Money talks. And the fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates spoke up in a deafening roar during the first half of this season. To the tune of a 27.5 percent decline in ticket sales from last year, Pirates fans were sending a message to the team’s much-maligned Ownership group, specifically Bob Nutting: “Invest more in fielding a winning team NOW, or we won’t invest money in you NOW.”
The message was heard and responded to by Nutting and GM Neal Huntington at the trade deadline on Tuesday.
At just after one in the morning, Huntington sealed a deal with the Texas Rangers to bring in their strike-out machine closer, Keone Kela in exchange for Class AA pitcher Taylor Hearns and a player to be named later. Kela has been locking down the back end of the Rangers’ bullpen all season, and now the Pirates can pair him with All-World closer Felipe Vasquez for maybe the best 1-2 closing punch in all of baseball. And guess what…
Huntington was just getting started.
Kela was simply the day’s appetizer. The main course, a piping hot, slow cooked, beef bourguignon that Huntington admitted he’d been trying to enjoy since he arrived a whopping eleven years ago, was a blockbuster trade for Tampa Bay Ray’s ace Chris Archer. Mm mm mm mm mmmmmmm! Delicious. At least for the Pirates’ faithful.
Huntington brought in Archer in exchange for top prospects Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and a “player of significance” to be named later. Possibly short-stop prospect Kevin Newman. That is, as the saying goes, a king’s ransom, especially Meadows. He was showing signs of greatness for stretches in the majors this season. But make no mistake, this trade was a huge win for the Pirates, and more importantly the men at the top.
The key is that, although they gave up four of their top 15 prospects in the two deals, they did not get back rental players in return. Both Kela and Archer are under team control for at least the next two seasons beyond this one.
What This Means for the Present
Besides the aforementioned dire need to repair their standing with the fanbase, their young core of players has convinced management that they are good enough to make a run at the championship in the next three seasons. That was a laughable notion a month ago. However, the Buccos’ talented but inconsistent young crew rattled off a current stretch of 15-4 including an 11-game winning streak. They proved they ARE good enough to win now, and even more so next season. They forced Huntington’s hand. And Huntington acquiesced.
As out of character as it is for him, Huntington bit his tongue and finally made baseball trades. Archer projects alongside Jameson Taillon as the 1A and 1B top of the rotation starters for this season and the next two. The Pirates rotation for the rest of this season probably stacks up like this:
True, they still do not have a legitimate superstar in the rotation; they may not even have someone at the level that Gerrit Cole was before he was traded. What they do have now is a deep rotation.
By my accounts and most advanced metrics, there isn’t a bottom of the rotation starter in the line-up either. (A 5th or “bottom” starter is usually looked at as a 50/50 toss up to give his team the chance to win.) Taillon and Archer are 2’s, Williams an inconsistent 3, Musgrove a 3 or 4 with upside, and Nova a solid 4 who also eats innings. That’s a solid rotation, especially if your lineup can hit, which this one can.
Kela adds to a Pirates bullpen that, like the rest of the team, has mountains of potential but stretches of inconsistency. Of late, the backend platoon of Richard Rodriguez, Edgar Santana, Kyle Crick, and Vasquez has been lights out. However, that success has an uneasy feeling about it. The fear is that these youngsters could lose what they’ve found again at any moment. Now, with Kela assuming a swing 8th inning/closer role between set-up man Crick and Vasquez (the undisputed closer), the bullpen has three reliable pitchers for the final two innings and allows Rodriguez and Santana a little more leeway in the 7th and 6th innings should they falter. The best part is this quintet also should be together two more seasons after this one, barring trades.
What This Means for the Future
Is this a turning point for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Have they finally made the decision to become contenders rather than floaters, even if it jeopardizes their longevity? There’s no way to know for sure, as eleven years of the frugal (some would say cheap) Nutting/Huntington regime is hard to get out of the back of your mind. It’s even harder to know when, despite their being expensive in terms of prospects, the two new players didn’t exactly break the bank.
But this feels like the start of something. Call it a hunch, but the Pirates players, and yes, the Pirates fanbase, may have just gotten through to the top brass. If that’s so, we would see it next offseason. Maybe the Pirates spend a little more in free agency. Or maybe they don’t let one of their own leave for a higher paying team. Maybe they decide a winning product, and not cutting costs, is the best way to run a business. And that would be something to celebrate in the City of Champions.