With the win over the Houston Astros last night, paired with a Milwaukee Brewers loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Pittsburgh Pirates took sole possession of second place in the NL Central, sitting 1.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates hold a 45-41 record, with seven games coming up against the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, two of the worst teams in the National League this year. There is a very strong chance that the Pirates could be in first place after the All-Star break, or at least battling for the spot in the July 22nd-24th home series against St. Louis. So naturally, there are plenty of calls for the Pirates to be buyers this year.
At the same time, I don’t think anyone truly buys the success of this team, at least for the long term. The pitching staff is full of guys playing over their heads, as shown with their advanced metrics, which feature high strand rates, low batting averages on balls in play, and low home run to fly ball rates. The offense has been slammed with injuries, and most of the healthy players have struggled this year. The Pirates have guys like Paul Maholm and Joel Hanrahan at their highest values. Trading one of those guys could net a huge return, similar to the return of the Xavier Nady trade in 2008. Considering the current team doesn’t look set to compete long term, there’s a case to be made for the Pirates being sellers.
Here’s a question: why can’t the Pirates be both?
For example, what would you classify the 2010 Pirates as: buyers or sellers? Yes, they traded Octavio Dotel, D.J. Carrasco, Javier Lopez, Ryan Church, and Bobby Crosby. However, they added a Major League ready starter in the Dotel trade, bringing in James McDonald. They added a starting catcher when they sent Carrasco, Church, and Crosby to Arizona, with Chris Snyder also bringing in additional salary. The Lopez trade didn’t work out as well as the other two, although it was basically a swap of a middle reliever for a possible bench bat and a possible middle reliever. Considering the 2011 bullpen, the loss of Lopez wasn’t huge, even if John Bowker and Joe Martinez didn’t work out.
The Pirates weren’t really buyers, but they weren’t really sellers either. They didn’t make a move that hurt them long term. They added some guys that provided an instant upgrade to the team, even though they traded away 20% of the active roster. So can they be in that neutral ground again this year?
When the Pirates were starting their rebuilding process, I often said that the consecutive losing streak shouldn’t impact the moves they made. Many people wanted them to go out and make some short term additions, trying to break .500 and end the streak. A team should take the same rebuilding approach whether they’re one year removed from a winning season, or 18 years removed. In fact, the “quick fix” approach is what probably extended the streak, as Dave Littlefield spent years holding on to players until they were pending free agents with little value, rather than blowing up the team all at once and going with a total rebuild. But everyone knew they needed to rebuild in 2008, and over the last few years. Things are a bit different now that the team is winning in July.
If the Pirates made a trade, you can bet that there would be a group of people ready to burn PNC Park to the ground. That would be the case, even if the trade strengthened the team for the long term, all while providing no short term downgrade, similar to the 2010 trades.
As an example, Paul Maholm is at his highest value right now. Joel Hanrahan is at his highest value right now. Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers are looking for pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen, and have a loaded farm system. I’ve talked before about how one of Hanrahan or Maholm would be enough, value-wise, to land top shortstop prospect Jurickson Profar. Whether Texas makes that deal is another question. Shortstop prospects like Profar, who has an .877 OPS as an 18 year old in low-A, are extremely rare. So if the Pirates could get one for a guy like Maholm, who is only under control for one year beyond the 2011 season, it’s something they definitely have to consider. While it may not go over well, considering how Maholm is pitching, any move would be easier to make when you consider that the Pirates have Ross Ohlendorf returning in August, and have Brad Lincoln as another rotation option to replace Maholm.
We’ve talked a lot about the Pirates getting in a situation where they have a full rotation, and options in the minors, only to see them deal from the rotation, bring up a minor league pitcher, and upgrade the system. Ideally, this is done with no drop off from the major league production. The downside (and the reason people don’t like suggesting these moves) is that you’re already getting success from a guy like Maholm, while you don’t know how Lincoln will do in the long term, and you don’t know how Ohlendorf will bounce back from his injury. But don’t confuse current success by Maholm as a guarantee of future success. Maholm had a 4.03 ERA after his July 18th start last year. From that point forward, he made 13 starts, with a 6.81 ERA in 71.1 innings. That’s been the story of Maholm’s career. He’s never been consistent for an entire year. Maholm is almost like Xavier Nady. When he’s on, he’s good. At the same time, it’s tough looking past his current results to see his flaws (consistency with Maholm, injuries with Nady).
Hanrahan is a bit of a different story. Again, people might not want to deal him because of the comfort factor. This time the comfort relates to the closer role. Hanrahan has been one of the best closers in the league this year. It is to the point where a lead heading in to the ninth inning is pretty much an automatic win. But the idea that Hanrahan can’t be traded stems from the lofty expectations and misconceptions about the closer role. The role is blown up to be something it’s not. The idea is that it takes a special arm and a special mindset to perform in the role. Yet every year an unknown name like Craig Kimbrel or John Axford emerges as an elite closer option. And here’s the thing about those elite options: they rarely last. Look no further than Joel Hanrahan. In 2008 he emerged as the new closer in Washington. In 2009, he blew up, and was traded to the Pirates. Now, he’s back to being a dominant reliever, and is far better than he’s ever been. But how long will it last? All it takes is one bad season, or even one or two horrible months, to totally remove Hanrahan’s value.
The idea that Hanrahan can’t be replaced is false. The Pirates have candidates on the roster, such as Jose Veras, Chris Resop, and Evan Meek. Sure, there’s no comfort factor with these guys. However, it wasn’t that long ago that people weren’t comfortable with Hanrahan as the closer. it’s hard to remember that now, but heading in to the season there were questions on whether he could handle “the pressures of the closer role”, with people pointing back to his struggles in Washington. The pressure of the closer role almost seems like something that exists in the minds of the fans, rather than the closers. I’m not saying there’s no pressure in the 9th inning, but when we’re talking about nerves, it seems like we’re talking more about how comfortable fans are, rather than how comfortable the closer is.
Like Maholm, the Pirates could seriously upgrade their system by dealing Hanrahan at his highest value, and they stand a strong chance of maintaining his production with guys like Resop, Meek, and Veras. In either case, the Pirates could wait to deal them in the off-season, although they lose value by removing the chance to sell to a team that is in the middle of a pennant race, and they run the risk of each player declining in value over the final months of the season.
If the Pirates did happen to deal someone like Maholm or Hanrahan, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be able to make a move that would classify them as buyers. There’s a sentiment that teams who can add payroll this year have a big advantage on the trade market. The Pirates are a team that have room to absorb payroll. I talked last week about what it would cost for a high priced guy like Carlos Pena. If the Pirates absorbed the rest of his salary, they could land him for very little, possibly sending off a Tyler Waldron/Nate Baker type pitching package from the lower levels. Pena’s remaining salary, assuming he was traded on July 31st, would be about $3.3 M, which would put the Pirates right at $50 M this year, a number they could easily afford. That addition would be a huge boost to the middle of the lineup, and might take some pressure off of a returning Pedro Alvarez.
So the question is, can the Pirates be both buyers and sellers? Can they trade Maholm and/or Hanrahan for a big return, replace them with Ohlendorf, Lincoln, Meek, Veras, or Resop, and at the same time, make a move to upgrade the offense with a Carlos Pena type addition? They have a chance to deal Maholm and/or Hanrahan, all while maintaining good production with their internal replacements. They also have a chance to boost the offense by taking on some payroll. The best part is that both moves would be great for the system in the long term. The additions from a Maholm or Hanrahan trade could add some top prospects, while the act of taking on salary for a guy like Pena could allow the Pirates to upgrade the team, while not losing much from the minor league system.
The Pirates are technically contenders right now, although I don’t think you’ll find many people who will buy in to the fact that they’re strong contenders, or that they’re built to contend for the long term with the current roster. For that reason, if they can make a move to boost the system and help their long term chances, all while keeping their short term chances a possibility, then they definitely need to make that move, even if it wouldn’t be the most popular of moves right now.