This is GM Neal Huntington’s 10th trade deadline with the Pittsburgh Pirates. From the good, the bad and the ugly, let’s recap the previous nine as this year’s deadline looms closer.
Today, we’ll take a look at the deals that the Pittsburgh Pirates GM made in 2016.
The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates came into the deadline with disastrous starting pitching and an on-again offense, but still found themselves in the middle of the wild card race. Going all-in during a self-proclaimed “bridge year” was unlikely, but with one of their best players on the cusp of free agency and several starters pitching below replacement level, making lateral moves for other major leaguers with more team control seemed liked the better move going forward.
The results ended up being very, very mixed.
July 30: Traded RHP Mark Melancon to the Washington Nationals for LHPs Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn
You didn’t have to look far to find fans and members of the media who despised this trade when it happened. Melancon was a three time All-Star with the Pirates and one of the most dominant closers in baseball. Hearn was a mid-ranged prospect and Rivero was a young, struggling reliever.
For two months, the trade stunk. Today, it’s one of the best moves of Huntington’s career.
Rivero filled in nicely as a late inning reliever in 2016 before becoming elite in 2017. He is quite possibly the best lefty reliever in baseball this year. Hearn has been turning heads as a starter in Bradenton as well. Once considered a throw in, Hearn’s fastball flirts with triple digits. He needs to develop a third pitch to become a major league starter, but his heater makes him a good candidate to be a big league reliever.
Melancon was what the Nationals’ wanted down the stretch, but they could not hang onto him in free agency. He hasn’t been himself in 2017, blowing four of his 15 save attempts, posting a 4.35 ERA and spending a good chunk of the season on the disabled list. Washington’s bullpen has faltered as well, going most of the season without a reliable late inning arm.
There is a fairly reasonable chance the Pirates could make a similar move today with either Tony Watson, Juan Nicasio or another player. Hopefully seeing how this trade worked out will soften the initial blow if that news breaks.
August 1: Traded LHP Stephen Tarpley and OF Tito Polo to the New York Yankees for RHP Ivan Nova
This trade could also be summed up as “Happ 2.0.”
Nova was floundering in New York with an ERA near five while on the cusp of free agency. He went to Pittsburgh and pitched with a renewed sense of confidence, throwing a sinking rotation a lifeline with three complete games and a 3.06 ERA. He enjoyed being a Pirate too, signing a below market value three year, $26 million contract last offseason. While he has had good and bad moments this season, he is on pace to throw around 200 innings and be worth 3-4 bWAR.
Polo and Tarpley both have potential, but neither is close to the majors. Polo is in AA and was sent over to the White Sox in the Todd Frazier deal. Tarpley has been bogged down with injuries and is currently a reliever in A+.
We won’t really know how much the Pirates gave up to get Nova for a couple years. For now, it looks like it was a no-brainer.
August 1: Traded LHP Jon Niese to the New York Mets for LHP Antonio Bastardo
Niese came over from the Mets in December in a one-for-one swap for Neil Walker. The front office was convinced they had another reclamation candidate on their hands, but that wasn’t the case. He faltered in Pittsburgh, getting booted from the rotation after posting an ERA just under five with -0.4 fWAR. He looked like a DFA candidate once his stint in the bullpen failed to conjure hope.
Bastardo pitched well for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, but was struggling with the Mets. This was a swap of problem lefties, but neither benefited from going back to their old stomping grounds.
While Bastardo did all right down the stretch in 2016, he was a disaster this year. He was eventually cut shortly after a lengthy disabled list stint on July 8.
Overall, Huntington somehow made one of the most controversial trades of his career worse. Just cutting Niese or getting a low level prospect would have been a better decision.
August 1: Traded LHP Francisco Liriano, C Reese McGuire and OF Harold Ramirez to the Toronto Blue Jays for RHP Drew Hutchison
The Walker for Niese deal earned mixed reactions at the time. This one is still as controversial today as it was back then.
Liriano was a big reason for the Pirates’ success from 2013-2015, but things turned ugly in 2016. Batters weren’t chasing his slider as much, his fastball was being pounded and he was fighting with pitching coach Ray Searage. With Niese already out the door, cutting ties with their highest paid player seemed possible.
They finally found a taker in Toronto, but it cost them two of their top 10 prospects. Both have lost a lot of value since then (Ramirez is currently ranked 27th in Toronto’s farm system by MLB Pipeline and McGuire 29th), and Liriano has pitched even worse since then, with an ERA just under six and the second worst strikeout rate of his career. But the concept of being unwilling to trade top prospects to acquire players, but be willing to do it unload bad contracts did not sit well with fans.
I suppose I should mention Hutchison eventually. He has been a non-factor for the Pirates since his arrival. He got knocked around in September of last year, but came into spring training with the inside track to win the fifth starter job. He ended up pitching so poorly that he lost the spot to Tyler Glasnow, who really didn’t show much promise in the opening month either. He has a 3.82 ERA in AAA with a slightly above average strikeout rate, but he is now buried on the depth chart. He may come up in September to eat some innings, but he will likely be non-tendered this offseason.
While this move created “financial flexibility” that allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates to re-sign Nova and David Freese, this is easily Huntington’s most hated deal, even if it did unload a pitcher who likely has fizzled out. There are three things you should never talk to a Pirate fan about: religion, politics and the Francisco Liriano trade.
Yes, there were more trades made in August, but none of them seem to have a large impact anymore. True, Wade LeBlanc came in and Arquimedes Caminero was shipped out, but they were fairly minor deals for low level prospects or cash. Phil Coke came over to the Pirates to eat innings. He was traded for one dollar. Not exactly a blockbuster worth mentioning.
Overall, the players the Pirates brought in were worth 2 fWAR down the stretch. While that’s the second most out of any trade deadline in Huntington’s “buying” years, almost all of it came from Nova (1.9). He made a couple lateral moves that ended up working in the short term and now. They actually did pretty well in August and were on the cusp of the playoffs before September injuries derailed the season. So the strategy…worked? They at the very least didn’t do any worse than they would have with the original group, and they have Rivero to show for it.
Time will tell if he employs the same strategy today and through August.