MILWAUKEE -- Shortly before Monday's non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Pirates made a flurry of moves -- some buying, some selling -- to create payroll flexibility, strengthen their bullpen and further overhaul their struggling rotation.In the minutes leading up to the 4 p.m. ET Deadline, the Pirates sent Opening Day starter
MILWAUKEE -- Shortly before Monday's non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Pirates made a flurry of moves -- some buying, some selling -- to create payroll flexibility, strengthen their bullpen and further overhaul their struggling rotation.
In the minutes leading up to the 4 p.m. ET Deadline, the Pirates sent Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano and two well-regarded prospects to the Blue Jays for Triple-A right-hander Drew Hutchison. Shortly before that unexpected deal, Pittsburgh returned left-hander Jonathon Niese to the Mets for lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo and cash, and acquired right-hander Ivan Nova from the Yankees for two players to be named.
"We've worked to improve this year's club, to strengthen future years," general manager Neal Huntington said after completing the flurry of activity. "And then in the Liriano move, we've gained financial flexibility as we move forward. That's the context for the three different moves."
The Pirates clearly believed Liriano would not recapture his form from 2013-15, when he was a top-of-the-rotation arm and the finest of their reclamation projects. As a result, they jettisoned the remainder (about $16 million) of his three-year contract.
In that trade, the Pirates acquired Hutchison, a 25-year-old right-hander whom they believe is better than his Major League numbers thus far indicate. Adding Hutchison and shedding Liriano's salary cost Pittsburgh Double-A outfielder Harold Ramirez (No. 9 in Pittsburgh's system, according to MLBPipeline.com) and catcher Reese McGuire (No. 8).
Ramirez might not have cracked the Pirates' outfield with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco signed long term and top prospect Austin Meadows in Triple-A. McGuire remains behind Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Eric Fryer and prospect Elias Díaz on the organizational depth chart.
"This was an opportunity to add an extremely expensive commodity in the market," Huntington said, referring to young starting pitching, "for quality prospects that fit for us -- but we also have players with organizational depth at the two positions."
Hutchison will report to Triple-A Indianapolis. He is under club control for two seasons after this -- potentially three, if he spends enough time in the Minors the rest of this year. He was 6-5 with a 3.26 ERA in 18 starts for Triple-A Buffalo this season and 30-21 with a 4.92 ERA over parts of four seasons with the Blue Jays.
"Our scouts have liked him a lot in the past; we believe his surface numbers are not reflective of the potential," Huntington said. "We've got multiple years of contribution from Drew. He's a very nice complement to Gerrit Cole and all the young arms that we have in the rotation as we go forward."
But Liriano -- 35-25 with a 3.26 ERA from 2013-15 but 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA and an MLB-high 69 walks this year -- is under contract for next season, too. Why not take their chances that he'll bounce back?
"It was a challenging decision; we had some quality discussion about that," Huntington said. "Were the three years that Francisco was really good for us or the four months that [he's] struggled -- which is going to be the guy the next two months? Which is going to be the guy the next year-plus?"
Ultimately, the Pirates decided they were more likely to see the latter than the former. Huntington frequently referenced the "financial flexibility" the move created, and some of it will be necessary just to pay the raises due to their players under contract and a bevy of arbitration-eligible players, including ace Gerrit Cole.
Until then, Nova will assume Liriano's spot in the rotation. Pirates starters have recorded a 4.77 ERA, the eighth-highest mark in the Majors. Beyond Cole, the group is full of inconsistent veterans and mostly unproven rookies.
To that end, they acquired Nova, 7-6 with a 4.90 ERA in 21 appearances this season, including 15 starts. Nova will play out the remainder of his one-year, $4.1 million contract before becoming a free agent.
"We've liked Nova for a while," Huntington said. "We believe that Cervelli and Fryer or Stewart or Diaz, whoever's catching, will enhance the quality of his sinker. Coming to the National League, we believe that we can continue to push him forward."
The Pirates had interest in several young starters, particularly the Rays' Matt Moore (who was traded to the Giants), but found Tampa Bay's asking price too high. The Rays were looking for two of Pittsburgh's top five prospects, a tough ask of a smaller-market club constantly watching its payroll.
One reason the Pirates had to address their rotation was the performance of Niese, brought in to bolster the group in a December trade for hometown second baseman Neil Walker. Niese went 7-6 with a 5.13 ERA in 18 starts before being bumped to the bullpen.
"In hindsight, it doesn't look like we made the right call," Huntington said of trading for Niese. "I think we've been pretty out there about owning mistakes when they look like mistakes."
The trade that sent out Niese wound up being a reunion on both sides. The Pirates acquired Bastardo, who pitched well out of their bullpen last season, and cash, while shipping Niese back to his former club.
Last season, Bastardo developed into an effective middle-relief option for manager Clint Hurdle, going 4-1 with a 2.98 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 66 appearances.
Did the Pirates do enough to keep themselves in the postseason picture? They are 11 games behind the Cubs in the National League Central and two losses behind the Marlins, currently the second NL Wild Card team.
During a conference call with reporters, Huntington acknowledged the Pirates must walk the line between competing this season and being mindful of years to come. These trades, particularly the Liriano deal, were another reminder of how thin that line can be.
"Is it easy to do? No, it's not easy to do," Huntington said. "We feel these were the right moves for us as an organization."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Those who have remained patient with Liriano despite his struggles may be happy to see him be reunited with Russell Martin, who was the Pirates' starting backstop when the left-hander registered a 3.20 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP during the 2013-14 seasons. Though the 32-year-old Liriano should not be started in any leagues right now, he's an intriguing bench option thanks to his strikeout ability. Liriano's arrival in Toronto could signal that Aaron Sanchez's time in the rotation is nearing an end. Sanchez is the American League leader in ERA (2.71), but he'll fall to waivers in mixed leagues when the Blue Jays move him to the bullpen in an effort to limit his innings.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.