J.A. Happ: 16-3, 2.96 ERA (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
The Pirates are battling for a National League wild-card spot, and will almost certainly continue to do so until season’s end. They might get it, might not.
Three teams lead divisions, five teams are in the thick of the wild-card race and two more are on the periphery. That’s the design of adopting a second wild card. It’s mid-August, and 10 of 15 teams are invested. Hover around .500, you’ve got a chance.
So what the Pirates are doing can’t be construed as anything but the bare minimum.
Is it fair to consider what might have been? I’m not sure. But I’m going do it anyway, mainly because it’s what should have been.
Stumping for the Pirates to spend a ton more is senseless. Won’t happen.
Bob Nutting is baseball's 10th-richest owner, but it doesn't matter. He's a billionaire, but it doesn't matter. The Pirates' revenue is crazy big, but it doesn't matter.
PNC Park is the hillbilly prince’s ATM, and he won’t ever get reckless.
But signing left-handed pitcher J.A. Happ would not have been reckless.
Happ came to the Pirates from Seattle at last year’s trade deadline. He proceeded to go 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA.
After hitting free agency, Happ signed with Toronto. A three-year deal worth $36 million: $10 million this season, then two seasons at $13 million apiece. That’s an extremely affordable price and an extremely reasonable length.
Had the Pirates offered that deal, would Happ have stayed?
We’ll never know, because they didn’t.
Forty-one major league pitchers make more than Happ. None have more wins. Happ is 16-3 with a 2.96 ERA.
I don’t expect the Pirates to splash the cash for superstar free agents, or even overpay to keep perceived top-end players such as Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.
But when you can keep a good player (especially a left-handed pitcher) on a sensible contract, you should.
According to ESPN.com, the Pirates’ payroll is $86.1 million, 24th in MLB. Add Happ’s $10 million salary for this year, and the Pirates move up just one spot in the payroll rankings, to 23rd.
Add Happ’s performance to the Pirates, and they are firmly entrenched in a wild-card spot, and perhaps contending for better.
If the Pirates won’t keep that player by making that deal while their window to win is open, their intent is clear. Intent was also revealed when they ditched prospects to facilitate dumping the salary of pitcher Francisco Liriano (who makes $3.6 million more than Happ).
Happ would have given the Pirates an ace. Cole isn’t an ace.
Cole served up another reminder of that (along with a lot of easy-to-hit pitches) when he got flayed for 12 hits and five earned runs in 4 1/3 innings at Los Angeles on Saturday.
That was Cole’s second straight rotten outing. Aces are supposed to stop the bad or maintain the good. Cole hasn’t done much of either this season.
Cole is 7-8 with a 3.25 ERA. If he’s having the season he should -- even given the right triceps problem that kept him out for over a month -- the Pirates currently occupy one of the wild cards.
Cole has pitched into the seventh inning just three times all season. Happ has done so 10 times.
Cole is just killing time until he goes home to California as a free agent in 2020. Perhaps he will sign with the Dodgers. Maybe he was working as a double agent on Saturday.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9)