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Pirates GM Huntington details thinking behind trade deadline deals

| Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016, 7:33 p.m.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.
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Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.

As the 4 p.m. trade deadline approached, the circle of advisors surrounding Pirates general manager Neal Huntington in a conference room at the Pirates' Federal Street headquarters had shrunk. Surrounded by open laptops, dry-erase boards and a new gadget — a smart board — the team's decision makers were saturated with information and scenarios as they debated options.

The Pirates were in an awkward position: in playoff contention but with an unlikely path to the postseason, perhaps better positioned to contend in 2017.

As the clock melted to the deadline, the Pirates chose to buy and sell, trying to balance the present and future.

After the busiest close to the trade deadline of the Huntington era, the Tribune-Review spoke to Huntington to better understand why the club dealt Liriano with his value depressed, what the Pirates see in Drew Hutchison, what they can do with increased financial flexibility and why they were willing to part with two of their most valuable prospects.

Shaping the narrative

Part of the club's focus was to reconstruct its bullpen. The first deal the Pirates reached Monday became public at 3:08 p.m.: Jon Niese to the New York Mets for left-handed reliever Antonio Bastardo and cash.

As the clock neared 4 p.m., two agreements came together nearly simultaneously — and the Pirates wanted the deals to work in concert.

At 3:56 p.m., as he watched MLB Network while jogging on a treadmill in the depths of Citi Field, veteran pitcher and free-agent-to-be Ivan Nova learned he was traded from the New York Yankees to the Pirates for two players to be named.

The Pirates then entered their most controversial deal of the deadline into Major League Baseball's player record management system. At 3:59 p.m., one minute before the deadline, MLB confirmed the trade: Liriano, his remaining contract ($18 million) and two prospects (Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez) to Toronto for Hutchison, a right-handed minor league pitcher. Huntington said there was no deal that did not include Liriano.

On talk radio and social media, many fans were appalled at what they perceived to be a salary dump. Some outside observers also were perplexed.

The Pirates were delayed in announcing the Liriano trade as they struggled to reach a player involved in the trade.

“Because of the delay with the Liriano announcement, we weren't able to articulate ‘the why' early in the process,” Huntington said. “Many people jumped to incorrect conclusions. Our primary motivation was to acquire Drew Hutchison. ... Instead, it came out that we moved two prospects to move Liriano's contract. Now I can't tell you that wasn't a part of the motivation, but the primary motivation was to acquire a quality pitcher.”

“We understand even if we'd been the first voice heard, there would still be speculation that we were not being truthful, that we were not being forthright in what our motivation was. But because we were essentially the last voice heard, the perception was already built. ... Opinion becomes fact when it gets repeated enough.”

Huntington said the Pirates were motivated by events months earlier, when the club was surprised by the price for pitching last offseason.

“We recognize there is a scarcity in the affordable starting-pitching market,” Huntington said. “Mediocre pitching is getting paid a lot of money. As we look forward, whether it's the trade market or free agent market, the challenge of acquiring quality, controllable, productive starting pitching ... is hard to do.”

But what did the Pirates see in Hutchison? What did they see in a former prospect who has 4.92 ERA over 406 13 major league innings?

Huntington said they see another pitcher who has the potential to be “undervalued,” another arm with “indicators” the club likes.

Hutchison should improve simply by moving from the American League East to PNC Park, and he also has shown a two-seam fastball in the past. Perhaps he can improve his ground-ball rate. He has struck out 8.3 per nine innings while walking 2.8 for his career, rates indicative of a mid-rotation arm.

The Liriano dilemma

One question the Pirates had to answer before mapping a deadline strategy was the likelihood Liriano could return to his 2013-15 form.

Sentiment was uneven within the organization. Some were bearish, others bullish.

“It's been an ongoing dialogue: How do we get him back to where he's been? What are the differences? What are the changes we'd need to make?” Huntington said. “It continued to be an ongoing dialogue Monday.”

A significant factor was the ability of Liriano to adjust to what appears to be league-wide adjustments against him.

Liriano had not changed much in 2016. His fastball velocity (92.6 mph) was a touch higher than last season (92.5 mph). His pitch mix was about the same. He also continued to struggle throwing pitches in the strike zone.

Liriano has thrown the fewest percentage of pitches in the strike zone among qualified starters this season at 38.9 percent, according to PITCHf/x. Since 2013, Liriano has thrown the fewest pitches inside the strike zone among all starters.

And perhaps after three-plus years of experience facing him, National League batters began to adjust. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said opponents were beginning to take more pitches to get in more favorable counts.

“Familiarity we believe had an impact on him this year as hitters saw him for the fourth year and as advance scouts saw him for the fourth year,” Huntington said.

Opponents are swinging at career-low rates of Liriano's pitches (41.1 percent) and of his pitches outside the strike zone (27.9 percent), nearly a 5-percent drop from last season.

“This was not a ‘yes' or ‘no' on Francisco Liriano. This was risk tolerance: What was the upside? What was the downside? What did we feel the probabilities were?” Huntington said. “And what were our a alternatives with the money we've created by moving him?

“There is a very good chance Francisco Liriano gets back to the American League where hitters are unfamiliar with him, in a new environment, with new scouting reports and does very well with Toronto.”

Follow the money

So what will the Pirates do with the $13.66 million they save in 2017 by shedding the last year of Liriano's contract?

“It allows us to invest in our existing group if there is a deal to be made,” Huntington said. “It allows the opportunity to explore the free agent pool, whether it's multiple players for lesser dollars that fit really well on our club that make us deeper, or ... a big splash for one player. Not setting the expectation that that's what we're going to do, but it gives us the potential to explore that market.”

Many remain skeptical about ownership's willingness to spend. The Pirates entered the season with the 25th-ranked payroll.

At the moment, the Pirates have $53 million committed to players on guaranteed contracts next season, though the Mets will pay a portion of Bastardo's $6.7 million salary.

Trading tomorrow

The Pirates generally have protected young talent. Noted GammonsDaily.com in reviewing the Pirates' 2015 season: “The Pirates are the only team in Baseball America's top 15 farm systems to keep each of its top prospects.”

McGuire and Ramirez — ranked No. 6 and No. 10, respectively, in the organization's preseason top 10 prospects by Baseball America — became two of the highest-rated prospects to be dealt by Huntington.

Neither however, made Baseball America's midseason top 100 prospect list. Ramirez, probably destined for a corner outfield spot, hit just two homers in 96 games this season at Double-A Altoona.

“We let other people decide whether they like our players or not,” Huntington said. “We are fortunate enough to have catching depth and outfield depth.”

Huntington said many of the deals were difficult decisions. He added the club is “cognizant of the public sentiment.”

But he noted it is those inside the Pirates' Federal Street conference room — not outside it — who will be accountable.

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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