clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Two arguments people need to stop making to justify the Pirates' Francisco Liriano trade

New, 530 comments
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

By now we've all had a moment to process the Pirates' baffling trade of Francisco Liriano, Harold Ramirez, and Reese McGuire to the Blue Jays for Drew Hutchison -- a trade that was absolutely nonsensical and angering for many reasons Charlie laid out plainly here. But rather than rehash the many reasons why fans have every genuine right to question this trade, there are two counterarguments defending the trade that I keep seeing in the comments sections here that I'd like to address. Charlie touched on both of these points in his post, but I'd like to specifically reiterate them here and explain why I believe these arguments misunderstand why people are so rightfully upset by this deal.

1) "The Pirates have liked Drew Hutchison for a while, and he was once a decent prospect whose stuff may play better in the National League. They must see some hidden value there. Let's wait and see how he pitches before we pass judgment."

The Pirates may indeed see some hidden underlying value in Drew Hutchison, the Blue Jays' No. 9-ranked prospect from five years ago (what a pedigree!) who turns 26 next month, is arbitration-eligible after the season, and has career stats that are pretty pedestrian across the board. The Pirates may look at his strikeout rate, and the ballpark he pitches in, and see some mechanical tweaks they can make, and indeed view him as a legitimate back-end rotation option in 2017 and beyond.

That doesn't matter. Identifying an asset as potentially undervalued only matters when your cost to acquire that asset reflects that they're undervalued. The Pirates traded two Top-10 prospects to acquire Hutchison (and to move Liriano's salary). That is an unbelievably steep price to pay for a guy with a 6.53 FIP this year and -0.1 Fangraphs WAR and no track record, especially for the Pirates, a team that hoards prospects like they're delicate Faberge eggs handed down to them by Ol' Grampa Piratey after the Great War. Even if the Pirates have correctly identified Hutchison as an undervalued commodity, they traded a ton to get him, so him being undervalued by MLB as a whole doesn't help the Pirates whatsoever, it just surprises everyone if he's competent.

Say, for example, the Pirates believe Juan Nicasio has the stuff to be a legitimate MLB closer. So they decide to sign him to a three-year, $30 million contract this offseason, which will become fair value if he develops into a closer. Then he turns into a decent closer, and he's making the appropriate money. In this scenario, the Pirates have gained nothing by having the foresight to view Nicasio as an undervalued asset, because they paid him for his best-case-scenario and assumed all the risk.

Even if Hutchison does develop into a decent starter, which certainly isn't impossible, the Pirates could've acquired him for way, way less than what they gave up. Identifying and targeting players who the league undervalues only makes sense when you then acquire them for less than most teams would give up to get that player. Not significantly more.

2) "The Pirates know more about their prospects than any other team, so they must be really down on Ramirez and McGuire after their poor seasons. Ramirez is a corner outfielder who hasn't hit for power, and McGuire's bat hasn't developed as expected. There's a good chance they won't miss either one of them."

This is the flipside to the first argument, and it's basically the same thing in reverse. But again, it's completely irrelevant, because McGuire and Ramirez have a high perceived value around the league as top-10 prospects in a good system at a time when prospects league-wide aren't easy to acquire.

Even if the Pirates' scouts possess secret insider knowledge that causes them to be nearly certain that neither guy will turn into an impact major leaguer -- which is already an enormous hypothetical, especially in McGuire's case -- each player still possesses the perceived value of a top-10 prospect. Trading them for much less than that perceived value again totally nullifies the Pirates' evaluation advantage.

Just for some perspective, the White Sox traded three prospects -- including only one top-10 prospect in their system, according to Baseball America -- to acquire Todd Frazier before this season. Obviously the circumstances behind every trade are different, but there's just no arguing that top-10 prospects in most systems are incredibly highly valued. Even if the Pirates are confident they have enough outfielders and won't miss Ramirez, or that McGuire's bat won't develop, they squandered the opportunity to exploit this knowledge by trading them to a team who views them as having more value than they actually do. If Ramirez and McGuire both completely flounder, none of this changes, and it certainly doesn't justify the trade in any way.

We know the Pirates' front office evaluates players based on all sorts of factors that aren't known to the public. They've often unearthed incredible gems from unexpected places, and for that, they deserve plenty of praise. But identifying those undervalued and overvalued commodities only matters when you actually exploit that value. "Buying low" on a player like Hutchison only matters when you're actually paying less; it doesn't mean "paying a ton for someone who's terrible right now because you're confident that in the future he will not be terrible."

What's truly depressing about this trade, however, is that there's absolutely no way Neal Huntington doesn't know all of this. He's not reading this post going, "Hmm, lotta good points here, random guy who watches games and tweets barely-related Simpsons screenshots."

But that's what makes the trade particularly baffling for me and for every other Pirates fan, from the 'quick to anger' crowd to the 'let's take a minute to think about this and get angry more gradually' crowd: Even if the Pirates are super-high on Hutchison, and super-low on Ramirez and McGuire, and absolutely dead-set on moving Liriano's totally-non-albatross contract, this wasn't the way to go about acting on any of those views.