Pirates Need to Get Out of the Middle

By Jared Lankes 

The MLB non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone. The Pirates basically just spun their tires but got nowhere, trading Tony Watson for two Single-A players then acquiring 40-year old Joaquin Benoit, a free agent as season’s end just like Watson, for almost no reason. The strategy was very odd as they did nothing to help the club compete with the top dogs in the league now but also nothing to improve their chances in 2018 and 2019 when McCutchen, Cole, Nova, Cervelli, Mercer, etc are still around, which seems to represent their best shot at obtaining October glory. The Pirates made two moves that accomplished neither thing they needed to do. They basically just re-arranged the furniture in the room.

Let’s start here with this: The clock is starting to run out on Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole’s times in Pittsburgh, two guys that have been integral to the team’s success and they are rare talents the Pirates won’t just consistently produce from the farm. No, those two are special, especially one of the Pirates all-time greats in Andrew McCutchen. In addition to this, the Pirates have some additional talents as well that are special to compliment the big two. Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Felipe Rivero, Jameson Taillon, and Josh Bell all are great talents that just don’t come around often, especially not all at once. Pirates also have a great bit of veterans that are around that they brought in from the outside such as Cervelli, Freese, and Nova. All mixed together, a great core has been established. However, it’s not enough to compete for big-time in October. Additionally, for some of these guys, there’s not much time left. Between the years of 2018 and 2019, the Pirates stand to lose Mercer, McCutchen, Cole, Nova, Freese, Cervelli, etc. Harrison follows suit in 2020. No matter how good the farm system may be (The Pirates farm system in particular is very good but not top echelon special), it’s hard to replace all that walking out the door, even for big market teams let alone small markets.

What I am trying to pick at here is that the best chance of the Pirates reaching that October glory everyone dreams of is by doing it while these guys are here because who knows what’s coming up after this. You can dream about the next core that’s currently in Single A or AA, but it’s hard to imagine them being better than the guys currently in the core now. The height of the Pirates farm system was a few years ago, and we are seeing the results of it now. The Pirates farm system now does not have the same talent it did when it was filled with names like Cole, Marte, Taillon, Bell, Glasnow, Polanco, and others who have made it. That was top echelon talent in the farm and to expect that from the core of 4-5 years from now is dreaming too heavy, in my opinion.

I hate to be one to talk about windows because I don’t like the term much, but I’ll use it for lack of a better term. The Pirates “window” inches closed after McCutchen’s departure in 2018, and slams shut when Cole and others follow. It’s simply too much to lose that a small market team cannot get back in free agency and no farm system in the league is equipped to handle it either.

For this reason, the Pirates can ill-afford to remain caught in the middle like they have been the last two years where they greet the fans with enough to stick around and be “competitive” but not enough to seize an opportunity while they have an insanely talented core in place. By doing such, the Pirates would win nothing but still lose their best players, and a feeling of emptiness and regret for not being more proactive in giving those guys more of a chance would take hold.

On the other hand, if they won’t be interested in doing enough to give these guys a real chance, then begin the pending 2020 or 2021 rebuild in 2018 and accelerate the process for contention in 2021 or 2022 instead of middling for a few more years then rebuilding and wasting years. If Pirates were to begin a rebuild this offseason, they could get a great jumpstart. Gerrit Cole would bring back a major haul, Rivero possibly more so. McCutchen and Nova would bring back sizable hauls, as well and Harrison. Freese and Cervelli would bring back modest hauls but still nothing to sneeze at. Maybe the Pirates would even consider dealing Marte, Polanco, or even Taillon for huge hauls if they would want to really make an insane push at a rebuild. While this direction seems unlikely, if they were to do this, they would instantly have the best farm system in baseball and a rebuild would potentially give fans some more hope as opposed to staying in the middle; White Sox fans, in particular, have embraced their team’s rebuild as they know it’s more hopeful than middling all the time. A similar effect could be in play here.

The lack of direction the Pirates are showing right now is very concerning. I’ve failed to understand where many of the moves made the last couple years are taking them. Are they trying to win with this brilliant core or are they perpetually concerned with the next core? Having foresight for the future is at the center of small market teams, but doing it to a fault is worse than not having foresight at all. If the Pirates are truly concerned with the next core, trade away from this core to help that core and create a monster for a 2021-2022 timeline. If the Pirates have belief in this core, don’t worry about the next one so much and do what needs done to make this one the one to get behind and worry about the rest later as a rebuild is coming soon either way because the current MLB, especially for small market teams, is truly just a cycle of knowing when to go for it and when to rebuild to go for it again in a few years. Either way, a direction has to be chosen by this front office because this constant kicking the rock down the road will eventually lead to a place where there’s no road left, you lose the rock, and suddenly have nowhere to go and nothing left to kick.

The Pirates front office has done an amazing job getting the Pirates from where they were in 2007 to where they are now a decade later. However, it’s not enough just to get to where they are, they now have to capitalize on what they’ve done or just pack it up, try again, and realize the mistakes they made to make sure they’ll do better the next big opportunity they get. In any case, staying middling is not a way to run an organization. The Pirates were going down the winding road nicely up until 2015 before they hit a fork in the road in 2016 and now have tried to drive right in the middle of the fork in the road but got stuck trying. Now is the time they put their car back in drive and either pick to go down “Contend Road” or “Rebuild Street”. Your call, Pirates.

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