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Thoughts on the McCutchen and Cole trades

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San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Well, I won’t belabor the obvious: Not many fans, whether Pirate fans or not, think these were good trades. I think the best argument for the trades is that the alternative — waiting until July -- was too much to ask of a fanbase in which many fans understand the team can’t contend with its current core. It’s a lot to expect fans to spend four more months in purgatory, waiting until, as Eli puts it, the team chooses a direction. And then they’d still have to go through the inevitable anger over trading the team’s best players.

It’s a little more disturbing to see reports, in connection with the Cole trade, that the Pirates chose quantity over quality, although you do have to acknowledge the possibility that these reports aren’t entirely accurate. I don’t think it’s any coincidence, though, that the top three players the Pirates received are major leaguers or major-league-ready. This was the pattern with Neal Huntington’s first set of veteran-for-prospect trades, back when he broke up the ‘27 Yankees, and it didn’t go well. Back then, he was faced with a farm system that simply didn’t have any players ready to step in at the major league level, so he had little choice. That’s not the case now, but you have to wonder whether the Pirates simply don’t think much of their own prospects.

It’s also unsettling to see reports that, in pursuing Cole, both the Astros and Yankees meticulously put their best 4-5 prospects off limits. One of the explanations that’s been offered for the slow off-season, and it’s a credible one, is that the highly sophisticated front offices that predominate now place similar values on players. The Pirates’ experience with Cole and McCutchen is likely an indication that teams all placed a similar value both on the Pirates’ players and on top prospects generally. This is just one more indication that the Pirates no longer have the edge they briefly appeared to have in analytics. (In fact, their reliance on a fastball-heavy, pitch-to-contact approach to pitching and contact-oriented, all-fields hitting appears to have left them behind MLB’s successful teams.)

Of course, there’s still one more shoe to drop, that being Josh Harrison. (I expect the Pirates would love to trade Francisco Cervelli, but they’re not going to get any prospect return at all for him and would probably have to pick up most of his remaining salary.) The only team that’s been consistently connected to Harrison is the Mets, but they reportedly just want to offer salary relief. Milwaukee may be interested now, too, so maybe the Pirates will be able to get another reliever.

One question that should start being asked is whether the Pirates will be able to wean themselves from their obsession with veteran bench players and relievers. The acquisition of Colin Moran leaves them backed up at the corners, with David Freese and Sean Rodriguez still around. The team isn’t going anywhere in 2018 and neither Freese nor Rodriguez will be around after this year, unless the Pirates are insane enough to pick up Freese’s $6M 2019 option. There’s also the risk that Clint Hurdle will cut into Moran’s playing time if Freese and/or Rodriguez is still around. Moran has a history of struggling against LHPs, but in a rebuilding year he should be playing every day, period.

It’d make no sense at all for a rebuilding team, even one that hopes for a quick turnaround, to let Freese and Rodriguez take playing time away not only from Moran, but players like Adam Frazier, Max Moroff, Chris Bostick and Jose Osuna, among others. All of them at least have some chance to contribute to a winning team in a couple years. Freese and Rodriguez don’t, and both should be tradeable if the Pirates pick up some of their salary.

The same issue exists to an even greater degree in the bullpen. If they’ve accomplished one positive thing in this off-season, it’s to stockpile a long list of relievers who have at least some potential to pitch in the late innings. Right now, that list includes Michael Feliz, Kyle Crick, George Kontos, Dovydas Neverauskas, Edgar Santana, eventually Nick Burdi, Joe Musgrove if he’s not starting, Jordan Milbrath, Jack Leathersich, and others. The Pirates have also said they’ll consider Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow for relief roles at the start of the season, and they have a number of other starters at the AAA and AA levels who might be candidates to move to the bullpen. They don’t have 60 innings to spend on Daniel Hudson, who also won’t be around when the team has a chance to start winning, and who also should be moveable if they’ll pick up some of his salary. But will the Pirates have the courage of their convictions and really start trying to sort through the younger players? The front office’s silly attempts, in discussing the McCutchen trade, to pretend that 2018 could be 2013 all over again don’t bode well. Those comments raise the unhappy implication that they could cling to their foolish notion of “competing” instead of truly trying to turn the team around.

Even more fundamentally, the Pirates should be asking themselves how they got into this position. I don’t doubt that these were the best deals they could get, but that’s a function of having to trade away good, reasonably priced players because they’ve left themselves with no other path forward. These trades weren’t a product of bad deal-making. They were a product of intentionally downgrading a 98-win team after the 2015 season, making no effort to improve after the 2016 season, largely punting the Latin American amateur market, getting mediocre results in the draft, frittering away excruciatingly tight financial resources on relievers and reserves, and generally lacking strategies for acquiring the sort of high-ceiling players upon whom championship teams are built. The Pirates need to address these questions before trading for a bunch of relievers is going to do them any good.