Should the Pirates Make a Move?

At the beginning of this month, I talked about how the Pirates weren’t winning against good teams, and were just beating up on bad teams.  I mentioned that with a June schedule which included the Philadelphia Phillies (34-22 at the time), Arizona Diamondbacks (31-25), Cleveland Indians (33-20), Boston Red Sox (30-26), and Toronto Blue Jays (28-28), the Pirates were unlikely to escape the month of June with a winning record.  That was mostly due to the lack of success by the Pirates against winning teams prior to the month of June.

So what did the Pirates do?  They took two of three against Philadelphia, Arizona, and most recently, Boston.  They now sit at 39-38, with a three game series against the Toronto Blue Jays, who are sitting at 39-39.  If the Pirates win just one of those games, they will finish the month of June with a record of at least .500.  To take in just how impressive this is, let’s go back to that article I wrote at the start of the month:

The Pirates could take two games from the Astros and Orioles, along with three of five games against the Mets (counting today’s contest).  However, in order to enter July with a winning record, they’d have to play .500 ball against the first place Phillies, the first place Diamondbacks, the first place Indians, the second place Red Sox, and the .500 Blue Jays.  Considering their lack of success to date against winning teams, the odds of them entering July with a record around .500 are slim.  If they do manage to pull it off, that might be something to get excited about.

So far, the Pirates have played .500 ball against the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Indians, and Red Sox, and that includes being swept in three games by Cleveland.  There’s no question that the Pirates have been impressive this season, highlighted by a 14-10 run in June.  The question now becomes: do they make a move to try and contend this year?

My gut feeling tells me that the Pirates aren’t really contenders.  But how much of that feeling is just waiting for the other shoe to drop, all because that’s what we’re used to.  Nothing is lazier than comments like “X will happen because it’s the Pirates”.  How many times do we hear the “Pitcher A will have Tommy John surgery because he’s a Pirate”?  Is this the same thing?  We’re waiting for this team to lose and fall apart because every other team over the last 18 years that had a good run ended up losing.  We waited for interleague play.  That didn’t stop the winning.  We waited for big matchups like Philadelphia and Boston.  That didn’t stop the winning.  At what point do we say that this is a winning team?

Part of the problem I have is the make-up of the team.  There are holes all over the field.  The catching position is made up of two guys who have combined for less than 50 at-bats in their major league careers.  Eric Fryer is a good prospect, and looks to eventually be a strong backup in the majors.  Michael McKenry has shown some good defense, and looks to be a good #2/3 catcher going forward.

At first base, the Pirates have Lyle Overbay, a guy who is hitting for a .228/.306/.358 line in 254 at-bats.  They could move Garrett Jones and his .777 OPS to first for a bit of an upgrade, although that leaves right field to Matt Diaz, who is hitting for a .254/.287/.308 line in 130 at-bats this year.

The expected leaders of this team coming in to the year were center fielder Andrew McCutchen, left fielder Jose Tabata, second baseman Neil Walker, and third baseman Pedro Alvarez.  Alvarez is currently injured, and keeps suffering set backs.  Tabata and Walker haven’t had a strong follow up to their rookie campaigns.  Tabata is hitting for a .265/.351/.354 line, and went down with a leg injury tonight, which might not be serious enough to land him on the disabled list.  Walker is hitting for a .252/.323/.388 line.  The only one from that group that is performing is McCutchen, who is hitting for a .285/.388/.463 line, which includes a .324/.423/.521 line in 188 at-bats since April 29th.

The last position, shortstop, is being held down by Ronny Cedeno, who has a .240/.298/.335 line, and decent defense this year.  However, Cedeno is struggling with consistency issues again, and his defense hasn’t been good enough to make up for his total lack of offense.

The strength of the team has been the pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation.  Four of the five starters this year have ERAs under 3.80.  The one exception is James McDonald, who has a 4.52 ERA, mostly due to a bad start to the season.  After his first four starts of the year, McDonald has put up a 2.96 ERA in 67 innings, including tonight’s start.  Some of his starts haven’t been pretty, and he’s been struggling with his control this month (18 walks in 26.1 innings).  But the fact that he’s seen as the weak spot in the rotation really says a lot about how well the rotation has been performing this year.

During that same stretch, the Pirates have two other pitchers with an ERA under .300.  Paul Maholm has a 2.92 ERA in 71 innings since the end of April, while Jeff Karstens has a 2.36 ERA in 68.2 innings in that time frame.  Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton are both having good seasons as well, although they’ve struggled in June.  Correia has a 4.15 ERA in 30.1 innings this month, while Morton has been bombed in two starts, leading to an 8.50 ERA in 18 innings.

There’s good reason to believe that the Pirates pitching staff isn’t this good.  For example, right now Jeff Karstens looks like a Cy Young candidate, ranking 11th in the majors among qualified pitchers in the ERA category.  Common sense tells you that Karstens isn’t a Cy Young candidate.  In fact, his xFIP this year is 3.76.  Charlie Morton has the same number.  Maholm is at 4.02, and Correia is at 4.12.  McDonald is at 4.62, which is higher than his ERA.  Basically, the numbers suggest that four of the starters have been playing over their heads, and a regression is coming.

McCutchen is the only hitter on the team with an OPS over .800.

So what do the Pirates have?  They have a pitching staff that is exceeding expectations.  They have an offense that is pretty much made up of one star player, and only three other players with decent numbers.  Half of the regular starters for the Pirates have an OPS under .700.  McCutchen is the only one over .800, and Jones is the only other one over .720.

With the pitching expected to regress, the simple solution is to add offense and make up for the regression.  Many will be quick to suggest that the Pirates go out and make a trade.  However, you typically don’t see major trades take place this early.  For one, not many teams are really out of it.  Two, some teams are still trying to figure out whether they’re really in it.  Three, the trade deadline is a month away, which gives sellers a month to try and find the best deal possible.

Take Baltimore and J.J. Hardy as an example.  Baltimore is nine games out of the Wild Card race in the AL.  They’ve got J.J. Hardy under control for the remainder of the season, and he’s currently hitting for a .311/.373/.550 line in 180 at-bats.  Hardy would be a great fit for the Pirates, considering how Ronny Cedeno has played.  However, Baltimore wants to extend him, which is no easy task, since Hardy will be a free agent at 29, and will command a lot as a strong defensive shortstop coming off a great season at the plate.  Therefore, Hardy probably really won’t be available until the negotiations fall through, if that does happen.  Even if that happens, there could be other teams that emerge with shortstop issues.

The current situation almost reminds me of what happens every off-season.  People want to see a big move made, because they’re conditioned to think that a big move is the only way to improve the team.  The fact is that the team can be improved from within, and the team can be improved through smaller moves.

Right now the Pirates have holes at catcher, first base, shortstop, third base (due to Alvarez being out), and right field.  They can’t possibly upgrade each position via trade, and honestly, any team that adds five positions at the deadline shouldn’t be buying at the deadline.  Meanwhile, they’ve got Eric Fryer and Chase d’Arnaud in the majors, and Alex Presley, Matt Hague, and Josh Harrison in the minors.  Rather than trading from this group for a two month rental, why not see what this group can do?

The Pirates are already doing this by giving Fryer and d’Arnaud their shots.  Fryer made his first start tonight, while Chase has started three games in a row at third base.  Alex Presley is expected to join the team on Tuesday, and could see a lot of playing time, thanks to Jose Tabata’s injury and the presence of the DH spot in Toronto.  But why stop there?

Matt Hague is hitting for a .370/.416/.609 line in the month of June, after a .308/.361/.421 line in May.  He can’t be any worse than what we’ve seen out of Lyle Overbay this year.  Josh Harrison didn’t have much time in the majors, and was mostly a singles hitter when he was up.  However, Pedro Ciriaco isn’t even being used, so clearly Harrison would be an upgrade (although he could only return this soon if Tabata goes on the disabled list).

The Pirates look like contenders as far as their record goes.  They look like contenders when they take a series from Boston and Philadelphia in the same month.  But when you look at the over-performing pitching staff, and the swiss cheese offense, you see that it’s questionable to call them contenders.  My belief is that adding at the deadline should be more for luxury than need.  It should be done if you’re in first place, or if you’re a game or two back.  If you need to add players to contend, then you’re probably not a contender.

Despite being four games back, and sitting at 39-38, I wouldn’t call the Pirates contenders just yet.  However, I’m not going to say they’ve got no shot.  They’re kind of in no-man’s land right now.  They could make a trade to jump up in to the contenders category, but then what do they do to keep up once the other contenders make their deadline deals?  The Pirates will just have to make another move.

There should be no desperation for a move at this point though, especially with so many question marks on the field, and so many options in the minors.  With a month remaining before the trade deadline, I’d rather take time to see if Chase d’Arnaud, Alex Presley, Matt Hague, Josh Harrison, and Eric Fryer can be solid contributors.  No one from that group profiles as more than an average-to-above average player at their position, although with the performances the Pirates have gotten this year from some of their starters, even an average performer would be an upgrade.  If a few of these players step up and fill some of the open spots on the offense, and the Pirates keep winning, that’s when the team should be looking to make their big move.

Tim Williams

Author: 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 AccuScore.com, 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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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6KEYHS3XWH74U3LRIHGWL7XPBA Nate

    No trades.  Let’s see what the young guys can do.  The grind of the baseball season will reveal the Pirates aren’t a .500 just yet.  

  • http://twitter.com/BuccoMike Mike

    I would look for a leadoff guy like a Jamey Carroll to fill one gap while tabata is down and out for a bit remember he has a quad injury or Jeff Keppinger and move D’arnaud to ss to split time with cedeno.

  • Anonymous

    I would make a trade for the future, thats what good teams do or teams on the verge, get a guy under control who will mesh for a couple of years. Don’t need a rental. But you can’t stand pat either. Very foolish IMO. And we already know Neal Huntington won’t stand pat. I’ll bet the house on it.

  • Anonymous

    Disappointed to see you in line with the Cedeno bashing. Not only has he hit .250 over the last 7-8 weeks, but his defense has been one of the keys behing the improved pitching. Is Ronny an All-Star? No, but while Hardy would be an upgrade, Ronny is a key reason for the improvement of the Bucs this year.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AGRPLJJRC5GNBYXDY6LHF2U6DU white angus

      i totally agree about Ronny.  He has been a top 5 defensive shortstop this season, and anyone who argues this is biased against Cedeno.  and yes, hes not a good hitter, but no one else on this team is doing that well either.

      and why are we still talking about moving Jones to 1B?  has anyone else watched him struggle against LHP?  say what you want about Overbay, at least he can hit them on occasion.  Moving Jones to 1B will only make sense in your fantasy baseball leagues, not in MLB.

      once again, not every player on the team is going to put up stellar numbers.  you are going to have average to below average players on every team, including the RedSox, Yanks and Phillies.  the pirates are winning not only because of good pitching and defense, but because of the other players they have aquired to blend with the youth.
      diaz, correia and overbay HAVE helped this team, even if the fantasy league stats dont show it.

      if you want to replace overbay, fine.  but replacing him with Jones?
      doesnt make sense.

      • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

        Jones does struggle against left handers.  But against right handers he has a .276/.374/.485 line this year.  Overbay has actually been decent against LHP (.731 OPS), but he’s really struggling against right handers with a .215/.296/.343 line this year.

        I don’t think this is a fantasy baseball argument.  When one guy has a .638 OPS against right handers, and another guy has an .859 OPS against right handers, it becomes a smart baseball decision to go with the guy putting up better numbers, regardless of whether that baseball is real or fantasy baseball.  It would be one thing if Overbay was close, and Jones just had the better numbers.  However, Overbay’s OPS is more than 200 points lower than Jones against right handers.

        They both struggle against left handers, and more-so for Jones.  But you see right handers more than twice as much as you see left handers, which makes their numbers against RHP more important.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Cedeno has a history of being inconsistent.  He shows decent play for awhile, then he struggles.  Earlier in the season (right after Wood was acquired) he went on a run where he was hitting over .300.  Then he faded and was hitting below .200 for a stretch.  That’s been the story of his career.  He gets a wake up call, but he goes back to sleep after awhile.

      As for his defense, it has been good, although it has also been a bit inconsistent.  I just don’t think that his defense has been good enough for us to ignore his offensive struggles.

      • Anonymous

        Tim, I disagree with you that Cedeno’s defense has been inconsistent and also that is has been just good. Along with Reyes and Tulo, Ronny has played as good as SS as you can get. It was not practical to expect Cedeno to hit like he did just for after Wood was acquired. After that two week drought he has been fairly consistent at bat over the last two weeks. The SS position is grueling and can wear down a player and Ronny faces that at times. While the position can be updated offensively it won’t be easy. Talks about trades for Reyes or Hardy border from the sublime to depleting the farm system. Ronny will always be inconsistent at the bat, but his defense  (way more than just good) is one reason why the Pirates have greatly improved.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NIKZL7VVAUC2TN3MIIG6JJP7LU aaron s

    Agree with just about everything here.  Was a good read.

    I’m not sure where all of these Cedeno backers came from, but it’s plain and simple:  he cannot hit.  “he’s hit .250 over the last 7-8 weeks”.  You can take the worst player in the league’s stats and say “oh, he hit .363 this past month, he’s an all-star”.  The fact is that Ronny is hitting .237 in June and has a sub .300 OBP for the season.  d’Arnaud has plus defense at SS and I can all but guarantee an OBP > .300.  I’d love to see him at SS when Alvarez gets back in the lineup.  I’d also rather see Harrison/d’Arnaud on the left side of the infield now.

    I had a dream that Lastings Milledge got picked up by the Braves and hit for the cycle last night… so if that happens I call dibs on being psychic.  Boy, I wish we had him platooning in RF about now instead of Matt Diaz…

    • Anonymous

      Cedeno and Lyle have immeasurably helped the pitching staff; their defense has helped allow our pitchers to gain CONFIDENCE to pitch to contact, and therefore put together an unbelievable number of quality starts – under TWO runs over six innings.  

      I do not expect Cedeno to hit better than .240.  I do expect Tabata and Walker to hit better than they have.  I expect them both to be over .290.  THEY need to continue to improve.Xavier Paul needs to be mentioned as a potential fixture in the future, as well.  Playing only part-time to date,  the guy simply performs, with his speed, throwing arm, and ability to get on base.Lastly, this team is winning because of the most important ingredient which you missed, Tim.  This team BELIEVES it WILL win, every single game.  Pitchers believe we’ve won the game if we are ahead at the end of eight, and Hanny is available.  The ENERGY of this team is palpable, as has been stated by some opposing managers.  

  • Anonymous

    If this team remains where it is in the standings come deadline day, there will be a whole lotta interesting decisions.  Someone like Hardy would be a nice acquisition, because he fills a need where the Bucs don’t have a real quality option on the horizon.  While the Pirates may be “buyers” for someone like Hardy or a corner outfielder, I can also see dealing Maholm and/or Hanrahan if some GM falls in love with either of them; to give an extreme example, if the Yankees decide that Montero’s defense is too problematic behind the plate, and they want to deal him for Maholm, I think you jump on that in a heartbeat (I say “extreme”, but I’m not convinced that the Yankees aren’t stupid enough to do that.)  Likewise, I know Hanrahan has been lights-out this year, but he’s only a couple of seasons from booting the closer’s job in Washington; if teams want to get in a bidding war for him, I think the Pirates have to be willing to be overwhelmed.   All in all, I’m glad I’m not Neal Huntington right now.

  • Anonymous

    It appears that the people that don’t like Cedano will not let go no matter what he does.
    The Pirates won a world series in 1971 with a SS that hit .206 and a backup that hit .224.
    Defensively Cedano is as good as anyone they could get or will get since the only SS’s that are regarded as better are regarded as better because they hit better.
    The up the middle defense for the Pirates has been very solid this year and has not been inconsistent.
    The reason Cedano will not be inconsistent this year is because he is coached much better than he has been in the recent past, as a matter of fact, this whole team is coached much better than it has been in the past going back many years, that is why the shoe is not going to drop on this years Bucs.
    Will they wear down is more like what could happen to them?

  • Anonymous

    As far as getting someone, I would like to see the Bucs make a major deal with the Astro’s and get Wallace the first basemen, I like him a lot and Pence.
    We would have to give up a lot to get them, but they would be fixtures for a while with this team.

  • Todd Smith

    I think even Brandon Wood would be a better option at short at this point.  Wood is hitting .280/.308/.420 to Cedeno’s .253/.310/.342 in June.  The defense has hardly fallen apart when Wood has played the position.  Cedeno’s defense is more about quantity than quality.  He’s making the plays that major league shortstops are expected to make, and he’s making a lot of them.  That speaks more to the success of our pitching staff than it does of Ronny’s defense.  He’s hardly the second coming of Jack Wilson out there.  As he will be a free agent at the end of the season and most likely won’t be coming back after having such a bad year – he serves no real purpose on this team.  

    Plug d’Arnaud in at SS, Presley in RF, Hague at 1B…get Alvarez, Doumit and Tabata healthy and that lineup looks solid top to bottom.  Presley, Tabata, McCutchen, Doumit, Walker, Alvarez, Hague, d’Arnaud.  Don’t think they really have to make any big trades right now, they just need to get healthy.

    Although, I do think they should try to move Maholm while his value is high.  I don’t trust him to keep this up for long.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KKKRNZSI2KNHYKV74DIIGPBORA MarcH

    “With the pitching expected to regress”

    That comment is exactly in line with your “it’s the Pirates” lazy-type comment.

    Sit back enjoy the ride and realize that maybe, just maybe, Ray Searage is as good as we hope he is.  Searage came in and went completely old school with the guys.  He focused on what they did well, and made them better at it.

    Just because you can throw 4 pitches, doesn’t mean you should, and Searage has pounded that into the heads of our pitchers.  Look no further than Morton.

    Morton got away from what he does best and what he had been doing, and he’s struggled.  I expect to see a lot of sinkers and four seamers tonight.