This is one of my most favorite things we do every offseason here at Royals Review. I've been lucky enough to have a team to run for the past three years (thanks to greedy Duggan always hogging KC). My biggest nightmare is that one year all 30 teams are taken before Max can call upon me to be the utility GM. Two years ago I controlled the Nationals, and last year I ran the Marlins. This year I was fortunate enough to find another home with the Pirates front office.
I know mainly about the Pirates MLB team and am a bit familiar with their prospects (or so I thought - more on this later). So I was looking over the Pirates organization, trying to figure out what to do. There didn't seem to be any clear strategy that I could identify just on paper, and after consulting with a friend of mine who is an avid Pirates fan, it was still a bit unclear. They are a better team than they performed in 2016 but they weren't among the clear favorites for their division or World Series. They also weren't bad enough that it made sense to sell stuff off or having a big crop off soon to be free agents (like the Royals).
It's time to (try to) win...
I wanted to kinda test the market first, to feel out if the Pirates should buy or sell. If I got strong offers for guys like Starling Marte/Andrew McCutchen/Gerrit Cole then I'd consider selling, and there were offers (particularly on Gregory Polanco) certainly. However there weren't any slam dunk ones, so I stepped back to rethink things and kind of came to the revelation that the Pirates shouldn't be sellers. They shouldn't just stand pat either. Instead, they should be buyers, and aggressive ones at that.
The Cubs are really good. Most of their talent is young, and under control for the next 3, 4, 5 years. They have a ton of money and a decent farm system still. They've also got a pretty dang savvy front office. As hard as it may be for NL Central clubs to admit, they've got dynasty written all oven them. Even more so than the Giants actual dynasty had the past half decade.
You can't just wait out the Cubs like they are the Detroit Tigers or something. They very well likely are going to be division favorites (and World Series favorites) for the next few years. Unless you are the Brewers or the Reds (who have maybe 3-4 years before they can be competitive) you have to do everything you can to beat the Cubs. The Pirates aren't going to win 98 games just to lose the in Wild Card again. It's division or bust. So with that strategy in mind, I flipped the dial to semi-aggressively buying. I wasn't going to burn the whole thing down in order to win in 201-2019, but I focused all impact on that timeline.
I admit I made two mistakes in this simulation and I'll go into detail on both of them in their respective posts. I'm usually somewhat knowledge about prospects. I cover the draft here, write up prospect articles, and rank 75 Royals prospects each year. However I regrettably made two poor valuations on two players who wound up in trades that I didn't really realize until after the fact. That's my fault and the impact was tangible to the roster.
Traded Josh Bell and Mitch Keller to the Rangers for Ronald Guzman, Jairo Beras and Mike Matuella
So right off the bat I made my first mistake... I knew I wanted to trade Bell because I see him as a DH only and at worst I had John Jaso to replace him if I couldn't find an alternate. Texas actually came calling on this trade and we worked out a few players before solidifying the names on this deal.
I liked Guzman as a Bell replacement really. He broke out in 2016 but not just in performance. Yes he had a 135 wRC+ in AA (at age 21) but he also made mechanical changes and refined his approach at the plate, achieving a career high walk rate and 15 home runs. Importantly too he's good enough to stay at 1B unlike Bell. I also got Texas to throw in Mike Matuella who was a potential #1 overall pick in 2015 before Tommy John Surgery. He came back and debuted professionally but his elbow started barking again and the Rangers shut him down. He still has #1 upside three above average pitches and a fourth average pitch in his change up (with average overall command) but he has a ways to get his stock back.
As you can probably tell, my mistake was in including Mitch Keller too. I was still thinking of the 2015 Mitch Keller (the one with a 4+ FIP) and not the post-breakout 2016 Keller who is a legit top 100 prospect. Compounding that error, I also mixed up Jairo Beras with Yanio Perez. Beras is an okay prospect in his own right (above average power and arm with swing and miss issues) but I totally whiffed on thinking he was Perez (who has prodigious levels of power - 70 grade - with some swing and miss issues himself). Perez is much lower down the ladder than Beras as Perez is nearly the same age as Beras and hasn't even made his stateside debut while Beras is going to be in AA next year. Maybe it ends up being for the better, but it wasn't what I was thinking.
Trade #1 that didn't happen: Joey Votto
Yeah, we were this close to getting Joey Votto. The Reds inquired about Polanco and I said he's available (we are still sellers kinda at this point) but we couldn't really come to terms until I figured "let's get weird" and asked about Votto. He said it's possible for the right deal. I had just traded Bell and needed a 1B, and there are few first basemen (if any) better than Votto. If the Pirates were going to compete with the Cubs (and Cardinals) having an elite talent helps (no offense to Marte/Cole/Cutch).
After going back and forth we settled on something revolving around Polanco and Glasnow for Votto and Brandon Finnegan. I was curious as to what fake Ray Searage could do with Finnegan, something likely that my Royals couldn't do. So we passed the deal on to the commissioner but we were held up by one thing: Votto has a no-trade clause. The Reds GM didn't bring it up and I didn't look either.
Votto has spoken recently that he isn't willing to waive his NTC, but the Reds had moved Cozart, Duvall, and others so maybe he'd (fake) reconsider. The commissioner was Votto's agent/proxy and still said no go.
Alas, we moved on.
Traded Francisco Cervelli and Braedan Ogle to the Nationals for Sheldon Neuse, Pedro Avila, Nick Banks
I was actually still a bit in sell mode (this is all going in chronological order) and I knew I wanted to move Cervelli. I felt that maybe I couldn't find a catcher who is better than him, but I thought that at least I could find his near-production at least cheaper than $31M over the next three years. And if I could pick up some prospects on the way too then it would be nice. The Nationals asked for a live arm kicker and I threw them Ogle. He's the sort of guy that the Pirates could magically fix but he's very far away and I'd still bet on him being a reliever in the end.
In return we got back Sheldon Neuse who I've heard someone once said he's Nick Senzel (the #2 overall pick in the 2016 draft) without elite contact skills, just good ones. The Nats grabbed Sheldon in the 2nd round this past June where Neuse produced a not spectacular pro debut in A- (though a nice walk rate). Pedro Avila (RHP who posyed gaudy strikeout numbers with good command and mid-90's velocity) and Nick Banks ( a LHH outfielder with potential average hit/power/speed tools) aren't much to write home about. In the end I was trade an average or so catcher who is 31 and owed $31M over the next few years. I think the returns were just okay but there just wasn't a ton of action on him.
Trade #2 that didn't happen: McCutchen and Co. to the Red Sox
So the Red Sox came knocking on our door being one of the many to inquire about McCutchen. Truth be told discussions with others didn't get too far as they either a) didn't have as strong as a system or b) weren't making a strong enough offer (some even saw Cutch as a salary dump...). I wasn't going all in to sell Cutch but for the right price he could be moved, then we would just find a temporary replacement while Austin Meadows simmers a bit longer. So after exchanging names back and forth we settled the basis of the package:
Jason Groome, Sam Travis, Michael Chavis, Williams Jerez, and Allen Craig for Cutch, Tyler Glasnow, and Tony Watson. This filled the Red Sox need for pitching, hitting, and a reliever, while we got back some very good prospects I think. Groome is one of the few guys in the minors with #1 upside and I really like him (more than Glasnow if I'm being frank - I would have taken Groome #1 overall this past June). Travis could fill in for Josh Bell right now and I think he might be a better hitter and is at least a better defender at 1B. Chavis was a first round pick in 2014 that could hit .260 with 20 home runs and be an average defender at 3B. Unfortunately the deal came with Allen Craig attached to it too. The same Allen Craig who is making $11M and yet isn't even on the 40-man roster.
Looking back though that deal isn't quite as strong as I thought it was at the time.
Then due to some other moves that happened (which you'll read below) we turned to buyers and didn't want to move Watson/Glasnow, so we focused on just Cutch. We exchanged names and ultimately got somewhere near: McCutchen for Travis d'Arnaud (who they acquired earlier), Travis Shaw, Sam Travis, Travis Lakins (yes three Travises), and Allen Craig. However upon further discussion the talks fell through, and for now Cutch remained a Pirate.
Traded Jameson Taillon, Ke'Bryan Hayes, and Michael Matuella to the Mets for Matt Harvey
As you can guess by now...this was mistake #2, and maybe the biggest one. The Mets came to me asking about one of Glasnow or Taillon, and they were looking to swap Harvey for someone younger. I said no to Glasnow out of hand then he countered with Taillon. Then we went back and forth on names, him added some and taking it back, me adding some and taking it back. In all this time, I forgot to do one thing: look more into Taillon.
I follow prospects pretty well and have been doing so for years. I've never been the biggest Taillon fan but I recognized his potential. Then he had Tommy John and the hernia, so I kind of pushed him into the back of my memory. I knew he came back this year and pitched well, but I didn't really remember how well. All I had to do was go to his player page on FanGraphs and look at something staring me right in the face:
Sigh. He's projected for 3.6 fWAR for next year. That's similar to what like Zack Greinke, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Masahiro Tanaka, and Jacob deGrom are projected for, and Taillon is cheap, young, and under control for a very long time. He's the type of player a team looking to compete for the next several years would try to trade for not trade away. Then I threw in Ke'Bryan Hayes and newly acquired Matuella just for a harder kick in the crotch.
Matt Harvey isn't a nobody of course, but he projects to be worse than Taillon, more expensive, and much shorter control. The upside on Harvey is higher than that of Taillon. Harvey put up a 6.5 win season at the same age as Taillon will be in 2017, and followed that up with a 4.4-win season at age 25. Then he had Tommy John...and now Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. He's run the gauntlet of pitcher injuries except for like a blister on his hand or blood clots.
Yeah, I messed this one up. Usually I'm on top of these things in my 50-60 visits to FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America each day, but I just whiffed on this one. I made the team worse, not only for 2017 but for the next several years too. The opposite of what needed to be done.
MAYBE I can make an argument I'll take the over on Harvey's projection (2.8 fWAR) and the under on Taillon's, but that only makes the bite a little less bitter.
Traded Adam Frazier, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Nick Kingham, Alen Hanson, Steven Brault, and Willy Garcia to the Royals for Yordano Ventura, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera
There were a few big trades done over this simulation, and this might not have been the biggest one, but it was one of the biggest.
Going into the sim I had a mission to keep Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Kevin Newman. Everyone else in the system was expendable for the right price. I wasn't going to just give them away but most of them were just pieces of a larger deal.
I put out a message saying as buyers now, we are looking for starting pitching and relief help. Low and behold my fellow Royals Review writer popped in my inbox saying that Ventura, Davis, and Herrera were all available. We initially just discussed Ventura and Herrera, two controllable guys and exchanged names. Then I mentioned what would it take to get all three. Late into the night (2 AM central time) we exchanged names and he mentioned the Dodgers were pushing for the same trade. Finally I put together the traded for package and we sealed it.
I wasn't happy about losing Newman. I was penciling him as the Pirates shortstop in a year from now (gladly moving on from Jordy Mercer). The other guys I was okay with moving. Even though Tucker and Kingham have perhaps the better names, Brault was the guy I was most mad to lose as he's probably around a nice 5th starter or so.. Frazier is no slouch either and could be a cromulent fourth outfielder.
Yeah it's a lot of names, but getting back Ventura, Herrera, and Davis makes it palpable, and to be honest...even collectively Tucker, Kingham, Hanson, and Garcia combined aren't likely to put up the value Ventura/Davis/Herrera will over the next few years. Not that the prospects aren't okay prospects, but Ventura/Herrera/Davis are projected to be worth ~5 wins in 2017. One thing we've learned from the Royals, Indians, and playoffs recently is that a stellar bullpen can turn any game into a five inning game. Having Davis, Herrera, and Watson gets you innings 7-9 on most nights.
Davis is a free agent after this year and for the last half of 2016 he wasn't the reliever he had been in the prior few years. Herrera though is kinda just coming into his own by putting up a 2-win, 2.47 FIP season last year. He started mixing in a nuts curveball to go along with his high-90's fastball and changeup that keeps batters off the heat. He'll be 27 next year and still with two years of control.
The final piece is Yordano Ventura. His ceiling is still really high but his realistic ceiling is lower than maybe it was coming off his rookie season. He's probably 2-2.5 win pitcher for the next few years and while that isn't spectacular, it comes with five years of team control at reasonable rates ($3.2M, $6.2M, $9.8M, $12M, $12M) those final two years as team options.
Signed Matt Wieters to a three year, $27 million deal with a $10 million club option ($3M buyout)
It ended up being kind of hypocritical. I traded Cervelli because he was a 31 year old catcher making $30M over the next three years. Then I went and signed a 31 year old catcher for $30M... Despite the coincidence we picked up three prospects in the transaction so it worked out (and Wieters projects a little better than Cervelli).
That's assuming the 2020 option is bought out. It's not a spectacular contract but Wieters puts up enough value in the front half likely to cover and loss in the back end. I think Wieters may decline more gracefully than Cervelli given his power and prior resume.
Signed Steve Pearce to a four year, $22 million deal
I'm a big fan of Pearce. He isn't Ben Zobrist or anything but he's a 2-win player that can play 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, and RF. The Cubs made a living on stressing positional versatility and Pearce brings that, especially for a NL team that has to pinch hit/double switch.
Zobrist got 4/$56M at age 35 so 4/$22M for Pearce seems reasonable given his ability and good not great baseline to decline from.
Traded Andrew McCutchen and Antonio Bastardo to the Reds for Billy Hamilton, Brandon Finnegan, Michael Lorenzen, Blake Wood, Tyler Stephenson
This trade was a bit spur of the moment and a bit at the last hour. Like the trade with the Royals, this one has a lot of parts too.
At this point in the proceedings I didn't want to trade McCutchen but because I was determined to stay under the recommended payroll (something the Pirates are trying doing themselves if I'm correct) he had to go. Bastardo also was included to bring down salary as he was essentially surplus depth. So the Reds GM and I picked things back up and hammered out the deal. There were a lot of names thrown around to make it work but in the end we settled on the above.
I ended up actually getting Finnegan, just no in a deal alongside Joey Votto. The Reds also included maybe the most exciting player in baseball (at least when he gets on base) Billy Hamilton, a guy who I think is going to be a pretty good reliever Michael Lorenzen, Blake Wood (who is slightly more than bullpen depth), and former first round pick Tyler Stephenson to give us back some prospect depth at catcher. Stephenson's stock has fallen a bit, but he's still a legit prospect who is a little more than a year removed from being one of the more exciting players in the draft thanks to his bat flipping skills.
Did this trade improve the 2017 team? Maybe. Cutch projected to be the best player on the roster (unsurprisingly). Hamilton, Finnegan, Wood, and Lorenzen combined barely almost equal McCutchen's projected output. That's of course inefficient and it also assumes all four play as much as their projections project. I think it's worth noting though that Hamilton last year was worth double what his projection calls for and he was a much better player than McCutchen (though Andrew has had several 6+ win seasons...).
However for what it may lack in 2017 impact I think it makes up for in team control. We turned two years of team control and $18.5M into something 20 years of team control, many of it at the league minimum. The talent outputs may never be equal, and McCutchen could put up more wins in 2017 and 2018 than the all of the others will in their career, but we've termed a short term asset into several long term controllable ones.
Other near acquisitions
The Astros also dealt us Tyson Ross in a deal that would have sent them Elias Diaz, Barrett Barnes, Clay Holmes, and Harold Ramirez. You may be able to figure out what stopped the deal... the Pirates don't have Harold Ramirez anymore. Unfortunately the Astros GM was fixated on Ramirez and Ke'Bryan Hayes (neither still in the organization anymore). I offered up Will Craig but it wasn't enough, so Ross went to the Diamondbacks for David Peralta and Tyler Wagner.
Starling Marte was discussed with the Phillies for a deal including Nick Williams, Ben Lively, and Dylan Cozens/Rhys Hoskins.
In our search for some outfield depth we discussed Stephen Souza Jr. with the Rays and exchanged a few names but nothing happened.
The Braves were very interested in Gregory Polanco but we just couldn't come together on the minor league arms they offered/we wanted.
We tried prying Jon Gray from the Rockies for a deal with Gregory Polanco and Kevin Newman but they passed.
In an effort to shore up a dominant bullpen we made an insane offer on Aroldis Chapman: 6/$110M with a very large chunk in deferrals. I won't go too deep into the NPV calculation of the deal, but it ended up being a deal actually being worth ~$80M.
We also tried prying Nomar Mazara and Jurickson Profar from the Rangers but those talks never got far or exchanged names.
Final Payroll, Roster, etc...
Much of the core is intact until 2018 with only really Matt Harvey and Kelvin Herrera leaving and then 2020 seeing more potential departures.
Prospects in the system
This is just a quick ranking of ten guys based off of my general knowledge of the system. Maybe somebody like Taylor Hearn should be higher but I'm glad we were able to keep Glasnow and Meadows, while Guzman is a nice prospect himself. We did have to give up a nice chunk of pitching and middle infield capital to acquire all the players we did, and I would have certainly liked to still have Kevin Newman.
I had my choice between the Pirates and another team and I'll admit I first chose the other team. They were an AL squad and I'm a firm believer in the DH rule so it attracted me more. However as I looked deeper into the Pirates organization I thought they ultimately would be more exciting and went with them. I'm glad I did.
I would give myself a B in this simulation. On paper it looks like the team is better but when you run the numbers through the projection system it's only an upgrade of a few wins. This is largely in part due to the Taillon vs Harvey projection, Hamilton's lower projection, and under- projecting Steve Pearce's playing time.
I know I made those two bad moves and I'm still kicking myself over them but it is what it is. I tried recovering best I could, so my apologies to the Pirates faithful.
Is it enough to beat the Cubs perennially? Maybe, maybe not, but the current Pirates team I don't think matches better than this one necessarily.