In 2014, Dave Cameron wrote an article for fangraphs, in which he found that the price of a trade nearly doubles in July, meaning that a team has to give up nearly twice as much in terms of players and money, in order to acquire the same major league talent at the trade deadline, relative to what they would have paid during the off season. Meaning the team overall is raising their cost per win by roughly double what it would have had they gotten that player in the off season.
In 2016 the Pittsburgh Pirates plundered the Nationals by trading a half year of Melancon for several years of control of the now elite Felipe Rivero, along with a good pitching prospect in Taylor Hearn.
Many were upset with the perceived dumping of Liriano last season, but when netted against the addition of Ivan Nova, and viewed through the lens of improving cost effectiveness, suddenly that trade seems to make much more sense.
In 2017 the Pirates were able to get two decent prospects, with good upside, for Tony Watson, which is, again, roughly double the value that we would have expected Watson to get in the off season.
So what the Pirates have done to try and exploit inefficiencies in baseball, is wait until the offseason when talent is cheaper to acquire, then sell excess pieces at above their market value to improve the organization as a whole come the trade deadline.
From a fan’s perspective this method is a bit excruciating. Exploiting the trade deadline takes much more time and patience to result in Major League wins versus picking up an elite hitter from the KBL or just paying money for free agent talent, as players need time to develop. Unfortunately, things like this are what the Pirates have to do to compete with teams that can double or triple their payroll.
Now we can make a prescription for what the Pirates should do to improve their chances of a World Series in 2018.
Step 1) Aim for 90-93 wins
From last article, this range will land you a division or at the very least a Wild Card spot 92-99% of the time at a cost that a small to mid market team like the Pirates can afford. The Pirates can sustain winning baseball over several years, as long as they maintain a cost effectiveness ratio of around $1mil/win.
Step 2) Spend money, carefully
Don’t spend more money on any one player than you can afford to lose if that player doesn’t produce/ gets hurt, but don’t be afraid of spending any money on perhaps multiple smart picks. This keeps all of your eggs from being in one basket. For the 2018 season, I’d expect the total payroll number necessary for the Pirates to hit 90-93 wins, to be just under $100mil.
Step 3) Find new ways to beat the system
If there are ways the rest of the league is missing out on productive players, jump all over those exploits. I have to admit, this is my least favorite tip to give because I don’t have any recommendations for how to do this.
Step 4) Continue to develop talent
Internally produced talent is much cheaper than free agent talent and is usually around for longer. The Pirates are already doing a good job of this in their farm system. With one of the best starting rotations in AAA, primed to be ready for next year and solid outfielders in Luplow and Meadows getting ready for a 25-Man Roster spot, the 2018 Pirates should see good production out of their young, internally produced talent.
Step 5) Get a legit 3rd baseman
This is the Pirates most glaring deficiency, without internal options looking ready for 2018. The 2018 Pirates need to find a way to replace some of the production they lost with Kang. While Freese has done a decent job this year, it is clear that his expanded role and playing time has been weighing on him. Alternatively, the Pirates have the option of getting a 2nd baseman and moving Harrison over to 3rd. Sort of going along with step 2, the Pirates should get a solid 3rd/2nd baseman during the off season, but shouldn’t bother making a major signing or trading, unless that player is coming with a reasonable cost.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates can accomplish these 5 goals, which admittedly will take a lot of effort, but aren’t exactly unreasonable either, they’ll likely be a playoff team with a decent chance of winning the World Series in 2018.