Pittsburgh Pirate fans say it all the time - "we're always rebuilding." It can certainly feel that way with the franchise's track record, but a losing team is not necessarily a re-building team. It takes a committed front office with a plan to truly re-build.
I went through past Pirate's transactions, and I haven't seen a commitment to rebuild in at least a decade. That makes some sense considering the Pirates had some pretty good teams this decade and the strategy was to bolster the roster for that run. But, the failure of this front office, in this respect, is in identifying when that run was over and shifting strategies accordingly.
The 2017 season seemed to mark the franchise's transition from "win now" to re-building. The Pirates traded their best bullpen arm, Tony Watson, for Oniel Cruz and Angel German. They followed up with the trades of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen. All of those yielded a decent return. The Gerrit Cole trade hurts considering his Cy Young-like performance since leaving the team, but they did get solid, young contributors in all three of those situations. In other words, it appeared the front office had made that shift to rebuilding, and probably at the perfect time.
Fast forward to the next trade deadline. The Pirates, without Cole and McCutchen, were over-performing. They were technically in the hunt, but lacked that certain something. There weren't many who followed the Pirates who thought the 2018 Pirates were contenders, nor that they were "one player away." But, the guy who counted did think that and he pulled the trigger on a trade that set any Pirate re-build back a few years by trading three of the organization's most promising prospects for Chris Archer.
If the Pirates were rebuilding in 2017, why would they reverse their progress in 2018 because they found themselves surprisingly within a logjam in a wild card race they never really had a chance of winning? Because they didn't stick to the plan, the organization finds itself in a situation where their current success could be defined as returning to the talent pool they had in 2017. And, as frustrating as it is, they need to start that trek.
If that is going to happen, the front office may need to make some tough decisions - decisions that may further anger the fan base. Decisions that this fan base rightfully does not have the faith in this front office to make. However, they are still decisions that need to be made in order to replenish the talent in the Pirate's system - particularly at pitcher.
The biggest of these decisions would be on what they do with their current stars: Starling Marte and Josh Bell. Both Marte and Bell will be unrestricted free agents within three years (Marte in two). The question the front office needs to answer is, "will Marte and/or Bell be a part of another Pirate playoff team?" Josh Bell's agent, Scott Boras, has already made it clear that he doesn't expect the Pirates to shell out enough cash to keep his client, and he's probably right. So the clock is ticking on Bell's time in Pittsburgh. With that being the case, perhaps it is best to sell high and trade Josh Bell now.
Bell's stat line (.277 BA, 37 HRs, 116 RBIs) puts him in a status where every team in baseball would be made better with him on the roster. If it were known that he were available, a bidding war would no doubt ensue and the result would be several, top-tier prospects that could anchor a re-build. Marte would likely yield a similar return.
I can hear you screaming at me through your screen about how much worse the Pirates would be without Bell or Marte, and I agree with you. They not only would be worse, but also MUCH more difficult to watch, but this isn't about the short-term. This is about positioning the team for another future run. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and we have a problem that won't be fixed in three years.
Bell and Marte combined for a 5.8 WAR - meaning they accounted for approximately 6 wins this season. The Pirates would be no better off with or without those 6 wins. Either way, they'd be home right now and, with the current pitching staff, next season should be no different.
I know it hurts when the Pirates seem to always send their best players away in their prime, and they have no doubt botched the timing of that rather consistently. But, this time, with these stars, the timing feels right.
So, if you are one of those who are screaming at me through the screen and already has an ALL CAPS comment ready to send, let me ask you something. Are willing to risk keeping Bell and Marte for 2 or 3 more years in hopes of them being a part of another winner only to lose them for nothing in free agency? Because that is what will happen.
Their trade stock will probably never be higher than it is today, and while this will come across as yet another cheap move by a stingy owner, I believe it would be the right one. Re-builds are never fun to watch, but the Pirates need one and they need to stick to it this time.
Follow us on Twitter: @a_piratelife