Sometimes you can just let bad sportswriting be bad sportswriting. There’s so much of it out there that really, what damage can it do and why draw people’s attention to it? But sometimes, you find something so out of line that even though you risk exposing more people to its harmful rays, you can’t just let it simmer unrefuted.
The good people of Fire Joe Morgan, who have passed to the same corner of the internet as our old friend Kevin Goldstein (#ripKG) made their virtual living on performing such heroic deeds. And when I found this awful preseason column on how bad the Pirates were going to be, I knew it was so terrible that it had to be given the same treatment.
It was yet another losing season for the Pirates
Forgot the **Breaking**
but at least they displayed some reasons to believe things would start getting better soon. Sure, it was just one star and sure he stood alone in a lineup of virtual nothingness, but he was on the cusp of his prime and there were prospects on the way
Jesus, is this sentence over yet? No?
including a no. 1 overall pick on the mound. So things were looking up on the Pirate Ship despite a brutal finish to an otherwise promising year. This streak of losing seasons had to come to an end sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Yeah, this is the history of the Pirates circa 1993-now. Are you writing this for a time capsule or aliens from outer space. Unless… Oh God.
Anyone who has been following baseball closely knows the story. But do you know the year?
Yep. Worst fears confirmed. You’re being clever.
The year was 1998. Sounds more recent than that, right? The player was Jason Kendall—an up-the-middle star—and don't lose sight of that in the myopia of his sad career denouement—in his 20s. The no. 1 pick, by the way, was Kris Benson.
So because the Pirates sucked when Jason Kendall was in his 20s, they’re going to suck for Andrew McCutchen’s 20s? You realize there are 24 other guys, right? And the 25th is Andrew McCutchen and not Jason Kendall.
The analogy is obvious to state,
I insist, indulge me.
but it shouldn't be taken as a predictor of future peril. Just because the Pirates went nowhere after that ’98 squad doesn't mean a thing for Andrew McCutchen's team heading into 2013 and the streak beyond its current 20 years of losing-ness.
That’s not a word. But true. The Pirates turned out to be really good this year, so I’m glad you weren’t burying them.
What it does illustrate is the potential for and one example of a team wasting its star's prime, which the Pirates are in danger of doing with McCutchen. The now 26-year-old outfielder stood alone in the batting order among a squad of disappointments, unproven talents and Quadruple-A types, compiling 4.9 wins above replacement player while none of his teammates poked their heads above 2.
OK, you are burying them.
In fact, McCutchen is the only player since BP’s WARP data originates in 1950 to be his team's only hitter over 2 WARP in three consecutive years. Or any three years, for that matter.
Very true, though not this year. In fact, while A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez were the big money on this team—more on them, unfortunately, in a moment, I fear—it’s been the hitters who have picked it up. Not sure how you could have seen this coming. It was top prospects aging into their primes, but who ever expects anything from them?
2013 Pirates BWARP through Tuesday with 162-team-game pace:
Andrew McCutchen: 3.8 (pace: 5.5)
Pedro Alvarez: 3.3 (pace: 4.7)
Russell Martin: 3.1 (pace: 4.5)
Starling Marte: 2.3 (pace: 3.3)
Neil Walker: 1.6 (pace: 2.4)
So that’s five on pace to hit that number. Happy?
There are three ways for the Pirates to go about remedying this situation amid the backdrop of some pitching prospects on the way (though none slated to arrive imminently) and few elite bats in the system.
1. The guys they have were young and not nearly as bad as you gave them credit for?
No? Too simple?
1. They could trade him.
Switching tenses for a minute,
I don’t know what this means, but that can wait. I’m not done yet. Hahahahahahahaha.
they could have traded him, and this is precisely what previous Pirates management teams would have done. It would be a very Pirates move to adjust the winning timeframe into the future. The club once traded the most productive offensive outfield in the National League—Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, and Xavier Nady—in 10 months, including two of them in a week.
The time to trade McCutchen, if the team was going to do it, was after the 2011 season, when the free agent outfield class was Carlos Beltran and a bunch of debris.
Right. So you would have traded the then-25-year-old face of the franchise just after your first season even sniffing competitiveness in years. That would go over real well.
There would have been a mutiny among what remains of the fan base, though,
That’s what I just said.
and they didn't trade him. In fact, they extended him during spring training of the following season, locking him up in March 2012 to a six-year deal that covered his last pre-arbitration year, all of his arbitration time, and two years of free agency.
In the interest of being constructive, I actually have some ideas for who they could be. Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen. Just throwing out some names. Not sure if they’re available.
or the pitchers to build what could be one of the game's best rotations when they all mature. (Their best position prospect, Gregory Polanco, plays the same position, as did Starling Marte.)
Like if everything worked perfectly and you traded your best player, maybe someday you could end up with a pitching staff that led the league in fewest runs allowed per game. Or a rotation where even if you had to give multiple starts to arguably your nos. 6-9 starters plus Jonathan Sanchez, you’d have the best rotation ERA in the NL. Or maybe some of them end up in the bullpen and you have a bullpen that has an ERA under 3.00 and had two All-Stars. That’s the goal for some year way down the road, right?
The Pirates pursued this trade-later approach with Kendall after his rich extension, selling off his three most expensive years to the Athletics but getting little in return because it was no longer a favorable contract. McCutchen's deal, on the other hand, is incredibly team-friendly and would give him trade value unseen among any player dealt in recent memory if the Pirates try to adjust their competitive window once again.
I’ll give you this much. This might have been one of the most idiotic suggestions of 21st century baseball, but at least you spelled his name right.
2. They could seriously build around him.
More pleasing to the Pirates fan would certainly be option no. 2, which accelerates the timeframe of winning—or at least desired winning—ahead of that of their top prospects.
Faced with a similar situation with Matt Kemp, who stood alone in a bad lineup in 2011, this is what the Dodgers did
Hell of a comp there, Don Welke. I can’t believe the Pirates didn’t go out and pay Brandon League $22.5 million. I’m sure you would have suggested this had you had the space.
albeit with a payroll in an entirely different class. Kemp had the highest WARP of any player who was his team's only two-win position player since modern free agency began in 1975. Kendall in 1998 was second. McCutchen in 2012 was seventh, isolated as he'd been the two years prior.
The Pirates stayed tight, though, limiting their payroll to what could be the second lowest in the NL ahead of only the Marlins’. Their two big pitching acquisitions of the last two years, A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, landed in Pittsburgh only because the trading team was willing to eat a large portion of their contracts. Their addition of Russell Martin this offseason came with a financial counterbalance, the trade of closer Joel Hanrahan (and the corresponding creation of a closer void).
Yep, that’s the Pirates’ problem. A closer void. You really would have suggested Brandon League, wouldn’t you? I was only kidding back there.
Yes, they are a smaller-market team than the Dodgers, but so is the team just up the road in Cleveland, which decided to go for it despite lousy attendance and recent results.
Tell me, who were Cleveland’s elite prospects on the way up this year who would have prevented them from going to free agency? I’ll wait.
3. They could make individual moves each for their own sake with no big-picture motive.
Ultimately, they've taken neither of the first two paths. This is what they've done, and most of the moves they've made have been solid, which is why it’s hard to criticize any of them taken individually. Martin is due for a BABIP bounceback from the lowest figure of his career (.211), which should keep him offensively productive even in a more difficult home run park, and he is an underrated defensive player. Burnett worked out nicely, and Rodriguez did too. And far be it from anybody here to criticize cashing out early on a closer, one of the game's most replaceable commodities.
OK, so no Brandon League? Actually, just get back to me on that one. I’m genuinely curious.
But these moves pay little heed to the larger picture of the franchise, with a winning lottery ticket of an asset getting a year older and more expensive.
Ahh, this feels like the window theory. You know that’s kind of nonsense, right? Teams don’t exactly have windows. Just get as good as you can get and play ball. The moves they made were good, each one improved the team, and guys who were looking a little like busts put it together. Add a little luck—not a bad word, just the reason you ignore the window—and they’re 11 games clear of a playoff spot. You never know when Jeff Locke is going to put together a season that he’s on paper incapable of having.
McCutchen will get raises of $2.75 million after this year, $2.75 million after next year, and $3 million the year after that. At the same time, the last class that was supposed to be his complement on the streak-breaking Pirates team—Pedro Alvarez et al—
Nice of you to finally mention him.
will be getting more expensive or will have to be replaced in the free agent market for more money. Meanwhile, the contracts of pitchers being paid largely by other teams will expire, and it will be time for the Pirates to spend for themselves on the rest of their rotation beyond the prospects.
Statistically, there appears to be no improvement in sight. The Pirates won 79 games last year as their true talent level finally exposed itself in a jerky path to a .488 winning percentage. Their PECOTA projection for 2013, fittingly, has them at exactly 79 wins—tied with the Brewers for third/fourth in the NL Central.
PECOTA also had the Angels at 127 wins or something. Where was your piece previewing their ALCS matchup?
In the division that will likely prove easiest to win over the length of McCutchen's great contract
“Good luck with that,” say Anthony Rizzo, Jeff Samardzija, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Oscar Taveras, Shelby Miller and all his friends on the entire Cardinals pitching staff.
the Pirates are in danger of letting that confluence of opportunities pass them by.
Ooh, I get it. Confluence. Because Pittsburgh is on two rivers that become one. Well played.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now