Kevin Gorman: Not trading Felipe Vazquez was win for Pirates, technically speaking
When the clock struck 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon and the Pittsburgh Pirates still possessed one of their only All-Stars, did they win or lose the trade deadline?
That the Pirates didn’t deal closer Felipe Vazquez was met with disappointment in baseball circles, especially by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The left-hander was regarded as the best bullpen arm available to a contender, which the Dodgers are and the Pirates are most decidedly not.
Everyone knows that, except maybe Neal Huntington.
Forgive the Pirates general manager for saying they are “still in it this year, technically speaking.” His blind optimism over a team that has lost 16 of 19 games since the All-Star break — including nine in a row at one point — and has the second-worst record in the National League (47-61) is either inspirational or delusional.
First, the inspirational: “We’re not ready to say that a closer is a luxury for a bad team,” Huntington said. “We’re ready to say that we’re going to continue to fight, that we’re going to continue to do things to help this team to position itself to be a postseason team and we did not feel that this was the right time or that we got the right potential return to move beyond.”
Now, the delusional: “We recognize that there’s risk in that,” Huntington added. “We also recognize that really good players help teams win and they also, for teams that fall short of expectations, help teams win in the future because they hold significant levels of value.”
Where Huntington said there were multiple suitors for Vazquez, the Dodgers were the most aggressive. They were five wins away from winning the World Series the past two years, and a high-leverage lefty flamethrower would have provided the perfect complement to closer Kenley Jansen.
The Pirates are short on starting pitching, with ace Jameson Taillon’s future in question because of arm troubles and after trading Jordan Lyles to the Milwaukee Brewers for a prospect. The Pirates also need a catcher, with Francisco Cervelli concussion-prone and about to become a free agent.
The Dodgers clearly wouldn’t budge on parting with their top prospect, hot-hitting middle infielder Gavin Lux, but it appears they also weren’t willing to part with the combination of top pitching prospect Dustin May and catcher Keibert Ruiz.
“I’m not going to get into the level of what they were willing to give up,” Huntington said. “There’s reports that we were asking for way too much and then there were reports that we weren’t looking to ask for enough, so the truth is somewhere in-between.”
Truth is, the contention the Pirates should be criticized for not dealing one of their best players at the trade deadline is an over-the-top reaction to an abysmal season. We have watched them do that year after year without bringing back impact players. If anything, Huntington should be hammered for not making a deal during the season to add a pitcher to replace Taillon in the starting rotation when the Pirates were within reach of a wild-card berth.
But Huntington was better not to part with Vazquez if he wasn’t going to make the Pirates significantly better. His past two big trades have been major flops, and you have to wonder if his job is in jeopardy. Trading ace Gerrit Cole to Houston failed to return any of the Astros’ top prospects, and the Chris Archer trade at the deadline last year cost the Pirates a steep price in Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz.
Sending outfielder Corey Dickerson to the Philadelphia Phillies for a player to be named and $250,000 toward their international signing pool didn’t make the Pirates better, either.
Why trust that Huntington was going to win this time?
The 28-year-old Vazquez is on a team-friendly contract with four more years of control. He’s scheduled to make $5.25 million next season and $7.25 million in 2021 with club options at $10 million in ’22 and ’23. That’s a bargain.
Then again, Vazquez has a 1.87 ERA and 21 saves this season but has made only five relief appearances since the All-Star break. His value never has been higher, so this might have been the Pirates’ best chance to trade him for a hefty ransom.
“We were looking for what we felt was an appropriate return for one of the best relievers in baseball that has the opportunity to contribute to a club for the next four-plus years,” Huntington said. “And we’re fighting to be a winning club for next year and years beyond.”
The failure to finish a deal belongs to the Dodgers, who drew a line despite trying to win a World Series. Perhaps Huntington’s ask was outrageous. Maybe he is fooling himself into believing the Pirates can be playoff contenders next season and should be more realistic about how their talent level compares to the competition.
Either way, both teams failed to extract what they need.
But only one of them is still in it, technically speaking.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected]eb.com or via Twitter .