“You weren’t around in the 1970s, so you don’t know what a winning team should do.”
I’m 27 years old. I was born in 1983, so I missed all of the Pirates’ World Series titles. I was 8-9 years old when the Pirates were contenders in the early 90s. If the only team I had a chance to follow was the Pirates, I wouldn’t have any experience with how winning teams act.
Fortunately, baseball has 29 other teams, and crowns a champion every year. So while the Pirates haven’t had many opportunities in my lifetime to show what winning teams should do, I’ve had an example every year in my life to go by. That said, there are times when I feel that some Pirates fans only follow the Pirates, and don’t pay attention to how things are done across the league.
Take the draft, for example. If you follow every team in the league, and if you’ve followed the draft over the last few years, you’d know that there’s no use even asking about the progress of guys like Gerrit Cole or Josh Bell until August 15th, as those guys aren’t signing until a few minutes before midnight. Yet in 2008, when the Pirates drafted Pedro Alvarez, we faced an entire summer of “why hasn’t Alvarez signed yet?” questions.
A more recent example is the trade deadline. The common question asked lately is “why haven’t the Pirates made a move yet”? It’s asked as if there’s no other factor to consider, outside of the Pirates deciding when the time is right to add. It also fails to recognize that most trades don’t take place until the final few days before the deadline.
Take last year as an example. There were 28 trades made in the month of July. 23 of those trades came on July 28th or later. In 2009, 16 of the 26 trades in the month of July took place on July 29th or later. This isn’t saying that big trades don’t take place earlier in the month. They’re just rare, mostly because teams try to hold out for the best possible deal.
Pirates fans shouldn’t be strangers to this concept. They’ve been sellers every year for the last decade. We’ve seen them hold on to guys until the deadline, trying to get the best possible deal. In fact, when the Pirates made a move prior to the deadline, we’ve heard complaints that they should have waited to see if the offers would improve.
Let’s take a look at an example of a deal that I’ve called for, and that a lot of Pirates fans have expressed interest in: a Carlos Pena trade.
Pena is making $10 M this year, with $5 M of that money being deferred to the 2012 season. If a team trades for him today, they’re spending $6.84 M. That’s $1.84 M for the remainder of the season, and $5 M in 2012. If you give Pena a 2.5 WAR for his production level (which is a bit high), then his value comes out to -$2.2 M. Basically, the Cubs couldn’t expect any prospects, unless they picked up a large portion of his salary, such as the 2012 portion for example. Even then, they’re only looking at a Grade C pitcher.
The Cubs could just dump Pena’s salary right now, and the trading team would take on the final $6.84 M in his deal. They wouldn’t get anything in return, at least nothing significant. They could also pick up salary now, and try to get a marginal prospect in return. The third option is waiting until July 31st to make a deal, hoping a better return comes along.
So what changes for the Cubs if they wait until July 31st? Nothing. Pena still has a negative value, due to the money that is owed to him for the remainder of the year, and in 2012. The Cubs are still in a situation where they could either salary dump him, or pick up his 2012 payment and get a Grade C pitching prospect. The only difference is that they would spend an extra $200 K on Pena by keeping him for a week. The advantage is that they get another week to try and raise Pena’s value.
Pena’s value will largely be impacted by the market for first basemen. With more demand, the Cubs have a better chance of getting a prospect, even if teams have to assume a large portion of salary. If the Pirates are the only team in the league, then the question becomes “when do they make the move”. But the Pirates aren’t the only team in the league. There are other teams who either have needs at first base, or might have a need at first base emerge in the following week.
It isn’t a foreign concept for teams to try and get the best possible deal. That’s what is currently going on in the Carlos Beltran talks. The Mets are willing to pick up salary, and are aiming to get top prospects like Mike Minor from the Braves, Zack Wheeler from the Giants, or Domonic Brown from the Phillies. To put that in perspective, the Mets would be asking for Jameson Taillon in exchange for two months of Beltran. One of two things will happen. Either one team will meet their price and give up a huge return in order to beat out the other teams, or the Mets will lower their demands as the deadline moves closer.
It’s the same with Pena, and every other player on the market. Teams will shoot for the moon now, and if no team accepts, they will gradually lower their demands, with the goal of getting the best possible deal. Or, if there is no market at the moment, teams will wait another week, hoping that an injury arises, which will only improve their chances of getting a bigger return.
When you bring up the fact that most teams don’t deal this early, you get the response that the Pirates are a different situation, as they have obvious needs right now. However, a team’s situation does nothing to convince other teams to make a deal early. In fact, if the Pirates are desperate to make a move, they run in to a situation where teams try to get them to over-pay by feeding off of that desperation.
The idea that the Pirates need to make a move now is fueled by the fear that the wheels will fall off the wagon, and by the time the trade deadline rolls around, the season will be lost. Honestly, we’ve been hearing that all year. We’ve heard that the season is over so many times this year that it seems like enough seasons have been played to qualify Andrew McCutchen for free agency. The Pirates are a game out of first place right now. They’re not going from this, to falling out of contention in one week. If they did fall out of contention in a week, then a guy like Carlos Pena isn’t going to do anything to stop that.
The Pirates haven’t made a move yet, and considering there have only been three trades so far in the month of July, that puts them in the same boat as almost every other team. That doesn’t mean they won’t make a trade in the next week, and it doesn’t mean they’ve dropped the ball in any way. It just means that since it takes two teams to make a deal, and since more than two teams can impact the market for a player, the issue isn’t as simple as asking why they haven’t made a move yet.