Williams: The Cost and Risk of Making a Big Splash

August 1st, 2018 was probably the best day for most Pirates fans in the last three years. The team had just made a splash at the trade deadline, landing the top available pitcher, Chris Archer, and one of the top available relievers, Keone Kela.

In return, the Pirates traded some good talent, but no one they would really miss. Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz went to the Rays in the Archer deal.

Glasnow was having some success as a reliever, but never really worked as a starter, and thus was easily expendable. That was even more the case when you considered that the future rotation would include Archer, Jameson Taillon, Mitch Keller, and two of Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, and an assortment of the other pitching prospects in the system.

Meadows had impact upside, and showed some good results early in his time in the majors, before the league adjusted to him. He was expendable though, as the Pirates had Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Corey Dickerson. Yes, they’d probably be worse off in 2020 with Bryan Reynolds or Jason Martin instead of Meadows, but the addition of Archer would give them a better chance to compete the rest of 2018, and in 2019, plus would give them a pitcher upgrade for 2020.

Baz had struggled with control, and while he had a lot of upside, his value had slipped a bit, to the point where you could argue that he was passed up by Cody Bolton. He was also a long way off from the majors, and again, this was about competing in the next few years, rather than focusing on 2024.

Then there’s the Kela trade. The Pirates already had a strong bullpen, but now they would add one of the better closers in the game to be their setup man to one of the best closers in the game. The return was Taylor Hearn and Sherten Apostel.

Hearn was one of the few lefty starting pitching prospects in the system, but again, the Pirates had some good rotation depth, and Hearn would have been competing for a depth role in 2019 at best, and a fifth starter role in the future.

Apostel was a power hitting third baseman in the lower levels, with questions about whether he’d stick at third. Aside from being a few years away, he was not going to take third base from Ke’Bryan Hayes, and his path at first base required that Josh Bell and Will Craig wouldn’t work out.

The Pirates traded for two of the top available options, adding strength to their pitching staff, and didn’t really give up anyone they’d miss in the future, due to how their depth was organized.

This was how things looked on August 1st, and that day felt like it was taken directly out of the 2015 season.

Nine. Months. Later.

The trade obviously looks much different today than it does on the day of the deadline. Some of that has to do with the performance and status of the players involved in the deal. Some of it has to do with outside factors, such as the fact that the Pirates didn’t follow up on the Archer and Kela trades with big moves during the following offseason.

I could go a hundred different directions with this article. I’d look into what type of pitcher Archer will be going forward, but honestly it’s all going to come down to what sample size you trust. I’m biased in considering Archer one of the best pitchers in the game, and feel that his September, plus his first three starts are a representation of what to expect going forward. Pittsburgh fans getting a first impression and fearing the worst might be biased that his August stats, plus the last two starts are what to expect.

I could look at what is suddenly working for Tyler Glasnow (future article idea, although the short version is that he’s not doing much different in Tampa than what he was doing in Pittsburgh in 2018).

I could look at the growing trend of the Pirates not getting much out of their top prospects, only to see them have success elsewhere.

I could enter the quantum realm and time travel back to July 31st, cutting off the Pirates’ communication methods so that Neal Huntington would hold onto Glasnow and Meadows for a bit longer, despite the inevitable ire that would come their way from Pirates fans for missing out on Archer.

But what I’m going to look at is the entire concept of trading for established players at the deadline, because what we’re seeing now is the result of those trades. Pirates fans have been begging for those types of trades for years now, just to display that the team is making an effort. And now that we’re on the other side of the first mega trade, I have a feeling there is some regret.

When you trade young guys for an established player, there’s always the risk that those young guys end up better than the player you acquired. That’s why the team on the other side makes those moves.

The Pirates have been here before. They traded Nate McLouth about a decade ago to get Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez. That trade worked out well, with McLouth quickly going downhill, and Morton and Locke providing two solid rotation arms from 2013-15 when the Pirates were contending.

That deal was celebrated as a steal for the Pirates. There were deals that didn’t work out in the same fashion, with the Jason Bay trade being the biggest one in that time period. Bay performed well after the deal, but that would have been wasted on a horrible Pirates team in a rebuild. In general, if you’re trading the established player, you don’t care what he’s done after the move. You just care whether you got value for your big trade chip.

It’s the same way with prospects, except the potential for regret has a longer life span. If Tyler Glasnow works out, you’ll be seeing his every accomplishment plastered on Pirates forums for the next 4-5 years, and probably beyond. Five to six years for Austin Meadows. And save us all if Shane Baz lives up to his potential. It won’t matter what Archer does, outside of winning a World Series, if those three work out in a big way for the Rays.

We’re already seeing some of that now. Glasnow started the season strong with a 1.75 ERA in 36 innings, all while drastically cutting down on his walks, and being named the AL Pitcher of the Month for April. He followed up with another great outing in his first start in May.

Meadows hit for a .351/.422/.676 line in 83 plate appearances before going down with a thumb injury. I should have noted above that my main concern with Meadows, and the one thing that I saw that could prevent him from being an impact player, were the injury concerns.

I’m not really a fan of teams as much as I am a fan of individual players. Glasnow and Meadows are guys I covered for years, from the beginning, and will always hope they do well, regardless of the team. When I lived in the Tampa area, I loved following the Rays and going to Chris Archer starts. So I’m hoping all of the players in this deal perform well, and have no preference in who is the perceived winner of this trade.

But I can see how Pirates fans will cringe at any success from Glasnow or Meadows, or any struggles from Archer. Just remember, this is the cost of getting an established player.

A Chance to Evaluate the Cost of Big Splashes

A few years ago, the Pirates made arguably one of the best trades at the deadline in the past decade, getting J.A. Happ for Adrian Sampson. They gave up a future MLB prospect in Sampson (who they face tonight for the second time in a week), but he was a guy who could be replaced. Happ was one of the worst pitchers in baseball at the time, statistically, and Pirates fans wanted David Price.

Happ ended up with better numbers than Price down the stretch, for a fraction of the prospect return. The Pirates got a top of the rotation quality pitcher for two months, which is the goal. And yet that deadline was used in an argument about how the Pirates weren’t serious about winning because they were only looking for value and wouldn’t part with their top prospects.

Granted, those arguments were valid if you’re talking about the results the following offseason and their lower upside moves that were designed as placeholders for the prospects to arrive. But the only complaint against the 2015 deadline — complaints that still get brought up from time to time — basically boils down to the fact that the Pirates didn’t make a move that looked like a winner on July 31st, and which made the fanbase ecstatic on August 1st. It’s perception, and ignoring results.

By that same logic, we’d ignore any results from Archer, Glasnow, and Meadows in the future and only give credit to the Pirates for the attempt on July 31st, 2018, while celebrating the feeling on August 1st endlessly. But that’s not how it works. Results are the only thing that matter, and the only thing that should matter.

It’s easy to doubt a value move when it is made. Those moves only reveal themselves to be good after the fact. My own personal approach is to have my opinion, then ignore that opinion and try to see what the Pirates might see. It’s why I saw potential in J.A. Happ, Edinson Volquez, Ivan Nova, and other reclamation projects (some of them didn’t work out, like Ernesto Frieri).

It’s also why I doubted other value deals like Ryan Vogelsong and Erik Gonzalez. And for an example of how I can be wrong on that side, here’s my article bashing the Russell Martin signing in late 2012 (I realized the following summer that you could just delete that type of article and act like you never wrote it once Martin worked out, but I kept mine active and own it to this day).

On the flip side, trading for or signing established names provides that instant excitement. It gets everyone pumped on August 1st. It sells season tickets in the offseason. There are only dreams about how the move will work out, with no consideration that the team is taking on a different kind of risk.

That’s a key focus that gets ignored with big splash moves. There is risk involved. You might be overpaying for that big name, only to later regret it. You might be better off with the players you’re giving up, rather than the guy you’re trading away. The big splash moves are seen as something closer to guarantees, and there’s less concern with risk than there is when you rely on a prospect or a reclamation project.

This isn’t to say that teams shouldn’t make moves to add established players, or that one type of move is better than the other. It’s just pointing out that making the big, splashy moves definitely come with risk, and come with a cost that might make you cringe in the future.

There’s plenty to discuss involving the Archer trade, and I’ll have more looks at those other topics. But for now, this trade should probably serve as a wake-up call and a chance to consider the risk of these types of moves for anyone who has ever made the call for the Pirates to make a big splash.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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