The MLB trade deadline is just a few days away. The rumor mill has been heating up lately, but we’re still at the point where nothing is really happening, and so many teams are stuck in no-man’s land, wondering if they should buy, sell, or stay put. The few teams who are sellers will take advantage of an extreme seller’s market. I’ve been writing about this over the weekend, noting the big prices being paid for starting pitching and relief pitching this year.
It’s no secret why this is such a seller’s market. It’s also nothing that is going to change anytime soon. MLB has added additional playoff spots, putting more teams in real competition for the post season. As a result, you’ve got situations like the one in Tampa, where the Rays have been one of the hottest teams in baseball, and are 4.5 games out of the playoff race, but are two games under .500 and behind five other teams for the second Wild Card spot in the AL.
Rather than chasing a playoff opportunity that has a small probability of actually happening, the Rays should sell Price by the deadline and capitalize on this massive market. If the trade deadline was moved back to the end of August, to adjust for the new playoff spots, they might have more time and a better picture of where they stand as contenders. Right now, they have to gamble either way. Sell Price and miss out on your chance to make a comeback, or keep Price and miss out on a chance for a massive return.
On the flip side of this, you’ve got teams like the Pirates. They’re looking at all kinds of pitching, but they’re in a tough situation. The pitching that would upgrade their team will cost a ton in prospects. The great fear for Pirates fans is that the Pirates only have a few years to compete with Andrew McCutchen on the team, and won’t take advantage of those years. The reality is that if you set the parameters for how long you can compete, and make moves with those parameters in mind, then you’re probably only going to compete during that time period. The Pirates could save their prospects, get stronger for the long-run, compete this year, continue to compete in future years, and possibly even compete after McCutchen is gone. They could go for cheaper options in this route, although those options aren’t likely to be better than what they have.
While the extreme seller’s market really helps a team that might rebuild, it hurts a team like the Pirates. They’re on the edge of contending, they can’t afford to give up massive returns or top 100 prospects for rentals, and chances are we’ll probably see them wait until August, hoping someone will be available a month from now. The risk here is that they might not have anyone available to them. If the trade deadline was moved back, they wouldn’t have to worry about that, and would have more options to choose from, leading to better prices in terms of giving up prospects.
How you feel about the current market really depends on where you’re sitting. If it’s a team like the Cubs or Padres, who are clearly out of it, then the current system works. It offers the chance for a quicker rebuild by loading up on a ton of prospects, in exchange for rentals that won’t be worth the prospects that were acquired. If you’re a big market contender like the Angels, you probably don’t have to worry about paying a high price in prospects. If you’re a small market team on either side of the border of contending, then you’ve got a difficult decision to make, and a situation where an extra month might make that decision much easier.
The system isn’t changing this year, leading to a huge seller’s market. If it doesn’t change in future years, then we can expect the same situation each year. And since every single team has their own weaknesses each year, the Pirates will be stuck with a tough decision. Do they make a trade each year, paying a premium to address a weakness that might not even make a difference down the stretch? Or do they stick with what they’ve got, and resist the urge to dream about how Pitcher X will be the difference between their current contending status, and making a big playoff run. That kind of dream ignores a lot of research that shows how deadline acquisitions really don’t provide this type of impact at all.
I’ve been saying for the last month that I don’t think the Pirates need to make a trade. They aren’t in the current playoff race by accident. I think they can make some internal moves that could help the team down the stretch. A month ago I suggested moving Edinson Volquez to the bullpen when everyone in the rotation was healthy. That would add a boost to the pen, while keeping the best members of the starting rotation in the rotation. I still think this is the way to go.
I think the Pirates have the aces they need. One of them just pitched a rehab start tonight, and the other will make his third start tomorrow since the All-Star break, after giving up one run in 12 innings during his first two starts. If the Pirates can get one of Francisco Liriano or Gerrit Cole pitching like they did last year, then this rotation will be fine.
The offense is much better this year than it was last year. The bullpen has struggled, but I think the Pirates can find an upgrade without paying a premium for what amounts to such a small impact. I think Jeff Locke is looking the best he has ever looked in the majors, and don’t see him regressing this year. Vance Worley is pitching like he was before his injury in 2012. If he was playing for another team with these numbers, and he was on the trading block, people would be talking about him as a good trade option. If you believe that his 2013 struggles were only due to mechanical issues, then there’s no reason to think what we’re seeing now isn’t legit.
I know it’s not a popular stance to say that the Pirates shouldn’t do anything at the deadline. It’s much easier to be on the other side, calling for the Pirates to make a move at any cost. That’s the side that has the irrefutable facts, like “the Pirates won’t contend without A.J. Burnett this year”, and “the Pirates can only contend by trading for a productive starting first baseman”, or “if the Pirates wait until June to call up Gregory Polanco, the season will be over.” Somehow the Pirates are currently sitting half a game out of the Wild Card spot, despite the fact that they didn’t spend a ton of money on Burnett this off-season, didn’t immediately trade for a first baseman, aren’t getting good production from the first baseman they acquired, and waited until Super 2 passed to call up Polanco.
And now we’ve reached the point where the results of those old arguments are ignored, and the Pirates can only contend by making a trade and dealing key pieces of their future, all to win this year. Because the only way to win this year is to add outside help at the deadline, despite the fact that they’re already winning and contending without that help.
The grass is always going to be greener. There’s always going to be a weak spot on the team that could be upgraded. There will always be a possible trade that could take place, allowing you to dream about how that’s the move that will put the Pirates over the top. But in this extreme seller’s market, one thing that is for sure is that the Pirates will be giving away a lot of future pieces if they make such a move. And if they fall into this trap where they “need” to make a move every time they’re contenders, then they won’t be contenders for a very long period of time. I say go with what has gotten you here so far, make some low-key moves to provide some depth and a small boost, and see your biggest improvements by adding prospects to the team each year — kind of like the process they used to not trade Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco in previous years.
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