This is the third straight deadline where the Pittsburgh Pirates have been buyers instead of sellers. It’s the third straight deadline where we’ve seen a ton of rumors about players they could get, and debated over which prospects to give up. It’s the third straight deadline where the question has been asked: should they give up a top prospect? And it’s the third straight deadline where people have said the Pirates may never be in this position again, thus they need to go for it now.
The idea in 2011 was that the Pirates were playing over their heads, and that they probably wouldn’t be competitive for a few years. They needed to wait for Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and all of the other top prospects to arrive and play a few years before the team could ever be competitive again. There was no possible way the team could compete in the next few years.
Then they were competitive in 2012. This time it was a little more legit, although it was still a streaky team. It was also a team being carried by Andrew McCutchen putting up unreal numbers. The idea was that McCutchen wouldn’t repeat those numbers going forward, which would prevent the team from competing in 2013 and for the few years after that.
This year we’re seeing what happens when Andrew McCutchen has a normal year. The Pirates are still competitive, and they have a more rounded team than they did in 2012.
Three straight years the Pirates have been competitive. Three straight years they’ve improved over the previous year. Every year the thought around the deadline is that they need to go all-in when they have the chance, as if the Pirates may never get back to this point and may never be competitive again.
My question is: at what point are we going to realize that the Pirates are built for both short-term and long-term success?
This is a team that keeps trending upwards. They keep adding key pieces each year. In 2011 it was Starling Marte. This year it is Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke. Next year it could very well be Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and Tony Sanchez joining the group in the second half. The Pirates also have one of the top farm systems in the game, so that wave of prospects should only continue. Alen Hanson and Tyler Glasnow in 2015. Maybe Dilson Herrera and Josh Bell in 2016. Plus all of the guys we’re not thinking about right now, just like how we weren’t talking about Kingham or Polanco a few years ago.
This is also a team that is mostly together for several years. Pedro Alvarez (under control through 2016), Neil Walker (2016), Andrew McCutchen (2018), Starling Marte (2018), Jordy Mercer (2018), Jeff Locke (2018), and Gerrit Cole (2019) are all under control for at least three more seasons after this year.
In fact, it’s probably easier to go through the list of guys who aren’t under control for a long period. A.J. Burnett is a free agent after the season. Wandy Rodriguez has a player option for 2014. Charlie Morton is under control through the 2014 season. Russell Martin is under control through 2014. Jason Grilli is under control through 2014. Francisco Liriano has a vesting option for 2014. And let’s not forget Brandon Inge, who is only under control through the end of the season.
The Pirates might need to bring back a starter this off-season if Burnett and Rodriguez leave, but that shouldn’t hurt them in the short-term. They’ve played without pretty much every starter in the rotation at some point this year and still remained competitive. They have good pitching depth, and don’t need both guys to return in 2014 to have success. They will also have Cole, Taillon, and Kingham leading the rotation from 2015 on, and Glasnow joining that group potentially a year later.
When Russell Martin leaves, the team could turn to Tony Sanchez as the starting catcher. Sanchez has the 2014 season to learn under Martin, and if he continues the hitting we’ve seen this year, there would be no question about his ability to start and fill in at catcher.
You don’t need to worry about Grilli leaving as the closer. The Pirates haven’t had an issue finding low-cost closers. Plus they’ll have plenty of options to choose from, such as Mark Melancon, Vic Black, Bryan Morris, Duke Welker, and even Justin Wilson.
It’s the same story for every other spot on the roster. The Pirates have a replacement in line for each player when they’re gone. In some cases the Pirates have multiple replacement options. The only exception is third base, although the Pirates have until the end of the 2016 season to find a replacement for Alvarez before the Scott Boras client inevitably leaves for free agency.
Now let’s talk about 2013. This isn’t a team that has been lucky. This is a team that has been unlucky. They’ve gone through 11 different starting pitchers in the first half. They’ve seen everyone on the offense struggle for at least one full month out of the year. And yet they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball. The offense could use an upgrade. It wouldn’t hurt to have extra pitching depth, since we’ve seen already how important that is. But this is no fluke. This is a team that has been tested to the extreme. Everyone focuses on wanting to have an All-Star starting lineup, and thinking that’s what you need to win. I think if this year is teaching us anything, it’s that you need depth to win. That’s something the Pirates didn’t have the previous two years, and it’s something they’ve proven to have this year.
The Pirates need to upgrade at the deadline. However, this is a good team that doesn’t need to make a major upgrade. They don’t need to trade Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, or even Nick Kingham to go all-in this year. They’re not at any risk of fading into oblivion or turning into a pumpkin when the calendar turns to 2014. This is a team that is competitive now. They might not be the best team in the majors, but they’re definite contenders. They’re also a team that has been trending upwards, and is built to continue trending upwards thanks to their top farm system. They’re a team built on young players who will be together for several years at the least, and who will be joined by more young players during those years.
The Pirates don’t need to go all-in this year. This isn’t the only year they will be competitive. They’re built for long-term success. This year’s team is a legitimate contender, and the farm system will have the Pirates trending upwards for at least a few more years. They don’t need to make a huge splash and trade away the future to capitalize on what might be their only chance to be competitive in the near future. They just need to make a few key moves, fill a few holes on the team (1B/RF and the bench), and make sure they’re not sacrificing their future in the process. There are plenty of players out there who could be had for much less than any of the top prospects in the system, and who could upgrade an already good team.
The Pirates got here because they didn’t take shortcuts to try and drastically improve their chances for just one year. They got here because they built through prospects, and now those prospects (McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, Mercer, Marte, Locke, Cole, Morris, Wilson) are playing key roles with the team. And if they keep that next wave of top prospects who could be key contributors, then they’re going to remain a contending team beyond the 2013 season. The best news is that keeping those top prospects won’t prevent them from upgrading and improving their chances this year.
Links and Notes
**Download the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 13: What Are the Needs For the Pirates as the Deadline Nears?
**Episode 3 of the Pirates Roundtable can be viewed here. This week’s episode features James Santelli as the host, along with Ed Giles of In Clemente Weather, Michael Waterloo of Pittsburgh Sporting News, Steve Petrella of MLB.com, Cory of Three Rivers Burgh Blog, and Brian McElhinney of Raise The Jolly Roger.