The Pirates have a challenge this offseason, and that challenge will start this week at the winter meetings. They’re coming off an 82 win season, returning most of the same roster, and heading into 2019 with a full season of Chris Archer and Keone Kela. But they also play in a difficult division, and because of the competition, they’re going to need to find upgrades this offseason to try and contend.
The challenge is going to be whether they can get those upgrades with the resources they have.
We just saw them make big trades at the deadline for Archer and Kela. Those trades sent out Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, Shane Baz, Taylor Hearn, and Sherten Apostel. Those were three of the top eight prospects in the system heading into 2018, plus one of the more interesting lottery ticket position players in the lower levels, and Glasnow, who isn’t a prospect, but still has a lot of upside that can be tapped into.
The challenge on the trade side is that the farm system is depleted, and unable to make another big move. This assumes the Pirates wouldn’t trade Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes, or Cole Tucker, who might be the only impact guys in the system who can get a big return in the form of an Archer-level player. I’d also add Oneil Cruz in that list.
There are still some prospects who could headline a lesser trade, including a few guys who the Pirates could afford to move without being impacted in the short-term or long-term. Kevin Newman would be the best guy, but that move would require the Pirates to add a shortstop this offseason. Guys like Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Kramer, or upside guys like Luis Escobar or Calvin Mitchell could be a good first piece for a smaller deal. But it’s hard to see where the Pirates would be upgrading the team with a smaller return.
See, that’s a big part of the challenge with this team. They’ve got a team that can finish on the right side of .500. They added a boost to that team at the deadline, and could get another boost with internal improvements. But since the whole team is returning, you’re looking at upgrading over below-average to average players, and finding 3-4+ WAR guys, which can be difficult, especially with the lack of big prospects available for trade.
There are some positions where average upside would be an upgrade over last year, specifically all over the infield. The shortstop position might be the easiest for the Pirates to add a smaller upgrade if they’re not comfortable with Newman. They might already have their upgrade at second base in Adam Frazier.
The corners are tricky. I don’t see them bailing on Josh Bell after a poor 2018, and I also don’t see them bailing on Colin Moran after just one season. Even if they wanted to upgrade those spots, getting an impact bat at the corners, especially at third, would be costly.
The Pirates can make up for their depleted farm system with money. They can lessen the prospect return by taking on guys with bigger salaries, or they could target free agents who would require no prospects at all.
Right now I’ve got their payroll just above $80 M. If they were to trade Francisco Cervelli, that would drop the payroll to about $69 M. If they also found a way to trade Ivan Nova, that would take them down to about $60 M. Cervelli might be easier to trade, but that comes with the issue that he was one of the best players on the team last year, and you would have to replace his production before working on an upgrade. Nova might be more difficult to trade, especially if this offseason is like last year, and lower tier players see a slow market.
If we assume the Pirates spend up to their $90 M payroll total from last year, then they’d have $10 M to spend right now, and extra if they can shed salary from the roster.
If they decide to get back to their 2017 and 2016 spending, where they started around $100 M and finished around $109 M each year, then they’d have more to work with.
But that seems unlikely to happen, for a variety of reasons. Number one is that attendance has seen a steady decline, which would lead to a big decline in revenues. The Pirates don’t like deficit spending in any year, and when I pressed Bob Nutting on whether he would spend like the Royals, Indians, and other teams lately (spend bigger when your window is open, knowing you’d be cutting salary to low levels when the window is shut), he stuck with their method of spending at the same level and trying to compete every year.
Maybe things have changed. Maybe the Pirates would be more financially aggressive this offseason. It’s definitely the offseason to do it. They’ve got a window opening for the next few years, and it would be a bit of a waste to trade for Archer and take a conservative approach prior to his first full season. They also have a fanbase that continues to tune out, ultimately looking for a playoff team again, but wanting to see an unmistakable level of commitment in the process. And they’ve got a new TV deal coming up after the 2019 season, which should increase their revenues in the future, and should motivate them to have a good team heading into those negotiations.
You could be optimistic and point to the Archer and Kela trades as signs that the Pirates are doing things different. Or you could have doubts that they will take a new financial approach, and those doubts would be backed by their seeming focus on cutting payroll first by moving Cervelli. That would lead to the same dance we’ve seen them do in the past, where they try to maximize the value they get from their lower payroll.
We’ve seen in the past that this approach can work, like in 2013 when they dumped Joel Hanrahan’s salary, and used it for Francisco Liriano, while also getting Mark Melancon. We’ve seen other years where it didn’t work, like in 2016 when they brought in Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong. The trend here is that the money doesn’t matter. The thing that matters is making good, smart moves.
The Pirates could definitely make some smart moves, add to this team despite a lack of impact prospects to trade and most likely a low budget. The only thing that truly matters is whether they make smart moves, regardless of the cost.
But there’s a benefit to spending more money if you’re spending it wisely. It provides added depth. It allows you to overcome injuries and poor contracts easier. It doesn’t limit you as much on the types of players you can pursue. When you’ve got $10 M to spend, you’re very limited on who you can get. Even bumping that amount up by $10 M opens a lot of new opportunities. The Pirates aren’t getting Manny Machado this offseason. But there are a lot of options between Machado and the $10 and under bin.
This is an important offseason for the Pirates. They’ve got a window to contend opening up. They’ve got a TV deal renewal coming up. They have a fanbase that continues to turn away due to a lack of trust and the lack of a strong contender over the last few years. If there was ever an offseason to get outside of their comfort zone and increase the budget, this would be that offseason.