The Pittsburgh Pirates did nothing to upgrade their team this year. That’s the reason they’re not currently in line for the playoffs, and why they might not make the playoffs. Or at least that’s what I’ve been hearing.
I heard it during the off-season, when it was said that they weren’t going to be contenders this year because they didn’t make any additions to the team. It was repeated constantly the first two months of the season when they didn’t bring up Gregory Polanco right away. Then it came back up over the trade deadline, and once again at the new deadline in August.
The argument is extremely lazy, assuming that everything wrong with the Pirates is because they didn’t add Player X. It over-estimates the value of one player, and assumes that a team’s fortunes can be determined by one player. It’s also an evolving argument that forgets how things actually played out, and forgets that the Pirates’ problems weren’t due to a lack of moves. Let’s take a look at each time frame, and see if adding a player would have fixed the issues for the Pirates.
The Needs: The Pirates were coming off a season where they had great pitching and a league average offense at best, leading to 94 wins and a playoff spot. The bullpen was expected to be strong again. The perceived needs were in the rotation and the offense. The specific moves were an addition at first base, and bringing back A.J. Burnett. The Pirates ended up signing Edinson Volquez, making a minor trade for Vance Worley, a few other minor moves that didn’t help as much, and traded for Ike Davis a few weeks into the season.
The Rotation Results: Volquez and Worley have been the best starters in the rotation this year from a results standpoint, with a 3.31 and 3.01 ERA, respectively. Meanwhile, A.J. Burnett has been pitching through an injury, and has a 4.40 ERA on the season. The advanced metrics say that all three pitchers should be in the league average range going forward. But so far, the Pirates would have been worse off if they would have gone for Burnett over Volquez. You can go the hindsight route and say they should have added both, but that ignores the real problem. The guys who were expected to do well — Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole — haven’t done well. Liriano has turned things around lately, but for most of the year these two haven’t lived up to expectations. The Pirates made some good moves in the off-season, and dodged a bullet with the aging Burnett. But those moves are hidden by the fact that the guys already in place have struggled.
The Bullpen Results: The bullpen has been the biggest issue this year, a year after they were automatic. The Pirates have seen Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris struggle, only to go elsewhere and be lights out. Other players who performed last year, such as Jeanmar Gomez and Justin Wilson, have also struggled this year. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson have been two of the best relievers in the game this year. Jared Hughes has posted good numbers for a middle reliever. Once again, the guys who did well last year, and who were expected to do well this year, haven’t done well. Making matters worse, two of those players immediately had success elsewhere, while the Pirates haven’t been able to get one of their signature bullpen reclamation projects going (although I am looking forward to seeing what John Holdzkom can do after following his progress with Indianapolis this year).
The Offense Results: The Pirates ended up adding Ike Davis a few weeks into the season. Davis hasn’t been the best addition, but it might not matter. They have one of the top offenses in the NL this year, with a .321 wOBA that ranks second behind Colorado, and a 105 wRC+ that ranks first, tied with the Dodgers. A big reason for this is due to the guys already on the roster, like Russell Martin, Josh Harrison, and the MVP, Andrew McCutchen. Not everyone has played up to expectations (Pedro Alvarez, for example), but this is a case where a lot of things were going right.
The Verdict: Pirates fans would have been happy in the off-season if the Pirates spent money on Burnett, rather than Volquez, and if they would have added a first baseman (which they eventually did). The pitching swap would have made them worse, while the offense turned out to be fine. The Pirates aren’t in this situation because of a lack of off-season moves, unless you want to look back in hindsight and say they should have done something to prevent their situation in the bullpen and with their top two starters.
Gregory Polanco and the First Two Months
The Need: Polanco was destroying Triple-A pitching during the month of April. Meanwhile, the Pirates offense was struggling. Andrew McCutchen started slow the first two weeks. Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Starling Marte, and Russell Martin were all struggling offensively. The Pirates were coming off a season where they had an average offense at best. You could have expected some of these players to rebound, but the expectation that the Pirates wouldn’t have a top offense was totally justified. Travis Snider and Jose Tabata were also struggling, which led to the hope that Polanco could come up early and help the Pirates, even if that meant the potential for a $10-15 M raise down the line.
The Results: Snider and Tabata continued their struggles in right field, which led to Josh Harrison getting regular playing time, and beginning his breakout season. It’s possible that Harrison could have broken out even if Polanco came up in May. But the fact is that the Pirates didn’t need Polanco in May because of Harrison. And now they’ve turned into the top offense in the NL. That doesn’t include production from Polanco, who has struggled since coming up.
The Verdict: I still think Polanco is going to be a star. He just hasn’t made a seamless jump to the majors, which is not uncommon. That’s what the Super Two argument was all about — not wanting to pay a massive amount for a guy who could be a star in the long-term, all to get an extra month of production when he’s going to be at his least productive state in the short-term. It’s easy to look back and realize this was the case now. But at the time — when clouded by expectations that the Pirates would struggle offensively, and while watching Polanco tearing up in Indianapolis — it was easy to believe that he was the answer.
The Trade Deadline(s)
The Need: At this point the Pirates knew about their bullpen issues. They knew that they could use a starting pitcher, since Liriano and Cole had been unreliable. They knew that the offense was fine and no longer an issue. So the task was simple: add pitching.
The Results: The Pirates added Ernesto Frieri in a swap for Jason Grilli, hoping that Frieri would bounce back with a change of scenery. It ended up that Grilli was the one who bounced back. They added John Axford in a waiver claim. Francisco Liriano returned and was much better than he was in the first part of the season. Gerrit Cole returned, but has been about the same. Jeff Locke has struggled in the second half, while Charlie Morton went down with an injury. Meanwhile, the Pirates tried to make a move at the deadline, offering up prospects, but the two teams trading top starters — the Rays and Red Sox — were looking for MLB talent. It was a rare case where a team willing to part with top prospects didn’t have the inside track to any player they wanted.
The Verdict: This is where we look at what trading for a player actually does for a team. Oakland and Detroit added the top starting pitchers. Oakland added Jeff Samardzija in early July, then traded for Jon Lester at the deadline. The moves made them a favorite in the American League. But the results haven’t worked in their favor. They had a .621 winning percentage before the first move. They have a .481 winning percentage since the Samardzija trade, and a 13-19 record since their busy deadline.
Detroit traded for David Price. They had a .552 winning percentage before that. Since the move, they have a .529 winning percentage. Meanwhile, Price has a 3.86 ERA in his time with Detroit, although his 2.94 xFIP suggests he’ll be better going forward. Those are two cases where a team made a big splash, and saw their results go south after the move. This doesn’t mean that adding a player will actually hurt your team. That would be ridiculous. For the meaning, let’s look at the next team.
The Cardinals added Justin Masterson and John Lackey at the deadline. They had a .533 winning percentage before the deadline. They have had a .594 winning percentage since the trades. Meanwhile, Masterson has performed poorly, and has been removed from the rotation. Lackey has performed the same as the guy they traded away to get him, Joe Kelly.
It’s almost like the results of 1-2 roster moves (or a lack of those moves) don’t determine the results of a team of 25 players.
You can analyze the moves that a team did, or didn’t make at the deadline or in the off-season. But that’s a small piece of the puzzle. The Pirates didn’t make the moves that people wanted in the off-season. The offense that they had improved, the pitchers they added have helped this year, and the pitching they had largely struggled. They tried to add pitching at the deadline, but the teams trading starting pitching wanted MLB help.
It’s easy to be frustrated over the lack of moves. And maybe that added to a percentage of the problem. But ignoring everything else that has happened ignores a much larger percentage. It’s much more difficult to be upset over the fact that the Pirates made two great moves to add starting pitching over the off-season, but then saw their best pitchers from the 2013 season struggle in 2014. Not only is it hard to fit that in a Tweet, but you also don’t get the clear satisfaction of assigning blame, because you’re not sure whether to blame the players, blame the management for not anticipating this, or just realize that sometimes things don’t go as planned, and not every situation needs someone to blame.
Overall, the lack of moves are a convenient thing to complain about. But that’s not the problem with the Pirates. The problem is much more complex, looking at all of the little things that have gone wrong this season, whether that’s from a transaction standpoint, a managerial standpoint, or just players playing below their expectations. Despite all of the things that have gone wrong, and despite the lack of major moves, the Pirates currently sit 1.5 games out of the Wild Card race, with an easy schedule coming up. They can still make the playoffs. I don’t think they’re in a good position to advance in the playoffs, but no single move would have changed that.
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