The Pittsburgh Pirates have inherited the Oakland Athletics' penchant for bad luck and for having their accomplishments obscured by October failure. Over the period of 15 seasons from 2000 to 2014, the Athletics stitched together some good scouting and adept roster decisions with revenue-sharing dollars and reached the postseason eight times, an excellent record for any franchise other than the Yankees or Dodgers. But whether it was the Derek Jeter flip play or the strange Eric Byrnes tag play or a blown wild-card game lead against the Royals in 2014, Oakland's stuff didn't work in the postseason (to paraphrase Billy Beane), and the Athletics won only one playoff series -- and even then, in 2006, they were swept in the next round.
Near misses are not celebrated, as the Athletics and now the Pirates have learned. Pittsburgh reached the playoffs in three straight seasons, 2013 through 2015 -- the NL wild-card game, in their case -- and in the latter two seasons, the Pirates were perceived to be perhaps the strongest NL team at the end of the regular season. But after losing in the division series in 2013, the Pirates were shut down in the wild-card game by Madison Bumgarner in 2014 and by Jake Arrieta in 2015, which was like being a golfer in match play and drawing the best versions of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
Rather than retreat into seasons of tanking, the Pirates have continued to try to win and have steered into the headwinds of the baseball gods. Last season, Pittsburgh lost two of its best position players to off-field issues, when Jung Ho Kang's career was swallowed whole by his repeated DUIs and Starling Marte was busted for PEDs and missed half the 2017 season. Kang will try to re-establish his MLB career in 2018, although his winter ball performance has been terrible so far, and the Pirates hope and expect a bounce back from Marte -- and they have a nice core of pitching talent, as well as outfielder Gregory Polanco and first baseman Josh Bell. With even a dollop of good luck, Pittsburgh could survive the extremely competitive NL Central and get back to the postseason next year.
But just as Oakland general manager Beane always listened on trade offers because he had to, the Pirates' Neal Huntington is expected to take the call of anyone who wants to discuss outfielder Andrew McCutchen and veteran starter Gerrit Cole in a trade. There are market forces in place that might drive those conversations, and provide the Pirates with some interesting and important trade opportunities.
McCutchen, 31, is coming off an excellent bounce-back season, in which he posted an .849 OPS with 28 homers. He will play 2018 for a more-than-reasonable $14.5 million before reaching free agency, and for teams reluctant to invest big dollars in a market filled with outfielders looking for multiyear deals, McCutchen is a nice, cost-efficient alternative for clubs to consider -- and any team that swaps for him this winter would know that it could recoup draft-pick compensation if McCutchen continues to play well and then walks away as a free agent next year.
Pirates fans would be unhappy if the team swapped McCutchen this winter, but the end of his time as a player for them is approaching in any event. He almost certainly will not be with the Pirates in 2019. So Huntington would be remiss to not weigh offers now.
Huntington should do the same with Cole, a 27-year-old client of agent Scott Boras. Cole will be eligible for free agency after the 2019 season, and as Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta seek monster deals, Cole will be a cheaper alternative (in dollars) for teams looking to augment their pitching. It seems as if there's no chance for Pittsburgh to retain Cole with a long-term deal, which means he's likely to be dealt sometime before he hits the open market.
The Pirates would also be wise to take offers on Ivan Nova, who pitched very well in the first half of 2017 before collapsing in the second half (3.21 ERA before the All-Star break, 5.83 after). Nova is under contract for $9.17 million each of the next two seasons, perhaps making him a good value buy for somebody. It would be extremely difficult for the Pirates to part ways with 26-year-old closer Felipe Rivero, who was one of baseball's best relievers last season, but with the cost of relievers skyrocketing (as Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon can attest), Rivero's greatest value to Pittsburgh might be as a trade piece.
The Pirates could keep Cole, McCutchen, Nova and Rivera, of course. But even if they found a great deal for one or two of them, they'd have enough in their lineup, rotation and bullpen to contend, so long as there is reasonable progress among Chad Kuhl, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Tyler Glasnow.
The Pirates continue to be relevant in their division. But they probably need better fortune than they had last year, and a deeper run into October, to be fully appreciated for their consistency in the face of challenging small-budget conditions.
Free agents in demand
A rundown of players well-positioned in the free-agent market because of the unique set of skills they offer relative to others available this winter:
• J.D. Martinez, right-handed slugger: Part of the Angels' thinking in adding another year to Justin Upton's deal is that he would have been one of only two elite right-handed-hitting outfielders among the free agents; the other was Martinez.
Jerry Crasnick reported the other day that Martinez might be looking for a contract in the range of $200 million. While it seems unlikely that he'll get anything close to that because of teams' concerns about his defense, Martinez is probably going to draw a deal worth many tens of millions of dollars.
• Lorenzo Cain, center fielder: The Giants are desperate for a major defensive upgrade in center field, and among free agents, Cain is really the only big-time, everyday player. There might be no better matchup of team and player in the market than this -- if they can agree on a price.
• Addison Reed, reliever: Reportedly, the pitcher turned down an extension overture by the Mets at midseason in 2017, and who could blame him? Reed is the kind of plowhorse, versatile bullpen piece that teams love these days, and he’ll be well-compensated in his next deal. The 28-year-old Reed has appeared in no fewer than 55 games in each of the past six seasons, he holds runners very well, and he was as good against lefties (.662 OPS) as he was against right-handers (.651 OPS).
• Alex Cobb, starting pitcher: He might be the best free-agent starter not named Arrieta or Darvish, and that's a great place to be in the current financial climate. The 30-year-old right-hander is not in a position to command a monster contract in the Strasburg/Scherzer neighborhood, but Cobb is a good pitcher who's now fully recovered from arm trouble, he has been tested in the AL East and he's going to get a good deal -- probably something in the range of five years. He has not been shy in discussing how he wouldn't mind a reunion with Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey, the Cubs' manager and pitching coach, respectively.
• Lance Lynn, starting pitcher: A lot of the market forces that will help Cobb are in play for Lynn as well -- he's a veteran with a solid track record, and fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Any team that doesn't want to pay the Arrieta or Darvish price tag but still seeks predictable rotation production is going to take a long look at Lynn.
Boone's path to an MLB dugout
Aaron Boone is a friend and a colleague, someone with whom I've worked on Sunday Night Baseball the past two years, so sure, my point of view about his potential as a managerial candidate for the New York Yankees or some other team down the road is skewed by the many hours spent in travel, preparation, and on air together. But that past access means that my perspective is well-informed, more than enough to say this: He will be a great manager someday for some team looking for the next Terry Francona.
He likes people, a characteristic that might seem trite on the page here but is a common denominator in almost all of the longest-tenured managers, from Bobby Cox to Joe Torre to Dusty Baker to Bruce Bochy to, yes, Francona. Some managers resent players, or ignore the clubhouse attendants, or look down on the youngest front-office members, but a lot of the best managers -- not all of them -- have a natural respect for and an interest in others in their world. Aaron shares that trait.
Like Francona, Boone shares in a baseball legacy. Aaron's grandfather played in the big leagues, and so did his father, and so did his brother. He has had a lifetime of running around clubhouses and ballparks, and assessing players and their moods and on-field and off-field challenges. Aaron was a good player for stretches in his 12-year career, and he had periods when he struggled, and any of the best managers would tell you, those experiences in the worst of times might be the most useful in relating to players. Francona wields his own mediocrity as a weapon of self-deprecation, citing his own failures when his players make mistakes, and it helps him connect with everyone.
Francona is pliable in how he considers strategy, open-minded to listen to alternatives if he sees demonstrations of logic and success, and while a baseball lifer like Francona might have an old-school reflex under certain circumstances, he could not have worked as successfully as he has with progressive front offices -- under Theo Epstein in Boston, and Chris Antonetti in Cleveland -- without being open-minded. Francona managed his bullpen and starters differently in the Indians' postseason run of 2016 than he did in Boston's championship seasons of 2004 and 2007.
The Cleveland front office will sometimes bring suggestions to Francona and his response is sometimes, "I understand what you want to do and it makes sense, but just give me some time to get there with the player." Aaron has a similar approach to problem-solving. We've had debates and discussions over personnel decisions or rule changes in which he'll mull over the elements for a week or so, before revisiting. "I agree with you, and here's why," he has said. Or: "I disagree with you, and here's why."
Managers are no longer the all-powerful, dominant forces they once were, and they probably never will be again. Exhibit A: Bruce Bochy is a Hall of Fame manager with three championships in the past eight years, and his longtime pitching coach Dave Righetti was just fired over Bochy's objection.
Front offices shape rosters, and with some teams, the front office dictates lineups and scripts possible pitching moves before each game. Managers have more resources than ever to draw upon in making in-game choices. A lot of the preparation or pregame thought that an Earl Weaver or Tony La Russa mastered is now generated by front offices. The days of the drill-sergeant manager who chews out players (and general managers) and creates change by intimidation is over. A lot of the best managers now excel at interpersonal relationships. This might sicken the ghost of John McGraw, but this is just the way it is.
The most significant daily contributions of the managers for most teams might be in reading the clubhouse and the players in it, and in fostering a positive and fun work environment in which accountability from player to player becomes habit. This is something that the best stats analyst cannot provide; it has to come from the guy leading the room, whether that's the manager or best player.
Terry Francona is tremendous at this, and I think Aaron Boone would be, as well.
• Paul Goldschmidt was the clear front-runner for the NL Most Valuable Player Award at the All-Star break, but a late-season elbow ailment seemed to affect his production -- and yet he is among the final three for NL MVP, more than worthy after he helped to drive the Diamondbacks into the playoffs.
But the choice of Goldschmidt over Joey Votto for the NL Silver Slugger Award among first basemen was one of the more befuddling citation choices in recent years. The Silver Slugger is given to the best offensive player at each position, and more than any award, it is seemingly about pure production, about numbers -- and the statistical difference between what Votto and Goldschmidt accomplished at the plate in 2017 is well-defined:
You can build a reasonable argument, rooted in years of precedent, that Goldschmidt is more suited for the MVP because he was the best player on the Diamondbacks, who had a better season than Votto's 70-victory Reds. (I don't agree with that argument, but it’s fair.) The Silver Slugger credentials, however, seem pretty one-sided in favor of the guy who didn't get the award.
And today will be better than yesterday.