Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Everybody calm the eff down

The Pirates made a few moves yesterday that have the local hive mind in something of a tizzy.

"Maybe Neal Huntington wants to get fired." - Dejan Kovacevic
"But with these trades, it’s almost as if Huntington was begging to be ridiculed. He succeeded in a big way." - Nobel Laureate Ron Cook
"But I hated the trade of Francisco Liriano. That is the equivalent of giving up on the season." - Paul Zeise

Here's a quick rundown of the Pirates' deadline moves, via MLBTR:
The Melancon trade stands out as the best of the four. Melancon is set to hit free agency after this season and the likelihood the Pirates would have brought him back at a raise from the $9.65 million he's making this year is non-existent, so the Pirates traded two months of Mark Melancon for two fireballing lefties. The first, Felipe Rivero, is 25 and under club control through 2021. He sports a mid-90s fastball, a nice slider and a hard changeup. He has nice strikeout numbers, an appreciably low walk rate, and he figures to be even more effective pitching in front of a team that shifts as much as the Pirates do.
Taylor Hearn is 21 and pitching in A-ball, where he's averaging almost 13 K/9 while keeping his walks down. He's a former fifth-round pick, and it's easy to see why the Pirates like him. He's 6'5", 210. His fastball works in the upper 90s, and he has a slider to go with it. This guy was drafted four times, including once by the Pirates. No guarantees he'll work out but Rivero alone would have been fine return on Melancon. The Pirates made out like bandits in this deal, and at no significant cost to the quality of the major league club.
The Nova deal is probably fine. The PTBNs likely won't be anyone of consequence, as Nova is a two-month rental who'll hit the open market after this season. The Pirates were reportedly in on Tampa Bay's Matt Moore (who wound up with the Giants) and Jake Odorizzi, but balked at requests for Josh Bell and Austin Meadows. No complaints there. Nova isn't a long-term solution, but his peripherals indicate he's pitched better than his standard numbers, and he'll help stabilize the rotation for two months, which the Pirates need more than anything.
Speaking of stabilizing the rotation, let's think about the final two, which seem to have drawn the most criticism. Dumping Niese back on the Mets in exchange for a lefty reliever who's signed through next season isn't a bad thing. The PR hit the Pirates are taking right now is attributable to two things. First, the Pirates had Antonio Bastardo last season and opted not to bring him back. Second, and more importantly, the reason Jon Niese was here in the first place is that the Pirates shipped Neil Walker to the Mets to get him in a straight-up, cost-neutral trade that made all the sense in the world. New York lost Daniel Murphy to free agency and was looking for a second baseman, and the Pirates, knowing they had no plans to sign Walker to a long-term deal, knew they needed a starting pitcher. Their 2016 salaries are identical, only Niese came with two club options. Given that Walker is on the wrong side of age 30, has a bad back, can barely play his position and is in steady decline, this is a deal you make 10 times out of 10. The metrics said Niese looked like a guy who could get a nice bump from playing in a pitcher-friendly park in front of a good defense. He was an excellent bounce-back candidate. He just pitched horribly. So now, the Pirates have Antonio Bastardo, a perfectly serviceable lefty reliever, for the rest of this year and locked up through next year at $6.5 million. That's a little steep, but between Watson, Rivero and now Bastardo, that's three guaranteed bullpen spots for effective lefties, and at totally reasonable cost across the three players. Having lefty pitchers in spades is never a bad thing, and I'd expect to see one of them flipped to another team this winter.
But onto the elephant in the room...
The Pirates unloaded Francisco Liriano on the unsuspecting city of Toronto and its Blue Jays, just over halfway through his three-year, $39 million contract. And they had to ship two of their top 10 prospects, Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire, to the Jays in order to shed that payroll.
"But I hated the trade of Francisco Liriano. That is the equivalent of giving up on the season." - Paul Zeise
First things first, Liriano was pitching terribly. That can't be overstated. His HR:FB ratio is up 8 percent from the last two years. He's allowing more than twice the home runs per nine innings. He's walking 5.46 hitters per nine, and his strikeout rate has dipped, even if slightly. Even his park-adjusted fielding independent pitching (xFIP) is 4.51, and that's against a 5.46 ERA and a 5.27 FIP. Liriano hasn't been unlucky, he's been downright awful. 
This trade wasn't just about dumping Liriano's salary, it was about unloading a pitcher who'd clearly hit a wall. The Pirates are far better off without him -- that's not even up for debate. So where anyone gets the idea that unloading this guy who's just been painful to watch is giving up on the season is, like much of what Paul Zeise writes, wholly without merit.*
Where things have the potential to get sticky is what the Pirates gave up in order to give up on Liriano. 
Ramirez and McGuire are rated as the Pirates' No. 6 and 7 prospects, respectively. Ramirez, a speedy little outfielder with little to no power and a subpar walk rate, but who makes decent contact. McGuire, a former supplementary first-round pick, is an excellent defensive catcher who doesn't profile as much of a hitter.
Three things to consider about this aspect:
1) Neither player has a direct path to the majors through this organization. The Pirates are set with Cervelli as their catcher for the next three years, and clearly value Elias Diaz, 25, over McGuire. They can and should begin searching for another prospective catcher this winter or in next year's draft, but it's clear they don't feel they've traded their catcher of the future. In an outfield where two of the three spots are locked down and the third will, over the next five years, be manned by a combination of Declining Andrew McCutchen and Austin Meadows (the Pirates' no. 2 and top offensive prospect) Ramirez is a totally expendable piece.
2. Pat Lackey at WHYGAVS made this point last night, and rather than restate it, I'm just going to quote him, though I'd highly recommend reading his entire piece. 
...it’s certainly true that a team’s evaluations of prospects shifts internally almost always before it shifts anywhere else. The Giants knew exactly what they were doing when they traded Tim Alderson for Freddy Sanchez, even if almost no one else that was watching that trade did. Both Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire are hitting inflection points as prospects, where things that were forgivable early in their careers (Ramirez’s lack of power, McGuire’s generally inability to hit) quickly become red flags. If Ramirez doesn’t find some power in his swing, his prospect status will drop quickly. If McGuire can’t hit, all his ability with the glove makes him is a more highly touted version of Jacob Stallings. If these players are going in these directions, the Pirates would probably be the first to know.
3. Don't get me wrong, I'm not happy with the notion that the Pirates are trading prospects in the name of dumping salary. If you're not going to use that organizational depth on your major league roster, your best thing to do is leverage it into ways to help the major league roster. They didn't do that here. What I take away from this and the Niese trade is that Huntington isn't going to sit on his mistakes. This dude ate a lot of crow yesterday and he's surely feeling the sting today. But there's something to be said for looking at what you've done, assessing why and how it isn't working, and making an adjustment. In blowing up over these trades yesterday, the local hive mind seemed pretty quick to forget the quite solid ratio of successes to failures the current front office has assembled since taking over. It's neither prudent nor responsible to go around spewing fire and slitting throats because they shipped out a prospect. And keep in mind, the word "prospect" carries different meaning in this town than it does elsewhere, owing almost entirely to 20 years of ignominy. We've been trained to believe that you don't trade prospects, you trade for prospects -- that they're the holy grail. And generally, that's true. But writers and fans alike are calling for heads to roll because it took adding a 21-year-old catcher to the pot in order to jettison the worst starting pitcher in baseball. I just don't think that's the worst thing in the world. And I'm certainly not upset that Neal Huntington is the type of GM to stand by a move, long after he realizes it's a mistake. The ability to admit you done fucked up is incredibly important. 
Before news broke that McGuire was included in the Liriano deal, the consensus was that the Pirates were about as good a team after the deadline as they were before -- all they did was move some pieces around in what amounted to crafty accounting. The inclusion of a 21-year-old catcher whom the Pirates deemed worth giving up shouldn't change that.

*To Paul's credit, he had a correct take on the Melancon trade. It wasn't a strong take or a fresh take, but it wasn't offensive or wrong.

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