The Pirates lost to the Reds again on Wednesday night and are now 1-8 against the worst team in the National League Central. They have lost eight of their last ten games, six of those losses have come to the lowly Reds, San Francisco Giants, and San Diego Padres
What a change that is from two weeks ago when we were celebrating the Pirates’ perceived turnaround as the team burst out of the gates after the All-Star Break with a series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals and a four-game sweep of what were then the first-place Milwaukee Brewers.
The Pirates had won 12 of 14 games and were back within 2.5 games of first place in the uncharacteristically lackluster division. Perhaps more importantly, the team was having fun again. Music was blasting in the clubhouse to celebrate victories. Players were jovial. The Bucs were Buc’n and everything was fine and dandy.
Then the wheels started to fall off. The Pirates won the first of three games against the Colorado Rockies, but lost hot-hitting Gregory Polanco to an ankle injury. The Bucs lost the next two. Then the Pirates lost two games to each of the lowly San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres.
But the final blow happened after the disastrous road trip when Pirates general manager Neal Huntington declined to upgrade the team before the July 31st trading deadline, opting instead to essentially swap Tony Watson for Joaquin Benoit and call it a day.
Now the mood in the clubhouse appears to have shifted. Andrew McCutchen, who followed his the remarkable 1.193 OPS he posted in June with a similarly remarkable 1.101 OPS in July, spoke to the media yesterday in a professional manner, like he usually does. He said all of the right things. He didn’t lash out or complain about management.
But that spark that had seemed to reignite the team during that invigorating run in early July wasn’t there anymore. The clubhouse was quiet. McCutchen and the rest of the Pirates had stopped smiling.
There are reasonable explanations for why the Pirates did not add to the club at this trade deadline. They are not as good as the now-first-place Chicago Cubs, who fortified their rotation by shipping out their top prospect for Jose Quintana. They are too far from the Wild Card to get excited.
Also, it wasn't just Pittsburgh that balked at the chance to improve. Both Milwaukee and St. Louis declined to add significant pieces upon witnessing Chicago's resurgence.
And, in the front office's defense, the Pirates just didn't perform well enough early on to warrant a drastic detour from the team's prospect-focused strategy. McCutchen was just as bad in April and May as he was good in June and July. Any time a team goes into August with a losing record, regardless of how pitiful the rest of the division had been through the first half of the season, it’s unreasonable to expect the front office to stick its neck out and push for big-time talent at the trade deadline.
Would it have been nice to grab a talented, controllable pitcher like Quintana or Sonny Gray who could have helped the Pirates this year and next? Of course it would. But the Bucs didn’t need to go after the biggest fishes in the pond. The issue is that they couldn’t manage to reel in the guppies.
For most of this season, the Pirates have continually brought up that the team was blindsided when Jung-ho Kang’s legal issues prevented him from coming to America from South Korea and by Starling Marte’s 80-game PED suspension that spanned from April 18th to July 18th.
Those are two substantial holes to fill for any team, let alone the cash-strapped Pirates. But it seemed like Huntington and company did not even try.
Huntington appeared on 93.7 The Fan yesterday morning and the interview had the media buzzing when the clubhouse opened in the afternoon. Ron Cook and Andrew Fillipponi did a great job of asking Huntington some tough questions and the Pirates’ GM often had a hard time coming up with satisfying answers.
“As we look back on it, yea, the Kang situation and the Marte situation, two off-field decisions that have really come to hurt us this year," Huntington told The Fan. "Could we have done something differently? We absolutely could have given up more than we should have in prospect value to get some guys who were a little bit better than the guys who we rolled out every day.”
How could any Pirates fan see this as an acceptable answer? Prospects are important, don’t get me wrong. But we’re not talking about the Pirates uprooting the farm system to trade for Mike Trout or some other star player who would be impossible to acquire. The Pirates just needed an upgrade over Max Moroff and Jordan Luplow.
Melky Cabrera, who was acquired on Monday by the Royals for their 13th-ranked prospect, would have worked fine. Eduardo Nuñez, who the Red Sox acquired for a 22-year old Single-A reliever and a 17-year old who is pitching in the Dominican Summer League, could have helped as well. It's possible that one or more of these prospects turns out to be a useful Major League player, but it's unlikely.
Both Cabrera and Nuñez's names were brought up in the interview and Huntington responded by doubting the prospect experts.
“We were in on all of those guys," Huntington said. "In some cases, the team that moved those players liked the players that they got more than the players that they asked from us or better than the players that we offered. It wasn’t simply a lack of interest or a lack of effort. Sometimes it turns out that they like the other players better. Sometimes what you have or what some prospect guru has on a player is often different.”
So Huntington was unwilling to fill obvious holes in the lineup earlier in the season because his prospects were too valuable, but those same prospects were also not good enough to entice the New York Mets to trade Jay Bruce? It doesn’t make sense.
That isn’t to say that any of those players would have made this team a threat to the Cubs, who are 14-4 since acquiring Quintana. But they are accomplished major leaguers who could have effectively strengthened a weak bench and helped the Pirates avoid these crippling letdowns against the league's worst teams.
The Pirates should have done more at this trade deadline if only to keep their fans and their clubhouse motivated. It was a buyer’s market, they had obvious needs, and they had $9.4 million worth of extra money from Marte, Kang, and the Watson trade. Even if "more" was just trading for a beaten up commodity like Bruce after Polanco came up lame in Colorado during the team's first six-game winning streak of the season, it would have at least presented the illusion that the front office wanted to be competitive.
Instead, Huntington doubled down on his insistence that nothing was the best action and implored us to be thankful that the team is still together in its current form rather than being torn apart even further.
“We feel like we allowed this team the opportunity to continue to compete," Huntington said. "We could have very easily moved the three expiring contracts [Watson, John Jaso, and Juan Nicasio] and moved completely toward 2018.”
Huntington did a fantastic job rescuing this club from the mid-2000s dark ages. Even his frequently maligned deadline deals last season worked out in the Pirates favor.
But quotes like these are why attendance and TV ratings are down for the second consecutive season. There's nothing like the general manager of a middling professional sports team telling its fans to be happy that their team is mediocre rather than terrible.