Bucs find themselves at franchise crossroads

To rebuild or reload? That is the question

December 15th, 2017

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates left the Winter Meetings on Thursday not ready to publicly answer a critical question: Is it time to reload or rebuild?

"It's not a completely-in-or-completely-out scenario," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Do we go in '18 because that's our best choice on the players and this setup, or are we pushing our window back a little bit?"

• Pirates exit Meetings with status up in air

The Pirates are at a crossroads. Which direction should they take? Let's look at the merits of both.

Go for it in 2018: If nothing else, it would feel right, in the final year of 's contract, to make one final postseason push. McCutchen helped bring playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh, the Steel City that inspired his son's name, so why not make one last run before he becomes a free agent?

The Pirates have young pitchers who showed signs of promise in the second half. They have . They have no pressing holes in their lineup, as they could start the same eight players they did last season, and a number of players who should bounce back or improve next year.

There is a legitimate argument that the Pirates have been unlucky the past two seasons. Consider McCutchen's 2016 dip and '17 slump, 's drastic decline, 's suspension, 's arrest and the significant and/or recurring medical maladies of , , and . All that, for a team that operates without much margin for error in a tough division.

• Hurdle remains confident in current bats

Yet therein lies this plan's inherent flaw. With a limited budget, the Pirates would be counting on steps forward while being unable to withstand much regression in the other direction.

They tried to carefully add around the edges in 2016-17, even though their small-market model simultaneously necessitated the subtraction of core players like and , and that strategy yielded win totals of 78 and 75.

If you count Kang, who's on the restricted list, nine current Pirates were on their 98-win club in 2015. Five of them (Marte, McCutchen, Cole, Kang and Cervelli) were worth at least three Wins Above Replacement that year. Yet the Bucs have produced only two 3+ WAR seasons the last two years: Marte in '16 and Josh Harrison in '17.

They have a core in place, but is it enough?

Rebuild for 2019: The Pirates have three valuable trade chips who have reportedly drawn interest: McCutchen, Cole and Harrison. However, their current predicament may be prolonged by the slow-moving market for free-agent hitters.

Clubs with interest in McCutchen can hold out for outfielders J.D. Martinez, and . That's also true for Cole and starters , , Alex Cobb and . Same for Harrison and infielders Mike Moustakas, and Walker.

They can't sell for the sake of selling. That's a good way to make bad trades.

• Pirates may be open to trading Cole

But if the Pirates find deals that restock their farm system with high-level players nearly ready for the Majors, they could quickly add talent to their own young core (Rivero, Taillon, Josh Bell, etc.) and top prospects (Mitch Keller, , Kevin Newman, etc.), then hope to contend in the near future without a long rebuilding process.

After seeing attendance drop the last two years, management understands that the Pirates must win to earn fans' trust. Could they swallow a purposeful step back that involves parting with popular players, even if it comes with the promise of better days ahead?