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Mark Madden: Pirates’ PR moves just happen to be good trades

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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Chris Archer talks with team owner Bob Nutting Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, at PNC Park.

The Pirates made all the right moves at the MLB trade deadline.

Getting reliever Keone Kela from Texas would have been enough. But GM Neal Huntington doubled down and then some with the acquisition of starter Chris Archer from Tampa Bay.

Huntington painted the Pirates into a corner when the team was at low ebb (40-48) in early July. He said, in so many words, that a hot streak would be rewarded with additions at the deadline.

Huntington never expected a hot streak. Not hot enough, anyway. He assumed things would continue being bad. Maybe get worse. Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole got traded in the offseason. More significant departures seemed imminent.

But the players double-crossed Huntington and, by extension, owner Bob Nutting.

The Pirates went 15-4 in the games prior to the July 31 deadline, putting them just 3½ games out of the second wild-card spot.

The Pirates couldn’t logically sell — although logic didn’t stop Huntington at the 2016 deadline, when he ditched closer Mark Melancon and starter Francisco Liriano even though the Pirates were just three games away from the last wild card. Those deals completed the neutering of the 98-win team from 2015; eight key components had departed since the end of that season.

The Pirates have paid a price for that: Average attendance at PNC Park is down almost 13K since 2015.

Fans understand a small-market club’s limitations.

But they also know that Nutting is the 10th-richest owner in MLB, that his family is worth over $1 billion and that the Pirates made $84 million profit over the last two seasons and got $50 million this year from MLB’s tech sale.

The Pirates betrayed Pittsburgh’s trust by slamming the team’s window shut on the fans’ fingers following the 2015 season. The Pirates have too often betrayed the players since then, too.

To dump salaries now, thus reneging on the promise Huntington never thought he’d have to deliver on, might have done irreparable PR damage. It might have taken a wary clubhouse and made it toxic.

So the Pirates went in the other direction, spinning 180 degrees away from their philosophy of trading prospects.

The acquisitions of Archer and Kela were desperate marketing moves that just happened to be good baseball trades.

I come to praise, not bury. But it’s tough to give the Pirates too much favorable hype for, at long last, doing the right thing.

Payroll hasn’t kept up with revenue, let alone with the rest of MLB. The Pirates didn’t maximize or extend their 2013-15 window, and that was because Nutting chose a lot of profit over a little profit. Keeping that 2015 team together to some reasonable degree would not have put Nutting in the red.

The Pirates had to stem the tide of negative opinion and didn’t make their attempt a moment too soon.

Now, whether they make the playoffs or not — and they probably won’t — the Pirates can say they tried and will even be telling the truth.

That doesn’t make up for all past sins. But it may provide exciting baseball through Buctober (traditionally the shortest month) and get more people through the turnstiles, especially when new community-relations liaison Archer is on the mound. Archer somehow became a crowd favorite before ever throwing a pitch for the Pirates.

But what happens after this season? That’s the interesting part.

Archer and Kela aren’t rentals: That’s what makes those trades great. The Pirates control Archer through 2021; he tops out at $8.25 million. Kela has two more years of arbitration; the Pirates control him through 2020.

Will the Pirates add talent (and payroll) in the offseason?

Will the Pirates make good baseball trades at next year’s deadline if the standings dictate?

A new window looks to be materializing. Will the Pirates maximize this one?

Or is what happened Tuesday a one-time hotshot strictly for PR gain?

I’d bet on the latter. Nutting plays this town like a piano.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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