Back in June, on one of the Pirates Prospects podcasts, we discussed the difference in trading strategies between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers. The Rays hoard prospects. They’ve made a few deals where they send away young players, but you can probably count on one hand how many deals they’ve made where they’ve traded prospects for rentals. On the other end of the spectrum is Milwaukee. They’ve made a lot of trades to send out top prospects for established players. As a result of these two strategies, the Rays have managed to remain in contention for many years, while the Brewers had a small window.
A team like the Pirates doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly like the Rays. They don’t have to hoard prospects and build only from within. But they can’t be like the Brewers. That’s what we discussed in that podcast, and that stands true today. If they’re going to fall somewhere on the spectrum, it needs to be closer to the Rays than the Brewers.
The Pirates definitely weren’t like the Rays in the Marlon Byrd/John Buck trade. The Rays would never trade Dilson Herrera and Vic Black for one month each of Byrd and Buck. James Santelli wrote that the price the Pirates paid was high, but that it didn’t matter because they should only be focused on this year. I agreed with that sentiment.
It’s not going to hurt the Pirates long-term to make this move. They gave up a lot to get one month of Byrd and Buck. As James outlined today, the total value those two are projected to bring the rest of the season is 0.2 WAR combined. They’re not going to make a huge impact to the Pirates’ playoff chances the rest of the season. The impact they do make is adding an everyday right fielder and a backup catcher as insurance incase Russell Martin goes down. Byrd’s impact might be bigger in the playoffs, where every out counts, and where you can’t afford to have a dead spot in the lineup.
This is why it’s fine to trade a big return in prospects for two short-term rentals. Herrera might be an everyday second baseman starting in 2016-17. Black could join a major league bullpen full time next year. But the Pirates are focused on winning now, and they didn’t exactly give away any key long-term pieces. Even if Herrera projects as a starter down the line, he doesn’t profile as one of the best starting options in the Pirates’ system. Black did profile as one of the better long-term relievers, but the Pirates haven’t had any issues finding quality relievers.
The Pirates gave up a big return in prospects, but they’re probably not going to notice due to the strength of their farm system. That doesn’t mean they can do this every year. That’s what Milwaukee did, and that’s why Milwaukee is rebuilding now with a depleted farm system. The farm system does exist to add talent by trading prospects. But for a small market team like the Pirates, the bigger role the farm system plays is building for the future. We’ve seen that this year. The Pirates have been contending all year with a team built around prospects.
Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke (who was acquired in a trade, but mostly developed with the Pirates), and most of the pitching depth options and bench players came from within. The Pirates wouldn’t be where they are without Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, or Russell Martin, but no team is built solely from within. That said, the impact players from the Pirates are almost always going to come from within.
You’re not going to sacrifice the future making one trade like Herrera/Black for Byrd/Buck. But when you start making too many of them, that’s when you start depleting your prospect depth, and falling into the Dave Littlefield trap. Under Littlefield, the Pirates used to give the long-term job to one young player or prospect, and start focusing on other positions. That led to him turning down Ryan Howard for Kris Benson, because they already had Brad Eldred and why would they need Howard? And that all makes sense if you consider that Eldred looked legit at the time, and that you don’t need two first base only players in the NL. But when you consider that prospects — even the top guys — aren’t guaranteed, that’s where you ignore the fact that you already have a prospects at a position. It’s why adding Reese McGuire said nothing about Tony Sanchez, and why the Pirates drafted Austin Meadows, even though they might have a long-term outfield of McCutchen, Marte, and Gregory Polanco.
The big reason the Pirates don’t need Herrera is because they’ve got Alen Hanson and Jordy Mercer for the long-term middle infield. Herrera would have been a great backup if one of those guys don’t work out. The Pirates still have other backup plans, like JaCoby Jones, Jarek Cunningham, Dan Gamache, and Gift Ngoepe, but none of those guys are close to Herrera. If the Pirates make too many deals like this, then they’ll start to deplete their depth too much at different positions. Inevitably that will lead to a Brad Eldred situation where that can’t-miss prospect does miss, and you’re left with no Plan B.
So how can the Pirates avoid this, while adding the pieces they need to contend in the short-term? In short, they need to continue doing what they’ve been doing and trusting prospects to fill key roles. That means going with Gregory Polanco as the long-term right fielder when he’s ready, which could be by mid-season 2014. It means eventually building a rotation mostly from within with all of the top pitching prospects who are making their way through the system. And it means that, if you need to add a player from the outside, the better thing to do is spend money on free agents, or make an A.J. Burnett style “take on salary” trade, rather than giving up any prospects of value for an established player. I may or may not be talking about first base and spending money to sign Cuban sensation Jose Abreu. Spoiler alert: I am talking about Abreu.
Once the Pirates have a strong team, they need to avoid the annual myth that a contender absolutely has to add players mid-season. If your team is good enough, they won’t have to add anyone mid-season. For example, here’s a full list of the players the Cardinals acquired this year in major league trades:
Who is Juan Herrera? He’s a shortstop in short-season A-ball. They got him by trading a major league reliever away. They didn’t make any moves to add players, and they didn’t need to. The Pirates probably didn’t need to make a move to make the playoffs, but as mentioned above, they needed to make a move to improve their chances in the playoffs. That said, they’ve got the farm system that will lead to a situation in the future where they don’t need to upgrade mid-season. They can avoid the “Keeping Up With the Joneses” fear that other teams will make a monster addition and pass them in the standings if they don’t respond with their own huge move.
That’s what the Rays do. They’re not constantly trading prospects for established players. They rarely make a big addition mid-season. They trade established players like James Shields for prospects like Wil Myers. They build their team pre-season to contend, and they make smaller moves mid-season that help support that team, without giving up anything of value. The Pirates don’t have to be exactly like that. But the closer they are to the Rays, the better chance they have of contending over a long period of time, as opposed to the Brewers method where they sell their farm system and shorten their chances of contending to a “window”.
Links and Notes
**The newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is up: P3 Episode 18: Prospect Talk With Pirates Farm Director Larry Broadway.