Pirates get starting pitcher, cash for Liriano, two prospects
August 1, 2016 10:30 PM
The Pirates sent struggling starter Francisco Liriano to Toronto for pitcher Drew Hutchison.
The Pirates' Francisco Liriano delivers a pitch July 21 against the Brewers.
Francisco Liriano was unimpressive this season with the Pirates.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The price the Pirates paid in general manager Neal Huntington’s 11th-hour move Monday to shed left-hander Francisco Liriano’s salary can’t be measured in the next day, week or month. The swap sent the stumbling Liriano and promising prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez to the Toronto Blue Jays in return for right-hander Drew Hutchison and much more risk than reward.
Liriano, the Pirates’ opening day starter each of the past three years, resurrected his career in Pittsburgh before hurtling back to earth this season. The 32-year-old left-hander’s ERA has soared to 5.46, third worst among qualified starters, and he leads the league with 69 walks.
Hutchison, 25, has a 4.92 ERA over 406⅓ innings in the majors and is expected to report to Class AAA Indianapolis. Huntington said he sees Hutchison as a fit in the Pirates’ 2017 rotation.
For years, Huntington was criticized for his unwillingness to part with prospects in order to fetch big leaguers who might make an immediate impact. He argued the draft is the Pirates’ best avenue to premier talent, and it was in the franchise’s best interest to keep that talent in-house. In this trade, though, the prospects served as incentive for the Blue Jays to eat the contract of a fading starter.
Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins told Toronto reporters the deal was completed one madcap minute before the 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline. The Blue Jays had been tracking Liriano for the better part of two months and ultimately agreed to assume the roughly $18 million remaining on his contract, a three-year, $39 million deal signed as a free agent before the 2015 season.
The Pirates’ flurry of moves this week cleared more than $6.5 million this year, and another $6.5 million in 2017.
Huntington maintained there was “absolutely not” a mandate from ownership to dump salary. He pointed out that the Pirates’ payroll has risen to a new high each of the past few years and added, “This was all [the front office’s] choice to create some financial flexibility.”
There is little question the 2016 Pirates (52-51) are weaker than they were a week ago. Still, Huntington believes the team has a shot at a postseason push. With his focus shifted toward sustaining success in future years, Huntington this week traded closer Mark Melancon, left-hander Jon Niese, Liriano, two top-10 prospects and two players to be named later.
“We wanted to add. We didn’t want to subtract,” Huntington said. “And we added and subtracted and felt like, at the end of the day, we’ve continued to put this club in position to be a playoff-caliber team in ’16 while growing for ’17 and ’18 and including some financial flexibility.”
Huntington said starting pitchers with controllable, cost-effective years remaining on their contract were “extremely expensive commodities.” Given the perceived weakness of the upcoming free-agent market for starters, he determined it was worth dealing the pair of prospects.
McGuire, the 14th overall draft pick in 2013, was ranked by Baseball America as the Pirates’ No. 6 prospect before the season, and Ramirez was 10th. What made their inclusions in the deal palatable, Huntington said, was that there are other prospects blocking their ascents to the majors.
The Pirates searched for starting pitchers but found few who won’t soon be free agents. They kicked the tires on Tampa Bay Rays starters Matt Moore and Jake Odorizzi, according to a source, but balked when the asking price included top prospects Austin Meadows and Josh Bell. They acquired rental right-hander Ivan Nova from the New York Yankees for two players to be named later.
“We’ve been exhausted this week,” Huntington said.
Among a few factors that explain why Hutchison, the chief return, will start at Indianapolis is that another month in the minors will delay his service clock and give the Pirates three more seasons before Hutchison reaches free agency. Hutchison was ranked by Baseball America as the Blue Jays’ ninth-best prospect in 2012. He had a 3.26 ERA this season at Class AAA Buffalo, but, Huntington said, “We believe the surface numbers are not reflective of the potential.”
“Part of it is the league and the ballpark,” Huntington added. “Part of it is we think there are some things we can help him with. … We believe that he can step right into our rotation next year and be a quality addition to that rotation, to Gerrit [Cole] and our youngsters, and maybe [add] free agents or make a trade depending on how we utilize the financial flexibility we have.”
Huntington said there was back-and-forth debate within the Pirates front office regarding whether to let Liriano loose. He had a 3.67 ERA over four years with the ballclub and finished ninth in Cy Young voting in 2012, but lately he has looked like a pitcher who has lost his command and his way.
“The three years that Francisco was really good for us, or the four months that he’s struggled — which is going to be the guy the next two months?” Huntington asked. “Which is going to be the guy the next year-plus?”
In the end, Huntington chose to close the book on Liriano’s Pirates career.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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