Bucs reshuffle pitching

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH – In the mix of a heated playoff race, the Toronto Blue Jays added depth in search of a second straight postseason appearance. On the fringe of the wild card in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates did their best to clear the books for 2017.

Toronto acquired pitcher Francisco Liriano from the Pirates on Monday in exchange for Drew Hutchinson, hoping a return to form by the veteran starter will help the Blue Jays escape a crowded log jam near the top of the AL East.

Toronto also picked up a pair of promising minor league prospects from Pittsburgh in catcher Reese McGuire and outfielder Harold Ramirez.

The Pirates were busy too, but coming off a weekend sweep at the hands of Milwaukee and with hopes for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance fading entering August, Pittsburgh instead chose to jettison expensive disappointments Liriano and Jon Niese, who was shipped back to the New York Mets for reliever Antonio Bastardo. Pittsburgh also acquired right-hander Ivan Nova from the Yankees for two players to be named later.

Liriano revived his career in Pittsburgh, going 35-25 from 2013-15 while helping the Pirates to three straight playoff berths. He has struggled this season, posting a 6-11 record with a 5.46 ERA. Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington called the decision to move Liriano “challenging” but one he could not pass up, even if it meant throwing McGuire and Ramirez in the deal, because Liriano is signed through 2017 and is due $13.66 million next season.

“The financial flexibility and adding Drew Hutchinson with our ability to reallocate those dollars onto this club in different ways going forward (were attractive),” Huntington said.

The trade came shortly after the Pirates sent Niese back to the New York Mets. Sent from New York to Pittsburgh last December for second baseman Neil Walker, Niese never found a rhythm during his time with the Pirates. He went 8-6 with a 4.91 ERA and was moved to the bullpen earlier this month.

The 29-year-old Niese is making $9 million in the final season of a deal he signed with the Mets in March 2012, a contract that includes a $10 million team option for 2017 with a $500,000 buyout.

Pittsburgh enters the final two months of the season with just one starter remaining from the opening day rotation: Gerrit Cole. Niese and Liriano have been traded while Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio have been moved to the bullpen, though Locke will get a spot start this week in Atlanta.

Huntington stressed the Pirates still believe they can compete this season and believes in a way addition by subtraction might help. Nova will take Liriano’s spot in the rotation. Ryan Vogelsong, out since May with facial fractures, will return this week. Rookie Jameson Taillon has shown signs of promise and rookie Tyler Glasnow will also be back in the rotation when he returns from shoulder fatigue.

“We had some guys that weren’t getting the job done,” Huntington said. “How do we improve our rotation to give this club that’s three games out in the loss column an opportunity to regain (positioning)? The starting pitching was our biggest challenge and we felt like we addressed that somewhat internally and somewhat externally.”

Over the weekend, Pittsburgh sent All-Star closer Mark Melancon to Washington in exchange for hard-throwing reliever Felipe Rivero and minor league pitcher Taylor Hearn.