By Paul Sporer
Every year we see great stories emerge throughout baseball whether it’s individual players coming out of nowhere to make the All-Star Game or entire teams far exceeding expectations, much like this year’s iteration of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The players become fantasy darlings while the teams become feel-good stories for entire baseball community (except for the fans of their competition, I suppose). Around this time each year there is a big question facing the surprise teams: should they be buyers at the trade deadline?
There is no universal answer as it always depends entirely on team composition from the majors throughout the farm system. On the one hand, the adage “flags fly forever” looms overhead and encourages any team in position to make the playoffs to push forward with little regard for the future because winning will be worth any potential contention in the future. Generally this is the feeling of the fans. They just want to keep attending a sold out ballpark & watching their team as the lead story on the local nightly news.
On the other hand, front offices need to be realistic about their chances and determine a) how likely their team is to continue contending, b) how much can they improve their team at the trade deadline and at what cost and c) is the cost of potentially compromising the future worth the potential reward of making the playoffs? Neal Huntington and his crew are no doubt going through these questions and many, many more as they analyze the team and how likely continued success is with the team as is and by adding some key pieces.
So, should the Pittsburgh Pirates be buyers at the trade deadline?
Let me unequivocally answer “no” to the question “should they go ‘all-in’ this year?” which would include going for someone like Carlos Beltran or Hunter Pence. For Beltran, the Mets are rumored to be asking for an A-level prospect which would for the Pirates would be one of Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie or Tony Sanchez. Sanchez has regressed statistically this year, but rumors of a shoulder injury back in June might be affecting as his numbers have really dipped in June and July. That said, he is still a well-regarded prospect.
Pence’s price will be significant regardless of where he is traded (if he is traded), but the Astros would almost certainly add an intra-division tax especially since the Pirates would have Pence under control through the 2013 season. Ed Wade, Houston’s general manager, isn’t particularly savvy, but even he understands that Pence is his best player right now and if he is going to be traded, he needs to be bring back multiple pieces to fix the mess that is Houston. Plus, the Pirates don’t have any major prospects who are on the cusp of the major leagues which would like increase the quantity they would have to give because of the added potential failure rate to prospects who have yet to hit AAA.
Nomar Garciaparra of Baseball Tonight nonchalantly suggested that the Pirates “just need an ace pitcher” to solidify their rotation and stay in contention. I was watching that particular episode in bed and I was close to falling asleep, but right after he said that I passed out because my brain exploded. Apart from the fact that there really aren’t many aces out there, the cost would be through the roof. I can’t remember the expect name he threw out (I have seriously tried to erase the entire ordeal from my memory), but I think it was Matt Garza.
The same scenario as with Pence would apply again here as the Cubs don’t want to trade a 27-year old arm with Garza’s talent to a division rival without getting an absolute mint in return. I’m not even sure why I’m addressing this, it’s not going to happen. Yes, I would love it if the Pirates had a bat-missing frontline-type starter to pair with James McDonald (leads Pirates SPs w/7.4 K/9), but those guys are damn hard to come by for a reason.
Aramis Ramirez isn’t completely an all-in type of move because his contract is only guaranteed through this year (club option for ’12) and he has full no-trade clause and if he chooses to leverage that to get a guarantee on the team option, then it’s time to move along on him. Pedro Alvarez is the long-term answer at third base, but there are no guarantees that he can come up and give the lineup a jolt like he did a year ago.
He has missed a lot of time this year, but he is on fire of late (11-for-19 with 2 HR and 5 RBI in his last five games at AAA-Indianapolis). Ramirez’s cost and whether or not the Pirates brass believes Alvarez can come contribute down the stretch will determine how seriously they pursue him. It’s a great fit right now to fill the third base that currently exists (Brandon Wood… ugh), but let’s not just forget about Alvarez because of a bad 36-game sample in the big leagues this year.
(Ed. note – Commenter Nate Wachter pointed out something I missed, Ramirez’s option kicks in if he’s traded and it’s $16 million. Considering that Alvarez is the long-term option, whether he can make an impact in 2011 or not, Ramirez isn’t a great trade deadline option despite how abysmal third base has been for the ballclub this year. If they want to fix 3B, they would be better off finding a Jeff Keppinger or Wilson Betemit-type option as the Giants and Tigers have, respectively, in the last few days. More on Ramirez’s deal here at Cot’s.)
OK, so what about non-all-in buying moves for Pirates? I can get behind that a bit more, but can they reasonably address their needs enough to make an impact while paying just a modest price? Names they have been rumored to have interest in so far include: Ryan Ludwick, Josh Willingham, Conor Jackson and Koji Uehara.
I understand the team wants some right-handed pop, but Ludwick is simply a right-handed Garrett Jones and he isn’t really being held back by Petco Park as his home/road power virtually equal (.142 home ISO/.130 road ISO). Coincidentally, the Pirates are sort of this year’s San Diego Padres and Ludwick was the main move by the Padres at last year’s trade deadline. Paying anything for him doesn’t really have any more impact that just using Jones and Matt Diaz as a straight platoon.
Willingham has a bit more appeal because he fulfills the right-handed power bat and he could facilitate a Jones move to first base to replace Lyle Overbay who brings no power at a power position. In fact, Willingham could feasibly move to first base himself. He only has three career games there, but it is the one position where you can really hide someone defensively in order to get their bat in the lineup. Willingham has put up a .190 ISO despite playing half of his games in Oakland which is known for sapping offense. Oddly enough he actually excels there with a .232 ISO and seven of his 12 home runs in 34 home games.
Jackson is a right-handed Overbay. Do they really need a right-handed hitter so badly that they would pay, even a menial price, for someone like Jackson? They would be better off taking a shot on AAA All-Star first basemen Matt Hague. He has a .321/.378/.480 line in 358 at-bats with eight runs and 39 extra-base hits. He is a low level prospect (ranked 29th in the org. by Baseball America in the preseason), but wiser to take a shot on him than waste time on someone like Jackson.
Saved the best for last. Uehara is great target for this team as you can never have too much bullpen help and he combines the ability to miss bats (11.9 K/9) with elite control (1.6 BB/9). The downside is that he is old (36) and fragile (four DL stints in his three year career including elbow troubles that limited him to 12 appearances in 2009) Just 15 more appearances this year kicks in a four million dollar option, but that isn’t so much a downside as he has definitely been worth that even with just 44 innings in each of the last two years. Uehara would be a great setup man in the eighth inning before closer Joel Hanrahan. With Chris Resop and Jose Veras already in place, Uehara would give the bullpen three strikeout relievers leading into Hanrahan.
Since the bulk of the pitching staff relies on a pitch-to-contact strategy that can go awry if the defense doesn’t keep converting batted balls into outs, shifting to a strikeout-heavy bullpen to close out the game is a fantastic change of pace. I can’t imagine the Orioles would ask for too much for a 36-year old injury-addled reliever and one of the many mid-tier prospects the Pirates have should be able to get the deal done. Uehara, in my estimation, should be the prime target on Huntington’s shopping list.
The story the Pirates have written through 95 games is unquestionably a fantastic one, but it is far from completed and there is no guarantee for the playoffs with three legitimate competitors ready to chase them down the rest of the way and all three of whom will look to make moves at the deadline and are in more of a position to make the grandiose all-in trades. I have been a fan of the Huntington regime for years and I trust that he is smart enough to navigate the road ahead.
The naysayers for the Pirates focus on how “lucky” they have been this year and to a significant degree, that is true, but that doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to run out anytime soon. The same naysayers railed the Padres all throughout 2010 and while that club didn’t make the playoffs, they did last right down to game 162. Of course, look where they are now (42-55, tied for last in the west). They have gotten breakout seasons from Tim Stauffer, Cory Luebke and even Dustin Moseley while maintaining a very strong bullpen, but they lost their only worthy bat (Adrian Gonzalez) and that has proven too much for an offense that inept even with Gonzalez.
The luck (outperforming the skill displayed through their numbers) the Pirates are benefiting from this year will eventually regress to the mean whether in the dog days of 2011 (I definitely hope not) or in 2012 (I still hope not, but let’s be real about things), but a realistic assessment of the talent on the Pirates against the talent on the three other contending teams in their division doesn’t end up with the Pirates on top of the list and for that reason they should be frugal and smart at the trade deadline and continue focusing on the big picture that would ideally involve a core of Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, McCutchen, McDonald, Taillon, Allie, Sanchez, Luis Heredia and maybe even Hanrahan (he’s only 29, but relievers are volatile and they could be in a position to move him for something nice at the 2012 trade deadline).
This is just as important for Pirates fans to keep in mind as it is for Huntington and the front office brass. As you saw in John’s debut post, the bandwagon is filling up and that can lead to some irrational desires from fans who are just joining the fray of Pirates fandom whether the first time ever or the first time in a while. This is a great, great story that is sweeping across baseball so enjoy the ride while it continues and realize that this the beginning of something special for the Pirates that should turn the tide on 18 years of utter futility. If someone had told you that on July 20th, they would be seven wins away from matching their 2010 total, you would have definitely taken that, let alone having them in first place on that same date.