How the Pirates can maintain respectability after trading Gerrit Cole
Denis Poroy / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The Pittsburgh Pirates kicked the stalled offseason into gear with a major trade Saturday evening, sending starter Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros in exchange for four players.

While this certainly solidifies the Astros' rotation and the team's pursuit of becoming a dynasty, it suggests the Pirates are finally taking a step back. You don't trade your best pitcher and still expect to contend for a pennant, after all.

That doesn't mean the Pirates are entering a major, five-year rebuild. That said, more changes need to be incoming to help ensure they're not committed to another long stretch of mediocrity.

Step 1: Trade Andrew McCutchen

It's time for the face of the franchise to move onto greener pastures. It will be best for McCutchen a year before he hits free agency, and it will be best for the Pirates to recoup something in exchange for the star outfielder.

While the temporary nature of McCutchen's stay with his theoretical new team may suppress the value of the return, he is still a five-time All-Star who has won a National League MVP award while finishing in the top five on four occasions. He can't be had for chump change.

The Pirates need to target a competitor or a fringe team in desperate need of outfield help (Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays) and see what kind of return they can get. Even if they can't pry a team's top prospects away, they can ask for players similar to what they got from Houston in exchange for Cole: Major-league ready bodies.

Step 2: Trade Josh Harrison

This one might hurt. Harrison is a beloved piece of this franchise who, like McCutchen, has spent his entire pro career with the Pirates. Where he may be more appealing than McCutchen is in his contract. While he only has one year and $10 million remaining, he also has a pair of team options for 2019 ($10.5 million) and 2020 ($11.5 milllion).

He's also incredibly versatile. While he primarily split time between second base and third base in 2017, he's played both corner outfield positions and has even played some shortstop in his day (though not since 2014).

Whether the Pirates package Harrison with McCutchen, or trade them separately, these are the players they need to consider moving immediately. Again, the focus shouldn't be about acquiring players who won't be ready for the big leagues in five years, but who will make an impact in two.

Which brings us to ...

Step 3: Find affordable placeholders

Assuming 2018 is a year of adjustment, the Pirates will still need to fill the void left by those who've departed via trade. Colin Moran could begin the year on the big-league roster, but he may need more seasoning. And any McCutchen and Harrison trade would open a spot in the outfield and second base, respectively.

One option could be to reunite with free-agent second baseman Neil Walker. Walker played seven seasons with the Pirates from 2009-15, and has been one of the most quietly reliable middle-infield bats in the game. Because he's not flashy, and considering how minimal offseason movement has been, he might be available at a relative discount.

Similarly, outfielders Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez, and starting pitchers Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, and Andrew Cashner might be open to shorter deals in order to test free agency again at a later date.

Step 4: Exercise patience with the future

Right-handed starters Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow didn't exactly have their coming-out seasons in 2017. Taillon showed flashes, but his progress was understandably stalled due to testicular cancer. Glasnow, meanwhile, couldn't find the strike zone, issuing 44 walks in only 62 innings. He was jettisoned to Triple-A in early June before a September call-up. His command issues were even worse upon his return.

But the promise remains. Combine them with newly acquired Joe Musgrove, top pitching prospect Mitch Keller, and controllable arms in Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams, and there are enough options on the mound to inspire some confidence.

And that's not counting 22-year-old outfielder Austin Meadows, the team's top overall prospect. Meadows struggled in 2017 (.250/.311/.359), but he doesn't have a reputation for striking out, generally succeeding at making consistent contact at all levels.

Ideally, the returns for McCutchen and Harrison help bolster the team's potential in the near future in both the batters' box and on the mound. Pirates fans, as frustrating as it must be to see the team waving a white flag, should be encouraged that the team isn't very far away from being serious contenders once again. Plenty has to go right, but a path is clear.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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How the Pirates can maintain respectability after trading Gerrit Cole
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