The trade market has been slow this entire month. The market looks weak, and has looked like a seller’s market leading up to the deadline. But for a short time there it looked like the Pirates were close to a very busy day.
First there was the rumor from Monday about the Pirates being top options for Brian Wilson. Then, around 1:00 we heard that Bud Norris might be on the move, and the Pirates could be a landing spot. Not long after that we heard the Pirates and White Sox were close on an Alex Rios trade.
Then things fell apart. Wilson signed with the Dodgers. The rumors that followed on Norris and Rios said neither deal was close, and eventually said that neither player was likely to come to Pittsburgh. We were back where we started. A slow deadline, very few names that are actually on the block, and almost no one connected to the Pirates.
So will the Pirates make a trade tomorrow?
I think the answer is yes. I’m only saying that because Neal Huntington has been one of the most active GMs at the deadline. I don’t know if it will be Nate Schierholtz, who was rumored late Tuesday night, or if it will be someone we haven’t even discussed. I just feel the Pirates will make at least one move tomorrow, because they always do.
Here’s a better question, and one that I’ve asked a few times before: do the Pirates need to make a move?
With a normal trade market, where there are actually good players available, I’d say a move would be warranted. But who is really out there on the market? Who is going to make a big impact? When the best options to upgrade your offense are Hunter Pence and Nate Schierholtz, you better have a strong team already. So let’s look at the Pirates and see how strong this team is, keeping in mind that they currently have the best record in baseball and got there by winning three straight against the team with the previous best record in baseball.
Are the Pirates Good Enough?
I’ve been talking about the strength of this team being the depth they have since before the season started. And really that’s all we need to talk about.
Tonight the Pirates used Brandon Cumpton in game two of the double header with the Cardinals. He went seven shutout innings, dominating one of the better teams in the game. It’s not just that start. In four starts this year he has a 2.78 ERA in 22.2 innings, with a 6.4 K/9 and a 1.6 BB/9 ratio, along with an extreme 58.3% ground ball rate. His xFIP is 3.46. That’s a small sample size, but it’s also really good.
Heading into Spring Training, Cumpton would have been 13th on the starting pitching depth chart, at best. If you told someone that Brandon Cumpton would be needed for four starts this year, they would have thought the Pirates were heading for last place, not first place. But Cumpton has been good. And so have the majority of the starters. Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald both struggled, but everyone else has stepped up. The Pirates currently have seven reliable starting pitching options. It’s to the point where a guy like Bud Norris wouldn’t even be one of the top six starters on the team. You’ve got other teams struggling to find starting pitching just to fill out their rotation, and the Pirates have guys in their bullpen and Triple-A who have pitched well enough to start for most teams around the league this year.
Then there’s the bullpen. The Pirates recently lost Jason Grilli, who was performing like one of the best closers in the National League. So what did they do? Replaced him with Mark Melancon, who is statistically the best reliever in the NL this year. But losing Melancon as an eighth inning guy has to hurt, right? Wrong. They just moved Justin Wilson to the eighth inning. That’s a left-hander who hit 99 MPH three times in a row tonight, then broke the streak by hitting 100 on the next pitch.
Of course there is the middle relief group. You’d think that was hurting, but the Pirates filled the empty roster spot with a rookie who throws 97-99 MPH and has a plus slider with two plane break. That’s the guy they’re relying on least in the bullpen. They’ve got Vin Mazzaro pitching extremely well, and before you get spoiled and consider Mazzaro a bad reliever, take a look at some of the guys the Cardinals were using tonight.
Overall the pitching staff has not only been tremendous, but extremely deep. The Pirates have guys in Triple-A who deserve to be in the majors, but have no spot with all of the talent on the major league team.
Then there’s the offense. The only spot the Pirates really need an upgrade at is right field. They could also use Garrett Jones breaking out of his slump at first base. But the offense has depth as well. It might not be to the same extremes as the pitching depth, but it’s there. Here’s a look at each position.
Catcher – Russell Martin is holding this spot down, but if something happens to him, Tony Sanchez could step in.
First Base – Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are platooning. Sanchez is the guy you don’t want to lose, since the Pirates have other platoon options to replace Jones with (Andrew Lambo?).
Second Base – Neil Walker is starting to hit again and plays good defense, although it would be nice to see him improving against lefties.
Shortstop – Jordy Mercer took over for Clint Barmes, and has provided an offensive upgrade. Barmes has better defense, but Mercer isn’t bad defensively. Also, as we saw tonight, Barmes can still be an asset, and he’s starting to hit lately. Having both of them is a good thing.
Third Base – This is one area where the Pirates have very little depth. Pedro Alvarez has been crushing the ball this year, and playing good defense at third. Russ Canzler could be an option, but he’s pretty much just a lefty crusher. Same with Josh Harrison.
Left Field – Starling Marte has been streaky in his young career, which is to be expected in his first full season in the majors. However, he’s a playmaker.
Center Field – The star of the team, Andrew McCutchen.
Right Field – Jose Tabata isn’t working out. Travis Snider didn’t work out. Alex Presley is more of a fourth outfielder. Maybe Andrew Lambo? Or a trade, and you’ve got all of those guys as depth options if someone goes down.
Bench – The Pirates have upgraded here by subtraction. Josh Harrison has provided more value in the last week than Brandon Inge provided in the first three and a half months of the season. The injuries to Travis Snider and Michael McKenry brought in upgrades of Alex Presley and Tony Sanchez. The first base platoon takes up a spot, and Clint Barmes is hitting lately. The bench is looking better lately, and could get another boost if Tabata is moved down in favor of a new right fielder.
Overall this is a strong Pirates team. There’s a reason they have the best record in baseball. There’s a reason they have winning records against all but four teams this year.
But what about the other argument? What about other teams improving, forcing the need for the Pirates to respond with their own move? Let’s take a look at the biggest threat.
How Much Can the Cardinals Really Improve?
The thing about this weak trade market is that it’s a weak trade market for everyone. Unless something crazy happens tomorrow and a ton of names suddenly become available, I don’t see a team like the Cardinals having an advantage over a team like the Pirates. In fact, their General Manager said he doesn’t anticipate any big moves. That could be posturing before the deadline, but when you stop and think about it, what big moves could they make? They need a starting pitcher and a shortstop. Jake Peavy was traded tonight, so Bud Norris seems to be the best starter on the market. Alexei Ramirez is the top shortstop on the market, but the White Sox are acting like they turned on the “Force Trades” option before the season, and the Cardinals don’t seem to be willing to pay that big price.
If there’s not an impact guy out there for the Pirates, then there’s not an impact guy out there for the Cardinals. It’s a weak market for everyone. But what about the Cardinals and how they’re made up? Tonight they saw their star catcher and MVP candidate Yadier Molina go down. He will go on the 15-day disabled list, meaning he’s out until at least the middle of August. That’s going to be a huge blow.
Then there’s the fact that the Pirates and Cardinals play each other 11 more times this season. And the Pirates are 6-2 against the Cardinals so far this year. And the Pirates have out-scored the Cardinals 43-25 in those games. And the two losses were started by Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald. And the Pirates have depth, while the Cardinals just lost their best player and don’t have the same depth.
I’d go on, but you get the point. This hasn’t been an even series. The Pirates can control their own destiny with all of these games remaining against St. Louis. So far they’ve been great against the Cardinals, so 11 more games is a welcome sight. Five of those games will almost certainly be without Yadier Molina.
The matchups against the Reds have been closer, but the Pirates are also six games up on the Reds right now. Both the Cardinals (six losses in a row) and the Reds (five losses in a row) are slumping right now. The Pirates haven’t lost more than four in a row all season. And remember, it’s not like there’s a bunch of good players out there on the trade market to improve these two teams.
The Pirates don’t need to make a trade, although I think they will make a trade. Their division opponents are dealing with the same weak market, and won’t have any shot at jumping ahead of the Pirates from a talent standpoint. The key to the success of the Pirates this year has been depth. We’ve been talking about how right field is a hole for the Pirates all season, yet they keep winning with that hole. We’ve been talking about the weak bench all year, and the Pirates keep winning, while making small upgrades by subtraction. Now the division opponents are slumping, and the biggest threat just lost their best player, all while getting owned by the Pirates this year.
So the Pirates will probably make a deal. But they don’t need one. They’ve got the best record in baseball for a reason.
Links and Notes
**Check out the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects podcast: P3 Episode 14: Previewing the Trade Deadline For the Pirates.
**Pirates Prospects Player Page: Henrry Rosario