It’s no secret that Neal Huntington is in a tricky situation as baseball’s All-Star Break ends. His team is only two and a half games behind their division’s leader, but sits in fourth place, and according to FanGraphs, has only a 10.7% likelihood of making the postseason, given current rosters. The division is tight enough that even if every game were a coin flip (a model more sympathetic to the Pirates, who aren’t as good on paper as their underachieving peers), their playoff chances would only rise to 23.5%. Not the worst odds, but far from good.
Further complicating things is the franchise’s recent history: only three playoff appearances in the past 26 seasons, all of which came between 2013 and 2015, and only one of which resulted in even an NLDS appearance. Impatience is justifiably high, and while Huntington produced a 98-win team in 2015, the misfortune of peaking while the Cardinals were still dominant and the Cubs were ascending has garnered little sympathy.
The narrative last year was that the impatience finally got to Huntington—or to his bosses. Attendance was dropping, and an eleven-game win streak in July pulled the Pirates into the fringes of the playoff race. Chips were pushed in. Chris Archer was acquired. Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow were bid adieu. It was, of course, justifiable, and given Archer’s contract, not a move that necessarily damned the future for the sake of the present. But that hasn’t saved Huntington from criticism over the deal, because as measured by results, that trade has, so far, been a nightmare for Pittsburgh.
Trading Glasnow and Meadows would not have been so interesting had Huntington not been, to that point, the MLB’s closest thing to Sam Hinkie, consistently trading away assets at their peak value for prospects and focusing on internal development rather than splashes in free agency. Just six months earlier, Huntington had dealt the franchise’s face and the franchise’s ace, turning Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole into Joe Musgrove, Kyle Crick, Michael Feliz, Bryan Reynolds, Colin Moran, and others.
If you’re reading this, you probably know all that history. But it bears repeating because the Pirates’ 2019 Trade Deadline decisions are going to be a very direct measurement of how patient the organization is willing to be—perhaps more interesting than those of any other MLB franchise.
The Pirates, as an organization, are in a very good place, looking at the future. By FanGraphs’ WAR, their eight most valuable players this year are all under club control through 2021, and that’s without counting rehabbing ace Jameson Taillon. Of those nine (now including Taillon), all but Starling Marte are under club control through 2023. Josh Bell might be turning into a superstar. Reynolds is a Rookie of the Year dark horse. Adam Frazier, Kevin Newman, Musgrove, and Trevor Williams all look the part of contributing major league baseball players, and the farm system is far from bare, with four prospects in the top 51 in FanGraphs’ rankings.
And, of course, there’s Felipe Vázquez.
Vázquez was acquired in the Mark Melancon deal back in 2016. He’s posted ERA’s under three in both of his full seasons in Pittsburgh, and is having a strong 2019, converting 20 of 21 save chances while compiling a 2.11 FIP (FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching, is measured on the same scale as ERA but is more consistent, as it washes out some of the more luck-based factors that can hurt and help a pitcher’s results). A week and a half ago, Huntington indicated publicly that trading Vázquez is not something the organization plans to do.
But it should be.
Relief pitchers are notoriously inconsistent year-to-year. For every Craig Kimbrel, reliably getting outs season after season, there are a handful of Carlos Mármol’s, flashing brilliance and then falling apart. Performance withers. Arms and bodies wear down. Since 1999, thirty relievers have done what Vázquez is doing: posting FIP’s under 3.00 with substantial innings (49 or more, per FanGraphs’ evident qualifying cutoff) three seasons in a row. Only eleven have maintained the performance into the next season. Many of those eleven (Mariano Rivera, Aroldis Chapman, Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, etc.) had better peaks than Vázquez has had so far. While Vázquez is relatively young for a reliever (28), relatively inexpensive (at most $7.7M/year over the next four and a half years), and certainly one of the best in today’s game, he’s far from a sure bet to maintain his performance into 2020, let alone through 2023. He might get better. He might get worse. The latter appears more likely than the former.
His value is so much more significant in the present than the future that keeping him is arguably a bigger risk than trading him, depending on the types of prospects Huntington could get in return. When Cleveland acquired Andrew Miller from the Yankees in 2016, Brian Cashman brought back two top-100 prospects, including Clint Frazier, who ranked 21st on Baseball America’s list at the time. While Vázquez is no Andrew Miller performance-wise, he’s under contract for two more years than Miller was at the time. It’s very possible the Pirates could get at least a top-25 prospect out of the deal, and not unlikely they could bring home two in the top 100.
Vázquez’s absence would hurt the bullpen in 2020, but the assets Huntington would harvest in such a trade might outweigh that sting by as early as next September. Keibert Ruiz, a catcher in the Dodgers’ system, could conceivably be MLB-ready early next year. The same can be said of Dodgers right-hander Dustin May. Kyle Tucker, a corner outfielder for Houston whose MLB stint last year was a disappointment, has 24 home runs at the AAA level in 2019. Ian Anderson has a 2.91 ERA over 17 starts for the Braves’ AA affiliate. And while the Twins would never send Royce Lewis in return for a reliever, even a very good one, they’ve got the outfield depth to comfortably shop Alex Kirilloff, their second-best prospect and an Allegheny County native.
It’s hard to see the Pirates getting more for any one player they might trade than they would for Vázquez, with the exception of Marte, who’s even more of a stretch to throw into these speculations than Vázquez. Corey Dickerson and Melky Cabrera might get lottery tickets or reclamation projects. Jordan Lyles might net one good prospect, but solid back-half-of-the-rotation starters aren’t in as high of demand as lockdown left-handed relievers.
It’s impossible to say, at the time trades are made, how they’ll be viewed with the benefit of hindsight. Even the Archer deal could turn around for the Pirates, who have the former ace under contract through 2021. But it is possible to gauge a player’s value in the market and forecast what that value will look like going forward. And when it comes to Felipe Vázquez, it’s fair to say that value is as likely as not to be peaking.
Pittsburgh wants a championship, or at the very least a good playoff run. There’s a clear championship window cracking open, and it looks favorable for the next four years. Felipe Vázquez could help make meaningful success happen. Neal Huntington can improve the odds of that by sending him to another team.
Joe Stunardi writes about sports at www.thebarkingcrow.com with a data-focused approach. He frequently offers gambling advice there, and maintains predictive models in the fall and winter forecasting the college football and college basketball postseasons.