Bob Nutting is the most hated man in Pittsburgh.
Since 2007, Bob Nutting has been the majority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same year Nutting made Neal Huntington the General Manager of the club. Now 11 years later, Neal Huntington is the runner-up to Nutting in the “most hated man in Pittsburgh” race.
In terms of population, Pittsburgh is the 5th smallest market in the MLB. In 2017, PNC Park ranked 25th in attendance, but the team did rank between 15-18th each season from 2013-2015. The Pirates also suffer from having one of the worst TV deals in the league. While teams are getting $100 million per year TV deals, the Pirates receive $20 million a season from AT&T Sports until the end of the 2019 season. Any way you shape it, the Pirates are a small market team, and their payroll has reflected it. Despite a 3-year playoff run, the Pirates never broke the top 20 in Opening Day payroll. As the window closed and the Pirates refused to open their check books, fans’ anger intensified towards Nutting and Huntington.
And the tipping point came last week.
20 years. For 20 years the Pittsburgh Pirates were the joke of the MLB. 20 straight seasons of sub 500 records killed baseball in the Burgh. For two decades in Pittsburgh it was the Steelers, Penguins, and in the words of Brad Pitt, “50 feet of s***”, and then the Pirates.
But then Andrew McCutchen arrived.
In typical Pirates fashion, the McCutchen era began in a negative way. To make room for Cutch, the Pirates traded away Nate McLouth, who was a year removed from an All-Star season where he hit 26 homers, had 96 RBI, and won a Gold Glove in centerfield. Instead of looking to locking up McLouth, the Pirates dealt him to Atlanta for Gorkys Hernandez, Jeff Locke, and Charlie Morton.
As Huntington handed the keys to the ship to McCutchen, other pieces began to fall into place. Former first rounders Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker broke into the majors shortly after McCutchen. As the nucleus was being former, future all-star Starling Marte got his call to show in 2012. Following that season, the Pirates had legitimate talent and for the first time since Barry Bonds in the early 90’s a super star face of the franchise in Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates at last had a core now, but as Neal Huntington endeared year 6 of his tenure with zero winning seasons, it was time to win or be unemployed.
Even if you’re not a Pirates fan, I highly suggest you read Big Data Baseball by Pirates beat writer Travis Sawchik. This book highlights the Pirates playoff run and their deep dive into sabermetrics in great detail. In short, Neal Huntington has his back against the wall as Bob Nutting told Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle that they had the break the 20-year losing streak or changes would have to be made. With limited funds, Huntington had roughly $20 million in free agent spending cash. It was time to throw a Hail Mary.
In the 6 years that Neal Huntington was in Pittsburgh, he worked hard to develop and grow the previously non-existent advanced analytics department. Huntington’s plan for 2013 was based on defensive run protection. With enough data to support the advantages of shifting, the Pirates were set to form a new strategy. Simply their goal was to:
1) Sign the best pitch framing catcher their data backed
2) Find and develop pitchers to get ground balls
3) Shift more
With Clint Hurdle attached to Neal Huntington’s fate, 55 year old Hurdle bought in to the strategy. The Pirates signed Russell Martin to a 2-year deal, who by their metrics was the best pitch framer in baseball. The Pirates then traded for AJ Burnett. Understandably Pirate fans we’re too excited about Martin, who hit .211 the year before, or AJ Burnett who had back to back seasons with an ERA over 4.75. Luckily for the Pirates though, Burnett and Martin provided veteran leadership and bought in to the new philosophies the Pirates management were preaching. And the philosophies worked.
At the time, pitch framing was still a pretty subjected statistic, but the Pirates saw results. When Francisco Liriano broke his non-pitching arm in the offseason, the Pirates were about to sign him to a 1 year, $1 million deal with a 2nd year option. After posting back to back seasons with a ERA north of 5.00, Liraino posted a 2.92 ERA with Russell Martin catching from 2012-13 including being the winning pitcher in the 2013 Wild Card game. Whether you think it’s from Martin’s leadership, pitch framing, or pitch calling, Martin got the best out of the Pirates pitching staff.
While Liriano was able to dominate as a strikeout pitcher with an elite slider and change-up, the rest of the rotation bought in to the ground ball strategy. With righties AJ Burnett and Charlie Morton already having heavy sinkers and 12-6 curveball, Jeff Locke was doing the same from the left side with his 90 MPH two seam and big, slow curve. Ray Searage preached the philosophy of getting a first pitch or ground ball. A simple strategy that helped revive Burnett’s career and develop Morton and Locke allowed the staff to get deep into games and ahead in counts. With the Pirates bullpen showcasing nightly lights out performances in lefties Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, and new closer and ground ball machine Mark Melancon, the Pirates had a winning formula.
With this mentality, the Pirates pitching staff put their faith in the front office’s defensive game plans, which meant heavy shifting. The Pirates 252 shifts was the second most in 2013, which just counts the number of times 3 infielders are on one side of a base. The Pirates defensive strategy relied on outfield shifts too, along with middle infielders Jordy Mercer and Neil Walker rarely in their “traditional” straight up position. As crazy as the strategy felt at the time, it worked.
The Pirates were off to a (by their standards) a blistering start with a 38-26 record. Andrew McCutchen was looking like a MVP candidate, AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano were having a fine bounce back seasons as the players that were acquired to free up a spot for McCutchen 4 years ago, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, gave the Pirates an above average starting rotation. On June 11th, the Pirates rotation got even better with the arrival of Gerrit Cole.
In front of a sold-out PNC Park, Gerrit Cole made his Pirates debut with 6 2/3 innings pitched and 6 K’s while routinely throwing mid 90’s heat. In that moment, the feeling in Pittsburgh shifted from “maybe this is the year” to “this is the year”. Led by their new rookie sensation Gerrit Cole and face of the franchise Cutch, baseball was back in Pittsburgh.
For the next 3 years the Pirates made the playoffs every year. While losing twice in the Wild Card round, the Pirates went 280-208 in that stretch. Unfortunately for the Pirates, windows seem to close faster when you’re a small market team. As the Pirates were forced to trade away Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Neil Walker and let Russell Martin walk in free agency, the run came to an end. And this offseason, the worst of the departures came within a week of each other.
The Pirates new sub 500 streak is now at 2. Like the days of old, Pirates fans are frustrated again. The low budget payroll causes a lot of shade to be thrown at Bob Nutting. Trading away All-Stars Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen has made Neal Huntington a public enemy again. To make matters worse, Andrew McCutchen just named his newborn child Steel, after the city of Pittsburgh’s nickname “The Steel City”. It’s an extremely hard time to be a Pirates fan.
Here’s the good news. While I may be in the minority, I think the Pirates have made the correct moves. I trust in Neal Huntington. I trust his process. Most importantly, the Pirates are going back to their roots.
Ground balls and defense.
In order for a small market team to succeed, they need to be all in on something. Like the 2002 Athletics being all in on utilizing on base percentage, platoons, and bullpen matchups, the Pirates need to go back to their 2013-15 strategies and be all in on ground ball pitchers and defense.
Gerrit Cole has been a solid starting pitcher for the Pirates in his career. Through his first two seasons he had a 3.45 ERA in 41 starts. In year 3, Cole became an ace by making all 32 starts and posting a 2.60 ERA with 202 strikeouts. As Pirates fans were hoping for a potential Cy Young candidate season in year 4, Cole 2016 season was cut short with a forearm/elbow injury. In 21 starts, Cole posted a 3.88 ERA with a massive K rate dip and walk rate rise. As Cole entered 2017 healthy, his strikeout rates bounced back to normal, but his ERA rose to a career worse 4.26 while also posting a career worse totals in fly ball rate and home run percentage.
As Cole no longer looked like an ace while having just 2 years left of club control left, it was time to let the Boras client go. While the Pirates couldn’t land top prospects like Chance Adams or Gleybar Torres from the Yankees or Forrest Whitley and Kyle Tucker from the Astros, the Pirates were able to land four intriguing players from the Astros.
As the baseball world laughed in Huntington’s face, the Pirates filled long term needs in this deal. The Pirates farm system’s strength is outfield and starting pitching, but lack bullpen and 3B talent.
Colin Moran solves the 3B problem. The Pirates thought they had 3B covered when they signed Jung Ho Kang, but 3 DUI’s later that is no longer the case. David Freese, Adam Frazier, and Sean Rodriguez all tried to solve the Pirates 3B woes in 2017, but 2018 will be Colin Morin’s opportunity.
Moran took his game to the next level in 2017 by hitting .308 in AAA with 18 homers in 333 at bats. Buying into the fly ball revolution, Moran finally developed some power in his left-handed swing while still being able to handle left handed pitching, as he hit .281 against them in 105 at bats. Moran’s absurd .538 slugging percentage in AAA proved he’s ready to take the next step in his career as a full time MLB third baseman.
The second biggest grab for the Pirates in the Cole trade was Joe Musgrove. Simply, Musgrove the starter was terrible, but Musgrove the reliever was tremendous. In 15 starts, Musgrove had a brutal 6.12 ERA but as a reliever he had a 1.44 ERA in 31.1 innings. The Pirates hope to have Musgrove start in 2018, but they do have a safety net in the fact that Musgrove has been wildly successful in the bullpen.
Rounding out the deal, Pirates received Michael Feliz. The power arm had an elite 13.1 K/9 in 48, 2017 appearances. Unfortunately that insane K rate was followed by a 4.1 BB/9 and a 5.32 ERA. While he has massive strikeout potential and posted a 3.78 FIP in 2017, there is a lot of work that pitching guru Ray Searage will have to do with Feliz. The final piece was outfielder Jason Martin, who was the Astros #15 ranked prospect.
While Gerrit Cole is young enough to return to “top of the rotation” production, Cole’s arrow has been pointing down for 2 years now. In this trade, the Pirates acquired 15 years of MLB service from now starting third baseman Colin Moran, hopeful starting pitcher Joe Musgrove, and hard throwing strikeout machine Michael Feliz alone without including prospect Jason Martin. These are the type of moves a team like Pittsburgh needs to make. Still for Pirates fans, trading away a fan favorite like Gerrit Cole is hard to swallow, but trading Andrew McCutchen is nauseating.
The argument can be made that the Gerrit Cole trade might make the 2018 Pirates better due to the holes it fills. The same argument can’t be made for Andrew McCutchen. The former MVP. The face of the franchise. The man who made the Pirates relevant again. Kyle Crick and Bryan Reynolds won’t ever impact the Pirates like Cutch did.
But it was time to move on.
It wouldn’t have been fair to put Andrew McCutchen through a season where every day was just a countdown to the trade deadline. The Pirates aren’t going to sign a 31 outfielder, coming off a season where he graded out as the worst center fielder in the MLB via Fangraphs defensive runs saved, to a multi-year extension. The decision was hard, but Pirates did right by trading McCutchen this offseason. It’s the least they could do for him and it is what’s best for the future of the organization.
While losing a leader like Andrew McCutchen is tough, the Pirates need to get used to life without McCutchen. It’s time for outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco to elevate their games to where McCutchen was. Both players have flashed in the past, but now it’s time for them to sustain success.
Quietly, the face of the franchise may end up being a role Josh Bell captures. After dropping 26 homers in his sophomore season, Bell could turn into a legit power threat for the Pirates. The Pirates lineup is full of on base players, but Josh Bell’s power potential could allow him to well literally clean-up the bases all season.
As nobody is looking, the Pirates are repeating history. As the Pirates once traded All-Star Nate McLouth to open room for Andrew McCutchen. Now, the Pirates will do the same with Andrew McCutchen for highly touted top prospect Austin Meadows. Injuries have delayed the timeline a bit for Meadows, but his arrival is finally expected this May (after the Super Two cut off) as Meadows could potentially be a 20 homer, 20 steak threat. Even in the meantime, Jordan Luplow could get a chance to start in right field as he produced an eye opening 23 HR’s and .381 OBP in 414 at bats between AA and AAA last season.
As infielders Josh Bell and Colin Morin act at this era’s Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, the leadership at catcher that Russell Martin brought is still evident with Francisco Cervelli and rookie Elias Diaz. As Cervelli ages, he’s struggled throwing out runners but remains an excellent pitcher framer, pitch caller, and overall leader of the young Pirates staff. In an organization that counts every penny, there’s a reason Cervelli makes $21.5 million over the next 2 seasons and you’ll never hear a trade rumor about him due to praise and respect he has in the organization. For Diaz, his hitting is a massive question mark, but his defense is his calling card, which is exactly what the Pirates want from the catching position.
Offensively, the area that confuses me the most is the middle infield. Jordy Mercer gives you above average glove work with his usual 10-15 HR, 60 RBI, .250 batting average but in his final year of arbitration, there is no apprentice. Former first rounders Cole Tucker and Kevin Newman both play short and 2nd base but neither are close to being MLB ready. This is especially worrisome considering the Josh Harrison trade rumors. Personally, I believe Josh Harrison is the key to seeing if Huntington believes this 2018 team can truly compete. If Harrison is traded, there is a massive hole at 2nd base. If Harrison stays, the Pirates may have a sneaky productive lineup. If the Pirates elect to keep Harrison, with now $20 million plus freed by trading Cole and McCutchen, could the Pirates take advantage of the slow moving, talent rich free agent market?
As there is a blueprint for the Pirates offense to survive without McCutchen, the Pirates pitching staff’s blueprint has an easier path to success.
Jameson Taillon will lead the starting rotation. In a season where he beat cancer (#JamoStrong), Taillon cooled off late in the season which saw his ERA balloon to 4.44. The season prior, Taillon had a 3.38 ERA in 15 starts and started 2017 with a 2.08 ERA in his first 5 starts before his cancer diagnosis. With a full, healthy offseason ahead, Taillon enters Spring Training as the clear Opening Day starter.
While Mitch Keller, Baseball America’s #12 ranked overall prospect and hopeful sidekick to Taillon isn’t expected to arrive until May, the Pirates rotation is still filled with young talent. My biggest fantasy baseball sleeper of the season, Chad Kuhl, brings his Charlie Morton like arsenal of a heavy sinker and a big curveball to the table. In Kuhl’s last 16 starts of 2017, he had a run of sustained success with a 3.38 ERA and a 9.1 K/9. As Taillon, Keller, and Kuhl look to be the trio of the future, the 2018 rotation is expected to be filled out by Ivan Nova, Trevor Williams, and Joe Musgrove. Nova and Williams heavily feature sinking two seam fastballs while Musgrove actually had a higher ground ball rate that those two. Notice a trend?
Regarding the bullpen, besides Felipe Rivero, it’s anyone’s guess. I expect newly acquired Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick to be in the pen as right handed middle relievers along with Daniel Hudson. The setup man primed to take Juan Nicasio’s spot in the 8th should be George Kontos, who had a 1.84 ERA after being traded to the Pirates last season. Felipe Rivero will lock down the 9th after a phenomenal breakout 2017 season. Rivero’s 10.56 K/9 and 1.73 ERA earned him a well-deserved 6 year, $42 million extension this offseason. Finally, I expect former starter Steven Brault to be the LOOGY as MLB lefties hit just .235 off him last season and AAA lefties hit .240. There is word former top prospect Tyler Glasnow could make the team as a long reliever, which a move to the bullpen could help the 6’8 flamethrower translate his minor league dominance to the show.
If you’re still reading this novel, first of all thank you. Secondly, you’re probably wondering what exactly is my main point? It’s this:
The Pirates most likely won’t be a playoff team in 2018. With that said, they’re moving in the right direction. This team is full of young talent and there’s a very bright future ahead. Trust in Neal Huntington, Clint Hurdle, and Ray Searage to lead this next era of Pirates baseball. I strongly believe the Astros and Pirates will both look back on the Cole deal positively. As hard as it is, the McCutchen deal had to be made to allow the next era to begin. Trust the process Pirates fans. Neal Huntington and this Pirates team is back to their roots of ground ball pitching being backed by a good defense. At the end of the day…
Andrew McCutchen can never be replaced. Gerrit Cole will be missed.
But the show goes on and Neal Huntington knows that.
By Todd Williams
For more Todd Williams content follow him @goldyhappens and subscribe to the Fantasy Front Office Podcast (@fanfrontoffice) wherever you download your podcast