Pirates should be willing to take small step back in 2016

Can the Pirates afford Mark Melancon? Trading him might make the most sense to set up for the future in the ultra-competitive NL Central. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I was on Pittsburgh radio last week with David Todd, the excellent host of 970 ESPN Pittsburgh. As we discussed the Pittsburgh Pirates, we ended up agreeing on something: It may be smart for the Pirates to take a small step back in 2016 in order to gear up for 2017.

It's possible the Pirates front office is thinking the same thing, thus the trade rumors involving second baseman Neil Walker and closer Mark Melancon, both of whom are free agents after 2016.

Trading those two wouldn't be an easy sell to a fan base that has seen the Pirates lose the wild-card game two years in a row: Walker is a local kid who grew up rooting for the Pirates; Melancon is coming off another terrific season, with 51 saves in 53 chances.

So why trade those two?

1. How likely and how willing are the budget-constrained Pirates to re-sign both next season? Walker is a good-not-great player but would be entering his age-31 season in 2017. As a second baseman with limited range, that's not a player the Pirates should be committing to with a long-term contract in his 30s. Similarly, the Pirates have to find the next Melancon rather than commit big dollars to him in free agency. So trade them now and get some prospects who can you help you in 2017 and beyond.

2. They would be able to get something of quality for each player. Last year, the Angels were able to flip Howie Kendrick in his final season before free agency for Andrew Heaney, a cost-controlled young pitcher. That may be the extreme upside, but several teams are looking for a second baseman. And for all the heated trade talk that involved Aroldis Chapman, isn't Melancon better? Or at least just as good? No, he doesn't throw 100 mph, but check out their past three seasons:

Melancon: 218 1/3 innings pitched, 9-9, 1.85 ERA, 7 HR, .229 wOBA, 100 for 110 in saves (90.9 percent)

Chapman: 184 IP, 8-12, 2.05 ERA, 11 HR, .238 wOBA, 107 for 117 in saves (91.4 percent)

Leave aside the strikeouts -- a skill that is wasted to some extent if you're going to enter in the ninth inning with the bases empty -- and Melancon has been just as effective. It would seem that with several teams looking for a closer and the Dodgers just acquiring Chapman, the Astros or Nationals should still be interested in Melancon.

3. The Pirates may not be as good as the Cubs or Cardinals. First, factor in that they've already lost A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ from their season-ending rotation. While the final standings were very close -- the Cardinals with 100 wins, the Pirates with 98, the Cubs with 97 -- if we look at the BaseRuns standings at FanGraphs, we see a different story. BaseRuns simply removes sequencing from a team's runs and runs allowed to project a team's record. If a team hit well with runners on base or pitched better with runners on base, they'll outpace their BaseRuns record. Here are the BaseRuns records in 2015:

Cubs: 94 wins

Pirates: 91 wins

Cardinals: 89 wins

So all three teams did better in the standings that count than in BaseRuns. The Cardinals have already lost John Lackey (to the Cubs) and Lance Lynn (to Tommy John surgery), but they'll get Adam Wainwright back and have deeper pockets than the Pirates to play in free agency. The Cubs are young and getting better and added Lackey. In other words, the bar in the NL Central is extremely high. You can't expect to build a 90-win team and hope that's enough or hope that you perform as well again in the clutch. The Pirates could have a very good team in 2015 but win 90 games and finish third and miss the playoffs.

4. Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell will be ready in 2017. The team's top prospects are likely midseason call-ups in 2016, so they'll be getting their feet wet in 2016 and then potentially become impact contributors in 2017. Another reason to build for 2017 and beyond.

5. The Andrew McCutchen contract looms in the future. Yes, you hate to give away a season in McCutchen's prime, but you'll still have him for 2017 and 2018 (along with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco). But any chance of re-signing McCutchen after 2018 depends on keeping the payroll in check around him. That's another reason they're unlikely to sign Walker and Melancon.

Again, none of this would be an easy sell to a fan base that just delivered the team its best attendance in franchise history. Small-market T=teams like the Pirates and Royals have been successful, but now comes the hard part: How do you keep it going? Just ask the A's and Rays how difficult that can be.