The Pittsburgh Pirates have been the talk of baseball over the past week. First, they traded Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros. Then, they didn’t. Then they did again. People had opinions. Finally, on Monday, they dealt star outfielder Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants. In return, the Pirates received six players. Only two of them were ever considered a top-100 prospect, and people soured on one (reliever Kyle Crick) a few years ago.
While the general consensus is that the Pirates sold short on both players (Cole, in particular), the aim here is obvious. All six players the Bucs acquired are at least within striking distance of the major leagues. Four of them — Crick, pitchers Michael Feliz and Joe Musgrove, and infielder Colin Moran — have already reached the bigs. Those four will likely spend most of the 2018 season in Pittsburgh, with outfielders Jason Martin and Bryan Reynolds hopefully not far off.
Does this sound familiar? It should. The Detroit Tigers tried pulling a similar trick in 2015, when they also traded two star players (and a reliever) for six prospects. Starters Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd slotted into the rotation immediately, while it took another nine months before Michael Fulmer arrived on the scene. It almost worked, as the Tigers rebounded from a last place finish in 2015 to come within a few games of the Wild Card in 2016.
Ultimately, the “reboot” failed. Fulmer aside, the other prospects they acquired did not develop fast enough to keep the Tigers’ window of contention open for another year. They sold again at the trade deadline in 2017, and now find themselves entrenched in a true rebuild.
Believe it or not, the Pirates might be able to succeed where the Tigers failed. Their recent trades didn’t result in a slew of top prospects, but the actual return better fits in with their current roster. Former top prospects Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell are 26 and 25, respectively. Jameson Taillon is 26. Tyler Glasnow is 24. Starling Marte is the elder statesman of the group at 29. By adding depth pieces like Musgrove (25), Moran (25), and Feliz (24), the Pirates are building for both now and the future. Cole fits into that age range too (27), but he has just two years of club control remaining before free agency. Pittsburgh obviously valued the 20-odd years of club control they received in return more.
Did the Pirates ultimately receive less value because of their focus on major league ready talent? Probably. The Justin Verlander trade netted three prospects with arguably more upside than anyone Pittsburgh acquired in the last week. Ditto the Justin Wilson deal, especially after seeing Jeimer Candelario hit so well during the final month of the 2017 season.
I don’t know that there’s a Main Point to make about these deals. The internet has generally laughed at the return for Cole, while mostly reminiscing on just how dang good Andrew McCutchen was a few years ago. They have pointed out how the Astros are doing interesting things, and how the Giants are trying to avoid a rebuild of their own.
Meanwhile, the Pirates have been ignored once again, almost laughed off because their strategy doesn’t fit with the “burn it all down” rebuilds that have permeated throughout baseball over the past few years. What they are doing is different, but makes sense when you look at how the new pieces fit in with those currently on their roster.
Plus, it’s interesting to see if they can pull off what the Tigers could not just a couple years ago. Even if I have to watch a little bit of National League baseball along the way.