By John Franco
After an 8-2 thumping of the Brewers (in Miller Park, no less!) the Pirates’ record stands at 26-25 on June 2nd. They are in third place, just 3 games behind the division-leading Reds. This all seems oddly familiar: on June 24, 2011, the Pirates were one game over .500, in third place and 3 games out of first. Last year’s Pirates continued to play well for a while longer, and their 53-47 record on July 25 had them in first place. Things went downhill from there, as the Pirates went just 19-43 over their last 62 games to finish the season in fourth place, 24 games behind the Brewers.
Is there any reason to be optimistic that this year’s Pirates will be different?
Looking at last year’s team, GM Neal Huntington was faced with a tough challenge. The division seemed vulnerable, and Pirate fans were desperate for a winning team after 19 years of misery. Huntington made a couple of small trades, acquiring Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee in exchange for picking up their salaries, but didn’t part with any of their top prospects. The team’s run differential was only +6 when their record stood at 53-47, and some of their players had been playing over their heads. Given the team’s subsequent collapse, Huntington probably made the right move, but some fans probably think last year’s team missed an opportunity. I’m not sure he expected the Brewers to go 43-19 the rest of the way, but he might have realized the division title was further away than it looked.
This year’s Pirates team has a run differential of minus 23 despite being a game over .500. Their pitching has been outstanding – allowing just 3.5 runs per game ranks them second in the NL – but their offense ranks dead last at just 3.0 runs per game. Jordy Mercer and Matt Hague might make things look a little less bleak on offense, but they aren’t going to turn the team into a title contender overnight. If the Pirates are serious about competing, they’ll need to add some impact hitters. They do have some top prospects that could bring back some impact talent, but Huntington would probably have to part with Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon or Starling Marte to make a dent in the Pirates’ offensive woes. Even if Huntington was willing to part with a top prospect, I’m not sure who might be available. The second wild card and the movement to lock up star players before free agency has taken a lot of talent off the market.
At the same time, Erik Bedard could be a valuable trade chip for the Pirates if they were willing to deal him before the trade deadline. AJ Burnett and Joel Hanrahan are under the Pirates’ control for 2013 as well as 2012, so they are less likely to be traded, but could return more value if they were dealt. Trading away pieces from a team that has the record of a contender would be an unpopular move, but it might be the right one. If Huntington tries to play the Ludwick/Lee game again this year to perpetuate the illusion of trying without actually trying, more fans might see through it.
The Pirates still have two months before the trade deadline forces them to make a commitment. If they are serious about contending, they can’t wait that long to improve their offense. If they want to wait and see, they risk the Cardinals or Reds putting together a run like the Brewers used to end the 2011 season. There are no easy answers, but the Pirates’ offense is so bad that they might be able to swing a major upgrade just by trading Robbie Grossman or Colton Cain or another second-level prospect. If they can find that move, it would be the smart one. If not, the wait-and-see approach is probably best, even though the results will likely be regression that drops them out of contention.