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The Pirates’ trade of Jameson Taillon is a symptom of what’s wrong with baseball

NARRATOR: It’s not going to get better from here.

Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Jameson Taillon was the Pirates’ No. 1 pick in 2010 (second overall). He appeared ready to break out after a fine 2018 season, only to go down early in 2019 and have Tommy John surgery, which he spent 2020 rehabbing from. (The photo is from a rehab session last September.)

He wasn’t going to be expensive for the Pirates in 2021 — they had signed him to a $2.25 million deal, avoiding arbitration. He can’t be a free agent until after 2022.

But the Pirates didn’t even want that on their team in 2021, so they traded him to the Yankees Sunday:

The prospects are supposed to be decent, all ranked in the Yankees’ Top 21. But that’s not all the Pirates have done in recent years:

Yikes. That’s pretty much an All-Star team of the last several years. And this is the result:

Looking at the Pirates’ 40-man roster, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Adam Frazier, Gregory Polanco and Kevin Newman are the only regular position players remaining who are likely to produce any sort of decent season in Pittsburgh in 2021. There are a couple of decent young pitchers, including Mitch Keller and JT Brubaker, but... this is a team that had the worst record in MLB’s 60-game season in 2020 (19-41, and they had to win four of their last six, including three straight over the Cubs, to be even that “good”), and it’s entirely possible that if MLB does make it through a 162-game season in 2021, they could threaten the modern loss record (120) set by the Mets in 1962.

Why are they doing this? Money, of course. Spotrac has the Pirates’ 2021 payroll at under $38 million. The Cleveland Indians are listed by Spotrac even lower, at $23.555 million, though that number will go up before the season begins, because on that Spotrac page for Cleveland, only six player salaries are officially listed. Everyone else on the Indians roster on that page is listed as “pre-arb.”

Baseball finds itself at a crossroads in the uncertain times of 2021. We still don’t know whether the season will start on time, though the Commissioner’s office continues to say that it will — even though, as I wrote Sunday, at least one team has not given its players an official Spring Training report date.

The Pirates and Indians are teams that have apparently gone full tear-down. The Cubs seem to be in a limbo of sorts — they traded away their best (and highest-paid) pitcher, reducing the payroll, but have retained other high-paid players, at least for now. It would appear that Cubs strategy is to attempt to compete for a division title in a poor division, which would likely get fans interested, even if it meant another early postseason exit. Then, presuming fans return to Wrigley Field later this year, bringing that revenue back, the team could re-tool for 2022, even if potential free agents Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo depart. Or, if this interregnum of a team doesn’t contend, those players (and others) could be traded at the deadline.

This isn’t a way to run a team, or a sport. Sure, some teams are spending big money this offseason (Padres) and others (Mets, Nationals, Yankees) have made significant signings or trades. But the vast majority of MLB squads are sitting around this offseason doing nothing. Perhaps they are waiting for the price to come down on free agents... or maybe they’re seeing 2021 as a “loss leader” awaiting a return to baseball normalcy in 2022.

But then there’s that expiring labor agreement looming at the end of 2021, and given the contentious negotiations between players and owners to even get a 2020 season played, the talks for a new MLB/MLBPA collective-bargaining agreement aren’t likely to be pretty. We could be looking at a labor stoppage that could cost us most, if not all, of the 2022 season.

I went to see the Cubs play in Pittsburgh in 2009, and found myself sitting next to a man with his son, the younger appearing to be around nine or 10 years old. We got to talking, and the man told me, “We love coming to Pirates games, but we never expect them to win.” (The Cubs, incidentally, swept that three-game series in September 2009.)

2009 was the Pirates’ 17th consecutive losing season; it would take three more before the Bucs finally got to those three straight postseasons noted above.

Is that what baseball’s moguls want the sport to be? Reminiscent of the 1930s, when one or two teams dominated the sport while several others lost 100+ games year after year after year?

Because if they’re not careful, that’s what they’re going to get, and who’s going to want to pay to see that?