Christmas is still three weeks away, but the Christmas songs are entering their fourth week of ubiquity. As Americans lavishly spend money they may or may not have on friends, family and co-workers they don’t like, Major League Baseball teams start shopping sprees of their own. The wealthy teams in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago peruse top names like Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martinez. These teams add to their roster by purchasing players like it’s a Sotheby’s auction. Meanwhile, the Pirates do all of their shopping at thrift-store prices. The Bucs rifle through merchandise that’s either damaged or unwanted. Every once in a while, they stumble on a good bargain.
Entering 2018, the Pirates really have only one position locked up. That ever-elusive first baseman has been found. After more than 55 men applied for the job over the past 14 seasons, Josh Bell finally fills that void. Additionally, Josh Harrison will likely return, and Jameson Taillon isn’t going anywhere just yet. But everybody else faces the prospect of the Pirates just blowing this whole thing up and starting over.
In 2015, the Pirates won 98 games as they battled the Cardinals and the Cubs for the division title. Three seasons later, the Cubs are way better than the Pirates at almost every position. The Cardinals are still competitive, and even the Brewers were better than the Bucs last year. If the only consolation is being better than the Cincinnati Reds, that certainly is not good enough. The farm system isn’t as fertile as in years past, and the team’s rebuilding is not coming through free agency. Most likely, the Pirates will sign a player who had an outstanding 2013 before multiple Tommy John surgeries sidetracked his career. But in any case, he’ll be cheap.
Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang were supposed to be permanent pieces in the Pirates lineup for the next couple of years. But last year, a combination of drinking, performance-enhancing drugs and bad driving reduced Marte’s role to a half season; Kang, meanwhile, missed the entire year because his conviction prevented him from getting a visa. Even if the Pirates wanted to trade those two, they couldn’t. Kang is still living south of the DMZ awaiting his fate, while Marte’s stock is dropping like Xbox prices on Cyber Monday. Catcher Francisco Cervelli has been as fragile as an uncooked lasagna noodle, so long-time prospect Elias Diaz may finally get a shot as the backstop.
Jordy Mercer and Gregory Polanco have had a few good moments, but neither player would start for any team that made the playoffs last year. Who does that leave to trade? There are only three players on the roster who could get a return of more than one other player: Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole and Felipe Rivero. (Ivan Nova could be traded, but there likely wouldn’t be much of a return.)
The loss of McCutchen would hurt the city more than the loss of Marc-Andre Fleury, and probably just as much as the departure of former Pitt hoops coach Jamie Dixon. That same love and affection isn’t extended to Cole or Rivero. We like Cole, but we don’t love him — even though he’s the first legitimate ace the Pirates have had since PNC Park opened. We like our athletes to be gregarious like Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward; or exceedingly humble, like Sid Crosby or Cutch; or quirky like Fleury or Antonio Brown. We also like Regular Joes like Phil Kessel and Brett Keisel. But Cole doesn’t fit into any of those categories, and he can’t beat the stupid Cincinnati Reds.
Felipe Rivero had one of the best seasons a Pirates closer has ever had. His value will likely never be higher. His stuff might be put to a better use on a team that’s broken .500 in the past two years. The only way for the Pirates to move up in the division is to trade their ace and star closer. If a fair trade for McCutchen is offered, they would have to take that too; just close their eyes and pull the trigger. Either that, or hope that the 57th and 83rd best available free agents are able to turn it around.