With less than a month remaining in the regular season, many teams still have plenty of fall drama ahead. Many clubs, though, are already looking to 2018. With that in mind, here’s the latest entry in our Three Needs series. You can track other entries in the series here.
For a team currently in the midst of a 67-76 season in which nearly everything went wrong, the Pirates have surprisingly few pronounced holes. That isn’t to say that it will be impossible for them to find ways to improve, only that they have reasonable possibilities in place for 2018 at most key roster spots. A player like Jordy Mercer is representative of the Pirates’ situation right now — he’s in the midst of a decent .254/.328/.404 season and is clearly a capable starting shortstop, but he’s also only notched two wins above replacement once in his career. A team with the resources and/or inclination to aggressively pursue upgrades over the reasonable, established assets they already have might look to add a starting shortstop, but it doesn’t seem especially likely the Pirates will. The Bucs also already did address what might otherwise have been a key offseason priority with their in-season trade to reacquire Sean Rodriguez, which bolstered the infield depth they lost due to Jung Ho Kang’s visa issues.
With that in mind, here are some areas the Bucs might address over the winter. A variety of somewhat dramatic approaches would seem defensible for the Pirates over the next few months, and with a number of key veterans potentially nearing the ends of their careers in Pittsburgh, the Bucs will have to at least consider some of them. If they do take dramatic action, though, they appear likely to do so by trading high-value veterans rather than adding them, although they could also pursue somewhat of a mixed strategy, dealing away some veteran salaries in order to bolster a decent base of young talent with veteran free agents.
1. Figure out what to do with Andrew McCutchen. In what’s become a semiannual tradition for the Pirates, they’ll attempt this offseason to chart a course for Andrew McCutchen, on whom they have a $14.5MM option or a $1M buyout in his last winter before free agency. McCutchen has posted a .583 OPS in August and .536 in September, but two very hot months this June and July should ease fears of a steep decline following a poor 2016 season. This time, of course, the Pirates can only offer suitors one season of McCutchen, but from the Bucs’ perspective, at least they can offer a McCutchen whose .273/.363/.467 line and improved defensive work look like significant upgrades on the McCutchen they had on offer last winter. The Pirates nearly traded Cutch to the Nationals then, and it seems very likely they’ll strongly consider trading McCutchen for young talent this winter, too.
2. If McCutchen goes, figure out what happens next. The Pirates are already pretty far removed from the Bucs teams that made three straight playoff appearances from 2013 through 2015, but dealing a franchise player like McCutchen would sever ties with the past even more decisively. Actually, whether the Bucs deal McCutchen or not, they need to develop a plan (or, more likely, continue implementing a plan that understandably hasn’t completely been publicly articulated) that’s designed to get them back to the playoffs at some point in the future. Neither of their last two teams have been good enough, and it’s not yet clear that the next wave of young assets (including Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Austin Meadows, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow and Felipe Rivero) form a good enough core by themselves to return the team to glory, even though all of them are clearly useful or at least have the potential to be. With all that in mind, the possibility of a McCutchen trade raises obvious questions about other veterans the Pirates might trade, including Gerrit Cole and Josh Harrison. Other names, like those of David Freese and Francisco Cervelli, could be bandied about as well.
The Pirates can control Cole for two more years, and with his pedigree, stuff, and performance, he’d undoubtedly yield plenty of talent coming back. The Bucs might not be able to top the fine returns the Athletics and White Sox received in dealing controllable veteran starters Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana, respectively, but they’d be able to point to those trades as potential starting points.
Harrison’s season is now over due to a broken finger, but he could be on the market this winter as well. After a solid .272/.339/.432 2017 campaign, he’s pretty clearly an asset, particularly given the structure of what remains on his contract — he’ll make a modest $10MM in 2018, and the team that controls him will also have relatively cheap options for both 2019 and 2020. That makes Harrison a very low risk for any team that might acquire him. The fact that he’s capable at both second and third could also create a variety of potential fits.
Any big trades the Pirates do make will create other potential decisions that could shape their winter. After Meadows’ injury-plagued season, the Bucs probably won’t be comfortable with having him replace McCutchen right away, which might mean they’ll look for outfield depth if they trade McCutchen. The same could be true of the infield should Harrison be traded. The Pirates would also have to determine how much space, if any, they want to carve out for interesting but lesser-known young players like outfielder Jordan Luplow and infielder Max Moroff. (From there, the Pirates can sort out the composition of their bench, perhaps adding a left-handed bat to replace free agent John Jaso.) If the Bucs were to trade Cole, they’d have a variety of young options to take his place, but it also wouldn’t be a shock if they looked for a veteran starter to provide stability.
3. Look for bullpen help. The Bucs’ recent trade of Tony Watson and their bizarre loss of Juan Nicasio on waivers have left their relief corps a bit thin. (Of course, both players would have been eligible for free agency after the season anyway.) The team recently made one significant move to improve the 2018 bullpen by claiming George Kontos from the Giants, but they’ll likely make one or two more this winter to add to a group currently headed by Rivero and Daniel Hudson. Like many teams, the Bucs have young or young-ish arms that could play bigger roles in next season’s ’pen, like Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas. The Bucs’ bullpen does, however, currently appear short on both veteran stability and overall talent. A buy-low move or two like the one that landed Hudson last winter wouldn’t be a surprise.