The Pirates’ trade of Neil Walker this past offseason remains one of the most contentious decisions in their recent history for reasons that extend far beyond the diamond and far into asterisked-swearing-filled comments sections.
The deal has already been dissected ad nauseam, but rather than issue yet another verdict about who "won" the trade after three months of baseball (p.s., that verdict is "The Mets"), let’s take a step back and instead examine what we can take away from the polarizing, impassioned discourse that surrounded this entire scenario.
Takeaway #1: Just because a trade is emotionally difficult doesn’t mean it’s good or rational
As soon as the Pirates traded Walker, the vast majority of fans’ reactions fell into one of two broad camps:
A) "How could the Pirates trade their hometown hero?? It’s sad to see such a popular, likable player go, especially when he was a big part of their turnaround."
B) "Neal Huntington has to do what’s best for the franchise. He can’t get caught up in fans’ reactions or emotional factors."
Somewhat lost in this discussion, or at least underplayed, was the fact that trading Neil Walker for Jon Niese might be a bad baseball trade, completely separately from any emotional factors involved. There was certainly some statistical case to be made; Walker’s aging curve, Niese’s productive 2013 and ‘14, the Pirates’ pressing need for pitching, etc. But there was also a sense from Camp B -- where I personally fall -- that because Huntington made a bold trade that he knew was going to be unpopular, that it inherently must have been a good one, or at least one that exhibited choosing cold rationality over kneejerk emotion.
A similar, opposite trade occurred in 2013 when the Cardinals traded World Series hero David Freese to the Angels for Peter Bourjos. Many people (myself included) assumed the Angels were overvaluing an emotional aspect of the trade (Freese’s incredible 2011 postseason) while the Cardinals were shrewdly valuing a less apparent commodity in Bourjos’ stellar outfield defense. Only when the Pirates signed David Freese this year and I looked back at his stats did I realize that he has actually been a far more productive player over the last two seasons than Bourjos, posting above-average offensive numbers for the Angels and back-to-back 2+ win seasons (via Fangraphs), while Bourjos posted one season of terrible offense and great defense, followed by a negative-WAR 2015, both in part-time roles.
The general takeaway here is, even though emotion and fan-reaction may be a factor in a particular deal, and general managers should be able to see through that noise to do what’s right for the franchise, that doesn’t mean that an emotionally difficult trade is inherently a good one, or even a necessary one. Neil Walker has been more valuable than Jon Niese by every statistical measure this season, and stats have no idea where anyone grew up.
Takeaway #2: Just because a bunch of dumb people have a bunch of dumb reasons for believing a thing doesn’t mean there aren’t also rational reasons for that thing
A bunch of dumb angry Penguins fans are gonna yell "SHAAAOUUUTTTT THE PUCK" at every single Penguins home game regardless of what’s happening or if it’s an intermission. That doesn’t mean that there is never a situation where the Pens need to be shooting more.
Similarly, the Neil Walker trade brought out some of the worst of the worst conspiracy theories and angry message-board nonsense from disenchanted Pirates pitchfork-wielders, even by the lofty standards of Baseball Twitter insanity.
There was the ol’ standby that the Pirates are cheap (Niese makes as much money as Walker), the Pirates aren’t even trying to win (they’re apparently in some Rachel Phelps-esque ‘trying to lose’ situation and really blowing it the last 3 seasons), the Pirates are too wrapped up in statistics / Sabermetrics / Moneyball, Huntington always hated Walker because he wasn’t "his" player, Walker was the "heart" of this team (and now every single pitcher is presumably too depressed without him to hit the strike zone), Nutting is secretly a Bethel Park diehard and always hated Pine Richland, etc, etc, take your pick.
These are all terrible, nonsense reasons for opposing the Walker trade that have (rightfully) been ridiculed and debunked by people who know better. However, shooting down these arguments, or any other of the many dumb reasons to be against the Walker trade, doesn’t count as an argument in favor of the Walker trade. And the existence of these often-repeated dumb arguments doesn’t mean that there aren’t also many totally rational, evidence-based reasons to also oppose the trade, as borne out by both players’ respective performances this season.
You can’t just pick the stupidest arguments against something, shoot those arguments down, and declare that therefore the thing was right. We all fall into this trap on the internet sometimes, partly because there's never a shortage of dumb arguments to pick from.
Takeaway #3: Not every move the Pirates’ front office makes is some referendum on the organization’s entire overall philosophy
Should the Walker for Niese trade continue as it’s gone so far, it’s pretty clear the Mets have gotten the better of the deal. However, despite what the aforementioned furious fans would argue, this doesn’t mean that Huntington’s team-building philosophy has suddenly "failed" or become invalid.
First off, trading a pending free agent position player for a pending free agent starting pitcher (Niese technically has two more years of control but I highly doubt the Pirates will exercise his 2017 option) isn’t something Neal Huntington has done often; it’s not like this is some characteristic, core belief of Huntington’s GMing philosophy which has now backfired. Other than the very general practices of adding potential years of control and acquiring fixable groundball pitchers, it was a pretty weird and unique trade in recent Pirates history.
But furthermore, Huntington has always been an extremely aggressive, creative GM who’s made tons of really risky, high-upside trades and signings in the hopes of finding surplus value in unexpected places to compete on a lower-tier MLB budget. And by "risky" I mean "low-cost players who have a high chance of not panning out," not "risky" as in "signing guys to long-term albatross contracts" or "mortgaging prospects for short-term rentals."
The key distinction here, however, is that Huntington knows that many of these moves won’t pan out -- he knows there’s a calculated risk that Niese will rebound with Ray Searage and PNC Park, or that Corey Hart may in fact be finished, or that Jung-Ho Kang’s game won’t translate to MLB -- when a player like Juan Nicasio fails to make the jump to effective starting pitcher, that doesn’t necessarily represent a "failure" of Huntington’s overall philosophy, it’s just one of the many calculated risks he’s taking in the hopes of improving the team on the aggregate without destroying the farm system or blowing his obviously-limited payroll.
Certainly, the Pirates’ offseason as a whole this year leaves a lot to be desired for a number of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that one crappy trade is evidence that Huntington suddenly doesn’t know how to build a team, particularly when that particular trade isn’t indicative of moves he usually makes. None of this stands to absolve Huntington of this past terrible offseason or the unfortunate state of the 2016 Pirates; I'm merely suggesting that Huntington doesn't just have some rigid, easily-definable "team building philosophy" that worked great last year and failed this year. And it helps no one to escalate a single bad trade into a total referendum on Huntington's entire existence, any more than it would be to just praise the Kang signing for the next decade.
Overall, the Walker trade hasn’t been a great one for the Pirates, but hopefully the subsequent firestorm of arguments can at least teach us a few things, particularly those of us in the "we’re so rational and above the kneejerk angry fans" writers' community (my business card has this phrase printed on it verbatim). Does this mean I’m above rooting against the ultra-likable Walker purely so I don’t have to see a billion angry tweets whenever he does anything? Hell no. I’m as emotional as anyone. But at least we can collectively be aware of it.