In the past few days, the Pittsburgh Pirates have officially waved the white flag for the imminent future by trading away arguably their best position player and pitcher, in Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.
I’m not a Pirates fan, but it doesn’t take one with the awful memory of the “20-year losing streak” of sub-.500 baseball to feel that it might be resurfacing again following back-to-back losing seasons.
Recently, I’ve spoken with many friends and colleagues about the Pirates’ state of affairs. There’s been a mix of anger, frustration, and apathy for an organization that has clearly thrown in the towel for the upcoming seasons.
I clearly understand that fans are angry about the direction of the organization, and the obvious lack of will by the front office to spend money on high-level talent to go after a World Series title. It’s totally justified.
It’s fair to be upset, and to blame owner Bob Nutting and General Manager Neal Huntington for what has happened. As far as I’m concerned, the real screw-up didn’t occur this offseason, the Pirates sunk their own ship in the winter of 2015-16. Let’s take a trip together back in time to December 2015 to February 2016.
The Pirates had just come off a 98-win season, losing the National League Wild Card Game for the second-straight year, this time to the Chicago Cubs. Pittsburgh had reached the 98-win mark for the first time since the 1991 campaign, and had a core of talent returning that could realistically contend for a World Series championship.
At ages 27-29, Francisco Cervelli, McCutchen, Jung Ho Kang, Starling Marte, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer were all coming back in 2016 during the prime of their careers. Throw in Gregory Polanco, back for his sophomore campaign, and the Pirates lineup was strong enough to return to postseason.
On the mound, Cole had just finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting, finishing the 2015 season with 19 wins, a 2.60 ERA, and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings pitched. The back-end of the bullpen looked to be strong with Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes set to lock down the final third of the game.
However, the remainder of the rotation was in question. A.J. Burnett announced his retirement, and J.A. Happ, who revived his career after being traded to the Burgh in July, was headed to free agency. Also, Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton were coming off a string of poor seasons on the hill.
Happ was going into free agency along with some key contributors, including relief pitchers Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria, and position players Sean Rodriguez and Pedro Alvarez.
Lastly, hometown-favorite 2B Neil Walker was entering his final year of salary arbitration, and was an upcoming free agent after the 2016 season. Walker was projected to earn $10 million in arbitration.
So what did the Pirates do? Sadly, little to nothing to bring back a championship caliber team.
Instead of paying the Pittsburgh-native, Huntington shipped Walker to the New York Mets for starting pitcher Jon Niese. Niese had just come off 9-10 campaign in 2015, posting a 4.13 ERA in 33 games. Needless to say, that looked horrible in hindsight, as Niese won only eight games for the Pirates, while posting an abysmal 4.91 ERA. Walker tied his career-high in home runs (23), while hitting .282 for the Mets in 2016.
Happ found a new home with the Toronto Blue Jays inking a reasonable 3-year, $36 million deal. He won 20 games in the heavy-hitting American League East, and helped the Blue Jays get to the AL Championship Series.
Alvarez (1-year, 5.75 M with the Orioles), Blanton (1-year, $4M with the Dodgers), Bastardo (2-years, $12M with the Mets), and Soria (3-years, $25 M with the Royals) all left via free agency. Free-agent starting pitchers David Price, Mike Leake, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen, Ian Kennedy, Scott Kazmir, John Lackey, Marco Estrada, and Yovani Gallardo all signed elsewhere.
What did the Pirates do? As you probably remember, pretty much nothing.
Pittsburgh attempted to get by with their “big free-agent signings” of 38-year old Ryan Vogelsong, 32-year old John Jaso, and 30-year old Juan Nicasio, to name a few. Rodriguez was re-signed, while a few quality buys in David Freese (1-year, $3 M) and Neftali Feliz (1-year, $3.9 M) were brought in to help tread water.
The consequences of the ineptitude of the front office were reaped quickly, as the Pirates never did get back to the postseason. Following its 98-win season in 2015, Pittsburgh finished with a 78-83 record in 2016, and ended last season five games worse.
So yes, Pirates fans, you have the justifiable right to be mad for what has happened to an organization two years removed from being a championship contender. Just know that it didn’t just happen when the Pirates traded away Cole and McCutchen, or when they will trade away Harrison, too, in the coming days.
I’m not calling for a boycott or anything, but I would refrain from putting any of my hard-earned income into “my” team that hasn’t reinvested any ticket sales back into the team. The front office didn’t spend the funds to compete for a championship after a 98-win season, so they certainly won’t do it now.