As we’ve talked about this offseason, it seems like more teams have jumped into the tank-and-rebuild cycle than ever before. For the most part, the good teams are going for it and the bad teams are actively making themselves worse to get better in the future.
The Pirates seemed like one of the few teams caught in the middle, much like the White Sox were a year ago. After three straight Wild Card berths from 2013-15 (and one win), they’ve experienced two sub-.500 finishes, with widespread complaints that ownership didn’t spend the money necessary to supplement the talented young core. Now, with no easy path to contention, the Pirates decided to trade two of their star players for prospects within 48 hours of each other.
If some of that sounds familiar, the parallels pretty much end there. The narrative when the White Sox kick-started their rebuild was that they got huge hauls in their trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, whereas the Pirates have gotten blasted twice in a week. It’s not really fair to directly compare the two because the Sox had a lot more value to trade away, but the situation in Pittsburgh adds some perspective to the rebuild we’ve experienced, and it makes it easier to appreciate the fact that we’ve had something to be excited about from day one.
The Pirates’ rebuild began in earnest on Saturday, when they shipped Gerrit Cole to Houston. It’s not a bad return on its face; we got to know Joe Musgrove a little bit when his name was being tossed around in Jose Quintana rumors, and he’s got the makings of a mid-rotation starter. Michael Feliz is a strikeout machine, and Colin Moran has joined the flyball revolution. However, I can understand the lack of excitement around this group of players; a sexier return probably would have included a big name at the top (the Yankees’ Clint Frazier was reportedly available) and more upside throughout.
But it’s really the Andrew McCutchen trade that scratches the head. McCutchen is past his prime and a year away from free agency, but he’s been The Man since he set foot in Pittsburgh. In a full rebuild, trading him and getting what you can makes sense from a pure baseball perspective, but there is a lot of emotion attached to this particular player. I think of it as if the Sox had decided to rebuild after 2009, and they traded Paul Konerko. You’re not getting much for him at that point, and you’re breaking your fans’ hearts in the process.
To see how much this trade hurts, just go to Twitter and type “Cutch” in the search bar.
This image of Andrew McCutchen is one that I never thought in a million years I'd get the opportunity to take, and I am so thankful that I was able to this year. The saddest entry of my top 10 image of 2017 for sure. We'll miss you, Cutch. Thanks for everything. pic.twitter.com/w7YVe1iPmB— Dave DiCello (@DaveDiCello) January 15, 2018
McCutchen was a superstar on the field, and he won the 2015 Roberto Clemente Award for his community involvement in Pittsburgh, through his Cutch’s Crew mentorship program and several charitable organizations. He probably wouldn’t have stayed in Pittsburgh past this year anyway, but free agency feels like a cleaner and more mutual way to split. Right now, it’s a sour breakup with a lot of ill will toward Pirates ownership.
In the end, the Bucs are left without two of their biggest draws, with Josh Harrison and others now on the block as well. They’ve retooled their team and gotten a bit younger, but it only makes sense to target major league ready players like Musgrove, Feliz, Moran, and Kyle Crick if they’re expecting to leap back into contention in the next couple of years. If they continue to tear down, it’s hard to see how that happens unless they strike gold with these trades and get production from Mitch Keller and Austin Meadows soon. Otherwise, they’ll get stuck doing it the old-fashioned way, through several years of high draft picks.
While the White Sox rebuild has been a difficult pill to swallow in some ways, we’ve been able to watch the plan come together, and the early returns have given cause for optimism. More than anything, the contrast in these two exercises indicates that that’s not always the case. Another year or two spent “mired in mediocrity” might have led the Sox to a similarly difficult situation, and a disappointing trade or two might have created a much more painful process. Be thankful for the ability to be hopeful throughout this rebuild, because it might be a while before hope returns to Pittsburgh.