Asking For the Moon

All year the Pittsburgh Pirates have said we aren’t likely to see a repeat of their 2008 and 2009 trade practices, which saw almost everyone on the major league roster shipped off for a massive supply of prospects and young major league players.  For obvious reasons, these claims have been met with skepticism, with most Pirates fans expecting players like Ryan Doumit, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, and Octavio Dotel to be traded away.

The last week has shown us that the Pirates may not be bluffing when they say that they’ll only make a deal if they’re blown away by the return.  First, we heard rumors that the Texas Rangers were inquiring about Joel Hanrahan, and that the Pirates asked for Neftali Feliz in return.  Looking at the deal, it’s obvious that the trade would be a win for the Pirates, and wouldn’t make sense for the Rangers, especially if they’re looking for bullpen help.  A comparison of the two players this year:

Hanrahan: 12.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9 .203 BAA in 41.2 IP
Feliz: 10.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, .199 BAA in 41.1 IP

Looking at those secondary numbers, it’s clear that Feliz for Hanrahan wouldn’t be totally unfair.  Feliz has the hype factor working for him.  He was regarded as a top prospect, acquired in a high profile deal that sent Mark Teixeira to Atlanta from Texas, and has been excellent in his career so far.  Hanrahan, meanwhile, was the Washington closer before struggling in the first half of the 2009 season.  He was traded in a swap for Sean Burnett as part of the Nyjer Morgan/Lastings Milledge deal, which obviously doesn’t have the magnitude of the Teixeira trade.  Since the deal though, Hanrahan has been lights out, and clearly has been pitching with the same effectiveness out of the bullpen as Feliz.

The trade doesn’t make sense for the Rangers because of the age and control.  Hanrahan becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season, and has three years of control remaining.  Feliz has five years of control remaining after the 2010 season, and doesn’t become arbitration eligible until the 2013 season.  Feliz is also 22 years old, while Hanrahan is 28.  Hanrahan is in his prime, while Feliz is very young, and could potentially be better than what he is right now.

That doesn’t mean the Pirates should accept less though.  In fact, this trade proposal only makes sense for the Pirates.  They’ve got a reliever that is playing to an elite level.  The Pirates like Hanrahan so much that, according to Buster Olney, they plan on making him the closer if they trade Octavio Dotel.  They also have Hanrahan under control for three years beyond the 2010 season.  There are three options the Pirates have:

1. Make a lateral swap, sending Hanrahan for another reliever just like Hanrahan with the same amount of control and the same age
2. Trade Hanrahan for a reliever like Feliz, a lateral swap now, with the chance of growing in to more in the future
3. Trade Hanrahan for a lesser return, and hope that the return develops in to something more than Hanrahan

Number one makes no sense at all.  Number three is what the Pirates have been doing the last two years, and is a very common practice with rebuilding teams.  However, the Pirates have said they are past this stage now.  The offense is starting to look good.  The bullpen looks great, anchored by Hanrahan and Evan Meek.  The weakness of the current team is the pitching staff, although there are a few promising prospects at the AA level who could be in the majors as soon as June 2011 to help that area.

That brings me to the other trade rumor we’ve been hearing about.  The Dodgers have shown an interest in Paul Maholm, and one rumor says that the Pirates want top shortstop prospect Dee Gordon and a major league ready pitcher in return.  I’ve talked about the financial problems the Dodgers are currently having, and Maholm’s low cost, plus the Pirates’ potential willingness to pick up salary, could net them a big return with the Dodgers.  But would Maholm, plus cash, be worth the top prospect in the Dodgers’ farm system, plus a major league ready pitcher (perhaps someone like John Ely)?

It certainly makes sense for the Pirates to ask.  This is the same Dodgers team that traded top prospect Carlos Santana for a two month rental of Casey Blake, all because Cleveland picked up the final two months of Blake’s salary.  Maholm is under control for two years beyond the 2010 season.  If the Dodgers were willing to deal Santana for Blake, all because Cleveland picked up the final $2 M of Blake’s salary, then what would they give if the Pirates picked up the final $8.4 M guaranteed to Maholm?

It also makes sense for the Pirates to demand a high price because the Pirates can’t afford to be trading their best pitcher, when their biggest need at the major league level is starting pitching.  Currently, Maholm is the only stable pitcher the Pirates have.  Ross Ohlendorf and Zach Duke are struggling, Brad Lincoln is getting adjusted to the majors, and Jeff Karstens is holding down the final rotation spot.  The Pirates have Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson in AA, but as we’ve seen with Lincoln, there’s no guarantee that any of those guys will jump right in to the majors and have success in 2011.

We also can’t assume that every option will work out.  You can’t look at the AA pitchers and assume that will make up 80% of the rotation in a few years.  Some will work out, some won’t, and trading Maholm away only makes it so that the Pirates are banking on the majority of those AA pitchers having success in the majors.

The Maholm and Hanrahan situations are very similar.  In each case we’ve got some of the top Pirates players who are obviously playing well enough to be considered as potential help to contenders.  Both players are under control beyond the 2010 season, with Hanrahan under control through the 2013 season, and Maholm through 2012.  Both players are affordable for the Pirates, even though Hanrahan’s arbitration costs are currently unknown.

There seems to exist a feeling that the Pirates have to trade these guys.  It’s as if the Pirates need to accept whatever deal they can get for these two, seemingly because the Pirates have no other option but to trade Maholm and Hanrahan.  The Pirates do have an option though.  They can keep Maholm and Hanrahan beyond the 2010 season.  If those two are good enough to be desired by contenders, then they’re definitely good enough to play a role in the rebuilding of the Pirates.

The shock that s

eems to come from these deals stems from the thought that the Pirates are almost a guarantee to trade these guys away.  It’s the joke that the Pirates are the AAA team to the rest of the majors, taken one step further to the point where it’s believed to be reality.  The truth is that the Pirates have said they’re not looking to move certain players, and it only makes sense that Maholm and Hanrahan are two of those players.  So when considering that, the asking price for Maholm and Hanrahan doesn’t seem so crazy.  The Pirates want to keep these two players, so it only makes sense that the Pirates would only part with them if the return was guaranteed to be in their favor.  That leaves the decision up to the other teams to decide if they want the Pirates’ options bad enough to overpay for them.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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