Pirates should have delayed rebuild for another year

The Pirates decided to blow it up, and the most disappointing thing about that is the team actually had a chance to be good this year.

Maybe not a great chance, but with Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, 85 wins and playoff contention might have been within reach. Call me optimistic there, but the Bucs would have had a solid core returning, albeit in a brutally difficult division.

Now, with the head-scratching decisions to unload Cole to the Astros and McCutchen to the Giants for less-than-stellar return — and Josh Harrison likely on his way out next — hope for this season already appears to be lost.

What a shame, because trading your best player and best pitcher can only be viewed one way, and that’s throwing in the towel on a decent present in hope of being better in the future. In hope, mind you, with no guarantees whatsoever that the future will ever be as good as what the present might have been.

The Pirates’ fan base deserves better. A fan base that suffered through 20 horribly disappointing losing seasons in a row, then finally got three straight playoff appearances, only to see the bottom fall out again and now things being torn down without ever seeing a deep postseason run.

The Pirates are getting ripped by fans and media alike for trading the face of the franchise in McCutchen, who has one year left on his contract, and the former No. 1 overall draft pick in Cole, who has two years left. Claims are louder than ever before that the organization doesn’t truly want to win and is only concerned with the bottom line.

If the Pirates really do want to win, why not play out your hand with Cutch and Cole together one last year and see how things shake out? At least keep the team together for the first half, and if things aren’t going well, deal one or both at the trade deadline in July.

But to trade them now? For questionable return in both cases? It just sends a bad message to the fans.

Let’s go back in time and see how we got to this point.

In 2015, the Pirates won 98 games, and we all thought they’d have a window of opportunity for several years to be just as good. Instead, management did virtually nothing that offseason to improve the team, with the big move being trading Neil Walker for has-been pitcher Jon Niese.

The Bucs went from 98 wins to 78 in 2016. The best additions have been pitchers Felipe Rivero and Ivan Nova, but Starling Marte’s drug suspension and Jung Ho Kang’s legal troubles derailed the 2017 season, which produced only 75 wins.

One key date to remember is Sept. 5 last year, when the Pirates announced that GM Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle both had received four-year contract extensions. The Bucs’ record at the time was 66-72.

The length of those extensions is ridiculous. A case could have been made that both Huntington and Hurdle should have been ousted, although the view here is that keeping them around was the best decision, rather than blowing it all up and having to rebuild the entire operation, farm system included.

The problem was the four years. At best, Huntington deserved a two-year extension, which would come with the pressure of, hey, you’ve got to win now by improving the core group with strong roster additions. Or else.

By giving Huntington four years, it created a situation where his job would be safe no matter what he did or if the team started losing over the next year or two. That, in turn, provided the GM all the freedom — and time — he needed to tear down a solid team so he could hope to build a better one.

But at what cost?

Trading Cole and McCutchen have infuriated a fan base that was already disgruntled.

Attendance last year at PNC Park was 23,697, down 15.7 percent from the previous year (28,115) and 23.2 percent from the 98-win season in 2015 (30,847).

Local TV ratings for games have plummeted the past seasons, as well, down an incredible 45 percent from highs in 2015 to last year. The Pirates’ TV deal is up next year, so they’ll be negotiating from a major disadvantage with those lagging numbers.

If the Pirates are bad this season, it probably will mean even fewer fans at games and fewer eyes watching on TV. That’s just not good for business.

This whole situation stinks. Trades are part of the game, and everyone knew there was a strong possibility that McCutchen and Cole would be dealt this offseason.

But the view here is the Bucs should have held on to both guys unless they were absolutely blown away with the trade return, and that obviously was not the case in either deal. It’s almost as if the Pirates were determined to trade both, panicked and merely settled for the best deals they could get.

If the Bucs would have kept both players, it would have saved management from the intense public backlash it’s getting and given the team the best chance to succeed this season.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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