CINCINNATI -- The digital clock inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Great American Ball Park turned from 3:59 to 4:00, and there sat Felipe Vázquez in front of his locker, calmly looking at his phone.
The Trade Deadline came and went, and despite all the rumors and reports and rampant speculation, Vazquez was still the Pirates’ closer when they flew home Wednesday night.
“I was kinda 50-50 because there was a lot of talking out there,” Vazquez said. “But I’m happy to stay here.”
That will prove to be a popular outcome for Pittsburgh fans who appreciate Vazquez for his dominance on the mound and his desire to be with the club. It was immediately unpopular for others who thought the Pirates desperately needed the kind of high-end talent an elite, controllable closer like Vazquez can fetch on the trade market.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington insists they believe they can contend as soon as next season, which is part of the reason their front office felt no obligation to ship out Vazquez before 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday. But the Pirates’ current standing -- last in the National League Central and likely facing their third losing season in the past four years – indicates that they have a long way to go.
The fact that the debate exists, and that Pittsburgh’s most noteworthy move was not moving Vazquez, is representative of where the Bucs stand coming out of this year’s deadline. While most teams are picking a lane and speeding down it, the Pirates seem to be caught in the middle.
“While we’ve not put ourselves at the present time to be a playoff-caliber club, the optimism remains there that we’re going to fight as hard as we can this year to turn that around,” Huntington said. “If not, we are going to work to be a postseason club next year. To have a player the caliber of Felipe Vazquez is incredibly helpful to do that.”
That doesn’t mean they gave no thought to trading Vazquez. Multiple reports suggested that they essentially wound up in a staring contest with the Dodgers, waiting for Los Angeles to part with several top prospects in a blockbuster deal that would reset Pittsburgh’s roster with young talent.
Huntington wouldn’t get into specifics during a conference call with reporters, but clearly nobody met the Pirates’ justifiably high asking price.
“There were multiple teams interested in a very good player,” Huntington said. "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, and we're fighting to be a winning club next year and years beyond."
So the Pirates didn’t blow it all up and rebuild. They didn’t buy, either, an understandable move after a brutal slump to start the second half. Nor did they go all-in on selling, as they only dealt struggling starter Jordan Lyles to the Brewers and soon-to-be free-agent left fielder Corey Dickerson to the Phillies.
Left-hander Steven Brault (when healthy) and top prospect Mitch Keller (when ready) will fill Lyles’ spot in the rotation. Bryan Reynolds is officially an everyday outfielder, and the Pirates will take a longer look at players like Jose Osuna, Pablo Reyes and Jason Martin until rehabbing right fielder Gregory Polanco returns.
“It gives us some opportunities to give some young players who are going to be -- or could be -- key parts of our 2020-and-beyond clubs Major League experience,” Huntington said. “It clears the deck for us as we look toward 2020.”
Yet the Pirates held onto a trio of veterans on expiring contracts: Jung Ho Kang, Melky Cabrera and Francisco Liriano. It’s unlikely there was any interest in the struggling Kang, and his days with the Pirates may be numbered anyway. The Pirates didn’t feel they found an appropriately valuable return for Cabrera or Liriano, and neither is standing in the way of regular at-bats/innings that might go to younger players.
“They bring quality veteran presence. There are intangibles that they can help our young players continue to grow and mature,” Huntington said. “Not that Corey and Jordan didn’t, but we felt that the returns were appropriate for Jordan and Corey. In Liriano and Cabrera’s case, we felt that -- all things considered -- it was the right move to have them continue to be Pirates.”
The Pirates can answer some lingering questions over the final two months. Is Josh Bell still the star slugger he was in the first half? Is Reynolds for real? What can Polanco contribute? What is the immediate future of their infield? What can they expect from Jameson Taillon in 2020, and who deserves to be in the rotation behind him? Have they built a better bullpen?
The rest of their questions might not be answered until the offseason. Will they consider dealing Vazquez at that point? He is due $12.5 million guaranteed over the next two years with $10 million club options for 2022 and ’23, so he’ll be in high demand as long as he’s effective. If not, will they take the necessary steps to build a better roster around him?
When Huntington previously spoke about the possibility of trading Vazquez, he said the Pirates intended to keep him and have him close out their next postseason game. Will that happen? Time will tell.
For now, Vazquez is still a Pirate -- “and we feel very good about that,” Huntington said.