In one of the more puzzling waiver placements in recent memory, the Pirates opted to place right-hander Juan Nicasio — the team’s second-best reliever behind Felipe Rivero — on outright waivers earlier this week. The Pirates have drawn heavy criticism for the decision, which looked to be largely about saving roughly $600K through season’s end — or slightly more than the league minimum salary for one player over the course of a full season ($535K).
Recognizing the general befuddlement over the move, Pirates GM Neal Huntington issued a statement to the media explaining his rationale with the transaction. (Via Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.) Huntington revealed that a “playoff-caliber” club claimed Nicasio off revocable trade waivers earlier in the month but did so with the intention of blocking others from obtaining Nicasio rather than adding the right-hander to its own roster.
The Pirates had the option of dumping Nicasio’s contract on the team that claimed him, but that would’ve involved aiding a “direct competitor,” per Huntington. Rather, the Bucs placed Nicasio on outright waivers in hopes of getting him to the American League, as outright waiver priority is not league-specific like revocable trade waivers.
“We chose to take the chance to see if by placing Juan on outright waivers he would end up with a different playoff contender, preferably one in the American League,” the GM stated. The Pirates surely didn’t expect to see the Phillies, who possess MLB’s worst record, claim Nicasio. The right-hander is a free agent at season’s end, making it a surprise that any non-contending club would claim him. Huntington would go on to acknowledge the “minimal” cost savings the move created while also labeling the transaction a forward-looking move that would allow the team to evaluate longer-term pieces in high-leverage spots.
While the Pirates likely expected that the placement on outright waivers would allow Nicasio to fall to a team such as the Royals, Mariners or Rangers — each of whom would have claiming priority over NL contenders such as the Marlins and Cardinals — the move remains difficult to understand. For a club with a perennially low payroll, the effective dumping of their second-best reliever to a team with a worse record comes with significant public relations ramifications.
Even if the team’s intentions were primarily driven by a desire to get Nicasio onto a contending club, a frugal team such as the Pirates will be hard-pressed to sell the notion that the move was not motivated by cost-savings — especially just one year after having traded Francisco Liriano in a deal that was primarily viewed as a means of obtaining salary relief. Nicasio’s departure also seems unlikely to sit well with the remaining players in the clubhouse. Rivero, for instance, has already lamented the departure of his bullpen-mate on social media (Twitter link).
The decision looks all the more questionable when noting that the Bucs could have moved Nicasio prior to the non-waiver deadline as well. While the team surely hoped to contend for the NL Central at that point in the season — Pittsburgh was 5.5 games out of first place on July 31 — the Pirates still traded left-hander Tony Watson to the Dodgers just before the non-waiver deadline. And, a year ago, the Bucs flipped closer Mark Melancon to the Nationals in exchange for Rivero while still aiming to contend.
Observations such as these are always easy to make with the benefit of hindsight. It stands to reason that Pittsburgh was very likely reluctant to move two of its top three relievers at the deadline, when the postseason still seemed within reach. However, the end result of the process leaves the organization worse for the wear in more ways than one.