The 2012 MLB Trade Deadline is a little over a week away. For the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be buyers at the deadline. This year’s team looks much stronger than last year’s team, and looks more likely to sustain the success we’ve seen over the first four months of the season. The combination of being contenders, plus trying to snap a 19-year losing streak, will put a lot of pressure on the Pirates to make a big move.
We’ve already heard the Pirates connected to half the players in the league. Being connected to a player doesn’t necessarily mean the team is trying to deal for a player. Sometimes a connection can be as simple as calling and asking if a player is on the block. Sometimes a connection can involve more, such as talking about what type of trade return a player would require, and even discussing specific players.
The Pirates will have a challenge this deadline. They’ll need to be smart about the upgrades they make. The team is 54-40 heading in to Monday’s action, so it’s not like they should be desperate to make a deal. Some deals would really improve the team, while others would provide small improvements and would be more of a luxury than a need. In the process of making these deals, the Pirates need to balance their short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goal is to try and win it all, or at the least, put up the best season possible. The long-term goal is to be able to repeat that short-term goal for as many years as possible.
The addition of the second wild card this year has made the trade deadline interesting. There are currently 20 teams that are within five games of a division or wild card race. Only 10 teams are more than five games out of any race, and some of those teams (Milwaukee, Miami, Philadelphia) haven’t fully committed to being sellers.
There has been talk about how the new wild card could create more buyers with more teams in contention for the playoffs. However, there are still sellers on the market, and more and more teams are realizing that they probably don’t have what it takes this year.
“I think it’s more teams are starting to reach out with two-way logic. Still looking to add, but the reality is starting to set in that they may need to sell,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “No more clear sellers, but more teams that are beginning to prepare if they decide to go in that direction.”
The Pirates will definitely be buyers, and here is what they need to focus on in the week leading up to the trade deadline.
Positions of Need
The biggest area of need for the Pirates is in the corner outfield spots. In the past few weeks, the Pirates have been starting infield bench players in the corner spots. That’s because of the struggles of Alex Presley and Jose Tabata, with Tabata carrying his struggles down to Triple-A. Presley has been hitting better lately, with a .746 OPS since the start of June, although there is improvement to be had.
Internally, the Pirates have Starling Marte on the verge of being called up. Marte has put up good overall numbers, with a .283/.347/.497 line in 374 at-bats in Triple-A. However, he’s been streaky, usually following his hot streaks with an equally long cold streak. His strikeout rate this month has jumped, which isn’t a sign you want to see from a guy before a potential call up.
The Pirates are waiting for the appropriate time to bring Marte up, letting him get to the point where once he’s up, he will stay up. That’s opposed to what we’ve seen out of Alex Presley, Jose Tabata, and Pedro Alvarez, who have all struggled at times in their early major league careers, and have all been sent back to Triple-A for more work.
While the Pirates wait, they could acquire a bat on the trade market. Justin Upton seems to be their top target, although he would cost at least one top prospect in the system, if not two. The Pirates have also been linked to guys like Shane Victorino, B.J. Upton, Chase Headley, and pretty much every hitter who is available on the market.
The Pirates have also looked at shortstop options (Stephen Drew, Marco Scutaro), and first base options (Billy Butler). Neither would be as big of an upgrade as a corner outfielder, considering the strong platoon numbers the Pirates are getting from Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones at first, and the strong defense Clint Barmes is putting up at shortstop.
The need to add a bat was much greater early in the year. The Pirates had a strong pitching staff, but the worst offense in the league. The idea was that they could compete with a good offense, and that another bat could help get them there. They didn’t add a bat, but they did start to compete, mostly because the worst offense in the league in April and May became the best offense in the league in June and July.
“At the end of two months, we would have absolutely felt we needed a bat,” Huntington said. “At the end of four months, the two months of historically bad offense to two months of leading Major League baseball on offense, it’s been an interesting dynamic. We’re going to be somewhere in-between there.”
The Pirates shouldn’t be desperate for offensive help. They need to focus on trying to upgrade the team, specifically adding an outfielder. But not every position needs to be producing. For example, Clint Barmes has put up very poor offensive production this year, although defensively he rates as one of the best shortstops in the league. The Pirates could add an offensive upgrade, but all they’d be doing is upgrading their number eight hitter, while potentially downgrading the defense, which could hurt the pitching staff. They’d be better off focusing on the more important spots in the lineup for upgrades, and ride it out with Barmes and his poor numbers (while possibly giving Jordy Mercer more playing time in the process).
Surprisingly, the Pirates are also looking for starting pitching. The starters have been a strength this year, and the Pirates have three left-handers in Indianapolis who all look major league ready. They have been linked to arms like Joe Saunders, Paul Maholm, and some of the higher profile guys, although the necessity for an arm isn’t that big with the presence of Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, and Justin Wilson in Triple-A.
“Our starting pitching continues to do well. Our bullpen continues to do very well. You can never have enough arms,” Huntington said. “We’ve got a lot of guys in Triple-A that we feel good about, both pitching and position player wise. What’s been nice is we don’t have to go get a starting pitcher. We don’t have to go get a bat. We can go pick what we want to go get. And if it’s player or two, or if the acquisition cost is just a little bit high, we stay with what we have and continue to play winning baseball and continue to do what we do.”
To Rent or to Own?
One thing the Pirates need to focus on is balancing their short-term goals with their long-term goals. They need to be successful this year, but they need to keep the pieces that could make them successful in years to come. Big market teams can afford to deal prospects without a second thought, as those teams can go find replacements on the free agent market. The Pirates don’t have that luxury. If they want an ace, they need to develop Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon.
“It’s a balance,” Huntington said. “The short, the moderate and the long-term, it’s that balance. We feel like we’re on the front side of the window opening here. We want to keep that window open for as long as we can. Any piece of the future we give away now may shorten that window.”
One obstacle in this balancing act is the value placed on rental players. A lot of the two month rentals are big name players. Their names give them added value, sometimes even if they’re struggling. That added value usually makes them worth a top prospect, which is a price the Pirates can’t afford for a guy who will be gone in three months. Take last year, for example. San Francisco dealt Zack Wheeler straight up for Carlos Beltran. The Giants had Beltran for two months. Wheeler was just named as the tenth best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America’s mid-season update. That’s a move the Pirates can never make.
“Rentals are what rentals are,” Huntington said. “I continued to take criticism my first three years. It was that we were asking for too much, and now it’s we’re not willing to give up enough. It’s part of the game and we understand that. We put values on their players. We put values on our players. When we find a match, which we’ve been able to do, then we move forward with it. If we undervalue anything it’s probably a two month rental and what the impact a two month rental can have. Even the elite players in the game, and the acquisition cost there is absolutely part of the equation.”
One interesting dynamic is that the Pirates are always accused of asking for too much. We’ve heard that in almost every trade discussion, including the A.J. Burnett trade talks. There could definitely be some validity to that. Prospects mean more to a team like the Pirates than they do teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, or even the Giants. Therefore, the Pirates would value prospects more than other teams when they’re trading them away, and they’d want more prospects in return when dealing for prospects.
Last year they were unwilling to part with any top prospects. They ended up landing Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick at the deadline, giving up cash and Aaron Baker, and taking on payroll to get the two deals done. So far the rumors suggest that the Pirates have been hesitant to deal one of their top guys this year, although there are certain players — such as Justin Upton — where the Pirates would have to give up at least one top prospect.
Balancing the Long Term and Short Term Needs
Whether fans like it or not, the Pirates can never be a team that goes “all in” during a given year. They can’t take the approach of thinking that a playoff run might not happen again, in order to justify selling off key pieces from the farm. That’s usually a good way to ensure that a playoff run doesn’t happen again.
There’s the idea each year that contenders need to upgrade at the deadline, with the emphasis on “need”. Regardless of what record a team has, or how strong their team is, if they’re contending, the pressure will be on to make an addition. The idea is that you can’t make a playoff run without adding at the deadline, and that adding at the deadline will give you what you need to make the playoffs.
“This playoff run isn’t an automatic,” Huntington said of additions at the deadline impacting the race. “Our goal is to try and be here as many times as we possibly can. We’re going to work to make the decisions that put us in the position to win now, and in future if that’s at all possible.”
There shouldn’t be any doubt that the Pirates will make a trade. Neal Huntington has made more trades per year than any active General Manager. The question will be how they can balance the short-term and long-term needs.
One way to do this is to deal for players who only cost money and fringe prospects. The Pirates did this with Derrek Lee last year, and A.J. Burnett prior to this season. It’s not a guarantee to work, as we’ve seen with Aki Iwamura and Ryan Ludwick in the past.
Another way is to avoid rentals and focus on players who can help this year, and several years down the road. The Pirates have been connected to a few players who fit this bill, with the big one being Justin Upton. Dealing a valuable long-term piece for a rental would hurt the Pirates in the long-term more than it would help them in the short-term. Dealing a valuable long-term piece for a guy like Upton, with years of control, would be more balanced as far as the team needs go.
The Pirates aren’t just limited to dealing prospects. This year Major League Baseball has added the ability to trade competitive balance picks. The Pirates received one of these picks, which currently sits as the 33rd pick in the 2013 draft. They can deal this pick at the deadline, and avoid giving up a player currently in their system.
“It will factor in. It’s another asset for us,” Huntington said. “I just realized I referred to players as assets, but it’s another chip for us to play if that’s the direction we decide to go in. We’ve got a certain value on it. If we get that certain value it’s no different than a prospect in our system that we place the value on. If we feel we get the appropriate value package in return, then we make a move. we’re not looking to move it, but it will be interesting to see how the industry values it.”
The competitive balance picks could give that “what’s behind door number two” value. When dealing with a team, you’re limited to the players they have in their system. With a draft pick, you can choose whoever you want. That player might be a better fit than one of the guys who is available as an alternative. Plus, teams dealing for draft picks would also be dealing for extra money in the draft, which has a lot of value.
The Pirates have areas to upgrade, but they need to be smart about those upgrades. They shouldn’t trade prospects for someone like Paul Maholm when they’ve got options in Triple-A. They shouldn’t trade a big prospect who can contribute for six years in exchange for a guy who will be around for two months. They shouldn’t focus on upgrading every spot, because not all spots will be worth the upgrade. The ideal situation would be to upgrade the team without losing any of the top six prospects in the system. If they can expand that to protect guys like Gregory Polanco, Robbie Grossman, and the Indianapolis left-handers, that would be even better. They’d have to give talent to get talent. The Pirates just need to decide whether the talent they’d be getting is worth giving talent to acquire.
Adding Payroll at the Deadline
Last year the Pirates added over $5 M at the deadline with the additions of Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. They will most certainly add payroll at the deadline this year. Currently the team sits with a projected year-end payroll of just under $55 M. If they do need to add payroll, owner Bob Nutting has given them the flexibility to do so.
“We’ve got some flexibility and we’re working through that process. Absolutely,” Huntington said.
In some cases, the Pirates need to focus on future payrolls. As an example, Justin Upton would be under team control through the 2015 season. He would be owed an average of $12 M a year for the remainder of his deal, with over $14 M each year in 2014 and 2015. Adding Upton would give the Pirates the potential for the best young middle of the order combo in the majors with Upton joining Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. But adding Upton would also limit the payroll in the future, and potentially make it difficult for the team to sign their arbitration eligible players.
“It’s always prevalent for a team in a mid-to-small market,” Huntington said on payroll. “You never get the opportunity to look the other way in terms of money. Whether it’s this year, next year, it’s three years from now, when you operate in these markets you always have to be cognizant of it.”
Considering where the Pirates stand now, and considering that they spent about $13.5 M less in the draft this year, compared to last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them end up over $60 M in total payroll by the end of the year, mostly due to deadline additions. That would be even more likely if they opt to trade for players who cost money, rather than prospects.