Within minutes after former MVP Andrew McCutchen received the phone call late Monday afternoon that he was no longer a member of the Pirates, reports emerged that Pittsburgh has a multiyear agreement in place with talented closer Felipe Rivero. The sequence of events had all the look of a stage-managed leak, as if somebody within the Pirates organization was trying to distract fans from the news that McCutchen, a player once viewed as his generation’s Roberto Clemente, was being shipped out of the city.
This is like trying to stop an avalanche with a snow shovel, and predictably, the Pirates are buried under layers of criticism today.
Columnists and customers reject the premise that trading the team’s most accomplished player, McCutchen, and best pitcher, Gerrit Cole, shifts the Pirates into a better place, which was the front office explanation for the moves.
“We’re going to show up to win every single night that we play in 2018, and we’re looking to defy what the experts will say the Pittsburgh Pirates will do moving into 2018,” team president Frank Coonelly told reporters on Monday.
The enormous collective anger in Pittsburgh on Tuesday speaks to the redemptive value of a World Series championship, and how much perception can be altered by a handful of October games.
The Kansas City Royals climbed out of their competitive abyss at roughly the same time the Pirates did in recent years, executing a similar strategy. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and others were drafted and developed, just as McCutchen and Cole were. But through impossible playoff comebacks in 2014 and 2015 — twice they were four runs down in the eighth inning of elimination games — the Royals reached the World Series in 2014 and won it in 2015. The Kansas City front office, like that of the Pirates, has made difficult choices inherent for a team inhabiting a small market, and the reaction has been tempered. Fans filled Kauffman Stadium for the last wistful days of Hosmer and Moustakas together.
The Pirates of 2013-2015 may have been just as good as those Royals teams, and maybe better, with one big difference.
They didn’t get the parade.
Rather, the baseball gods toyed with them. Pittsburgh shares the same division as the powerhouse Cardinals and Cubs, and they reached the playoffs as a wild-card entrant in three straight seasons. After advancing to the Division Series in 2013 — and losing — the Pirates had the misfortune of crashing into the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 wild card game, at the outset of the greatest October pitching performance in baseball history, and then in 2015, they faced Jake Arrieta, who was still in the midst of the best second half for any pitcher ever. The Pirates averaged 93 wins a year over three years, and in the eyes of many evaluators, they may have been the NL’s best team at the end of the regular season in 2014 and 2015, steeped in pitching and defense, a cutting-edge organization that was among the forerunners in analytics.
But they didn’t get the parade, and a parade would have changed everything about the perception of what has happened since then. The diminishment of the team, as McCutchen and others became more expensive and GM Neal Huntington worked to operate within the resource limits of the Pirates’ budget. The increasingly tense relationship between the Pirates and McCutchen, through McCutchen’s struggles of 2016 and the team’s growing reticence about investing big dollars in an aging star, a problematic equation for a small-market team. McCutchen, deeply respected and reflexively respectful, never openly complained, but he saw the divorce coming, and so did the Pirates, and the whole thing was difficult.
The logic behind the decisions to trade McCutchen and Cole now is sound, and if the Pirates also deal infielder Josh Harrison, as other teams expect, that makes sense. Cole is eligible to be a free agent after 2019 and as a client of agent Scott Boras, he almost certainly will test free agency, so the Pirates are smart to get trade return for him now, before his market value fell precipitously. McCutchen is 31 and coming off a good bounce-back season, and there was zero chance he and the Pirates could have found middle ground on a contract extension.
Kyle Crick is the most experienced player acquired in the McCutchen deal, a 25-year-old reliever dealt by a Giants organization that needs pitching. The Pirates also got a Class A outfielder, Bryan Reynolds, ranked by Baseball America as the No. 5 prospect from what is regarded as one of MLB’s worst farm systems. Similarly, some rival evaluators view the return Pittsburgh got from Houston for Cole as mediocre, a collection of decent young players who probably can’t significantly boost the Pirates’ playoff chances but might be serviceable big leaguers immediately.
The Pirates have not taken the path that an increasing number of clubs have chosen, in stripping the payroll completely and tanking. With Cole and McCutchen on the roster, Pittsburgh won 74 games last season, and with a blossoming group of young starting pitchers led by Jameson Taillon, it’s possible the Pirates will win more in 2018.
But today, none of that or the casting of the Rivero extension as big news will mitigate Pittsburgh’s furor over the trade of an adopted son like McCutchen, a former MVP who touched the community with his play, his character and his grace.
If there had been a championship parade, he would have been stationed in the first float, as the player everyone would have wanted to see, as the player targeted for the most confetti.
But the Pirates didn’t get the parade, and this is why a lot of their fans may hear the explanations but won’t ever listen, why many of them may stay away from PNC Park this summer, and why they may never forgive the Pirates.