The Pittsburgh Pirates have laid the groundwork to compete with the Chicago Cubs.
Hear me out.
Pittsburgh has a good core of veteran players and a talented group of prospects who broke into the Majors last season; and the Pirates have even more young players set to help in 2017. That’s not to say the Pirates can muscle their way past Chicago — well, they possibly could if the Cubs have a few injuries or drastically under-perform after winning the World Series.
But, right now, a foundation is all Pittsburgh has because it doesn’t have the talent to take over the top spot in the NL Central with the way the roster is currently set up.
The rotation needs another quality starter or two.
A closer needs to emerge.
Young, talented prospects need to take the leap and begin hitting their ceiling.
That’s a lot that needs to break right for this team. The Pirates can’t afford another year of bad personnel decisions if they want to contend.
Say what you will about former Pirate and current Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ’s peripherals, but he got the job done both in the regular season and the playoffs. The Pirates didn’t appear to even make an effort to keep him.
The Neil Walker-for-Jon Niese trade between Pittsburgh and the New York Mets was a debacle from Day 1. It was the wrong time to get skimpy about not paying Walker, especially because Pirates fans had to watch him hit .282 with 23 home runs in New York. The decision to get Niese straight-up was questionable (even at the time) because the soft-tossing Niese didn’t fit the mold of a Pirates’ reclamation project. Making the trade without being absolutely certain Niese would buy into the adjustments pitching coach Ray Searage wanted to give him was careless.
Guaranteeing Jeff Locke a rotation spot after four seasons of him being a guy they couldn’t count on was foolish. Signing Ryan Vogelsong to round out the rotation was just hubris — assuming the intention was to show the Pirates could fix anyone.
And Pittsburgh’s in-season moves were just as head-scratching.
Selling on closer Mark Melancon (traded to the Washington Nationals) then buying on starter Ivan Nova (brought in from the New York Yankees) gave mixed signals. And the backlash from the Francisco Liriano/Reese McGuire/Harold Ramirez trade with the Blue Jays for Drew Hutchison has been well-documented.
That leaves the Pirates at a crossroad; they went from a 98-win team in 2015 to a 77-win team in 2016. A few savvy moves puts them back in the thick of the playoff race. More of the same could sink them even further.
The first matter of business needs to be the team’s pitching depth. Last season, the justification for having Locke, Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio as rotation options was that they were just supposed to hold things down until prospects Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl were called-up in June.
Taillon showed he’s the real deal, and Kuhl looks like a quality No. 4 starter. But Glasnow showed he wasn’t ready, and relying on the team’s youth didn’t set the Pirates up depth-wise to allow them to absorb a down-year from Gerrit Cole.
Pittsburgh is faced with a similar situation this season.
Nova will likely go elsewhere, and it’s hard to fault Pittsburgh for not bringing him back if he ends up getting the five-year deal he wants. That leaves Cole, Taillon and Kuhl, with Glasnow and Hutchison likely the top options after that and with prospect Nick Kingham knocking on the door.
Hearing the Pirates like Hutchison enough to basically reserve a rotation spot for him is disheartening. Sure, simply dismissing him because he was on the other end of a disastrous trade — even after struggling in his time with Toronto’s organization — is unwise because he has the ability to be good and has yet to really work with Searage. But, at the same time, there’s no reason to confidently say he’ll turn things around, and banking on that happening would imply the team hasn’t learned its lesson from last off-season.
Same with Glasnow. He had some really good flashes last season, especially in his last start in St. Louis where he allowed just one hit and walked none. But, over the season, he was shaky enough to where it’s hard to say if he’s turned the corner.
The Pirates need to get a veteran starter — preferably two. And we’re talking good, quality veteran starters. No more Vogelsong-types who are just meant as Band-Aids. This type of starter won’t come cheap, either.
Spending money just to spend it shouldn’t be the goal, and the Pirates don’t need any eight-year $184 million deals like the one the Cubs gave Jason Heyward.
But in a landscape where the Cubs (and even the St. Louis Cardinals) can develop a home-grown contender and have the financial means to have top-10 payrolls, the Pirates being 25th in payroll just isn’t going to cut it if they truly want to be a long-term contender. Even getting to around $115 million, which is what the Cleveland Indians’ payroll is, would be fine at this point.
Still, a weak free agency market could mean Pittsburgh needs to turn to the trade market. Teams like the Indians and the Kansas City Royals took a leap by mortgaging some of their future to get to the World Series, but that kind of move failed in 2014 when the Oakland Athletics made similar rental-type moves and fell flat.
The best-case scenario for the Pirates would be getting a Chris Archer- or Jake Odorizzi-type player who can help Pittsburgh now AND in the coming years. It won’t come cheap — and it may take a prospect like Mitch Keller or Kevin Newman to get it done — but it’s leap the Pirates seriously need to consider. They could also still poke around the free agency market, and a reunion with Edinson Volquez might be beneficial, though the hope would be he wouldn’t be the only starter Pittsburgh adds.
There’s certainly reason to be optimistic about the Pirates in 2017. If top prospects like Taillon, Glasnow and infielder Josh Bell flourish next season with an already-established Major League core, Pittsburgh very well could be back in the thick of things.
But those young guys are currently too big of “ifs” for Pittsburgh to put all its eggs into one basket. It’s time to take some risks, whether that be monetary or in dealing prospects.
But that doesn’t mean being irresponsible and not having any kind of safety net if the moves don’t work out.
Instead, it means being honest and saying that, with this team the way it is now, it’s highly unlikely the Pirates can contend with the Cubs — and other MLB teams — and be a legitimate contender again. But if Pittsburgh takes a few risks, the team can easily be back in that conversation.
Image credit: Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire