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What are the Pirates doing?

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Not much of anything and that’s a problem.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What are the Pirates doing?

With the rest of the NL Central, it’s pretty clear to see what their plans are. The Cubs are doing everything they can to dominate. The Cardinals are doing the same stuff that they always do with smart pickups and a strong farm system. If it works, why change it? The Brewers have finished their rebuild and are now looking to challenge for a playoff spot. While their starting rotation is iffy at the moment, they look to have a powerful lineup after adding two outfielders in young star Christian Yelich and free agent defensive wizard Lorenzo Cain.

The Reds, on the other hand, have pretty much sold everything of value (except Joey Votto, who has 10-5 rights and apparently wants to play his entire career in Cincinnati) and have put together a consensus top-ten farm system. They are still a few years away, but you can see the foundation of a good team there.

Then there are the Pirates who have done . . .nothing.

That’s not exactly true. The Pirates made two big trades this winter, shipping out their best starting pitcher in Gerrit Cole and outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who is the best player in franchise history since Barry Bonds headed west.

Both trades are defensible in a vacuum. McCutchen only had one year left on his deal and the Pirates didn’t want to sign a declining legend to an extension that would take him into his mid-30s. Fair enough. But the return they got for McCutchen was odd. They got a reliever with control issues in Kyle Crick and an athletic minor league outfielder in Bryan Reynolds who strikes out a lot and has never shown the ability to hit for much power. Reynolds also can’t play center field.

Maybe that’s the best they could get for McCutchen, who only has one year and $14.5 million remaining on his contract. But neither Crick nor Reynolds is the type of player who is going to be a key cog on a playoff contender.

The Pirates did a little better in sending Cole to Houston, but they should have. Cole had two years left before being eligible for free agency and despite a disappointing year last year, he’s still a guy who threw 200 innings last season and has a career ERA of 3.50. In return, they got a third baseman in Colin Moran who has been a disappointment, although if you squint you can still see a decent, everyday third baseman there. They added a reliever in Joe Musgrove who they intend to make a starter. That’s an odd decision since Musgrove has been pretty good as a reliever and terrible as a starter. They got another reliever in Michael Feliz with control problems (I guess so Crick can have someone to commiserate with) and another minor league outfielder with limited upside.

Again, maybe this is the best they could have gotten for Cole, but I doubt it. The Bucs went with quantity over quality, which is not something a rebuilding club should be doing. After trading both of their top major leaguers, the Pirates still have a farm system that only ranks in the middle of the pack.

The other benefit of the McCutchen and Cole deals could have been that they shed about $20 million in payroll. That could be useful if the re-invested that money in some free agents, or took on some contracts from a team like the Marlins who are in fire sale mode.

But they didn’t. In fact, the Pirates are the only team this winter who have not signed a single free agent to a major-league contract. I guess there is still time to change that, but the Pirates haven’t been connected to any of the remaining free agents. The only other major league player they have added is outfielder Corey Dickerson, who had been designated for assignment by the Rays.

In fact, the biggest move the Pirates have made this winter is locking up their closer, Felipe Rivero, to a four-year extension. A closer on a team like the Pirates is like a cherry on top of a sundae: it’s not much good unless there is some ice cream and hot fudge underneath it.

So the Pirates are tanking? Trying to rebuild their system from the ground up? Not exactly. If they were truly trying to rebuild, they would be looking to deal anything that has major league value that isn’t nailed down. Instead of signing Rivero to an extension, they should have dealt him. Josh Harrison is a player whom a lot of teams would covet for his bat and positional flexibility. David Freese might not have a ton of trade value, but the Pirates need him right now like a dog needs slacks. I can understand that Starling Marte might be hard to move after his PED suspension, but as far as it has been reported, the Pirates didn’t even try.

The Pirates cutting payroll to no real positive effect has been noticed by the Players’ Association, who named Pittsburgh in a grievance along with the Athletics, Rays and Marlins as teams that aren’t spending their revenue-sharing money.

In fact, that is really the only way the Pirates offseason begins to make sense. The team has given up trying to compete on the field and owner Bob Nutting has just decided to turn a profit with the best team he can put on the field for the least amount of money he can reasonably spend. If that’s not the case, it’s hard to see the plan here.

If that is in fact the case, Nutting needs to just sell the team. There certainly is a groundswell among Pirates fans asking him to do just that.

Maybe I’m wrong and the Pirates haven’t given up. Maybe they’re just incompetent. Or maybe they’re so brilliant that we can’t see it and they’ll be contending again in 2018 or 2019.

Where’s the plan? Team President Frank Coonelly says that it’s an “insult” to imply that the team is not committed to winning. But as you can see from that linked piece, the fans in Western Pennsylvania aren’t buying it.

But what’s the plan, Frank? Just tell us the plan!

If the Pirates had sold off most of the team like the Marlins have this winter, you could see the point. If they had added a few pieces to give Andrew McCutchen one last chance to win as a Pirate, you could see that too. But right now, they’re just doing nothing.

And you know what they say when everyone else is moving forward and you’re standing still? Then you’re moving backwards. And that’s what the Pirates are doing right now.