In recent weeks, we have seen the Pittsburgh Pirates begin a rather overdue rebuild with the trades of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen. As one would expect, however, it is never easy to trade franchise cornerstones in a rebuild, and doing so could potentially cause some unrest among the fans. The fans in Pittsburgh, however, have gone as far as beginning an online petition in an attempt to get Bob Nutting to sell the team, and have gained 52,000 signatures. Now that the dust has settled, however, let’s take a deeper look at the pair of deals.
Deal 1: The Houston Astros acquire Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Colin Moran, Jason Martin, Joe Musgrove, and Michael Feliz
What were the Pirates selling?
Cole is a 27-year-old, right-handed pitcher who is under team control through 2019. While he was the Pirates ace, a career 3.50 ERA makes him look more like a solid two or three on most other teams. Furthermore, he was coming off of a down season in 2017 in which he posted a 4.26 ERA (with a 4.08 FIP) over 203 innings..
What exactly did they get as a return?
The Pirates got four players back from the Astros.
The headliner, of sorts, was third base prospect Moran. Moran is a 25-year-old, major-league-ready third baseman with rather strong power. While he doesn’t look like a star, he looks as if he can be a very solid regular at third base. While the average may not play as well in the major leagues, he looks like a good bet to be a solid five hitter who can post a .250/.340/.450 line with about 25 homers.
Martin is a 22-year-old, left-handed hitting outfielder who has reached Double-A. Martin is a decent hitter with decent speed, decent power, and a decent glove. Overall, he doesn’t do anything particularly well, but he doesn’t do it poorly either. While there isn’t an insane ceiling, he looks to me like a slap hitter with 5-10 home run power, 10 stolen base speed, and a solid but unspectacular glove. He profiles as a fourth outfielder or a bottom of the order bat who can hit .260/.310/.380.
Feliz is a known commodity at this point. While he has struggled as a major leaguer, his peripherals suggest that he has been a victim of bad luck over the course of his career. In 2017, while he posted a 5.63 ERA, his FIP was a much stronger 3.78, and in 2016, his 4.43 ERA was considerably higher than his 3.24 FIP. Furthermore, batters had an insane .381 BABIP against him. Meanwhile, he has strikeout rates of over 13 per nine innings in both 2016 and 2017 and saw his fastball average an insane 96.6 mph in 2017. The biggest issue for Feliz is that he is a fly ball pitcher who has given up 1.49 home runs per nine innings over the course of his career. Luckily for Feliz, while the NL Central contains hitter havens such as Wrigley Field, Great American Ballpark, and Miller Park, he will be playing 81 games a season at PNC Park, which is one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the league. My projections have him at a 4.07 ERA over 61.2 innings pitched with per-nine-innings rates of 11.8 strikeouts, 3.43 walks, and 1.29 home runs allowed.
Musgrove is something of a wild card in this deal, simply because of the fact that he can be utilized in multiple different ways. He has obvious talent, and certainly looks like the type of player who would improve with a change of scenery. In Houston, he started 15 games, pitched in middle relief for 18 games, and finished five (earning a pair of saves in the process). Once you give the kid a set role and let him get comfortable, we could be looking at a major weapon. Personally, I like him as a starter. He averages 93.6 on his heater, which is solid, but it’s not overpowering. Furthermore, he’s a groundball pitcher, which the Pirates have had a ton of success with. While many looked at his inclusion in the deal as a throw in, seeing as how one could look at his numbers and see him as a long reliever, you have to remember that he’s coming from the Houston Astros. He was a first-round pick back in 2011 and has shown the ability. He could be the jewel of the deal.
How does this deal compare to similar deals?
The obvious comparison is the Sonny Gray deal of last summer. Both pitchers are young, high-upside starters who bring with them two seasons of team control and some risk to go along with the upside. The returns, however, are completely different. When you look at the return packages side by side, most people would say that the Athletics return trumps that of the Pirates, but once you look closer, you realize that the Pirates return isn’t that bad. The first thing that needs to be recognized is that the Athletics included international bonus money in the deal, which was exceptionally valuable to the Yankees, who were heavily pursuing Shohei Ohtani. Furthermore, the A’s and Pirates took different approaches in making these deals. The A’s shot for ceiling over floor. Jorge Mateo has some of the loudest tools in the minor leagues, but it remains to be seen whether those tools are able to translate into the major leagues. James Kaprielian, who was a first-round pick, has the potential to be an ace but has not been able to stay healthy. Finally, Dustin Fowler is coming off of a season-ending knee injury. While I would expect him to be a rather productive major leaguer, there are certainly questions about how the injury will impact his speed, which is an important part of his game. Furthermore, his on-base abilities have always been a concern.
The Pirates did the exact opposite, shooting for players without as many question marks surrounding their games. We know Feliz can strike out over 13 players per nine, we know Musgrove has the ability to hold his own in the major leagues, and we know Moran has obvious power that looks as if it can translate to the major leagues. On the classic 20-80 scouting scale, while the 80 grade for the A’s trumps the Pirates, the more likely outcome of a 40-50 grade leans in the Pirates favor. At the very least, Feliz is going to eat up innings in the bullpen, Musgrove is going to eat up innings in the rotation, and Moran looks like he can at least be a palatable stopgap at third. The A’s need a lot to break right for them, and while nobody should ever criticize them for taking a gamble on three players with absolutely insane ceilings, we’ve seen more amazing prospects fizzle out than find major league success.
Deal 2: The San Francisco Giants acquire Andrew McCutchen and $2.5 million in exchange for Kyle Crick, Bryan Reynolds, and $500,000 in International Bonus Money
What were the Pirates selling?
McCutchen is a 31-year-old outfielder who is entering the final year of his contract. The former NL MVP will make $14.5 million in 2018 after posting a strong .279/.363/.486 line, inspiring confidence following a poor season in 2016. While he may no longer be a perennial MVP candidate, he remains an exceptionally productive player but will certainly need to move to a corner outfield spot.
What exactly did they get as a return?
The Pirates received two players and international bonus space in exchange for McCutchen and $2.5 million towards his salary.
The first, and most notable, was former top-100 prospect Crick. Crick is now 25 years old and has gotten his career back on track since moving to a relief role in 2017. After an exceptionally successful 2.76 ERA campaign in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, he earned his first major league call-up where he posted a strong 3.06 ERA over 32.1 innings pitched. While he struggled with control, walking 4.7 batters per nine, the big righty saw his fastball average 95.8 mph. He looks as if he will contribute to the Pirates bullpen immediately and could find himself in high leverage situations in short order.
Reynolds was the Giants’ second-round pick in 2016 out of Vanderbilt. Nearly 23 years old, Reynolds reached High-A in 2017 and could begin the season at Double-A Altoona. The scouting reports on Reynolds all peg him as a solid defender in center with above-average speed, solid power, and a great hit tool with a knack for drawing walks. The hit tool has been as good as advertised, and while the speed hasn’t shown in stolen bases, it is certainly there. Furthermore, there has been some unexpected power since he has gone pro. The two biggest question marks are his glove and his plate discipline. While he has been noted to have strong plate discipline, he has posted rather pedestrian walk numbers. The glove has always been a question mark, but he seems to fit in left field. Bank on Reynolds to be a second-division regular in left field who hits second or sixth in the lineup and brings with him a .270/.330/.400 line to go along with about 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases a season. He should reach the majors by mid-2019 at the absolute latest.
Finally, the Pirates received $500,000 in international bonus pool space, which could signal a potential run at Juan Pablo Martinez, but we will revisit this section of the return once we see what it gets them.
How does this deal compare to similar deals?
The most comparable deal over the past few seasons is the Padres acquisition of Justin Upton prior to the 2015 season. The Padres acquired a star player, making a very similar amount of money, with the same amount of time left on his contract, coming off a very similar season in terms of performance, in exchange for a former first-round pick who had just undergone Tommy John surgery in Max Fried, a major-league-ready second base prospect in Jace Peterson, a decent but distant third base prospect in Dustin Peterson, and Mallex Smith who, despite strong results, was not considered to be much of a prospect.
The Braves certainly got more for Upton than the Pirates did for McCutchen looking at it from a perspective of how these players were viewed at the time of the trade. Jace Peterson looked like an athletic, major-league-ready second baseman who seemed likely to be a starter for the Braves; Dustin Peterson was a middling, bat-first prospect who looked like a fourth outfielder; Smith was coming off a season in which he stole 88 bases while hitting .310/.403/.432 and was inexplicably left off the Padres’ top-30 prospects; and Fried looked like a number two at the time and was lauded for his projectability. By comparison, the Pirates got just Crick, who looks like a strong major-league reliever, and Reynolds, who looks like a second-division starter. Furthermore, they ate money in the deal, while the Braves did not. Another thing to note is that the Giants will be able to offer McCutchen a qualifying offer at the end of the season, which seems likely to get them a strong draft pick as well.
While it is certainly possible to blame the market, seeing as how it has yet to develop, the Pirates would have been better off waiting until J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain had already signed in an attempt to gain more leverage.
While I’ll admit that the Pirates probably should have gotten a bit more in return for franchise cornerstone McCutchen, Pirates fans should be happy about the past two weeks. First of all, the Pirates didn’t wait until it was too late to rebuild, as Kansas City did last season, and began selling off pieces while they still had them. While the return for Cole may seem a bit light, keep in mind that although Cole was an ace in Pittsburgh, he is more comparable to a mid-rotation starter, or a middling two elsewhere, and was valued as such by the rest of the league. The return looks like it will provide the Pirates with value both now and in the future.
While Bob Nutting, Neal Huntington, and the rest of the Pirates brass aren’t completely off of the hook just yet, give them a chance to keep the rebuild going. It seems as though they have finally figured out which direction to go in, which is a massive step up from when they simply let Juan Nicasio go on waivers to the Phillies, who proceeded to flip him for an infield prospect just days later.