It’s kind of fitting how the current trade deadline is shaping up. Back when the Pittsburgh Pirates were rebuilding, teams were hoarding prospects. No one traded top prospects, and sometimes entire minor league teams would be made unavailable, even for good players in return. Now the Pirates have their best shot of contending, and have one of the best farm systems in the game. Back when they were sellers, that combination would have gotten them any player on the trade market. The way the current market is shaping up, they could still get any player they want, but they’re going to have to pay a ton for it.
We saw the first signs of this being a seller’s market when Matt Garza was traded for a huge return. The Texas Rangers gave up Mike Olt (a top 50 hitting prospect), C.J. Edwards and Justin Grimm (two Grade B pitchers), and 1-2 players to be named later. That would be one if the Rangers take Neil Ramirez, who is rumored to be the fourth player in the deal, and is another Grade B pitcher.
Earlier today Francisco Rodriguez was traded from the Brewers to the Orioles. Rodriguez is under a one year deal, and brought back third base prospect Nick Delmonico. Baseball America rated him a Grade 50 prospect with high risk before the season. Three Pirates prospects got that same grade: Barrett Barnes, Clay Holmes, and Alex Dickerson. That’s a lot to spend for two months of a reliever, which amounts to about 25 innings total from Rodriguez.
Tonight we saw another sign of this being a seller’s market. The latest rumors had the Chicago White Sox turning down a trade that would have sent Alexei Ramirez to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for top pitching prospect Carlos Martinez. To review, the 39-58 White Sox supposedly refused to trade a soon-to-be 32-year-old shortstop with a huge contract, and declining hitting skills, even when the return was the number 24 prospect in baseball. It’s possible that this rumor isn’t accurate. It could be something to drive up the bids for Ramirez. But when two months of Garza gets a top 50 hitter and three talented pitchers, it doesn’t seem so unlikely that two years and two months of Ramirez could get a massive return.
It’s easy to see why the Rangers can make that trade for Garza. They don’t need to worry about prospects. Mike Olt is a top prospect, but they have Adrian Beltre at third base, making $35 M over the next two years. They traded three talented pitchers, but this is also a team that paid $50 M just to be able to negotiate with Yu Darvish. If they need a starting pitcher in the future, they don’t have to worry about prospects. They can just throw money at Garza, or whoever else they’re looking to add or keep.
The Pirates aren’t in the same situation. They might be able to spend $50 M on a free agent starter. However, they couldn’t spend $50 M just to be able to spend another $50 M on that free agent starter, and definitely not while they’re spending $80 M over five years for a third baseman (not to mention all of the other contracts Texas has outside of Beltre and Darvish).
This is shaping up to be an extreme seller’s market, and the talent on the market isn’t much to write home about. That’s not a situation where the Pirates want to jump in with their prospects. The upgrades that guys like Garza, Rodriguez, or Ramirez provide aren’t worth their price in prospects. The Pirates can’t be protecting all of their prospects, but they also can’t be overpaying. That’s how you go from a loaded farm system with the potential to compete for a long-period of time, to a depleted farm system and a rebuilding period ahead (SEE: the Milwaukee Brewers).
The question is, can Neal Huntington find value in an extreme seller’s market?
Huntington hasn’t exactly spent big the last two years. The moves he has made have been low-key. He hasn’t acquired the flashy names, but if you look at the numbers, he has added some big value. Take a look at some of the moves from the last two deadlines.
Jason Grilli - The Pirates added Grilli as a major league free agent. Anyone could have signed him away from Philadelphia just by offering him a spot on the active roster. The Pirates did that, and Grilli immediately became a strong reliever. Meanwhile, the Rangers gave up Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter for Koji Uehara, and also gave up then-top 50 prospect Robbie Erlin and Joe Weiland for Mike Adams (notice a trend with the Rangers?)
Here are some stats:
Adams: 2.88 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 in 78 IP over 1 year and 2 months with the Rangers
Uehara: 2.50 ERA, 11.0 K/9, 0.7 BB/9 in 54 IP over 1 year and 2 months with the Rangers
Grilli: 2.76 ERA, 12.5 K/9, 3.6 BB/9 in 91.1 IP over 1 year and 2 months with the Pirates
Adams and Uehara were both great relievers for the Rangers, and the cost was Chris Davis, Tommy Hunter, Robbie Erlin, and Joe Weiland. Three of those players have played in the majors this year, and just the loss of Davis is enough to make both trades combined look horrible. Meanwhile, Grilli was also great for the Pirates in the same timeframe, and the cost was absolutely nothing.
Derrek Lee - The Pirates traded Aaron Baker to pick up Derrek Lee. He had a few injury problems, but when healthy Lee crushed the ball. He had a .337/.398/.584 line in 101 at-bats with the Pirates down the stretch. Meanwhile Baker doesn’t look like he will make it past Double-A. That same year Hunter Pence was traded for a package of four top prospects, while two months of Carlos Beltran was traded for Zack Wheeler. Here are the numbers in 2011.
Pence: .324/.394/.560 in 207 AB
Beltran: .323/.369/.551 in 167 AB
Lee: .337/.398/.584 in 101 AB
Down the stretch Lee was just as good as Pence and Beltran. The Giants had to give up one of the top pitching prospects in the game. The Phillies gave up a package of four top prospects (although they got Pence for multiple years of control). Once again the Pirates gave up nothing of value, and got similar great production.
Other Trades - Acquired Michael McKenry for cash. People want McKenry replaced now, but it’s hard to argue the huge value he’s brought to the team, especially when teams were demanding huge returns from the Pirates for catching (like Garrett Jones for Jeff Mathis). They added Ryan Ludwick for cash. Ludwick didn’t do much off the bench (then went on to have a huge bounce back season the following year with the Reds), but he also didn’t cost anything. Seeing what he did with Cincinnati the following year, you have to think the Pirates were hoping for the same thing.
Wandy Rodriguez - The Pirates actually gave up some prospects in this one. The best of the group was Robbie Grossman, although they’re probably not going to miss him with a future outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. Rudy Owens and Colton Cain have both suffered injuries this year. Meanwhile, the Pirates got Rodriguez for one year and two months. I didn’t like the deal at the time, as Rodriguez was struggling with the Astros, was older, and had declining strikeout numbers. He almost immediately turned things around with the Pirates, and has provided huge value with the trade.
By comparison, the Tigers gave up Jacob Turner and two prospects in a deal for two months of Anibal Sanchez, and Omar Infante from the Marlins. The Angels gave up Jean Segura and two prospects for two months of Zack Greinke. The Braves sent Arodys Vizcaino to the Cubs for a year and two months of Paul Maholm. Vizcaino was the #4 prospect in BA’s system heading into the 2013 season. Let’s compare down the stretch.
Rodriguez: 3.72 ERA, 6.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 in 75 IP
Sanchez: 3.74 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 1.8 BB/9 in 74.2 IP
Greinke: 3.53 ERA, 7.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 in 89.1 IP
Maholm: 3.54 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 in 68.2 IP
The Tigers traded Jacob Turner. The Angels traded Jean Segura. The Braves traded Arodys Vizcaino. The Pirates traded Robbie Grossman. Of the four, Grossman is the clear number four centerpiece. Plus, the Pirates got an extra year from Rodriguez, and got salary relief. The Braves got similar from Maholm (extra year, no salary relief), although the Pirates could still get another year from Rodriguez at a discount if he picks up his player option for 2014 (which seems likely after his injury).
Travis Snider - Everyone wanted Hunter Pence or Shane Victorino. Both guys were names. Victorino was a rental. Pence had another year of control beyond the 2012 season. Instead, the Pirates went with Travis Snider, giving up Brad Lincoln. The Phillies got a package of three players for Victorino, led by Ethan Martin. He would have ranked in the 7-10 range in the Pirates system at the start of the year, according to Baseball America’s grades. They got a package of three players for Pence, led by Tommy Joseph, who was the number three prospect for the Phillies entering the year. Let’s look at how they all finished the year.
Pence: .219/.287/.384 in 219 AB
Victorino: .245/.316/.351 in 208 AB
Snider: .250/.324/.328 in 128 AB
Pence or Victorino would have been slightly better than Snider, but neither would have made a difference, and both would have cost more in prospects. In fact, the Phillies wanted Starling Marte for either guy (Victorino and Pence links). Snider hasn’t worked out, and neither has Lincoln for Toronto. The Pirates pretty much sold high on him and he fell apart after the deal. It would be hard to call this a good trade. But it was definitely a good move to avoid giving up a key piece of the future for almost equally poor production.
Other Trades - The Pirates also added Gaby Sanchez, trading Gorkys Hernandez and their 2013 competitive balance pick. Sanchez has since done a great job crushing lefties. They also added Chad Qualls and Hisanori Takahashi as cheap bullpen arms, but neither guy worked out.
Can Huntington Find Value?
The knee jerk reaction from the last two years is that Huntington didn’t make the right moves. He didn’t go out and make a big splash at the deadline to give the team a shot at winning. The Pirates only had one chance to win, and they wouldn’t have that same chance in 2012, 2013, or beyond. Basically, the feeling was that Huntington blew it, and if he would have made better moves the Pirates might not have collapsed.
The only thing is that Huntington made good moves. He just didn’t pay the premium prices for them. When Texas was giving away a ton of talent for relievers, Huntington got Jason Grilli for free. When big hitters were costing top prospects in 2011, Huntington got similar production out of Derrek Lee in exchange for a marginal prospect.
Instead of giving up Starling Marte to get the struggling Pence or Victorino in 2012, Huntington gave up the “playing over his head” Brad Lincoln to get Travis Snider and gamble on his upside. The gamble didn’t work out, but Snider wasn’t much worse than the other two and didn’t cost the future of the team. When other teams were giving up top prospects for starting pitching, Huntington gave up a lesser prospect for Wandy Rodriguez, who had the same numbers, an extra year of control, a player option, and salary relief.
Huntington has done an extremely underrated job the last two years of finding value at the deadline, while also finding guys who put up the same numbers as the premium players on the market. He hasn’t sacrificed the future at all while adding to those teams. Both teams collapsed, but no deadline addition could have prevented that from happening.
It will be a big challenge this year to find value without sacrificing the future. The Pirates can afford to give up top prospects without sacrificing their future. However, we’re seeing some ridiculous returns in prospect value in the week before the trade deadline. It’s shaping up to be an extreme seller’s market. Finding value the previous two years was one thing. Huntington did that, but if he can do the same this year, it would be extremely impressive.
Links and Notes