In an attempt to bolster the starting rotation, the Pittsburgh Pirates made a trade that surprised the baseball world in July 2018. However, this trade has quickly become one of the worst in franchise history.
The 2018 July trade deadline was one that Pittsburgh Pirates fans should have looked back at as one with happy thoughts about what happened. Sadly, it is not.
Entering the deadline the Pirates looked in good enough position to add a piece or two. They entered the day 55-52, and were in reaching distance of a Wild Card spot and first place in the National League Central. Now, surely, the team could have used a bit of bolstering. Especially in the rotation. Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams got off to great starts to the second half of the season. Joe Musgrove was putting up solid numbers despite meh bottom line results, and Ivan Nova was good enough for a number four starter. But the fifth spot was a mismatched group that consisted of Chad Kuhl (before he got injured), Nick Kingham, and Steven Brault. All of which did not provide any inspiring results.
So the Pirates went out and acquired what they thought was a pitcher with ace potential: Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer. Archer was the prized pitching possession that was available at the 2018 trade deadline, and the Pirates acquiring him was a move that bucked their normal trends and surprised a lot of people around the baseball world. But as time went on and more was released about the trade, the worse and worse it got. This has since become one of the worst trades in the long history of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When the first announcement about the trade was made, it was originally Archer going to Pittsburgh for Tyler Glasnow. All in all, that didn’t seem all that bad. Both Archer and Glasnow were change of scenery candidates. In the two seasons prior to 2018, Archer had posted a solid 4.05 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 1.25 WHIP in 402.1 innings. That’s about a slightly above league average pitcher. He had also posted a DRA of 3.38 and 3.58 in these seasons prior, showing maybe he was just getting a bit unlucky. Archer had also had a collective 7.4 fWAR, which ranked 9th among MLB starting pitchers in these two seasons. He even surpassed Zack Greinke (7.2), Jon Lester and Jacob deGrom (both at 7.1). Archer was having a so-so 2018. He had a 4.31 ERA, but still carried a 3.62 FIP and 1.39 WHIP in an injury shortened 96 innings.
Glasnow on the other hand was a former top 10 prospect who was still struggling to find his footing. The tall right hander’s biggest problem was his control. In 2017, Glasnow pitched in 62 innings and walked 44 batters. He only struck out 56, resulting in a weak 1.27 K/BB ratio. He had also given up 13 home runs. In 2019, Glasnow showed some improvement working just out of the bullpen, but still was struggling to keep runners off base. He walked batters at a 5.5 per 9 rate, and struck them out at an 11.6 per 9 rate, but his ERA was at 4.34. He always had potential, as he was able to run his fastball into the high-90’s to mix it with an outstanding 12-6 curveball, but he just never seemed to be able to have the confidence on the mound to keep those pitches in the zone.
But the more about the trade that was released, the worse it got. The next piece that was included in the deal going to Tampa was Austin Meadows. Meadows had just graduated prospect status that season, but entered 2017 as another top 10 prospect, and 2018 as a top 50 prospect. He got off to a blistering hot start. In his first 51 plate appearances, Meadows had 19 hits, including five home runs, three doubles and a triple. He also walked three times and struck out just six times. While he did take a bit of a downturn in production over the next few weeks, it was mainly because he was no longer receiving regular plate appearances, and demoted to Triple-A soon after the lack of performance.
Could it have gotten worse? Yes, and that’s exactly what happened. There was a third player to be named later as part of the deal. Usually PTBNL are not high ranking top prospects. Mainly just a throw in piece of organization depth to sweeten the pot. This was not the case. The third and final piece was former first rounder Shane Baz. Baz was doing so-so at Rookie Ball, having a 3.97 ERA and 10.7 K/9, but was struggling with control, letting up a 4.6 BB/9 and 1.50 WHIP. But at this point, the Pirates had added to the overpay. Baz was still considered a top prospect. He was just selected in the first round by the Bucs a year prior.
After everything was said and done, it looked like a knee-jerk reaction by the Pirates to add. They had just given up two former top 10 prospects, one of which did very well at the MLB level, and a top 100 prospect for a league average pitcher. Sure, Archer could potentially return to ace status, but it was a gamble that would inevitably fail.
Archer has not been even a league average pitcher since arriving in Pittsburgh. So far, the former All-Star has posted a 4.92 ERA, 4.71 FIP, and 1.39 WHIP through 172 innings and 33 starts. Archer has given up 33 home runs, and his DRA jumped to 4.48. He was worth just 0.8 bWAR and 0.7 fWAR last season. But Archer not only has been an issue with his performance. His on field actions are very frowned upon, and rightfully so. During a game vs the Cincinnati Reds, utility man Derek Dietrich launched a home run vs Archer, and watched it leave PNC Park. Archer retaliated by attempting to hit Dietrich with a fastball. This led to a brawl, and helped rise tensions anytime the Pirates were playing the Reds. Archer attempting to hit a batter who cannot retaliate without getting ejected, and has no other choice but to stand in the box is not a good look.
For the Rays, Tampa Bay could have a Cy Young candidate in Glasnow. Although Glasnow only pitched in 60.2 innings last season and started just 12 games, he put up Cy Young worthy numbers in those limited innings. The hard throwing right hander saw his ERA drop to 1.78, FIP to 2.26, and WHIP to 0.89. His 2019 DRA was just 2.77, which would have placed him with the 8th lowest DRA had he kept that up for an entire season.
Glasnow can thank his fastball, which averaged at a career average 97.6 MPH. Over 2 MPH faster than in 2017. Control became a non-issue for Tyler. He walked just 6% of all the batters he faced (league average was 9%), while striking out 33% of batters faced. Plus he gave up only four long balls. Had Glasnow kept up this amazing performance for the entire season, his ERA+ (250) would have been the 9th highest single season ERA+ of all time, just passing Walter Johnson’s 1912 season (243).
Meadows’ 2019 gives hope for a potential MVP caliber bat in the future. In 591 plate appearances, Meadows hit .291/.364/.558 with 33 home runs and 12 stolen bags. Meadows was a tad-bit inconsistent, having a .503 OPS in June, and .766 OPS in August. But if he can get over having very high peaks but very low valleys, then you’re looking at an MVP bat.
Meadows finished the season with a 142 wRC+ and a 143 OPS+. His wRC+ ranked 11th among all qualified batters last season. Meadows mainly served as a corner outfielder/designated hitter. Most of his innings came in right field where he had 472 innings, a -7 DRS, -4.5 UZR, and -3.8 range runs, but left field was a different story. In 288 innings, Meadows put up +3 DRS, +3 UZR, and +0.9 range runs. Meadows should see many more innings in left field in his future with 2019-2020 off season acquisition Hunter Renfroe taking over in right field, who had +22 DRS (14 from RF), +10.1 UZR (8.4 from RF), and +6 range runs (3.6 from RF). If he flashes the leather in left field, like he did in 2019, you’re looking at a potential 5-6+ WAR player.
As for Shane Baz, the hard throwing right hander broke out at A-Ball. In 81.1 innings, Baz posted a 2.99 ERA, 3.66 FIP, and 1.23 WHIP. Although he walked 4.1 batters per 9, he struck them out at a 9.6 rate. He also gave up only five home runs. FanGraphs grades Baz’s fastball at a 60 with a future of a 70 grade, while his curveball and cutter both have 55 current/60 future grades. While his change up isn’t graded great (40), it still seems to be a useful pitch with a future 50 grade. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 30th(!) best prospect in baseball, while MLB Pipeline ranked him as the 90th best prospect.
Hopefully, the Pirates never run into a trade like this again. This trade had many red flags to start with, and has easily set them back a handful of years. This accelerated their door of competition to close at a faster rate. Even if Archer bounces back somewhat to the pitcher he was before 2018-2019, it will only slightly lessen the blow. Glasnow and Meadows already combined for a 6.4 bWAR and 6.3 fWAR in 2019. Even if Baz becomes a busted prospect, it still won’t matter. The Rays have gotten more than enough value out of Meadows and Glasnow for them to be considered the winners in this trade unless Archer has some Cy Young level season. Not only could this be the worst trade in Pirates history, but potentially one of the worst in recent baseball history. In short, the Pirates basically gave up the package it took for the Red Sox to acquire Chris Sale, but for Chris Archer.