PITTSBURGH -- Having tumbled down the National League Central standings with a month left to play, the Pirates removed setup man Juan Nicasio from their 40-man roster and lost him Thursday afternoon on outright waivers to the Phillies.
In a statement, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington acknowledged the move was an "unusual step" made for "a variety of reasons." One of them is their intent to have younger, controllable pitchers work higher-leverage innings down the stretch instead of Nicasio, a pending free agent.
"We appreciate all that Juan has done for our team and our organization," Huntington said. "We wish him the best."
The Pirates unloaded the remainder of Nicasio's $3.65 million salary, approximately $600,000. Nicasio, 31, posted a 2.85 ERA with 60 strikeouts over 60 innings in his first full season pitching out of the Bucs' bullpen. Following the early-season struggles of Tony Watson and Daniel Hudson, Nicasio emerged as the primary setup man for closer Felipe Rivero.
They did not have to part ways with Nicasio. Rosters expand from 25 to 40 players on Friday, so they could have kept Nicasio and pitched him sparingly or in low-leverage situations as they look toward 2018 down the stretch.
"We acknowledge the minimal amount of money saved by making this move," Huntington said. "However, as a result of our decision and Juan's pending free agency at the end of the season, we felt it appropriate to attempt to move Juan to a better situation for him."
But why not do so before the non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31? Perhaps the Pirates believed they were too close to contending to part with Watson and Nicasio. Why not work out a more conventional waiver trade to recoup some value from the loss of Nicasio?
According to Huntington, Nicasio was claimed off revocable waivers by a "playoff-caliber club that indicated to us their primary motivation was to block us from being able to trade Juan elsewhere." And thus that club offered what Huntington described as "very marginal value in return if we chose to trade Juan to them."
So the Pirates opted to pull back Nicasio, place him on irrevocable outright waivers and receive nothing in return but salary relief and a handful of innings to disperse among their younger relievers.
"Rather than help a direct competitor and recognizing the difference in claiming order between trade and outright waivers, we chose to take the chance to see if by placing Juan on outright waivers he would end up with a different playoff contender, preferably one in the American League," Huntington said.
Instead, Nicasio landed with the rebuilding Phillies. They entered Thursday with a Major League-worst .371 winning percentage, making them the first club able to claim Nicasio.
Thursday is the deadline for clubs to acquire players so that they can be eligible for the postseason. Most August deals are made through the trade waiver process, which is different than the outright waiver process through which the Phillies claimed Nicasio.
When a National League team passes a player through trade waivers, he is available first to NL clubs in reverse order of the standings. The outright waiver process prioritizes the claiming order based purely on record without taking the club's league into account. Putting Nicasio on outright waivers gave him a better chance of landing in the crowded AL Wild Card race, for instance, before falling to NL Central clubs like the Cardinals or Brewers.