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Pirates notes on the eve of spring training

MLB: General Managers Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With pitchers and catchers just two days away, here are a couple of (maybe unsettling) Pirates items:

  • The Tribune Review is reporting that the Pirates’ acquisition of Phil Gosselin was indeed partially related to the possible unavailability of Jung-Ho Kang. There aren’t any specifics, beyond the fact that Kang’s February 22 trial date will keep him away during the early part of spring training. Of course, there are three issues beyond that: the possibility of jail time, the possibility/likelihood of a suspension from MLB or the Pirates, and the unknown implications for the Green Card process. GM Neal Huntington’s explanation of the Gosselin trade:

“It absolutely does serve as insurance (for Kang's absence) if needed,” Huntington said. “But we also have been looking for an extra right-handed hitter, and Gosselin is a guy who can play multiple positions.”

The Pirates see Gosselin as primarily a second baseman who can help at first (ugh) and third. Huntington also mentioned Gosselin’s limited experience at short and in left.

  • The Trib article notes that Huntington (unsurprisingly) says the Pirates will extend non-roster spring training invitations to both Lisalverto Bonilla and Nefi Ogando if they clear waivers.
  • In an interview with CBS, Huntington discussed his unwillingness to part with the necessary prospects to acquire Jose Quintana:

“It’s one of those situations that we are for the mindset that as an organization, the best way to position ourselves to win a World Series is to get to the playoffs consistently and frequently, and we’re not of the mindset that the way to do that is to jeopardize your future for your present or to jeopardize your present for your future,” said Huntington. “We want to be a good team as consistently and frequently as possible and the only way to do that in a small market is to have a lot of good players, to have a lot of good players in your system and a trade of that magnitude would have been contradictory. We would have either been selling out to the next couple of years at the risk of our future. Instead, we believe we’ve got a good core in place, a core that was essentially predicted to win 88, 89 games a year ago.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there is absolutely nothing that can convince me that the people saying “flags fly forever” now won’t be complaining bitterly if the team falls out of contention in 2-3 years because of the current core aging and prospects not being available to replace them. The fact is, it’s hard for teams to recover financially from periods of non-contention. To this day, the crowds in Cleveland have never returned from the end of the John Hart era. Fans of struggling teams do not say, “Oh, well, it was worth it for one flag.”

And that’s assuming you get the flag. If reports about the White Sox’ asking price are accurate, the Pirates would have to give up three of their “big five” prospects: Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, Mitch Keller, Josh Bell and Kevin Newman. But they wouldn’t be trading those players for a flag. They’d be trading them for maybe a 5-10% increase in the team’s chances of winning a World Series. The myth of the “one big piece that puts a team over the top” has been disproven over and over and over again. Just ask Oakland, or the various teams that saw David Price as that one big piece. Or ask the Tigers, Nationals and Dodgers how many titles they won with Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, both better pitchers than Quintana, as is Price.

On the other hand, I have significant doubts about whether a small market team can defeat the success cycle, which is essentially what Huntington is proposing. That’s a large part of what led me to write these two pieces. There’ve been some well run, small market teams in recent years, and I don’t see much evidence that they can stay in contention for all that long. As I wrote about with the Rays, they had a lot of young talent come through for them at the same time, vaulting them to the World Series and to a six-year run of contention. Inevitably, though, their inability to retain the talent, as it all became expensive at once, bled them to the point where they’re now struggling. Oakland went through the same thing. In fact, I think the difficulty of staying in contention led the A’s to try some radical and dubious solutions, like the Josh Donaldson trade, in an effort to “genius” their way past the problem. The Royals may have run into the same problem. In their case, they actually won a title, mainly because they hit over their heads during the post-season. But now they’ve had to trade their last season of Wade Davis due to payroll constraints.

It’s possible the Pirates are condemning themselves to 5-6 years of scrambling just to stay on the fringes of contention. That’s what I was trying to say in the pieces comparing them to the Rays. I’m sure they’ve thought of this. It’s become very clear over the last couple years that teams throughout MLB are desperately looking for ways to avoid or short-circuit the tear-down phase of the success cycle. As one writer put it a year or two ago, nobody wants to be the Phillies. Probably where I come out on the Quintana thing is that the Pirates should be trying very hard to make a trade like that, but the Sox’ asking price, if accurately reported, is just too high. I can see where some people might disagree, although I lose sympathy with that point of view when people wildly overrate the impact that one player can have or pretend that it’ll be OK to stink for a while if the team just wins a title. But anybody who doesn’t at least acknowledge that Huntington is facing a difficult dilemma isn’t being fair or objective.