After Bell deal, could Bucs move Musgrove?

January 6th, 2021

PITTSBURGH – Four months ago, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington called to explain a report that the right-hander had nearly been dealt to the Blue Jays at the Trade Deadline. Musgrove said he appreciated the chat, understood the situation and put it behind him. He’s no stranger to the rumor mill, after all.

Musgrove was dealt from Toronto to Houston in 2012, a little more than a year after he was drafted, and he was shipped from the Astros to the Pirates as part of the Gerrit Cole trade nearly three years ago. Might he be on the move again this year?

Cherington set the stage for more trades on Christmas Eve, saying the deal that sent Josh Bell to the Nationals for pitching prospects Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe “likely won't be the last one. There will probably be more.” And the expectation of many people within the industry is that Musgrove will be the next notable Pirates player flipped for prospects amid Pittsburgh's pursuit of young talent.

MLB Network insider Jon Heyman tweeted last week that Musgrove was “drawing keen trade interest,” including some from clubs that were eyeing Blake Snell before the Padres acquired the former Rays ace.’s Jon Morosi reported last month that the Red Sox, Angels and Blue Jays (again) were among those interested in Musgrove.

While we wait for the Pirates’ next move, let’s look at what makes Musgrove such an intriguing trade candidate.

Club control

Musgrove, who turned 28 last month, is eligible for salary arbitration for the second time this offseason. So he will be under club control for two more seasons (2021 and ’22) before reaching free agency. That leaves the Pirates with three paths forward: trade him now, hold him and move him later, or extend his contract beyond the next two years.

It’s worth noting that MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal reported last spring that Musgrove was one of four players the Pirates approached about a long-term deal. All the factors that make Musgrove appealing to other teams are good reasons to keep him on board, too, especially if the Pirates think they could contend within the timeframe of a potential extension.


Speaking on MLB Network last week, Cherington said the Pirates will be “open” to extensions “with the right guys, with some guys.” But…

“In order to win,” Cherington added, “we’ve got to build a talent base first.”

Everything the Pirates have said and done recently suggests they are focused solely on aggressively building up their farm system. So it’s more likely that they’ll look to move Musgrove now, as they did with Bell, because he's one of their best remaining trade chips: a quality starting pitcher with two full years of control.

Market matters

Two of the best starters available this offseason, Snell and Yu Darvish, are now on the Padres. Teams seeking top-of-the-rotation help can now turn to the Reds for Sonny Gray or Luis Castillo or pursue the top free agent starters -- Trevor Bauer and the group including Jake Odorizzi and Masahiro Tanaka, among others -- who remain unsigned.

But there are still a bunch of teams that need to fill at least one spot in the rotation, and they all aren’t necessarily looking to pay for a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. The Angels, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, Mets, Cubs, Rays, Twins and Astros are among the teams in need of an established starter, and even that’s an incomplete list. Musgrove might not be atop the wish list of teams looking for an ace, but there should be plenty of demand for a pitcher like him.

Proven performance

Over the last five years, Musgrove has put together a 4.33 ERA and 1.23 WHIP with a 22.3 percent strikeout rate and a 5.8 percent walk rate in nearly 500 innings over 108 appearances in the Majors.

He was durable in 2019, pitching 170 1/3 innings while making 31 starts, and he was quite effective when healthy as the Pirates’ Opening Day starter last year. Limited to only eight outings during the shortened season, Musgrove recorded a 3.86 ERA with 55 strikeouts and 16 walks in 39 2/3 innings.

He’s been a solid starter for the Pirates. He was a very effective reliever for the Astros down the stretch in 2017. He picked up postseason experience in Houston. He’s emerged as a leader in Pittsburgh’s clubhouse, a tremendously positive presence and a fierce competitor even on losing teams the past two years. He’s also an excellent athlete who fields his position well.

But there’s more to Musgrove than just his track record.

Untapped upside

Musgrove has finished the last four seasons with a Fielding Independent Pitching mark lower than his ERA. He has a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio with the Pirates, and even as home runs have spiked, he’s maintained a rate of roughly one homer allowed per nine innings the last three years.

He’s shown flashes of brilliance, particularly in the way he finished the past two seasons…

Last 5 starts, 2019: 2.89 ERA, .642 opponents’ OPS, 32 strikeouts, five walks, 25 hits, 28 innings
Last 5 starts, 2020: 2.16 ERA, .553 opponents’ OPS, 38 strikeouts, five walks, 18 hits, 25 innings

Musgrove was especially dominant in his final two starts against St. Louis and Cleveland, pitching 13 scoreless innings with six hits allowed, two walks and 21 strikeouts.

“No. 1, he’s healthy,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said after Musgrove’s last outing of the season. “And No. 2, I think the big point, is that his stuff is really good.”

Musgrove throws six different pitches, and he’s spoken at length about learning how to harness his arsenal and play different offerings off each other. When they’re all working, he’s unpredictable. The rest of his stuff typically plays up when his fastball velocity creeps toward 94-95 mph. He threw nearly as many breaking balls as fastballs last year, and hitters just couldn’t seem to figure out his slider or curveball.

Musgrove posted the Majors’ lowest FIP (1.39), xFIP (1.95) and SIERA (2.40) in the month of September, suggesting once again that he might be ready to tap into his full potential -- whether it’s in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.