Neal Huntington and company awoke on the morning of the trade deadline four games back of the second Wild Card spot, with three teams (the Marlins, Cardinals, and Mets, respectively) ahead of them, and three upcoming series against some of the worst teams in baseball (the Braves, Reds, and Padres, respectively). While the three teams ahead of them were buying aggressively (Miami), redundantly (New York), and standing pat (St. Louis), the Pirates opted to sell: They dealt star closer Mark Melancon and his impending free agency for multiple years of control over Felipe Rivero and a lottery ticket in Taylor Hearn, as well as Francisco Liriano and his (apparently) onerous contract, along with two prospects to Toronto for the crumbling remains of Drew Hutchison. Oh, and they also rid themselves of Jonathan Niese and received Antonio Bastardo in return.
While the return for Melancon wasn’t on par with those received for the likes of Chapman, Miller, Jeffress, or even necessarily Will Smith, it’s worth noting that Rivero has been fairly impressive in his own right, notching 69 strikeouts over 58 1/3 innings so far, and will contribute to the next good Pirates team, in all likelihood. The Liriano trade is less clear. He hadn’t registered an ERA over 3.38 in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, before running it up to 5.46 through July. His velocity was stable compared to recent years, but as someone who lived outside the strike zone he was perhaps hurt by the increased focus on borderline pitches, either by umpires or by hitters themselves (his walks per nine had jumped by nearly two compared with 2015). Either way, it’s surprising, given the present velocity and history of success, that it required two quality prospects in Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire to get a team to take on the remainder of his deal (~$17.3 million through 2017). Meanwhile, the Bastardo deal actually added to their 2017 payroll ($6.5 million), but provides them another middle relief arm that they won’t have to buy or fill internally come next season, while saving them money in the near-term.
It’s fine to note the value sent and received in all these transactions, but we’re glossing over the bigger question: Why? While a four-game deficit isn’t nothing, it’s fair to think that given the upcoming schedule the Pirates could have predicted they’d be on the verge—if not in control—of a Wild Card spot within a couple weeks of the deadline.
Why Going For It Would Have Made Sense
At this point in the season, they’d banked 52 wins despite an inconsistent rotation, a substandard season from Andrew McCutchen, as well as everyone on their team named Francisco. There’s reason to believe that those players would regress toward their true talent levels, and the additions of young hurlers like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow (when healthy), Chad Kuhl, and Steven Brault could turn their fortunes around. Sure, four games and three teams to climb over isn’t a given, but there’s enough invested at this point in the season that treating it as a sunk cost seems a little hasty, especially considering a tepid offseason free agent market, which the Pirates weren’t likely to make a big splash in anyway, and the opportunity for other teams to rebuild, reload, and recharge as they see fit…
Why Going For It Would Have Been A Mistake
…except it probably wouldn’t have been. The BP Adjusted Playoff Odds on August 1 were 6.4 percent for Pittsburgh, and that includes the strength of schedule the rest of the way. The biggest impediment for the Pirates in this scenario was that our projections had them winning at a .490 clip the rest of the way (they were 52-51 at this point, but with a negative run differential), while their in-division rival and a team they’d need to leap in the the standings, the Cardinals, were projected at .543 the rest of the way. The math just doesn’t work if you buy into projections even a bit. But there’s a bigger issue at hand than straight math:
Any and all efforts would have been in pursuit of a one-game playoff. There is, of course, value in making the one-game playoff. The Pirates know that better than anyone, having played it in for three consecutive seasons. Then again, if anyone knows how fleeting that value can be, it is also the Pirates, having lost that one-game playoff in the past two seasons. And while the argument above posits that it is reasonable to expect McCutchen and company to revert toward their true talent as the season wears on, there’s no assurance that any regression to the mean would come in time for it to matter to this 2016 squad. Treating the current season and all the invested resources as a sunk cost might not be an enjoyable experience, but what next year has that this year doesn’t is that alluring seductress, possibility. However unlikely you may think it is, 2017 holds the chance that the Pirates could win the division, something that is nigh on impossible this season, and if the cost of strengthening their chances of that grander prize next year is an incremental decrease to what were already slim chances (remember, 6.4 percent as of the trade deadline), well, that seems pretty reasonable doesn’t it?
It’s only a theory, but I’d contend that the only playoff possibility being another one-game playoff weighed heavily in the minds of the front office staff, and that even the slight chance that the 2017 season could include a division crown and the full playoff series that accompanied it was too tempting not to focus on.
So…Which Is It?
Mike McDermott states “you can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle, but you can’t win either.” That’s true as far as it goes in poker, but it’s not so in baseball. The Pirates stumbled through those nine games against the dregs of the National League, registering a 5-4 record, before ripping off five wins in six games against the Dodgers and Giants. Their adjusted playoff sat at a hair under 25 percent entering play on Friday, and they’re a mere one game back of the Cardinals for that second Wild Card slot. They’ve made it happen thanks to improved pitching, as their rotation ERA would rank as a monthly best if they maintain this pace. Their reliever ERA too, is under 3.00 for the month, despite the loss of their anchor Melancon, though it’s fair to note that three weeks of data is hardly enough to establish any sort of meaningful trend in either regard.
So does the Pittsburgh front office wish they had splashed the pot at the trade deadline? Maybe a tad. It’d be a nice feeling to know that your team is on the cusp of a playoff spot and you made an active move to improve them that helped get them there, but they’re likely measured enough to know that with a 62-56 record, and a +7 run differential, they might fade over the next six weeks. If they don’t, it’s all the better: Winning without putting anything in the middle won’t feel any worse.
Thank you for reading
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