The Pirates’ trade on Tuesday for Chris Archer is the kind of move every fan should hope their team makes. The Bucs are closer to the fringe of the playoff hunt than actually making the playoffs, but they’re still very much in the hunt, and Archer’s a potential number two starter under team control for three years beyond this one. It’s the perfect win-now-but-also-win-later move for a team that needs to take chances but can’t afford to get burned.
In exchange for their nominal staff ace, the Rays are extracting real value from Pittsburgh. Austin Meadows is an outfielder who hasn’t torn the cover off the ball in Triple-A but looked great in his few weeks of major league action this year. Tyler Glasnow is a fireballer who’s bad now but could be great later. Both are former top prospects, cheap, and with loads of potential at just 23 and 24 years old. Tampa Bay’s also getting a player whose name we don’t know yet, but whom the Pirates have acknowledged will be “significant.”
That’s OK. Archer is 29, relatively cheap himself, and has a cannon for a right arm. His 4.31 ERA isn’t exciting, but his underlying metrics all say he’s a better pitcher than that. It should help him to get out of the AL East and into the NL Central, and he’ll get to stay in a pitcher’s ballpark. (Tropicana Field and PNC Park both qualify.) It isn’t good that the Pirates love fastballs and Archer’s heater has gotten smoked this year, but that doesn’t mean they’re walking into a train wreck. The Pirates — the Pirates! — made the biggest trade of the deadline, and that’s thrilling for a fanbase that’s used to the other side of these deals.
But — in a perfect encapsulation of how annoying it is to be a Pirates fan and how jaded I’ve become in that role — the Archer deal also feels terrible.
That feeling has nothing to do with Archer or this move in a vacuum. But it has everything to do with how the Pirates have conducted themselves over the last five years.
The first problem is that the Pirates are only months removed from trading a better pitcher for Archer and getting back way less than they just gave up.
In January, the Pirates shipped Gerrit Cole to the Astros following two underwhelming seasons. The return was a four-player package: third baseman Colin Moran, starter Joe Musgrove, reliever Michael Feliz, and minor league outfielder Jason Martin.
Musgrove looks like a pretty decent mid-rotation starter. Moran hits OK but loses most of the value he creates by playing terrible defense. Feliz might be a solid late-inning reliever one day, but for now, he’s been bad enough to get sent to Triple-A. Martin’s now the team’s’ No. 14 prospect. And the Pirates gave up Gerrit freaking Cole with two years of team control left.
Cole went to Houston, started throwing more fastballs and fewer sinkers, and now looks again like one of the best pitchers alive. The Pirates’ decision to move him for spare parts looked horrible at the time and looks even worse now, in light of what they just sent to Tampa to get a worse pitcher. A Cole-Archer one-two punch would’ve ruled — and with Cole still around, Archer would be joining a team with a record several games better.
The other disappointment is that the Pirates have had more opportune moments to make this sort of splash, and they’ve passed on all of them.
The length of Archer’s contract makes him more appealing than any two-month rental, but it hurts that the Pirates are making this addition now, when their status as contenders is tenuous. Their win against the Cubs Tuesday night made 14 in 17 games, but at 56-52, the Pirates are still three games out of the NL’s second wild-card spot. Their FanGraphs odds to make the playoffs are 17 percent, and even if they get in, they’ll almost surely be stuck in a coin flip to make an NLDS. They lost wild card games in both 2014 and 2015, because they got stuck facing Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta at the peaks of their powers.
When the Pirates had elite teams in 2013, ‘14, and ‘15, they narrowly lost the Central to the Cardinals all three times. One of those years, rumors connected them seriously to Jon Lester. Twice, reports connected them to David Price.
Grant Brisbee gets it just right:
This is the year they’re taking risks. This is the year they trade huge pieces of a potential future. This is the deadline where they vault ahead of their competition. The one where they’re seven freaking games back in the NL Central. The one after they traded Gerrit Cole for magic beans.
They wound up getting J.A. Happ at the 2015 deadline, when Happ was still bad. He pitched brilliantly for the Pirates but never got to start a playoff game and left in the winter, when the Pirates decided $36 million over three years was too much to spend on him.
A deadline lightning bolt on this order might’ve helped avoid wild card games in any of those years, including the year the Pirates won it and then lost to the Cardinals. Archer will help in the future, but he probably won’t mean a playoff berth now.
This mix of euphoria and regret sums up the Pirates fan experience well.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s better than sitting at the bottom of a well of sadness. That’s how it felt when the team shipped out Andrew McCutchen in the offseason, even though that deal made sense and has worked out. That the Pirates are even nominal contenders this year is great, and it beats the hell out of what this team could’ve been in 2018. It’s good that their front office seems to have learned the cost of not making a good team better.
But this is what the Pirates have created. Their city slammed them for years for not spending aggressively to get good, then for not doing enough to bolster the elite teams they had a few years ago, then selling off those teams’ most valuable single player for cents on the dollar. That’s why this likable team has played to a more than half-empty home stadium this season. And it’s why a trade that should feel perfect doesn’t.