the country and Marte being suspended for PEDs has made this one of Neal Huntington’s most important trials.
Despite all this, the Pirates are 42-47, hardly the looks of a team capable of contending. But yet they sit seven back in the weak NL Central, a far cry from first place but close enough to at least keep hope. They play most of their second half games against the division and Marte is due back on July 18. With this, there is at least a glimmer of opportunity to keep close enough this whole summer to perhaps steal it at the end in possible route to their first division title since moving into the NL Central.
But this is just the issue for Neal Huntington. His team on the field is currently below .500 but close enough to the division lead to feel like this could possibly actually be the year they can seize an opportunity in a weak division and make the moves to get there by fortifying their bullpen and maybe getting some help somewhere offensively (which actually may come in the form of Starling Marte).
On the other hand, there is the long-term. This Pirates team has been snake-bitten by a lot of things and maybe this just isn’t the year. Maybe they just keep this team mostly in-tact except for the impending free agents, maybe some others and bet they can’t possibly be more snake-bitten than this year (they can’t possibly get more unlucky, right?). Maybe they do a minor reload in hopes they what returns Juan Nicasio, John Jaso, Tony Watson, and possibly Andrew McCutchen bring back can be impactful in the short-term, as well as the long-term.
Then, one other things that rolls info the mind of general managers is when is it time to rebuild. The time for rebuilding isn’t here for the Pirates as they got a nice core in place with more on the way sooner rather than later. However, if a rebuild were on, Huntington would have some nice pieces to part with. McCutchen is the obvious one, but he may be traded rebuild or not. The three bigger names to come up would be Gerrit Cole, Josh Harrison, and Ivan Nova. All three, combined with McCutchen and the impending free agents, would net the Pirates awesome prospect capital needed to jumpstart a major rebuild. Additionally, Pirates would overhaul bullpen by parting with Daniel Hudson and Wade LeBlanc as well and getting whatever they can in return. Jordy Mercer would be subject to talks as well. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you hate the Pirates winning and/or love prospects like they are your kids), the Pirates aren’t in that position right now, and Huntington has repeatedly said he intends for this team to be competitive for awhile longer and a rebuild won’t be on because they don’t want to wait until 2021 or 2022 to be good again.
One more avenue is one the Pirates tip-toed into last July, the idea of buying and selling for the short and long-term. The Pirates may dive into that notion again but perhaps on a grander scale. Certainly they’d sell-off rentals and maybe some others, but maybe they could act as buyers as well for some players with longer-term control attached but can help immediately, so they don’t lose big impact on the current MLB team while looking out for the future at the same time. This is a way the Pirates front office could shake up this team a bit in July without having to go for it all at once this year but also not sacrificing the present for the future as well. This could represent a balance the Pirates might like.
Neal Huntington has a lot of avenues he can take the next couple of weeks, and he might be choosing which one to take after this upcoming home stand out of the break against the Cardinals and Brewers, two teams they are chasing in the standings. However, I would not be shocked if he picks more than one avenue and sees where it leads him. Will he decide to buy? Sell? Rebuild? A bit of everything? All these questions will be answered sooner rather than later so buckle up.