Laying out the case for a the Pittsburgh Pirates to rebuild

The Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in an uncomfortable spot following the Winter Meetings. They haven’t decided whether or not they will be contenders or rebuilders in 2018.

No one wants to hear that word: rebuild.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have spent the better part of the last 25 years rebuilding. There was brief run of success from 2013-15 but that seems like it was eons ago now.

Not that management wants fans to think that. No, over the last two seasons, the Pirates have spoken of moving some parts of their playoff core, while also contending.

“Depending upon what we’re able to do in this market,” Huntington said at PiratesFest last week, “that goal (postseason success) may be ’18, that goal may be ’19.”

Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Josh Harrison, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are the last core members left of those playoff teams.

All five should be traded.

In fact, anyone of significance on this team not under team control for at least the next five seasons should be traded.

Missed Chances

The Pittsburgh Pirates did the best that a limited small-market team could at winning a World Series. In 2013, the Pirates had two opportunities to advance to the NLCS, but lost both.

In 2014, the Pirates used a September surge to claim a Wild Card spot but lost to a team led by a pitcher beginning to post the most dominant October in MLB history.

In 2015, the Pirates won 98 games and seemed best built to win a series, not a one-game playoff, but they never got that chance.

At this point, the past is the past. The Pirates tried to win a World Series, but ultimately failed. It is time to move on.

Better to jump into rebuilding than to remain complacent.

Unresolved problems

For the last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates dealt with many of the same problems. Additionally, they failed to answer many of those problems.

When Neil Walker was traded prior to the 2016 season, Josh Harrison moved to second base and third base was left to Jung-Ho Kang. When Kang was not healthy enough to start the season, David Freese was signed. Freese proved to be slightly above average (1.6 fWAR), but not a long-term option since he was 33 at the end of the season.

Kang, meanwhile, hasn’t played a game since 2016 and isn’t expected to return anytime soon. Freese is the presumed starter despite dropping in every category besides on-base percentage from 2016 to 2017.

Third base isn’t the only problem the Pirates have dealt with several seasons now. Starting pitching has remained inconsistent since the end of that 98-win season. Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams and Jameson Taillon have since debuted and shown stretches of effectiveness that vary depending on the starter. Gerrit Cole has regressed in both seasons since a Cy Young-candidate season in 2015. Ivan Nova began his Pirates career with promise before progressively getting worse.

The Pirates no longer have a stopper or an ace in the rotation. They enter 2018 with the same question that they had in each of the last two offseasons: who will be the No. 5 starter?

Sooner rather than later

The Pittsburgh Pirates will struggle to tell fans that another rebuild is necessary. Huntington and Hurdle have both talked about wanting to retool instead of rebuilding. By doing this, they are simply avoiding the inevitable.

The Pirates will not make the playoffs this season barring the unforeseen. Instead, they will finish similar to where they did last season or even worse. The rest of the division has only gotten better and are running laps around the Pirates.

Instead of bumbling and not getting a top draft pick because of an unwarranted belief in 2018 playoff contention, Huntington would be wise to move on from the current core as fast as possible. Trade McCutchen, Cole and others for something, anything! The return isn’t as necessary as the lost baggage is.

Drop players that will be leaving soon anyway and lose more games to get better draft picks. Some fans may say, “We’ve been down this road before,” which is understandable. The problem is, as long as MLB continues to operate in a salary cap-free world, the draft is the only way that small market teams can contend.

The Pirates best shot is to rebuild through tanking and go all-in whenever that day is that their prospects all arrive. When that day will be remains to be seen, but it will arrive much faster if the Pirates jettison their excess baggage sooner rather than later.

Photo credit – Daniel Decker Photogrpahy

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.
  • Larry Rybicki

    The only problem with this scenario: Huntington is making the trades. I have no confidence in him evaluating talent. I would prefer a real baseball evaluator as GM, but we are stuck with this GM for 4 years. I have been to a lot of baseball games the past 4 years. But I am not looking forward to this year….or the next 3 after that.

    • Bobby Ewing

      Your comment makes the most sen sense larry

  • Jon Noel

    I have to agree with your rebuild opinion, although it won’t be enjoyable to watch…at least in 2018. When you look at the small market teams that have had success in recent years, a big factor has been that they have a strong farm system. Even large market teams like the Yankees recognize the need for a ton of young talent that they can use as bargaining chips to address weaknesses in their roster. (Like they’re doing now in the deal for Stanton and the rumored trade for Cole.)
    If we can load up on top-notch minor leaguers that will be ready in the next 2-5 years that would seem to me to be the best strategy to take.
    I know that a lot of fans like to criticize Neal Huntington. In think in some ways it’s criticizing through association because of the contempt for owner Bob Nutting. But he’s made some good trades with the Pirates, particularly Justin Wilson for Francisco Cervelli and two marginal minor leaguers for A.J. Burnett. He’s also been able to pick up some solid free agents despite payroll limitations. These include J.A. Happ, David Freese, Matt Joyce, John Jaso, Sean Rodriguez, Travis Snyder, Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Jason Grilli. (Who ultimately was one of the pieces used to acquire Mark Melancon.) These players may not be superstars, but they certainly help(ed) to fill out a strong 25-man roster.
    You’re so right with your reference to the “salary cap-free world” that is Major League Baseball. Unless that ever changes (don’t hold your breath,) the model you describe is best to give us at least SOME chance at pennants and championships, and Neal Huntington is a good general manager to lead the way.

  • redrage97

    big problem with is that they’re already in rebuild. Kinda like people saying we’re going back to the ice ages even though we never really left.

    Two (rather large) wholes does not warrant a rebuild. They fill third and get some pen help and they have a shot.

  • Ron Chess

    They need to commit to winning,you are as bad as cheap jerk Nutting,HE had money might as well be a Triple A team games will be cheaper ,and that’s what we will be watching anyway TripleA,but not paying major league prices to that CHEAP OWNEr

  • wkkortas

    The Bucs have won seventy-something games twice in a row, and the only players who are likely to take big steps forward in 2018 are Bell and Taillon (please, don’t say Gregory Polanco–he’s going to be 26, and if the Bucs are lucky, he’s Reggie Sanders), so even if everything goes right they are on the fringe of the Wild Card chase. The Pirates need to cash in assets like Cutch and Cole while they still have value, and listen on pretty much anyone but Bell and Taillon. The team as it is currently constructed is not going to win the division.

  • Scott Walters

    Nutting has chosen his path. To evrn hint that the Bucs will be buyers is disingenuous at best.

    It is all about one thing and one thing only. Lining # #Nuttingswallet.