With the World Series being concluded and the Houston Astros hoisting the title, the MLB offseason has officially begun. And as of this writing, free agency is officially open and any player can sign with any team. We’ve already seen a few moves being made, with Justin Upton signing a huge deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to remain a Halo. There have also been nine players that have had qualifying offers made to them. So with the offseason in full swing, it’s time to take a look at what the Pirates offseason could look like.
For me, it comes down to two options for the Pirates this offseason. And by choosing either option, I believe the Bucs are going to have to be very active in the winter months. Option one would be to find upgrades to make the Pirates competitive in the last year that they will have the core that got them to the playoffs for three straight seasons. McCutchen will be a free agent after 2018 and Gerrit Cole will begin to have a salary too high for the Pirates to maintain. So if there was ever a year to go all-in on that core, it’s this year. Behind door number two, the Pirates could decide that the McCutchen era is over and it’s time for a rebuild. I know fans don’t like to hear that but the Pirates rebuild wouldn’t be another 20-year process. They have great, young talent that is under team control for a long time. They have cornerstones to work with on the major league level like Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, and Gregory Polanco already at the major league level. And with young studs like Austin Meadows, Kevin Newman and Mitch Keller knocking on the door, the Pirates may be better off gaining some financial flexibility, taking a year to let the young guys develop, then go for it again in 2019. Both of these options have merit for the Pirates and either one could be the direction they move in. So with that in mind, I’ll present a primer for both possible scenarios.
Option A: Upgrade the Current Team
If you look at the Pittsburgh Pirates of 2017, their weaknesses were clear. The starting rotation didn’t perform and the bullpen was in shambles. For once, the offense wasn’t terrible and probably doesn’t need too many upgrades. But the biggest problem with upgrading the roster is the payroll. No surprise here, but the Pirates aren’t likely to spend much over $100 million on their payroll. For reference, the Pirates highest payroll the last three years was $109 million and that was last season. And thanks to the work of Brian McElhinny over at Raise the Jolly Roger (@rtjr on Twitter) the current Pirates projected payroll is at a little over $98 million. That means the Pirates only have about $10 million they could add without subtracting some players.
Updating the board: Status of the 2018 Pirates, as of now, with $$ pic.twitter.com/smpnau33X6
— Brian McElhinny (@rtjr) November 3, 2017
With the average salary for a solid starting pitcher sitting between $10-15 million a year, that would be the only upgrade the Pirates would be able to make and that doesn’t address the bullpen at all. But, by adding a starter, that likely pushes Chad Kuhl or Trevor Williams to the bullpen, so that would be an upgrade in itself. That isn’t enough though so some players will have to go. So who could be on the block?
Players the Pirates could Move for Salary Relief: Daniel Hudson, David Freese, Francisco Cervelli, Starling Marte
When looking at that list, the most obvious guy to move would be Daniel Hudson. Hudson was a trainwreck last year and is making a big chunk of money for someone who won’t pitch the eighth or ninth inning. The problem with moving him is finding someone to take on that salary. David Freese could be an obvious move too. He’s in the last year of his deal and is replaceable under two scenarios. One, Jung-Ho Kang returns and takes that spot, two, Josh Harrison starts at third, and Adam Frazier has a permanent spot at second with Sean Rodriguez backing them up. Cervelli may seem counterproductive if we’re contending but Elias Diaz looked better last year. And with Francisco making over $10 million this year and next, they could dump him and add a veteran to back up Diaz. All depends on how confident they are in Elias. Lastly, we have Starling Marte. He’s under contract long-term but looked like a shell of himself after returning from his suspension. Austin Meadows is going to need a spot to play come June and if the Pirates are serious about extending Cutch, this would open up a spot in the outfield and provide salary to sign Cutch long-term. So if the plan is contention, I’d expect at least one, probably two, of these guys to be marketed and traded. But with these guys gone, who can be the upgrades?
Players on the Pirates Radar: Jake Odorizzi, Dan Straily, Jhoulys Chacin, Jaime Garcia, CC Sabathia, Seung Hwan Oh, Craig Stammen, Mike Minor, Ichiro, Jarrod Dyson
This is a large list but these include some free agents and some trade targets. On the trade side, there’s Jake Odorizzi and Dan Straily. Both are young and under team control for a few more years. Straily had a better year last year but Odorizzi has the track record. Both are said to be available, wouldn’t cost the farm, and are cheaper than free agent options. That’s the route I’d go for a starting pitcher. If the Pirates do go on the free agent market, however, Chacin and Garcia look like two strong options. Both put up strong numbers for their teams last year and are a bit of journeymen. If the Pirates offered either a two-year deal for around $18 million, I’m sure they could be had as a number three or four starter. If the Pirates really want to make a big move, they could put a big offer out on CC Sabathia for a year or two. He still has some juice and would be a nice mentor to the younger members of the staff. Relief pitcher wise, the Pirates always seem to find diamonds in the rough but if they go for an established player, Oh wouldn’t be bad. He had a bad year in St. Louis last year but he dominated in 2016. If the Pirates could get him on a prove-it deal, he could be a nice lefty in the bullpen. Stammen is an older player that put up nice numbers, making him a typical Pirate pickup. Mike Minor is intriguing, however, as a power lefty that was stellar in Kansas City last year. He’s still relatively young but could be had for a similar deal to what Daniel Hudson got but his price may explode. Finally, we have two options for a fourth outfielder spot. That position didn’t exist last year but Dyson and Ichiro were serviceable for their clubs and wouldn’t cost much. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see Ichiro in Pittsburgh?
So there you have it for the Pirates if they decide they want to compete. I would expect a few trades shipping out guys and maybe one adding a player like Odorizzi or Straily. That plus a bench outfielder and a relief arm seem like the most likely scenario. But if the Pirates don’t go with the contention option, we have door number two…
Option B: Rebuild
The rebuild option will make for a less exciting offseason for the Pirates but also would make for a much more active winter for Pittsburgh. The argument for this tactic is that the Pirates simply don’t have the tools to compete with the likes of the Cubs and Brewers next year. But while they don’t have enough star power to keep up with the top teams in the NL Central, they do have players that are extremely valuable around the MLB. And watching how the Astros were able to build a contender and World Series winning team in three years, with much less of a foundation than the Pirates have now, teams may follow that blueprint and adapt it to their current teams. The Pirates seem like the perfect team to follow that model and could be faster in contending because of the base they have now. With a rebuild comes a lot of trades so here are the players that would likely bring back a solid return.
Players Traded for Assets: Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, Francisco Cervelli, Josh Harrison, Felipe Rivero, Gregory Polanco
The two obvious trade candidates will be Cutch and Cole. Cutch is going into his final year of his contract and has been part of trade speculation for a full year now. And he would bring back at least two top prospects this offseason with a full year to play. Some teams that could look at him are the Los Angeles Dodgers and Seattle Mariners. The Dodgers could move Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig into a platoon situation or move Chris Taylor back to second base. Either way, Cutch becomes a huge upgrade for the Dodgers that could push them over the top. In return, the Pirates could get top prospects OF Alex Verdugo and LHP Yadier Alvarez to start. As for the Mariners, they are trying to get the most out of their core of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Felix Hernandez. They have long coveted a star centerfielder so they could be inclined to overpay. If the Pirates were to deal Cutch to Seattle, they would likely start by getting OF Kyle Lewis, and pitchers Nick Neidert and Sam Carlson.
As for Gerrit Cole, it has seemed like a foregone conclusion that he will end up with the Yankees at some point. And they certainly wouldn’t mind grabbing an ace like Cole for a few years as they continue to develop their young talent and compete. But also lurking in need a starting pitcher is the Atlanta Braves. They have started to turn the corner to contention and have the top farm system in baseball. Could they decide this is the year and pull the trigger for an ace that Julio Tehran hasn’t become? The Yankees seem like the most likely trade partner for the Pirates with their deep farm system and past business with each other. If a deal with New York were to be struck, the Pirates would likely ask for Gleybor Torres, the top prospect in baseball, but be rebuffed. So they would settle for top prospects RHP Chance Adams, OF Estevan Florial, and LHP Justus Sheffield. If the Braves sneak in, however, they could create a package around LHP Kolby Allard, SS Kevin Maitan, and RHP Ian Anderson. Both offers would bring the Pirates three top 100 prospects in baseball.
For the rest of the players on the list, Cervelli and Marte were detailed as possible trade candidates in Option A because of their salaries and poor play. Each guy could give the Pirates one solid prospect each, however. Josh Harrison is another option to go because he has a large salary and has been playing his best baseball. He could be a sell high candidate that could net the Pirates another top 100 prospect from an infield needy team. The wild cards here are Felipe Rivero and Gregory Polanco. Rivero will be under team control for three more years including 2018 but a stud closer never needs to be on a small market team. If someone is willing to dangle some top 100 prospects for him, I say the Pirates pounce rather than risk injury. Polanco is a guy I’d keep though. While he hasn’t lived up to prospect billing to this point, he still has gobs of potential in my mind. And if the Pirates were to trade him now, they could be selling low, like they did with Jose Bautista. I’d keep Polanco in a rebuild situation to be the star next to Josh Bell and if he continues to fail, then consider a trade.
So if you look at this scenario, the Pirates would be stockpiling unbelievable talent at all levels of the minors, much like the Astros have done. That talent would allow the Pirates to compete for World Series titles for at least four years if those players all lived up to their billings, which is always far from a guarantee. But, say Cutch goes to Los Angeles and Cole goes to New York. Adding what the Pirates already have with Meadows, Polanco, Bell, Taillon, Keller, and Newman, Pittsburgh would be housing four aces in a future rotation, three stud outfielders, along with stars at first base and shortstop. That’s a future that is incredibly hard to ignore.
Both of these options have positives and negatives for the Pirates. And both can easily be accomplished this offseason. But if you’re going to ask me to pick which option I prefer the Pirates go for this winter, I’m probably going to go with the rebuild option. One, I don’t think the Pirates will be able to make enough moves this year to compete in the NL and make the playoffs. Two, I don’t think the Pirates can sign Cutch long-term and I’d rather see us get value for him rather than seeing him walk for nothing but a draft pick. In the same vein, Gerrit Cole will only lose value as he moves through arbitration, so getting the most value for him before he walks is also a priority. Three, Neal Huntington is just better at building farm systems. So if he’s here for another four years on an extension, I’d rather see him do what he does best. Four, it’s just the best way for the Pirates to compete for a longer period of time and the best way to bring a title to the Steel City. That being said, I would also be happy to see the Pirates compete and do their best to contend every year so I wouldn’t be disappointed by going with Option A either. Regardless of what we think, however, the Pirates have a plan and only time will tell what that plan will be.