Buyers or Sellers: Can the Pirates Be Both?

The Pirates could get a huge return for Hanrahan.

With the win over the Houston Astros last night, paired with a Milwaukee Brewers loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Pittsburgh Pirates took sole possession of second place in the NL Central, sitting 1.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Pirates hold a 45-41 record, with seven games coming up against the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, two of the worst teams in the National League this year.  There is a very strong chance that the Pirates could be in first place after the All-Star break, or at least battling for the spot in the July 22nd-24th home series against St. Louis.  So naturally, there are plenty of calls for the Pirates to be buyers this year.

At the same time, I don’t think anyone truly buys the success of this team, at least for the long term.  The pitching staff is full of guys playing over their heads, as shown with their advanced metrics, which feature high strand rates, low batting averages on balls in play, and low home run to fly ball rates.  The offense has been slammed with injuries, and most of the healthy players have struggled this year.  The Pirates have guys like Paul Maholm and Joel Hanrahan at their highest values.  Trading one of those guys could net a huge return, similar to the return of the Xavier Nady trade in 2008.  Considering the current team doesn’t look set to compete long term, there’s a case to be made for the Pirates being sellers.

Here’s a question: why can’t the Pirates be both?

For example, what would you classify the 2010 Pirates as: buyers or sellers?  Yes, they traded Octavio Dotel, D.J. Carrasco, Javier Lopez, Ryan Church, and Bobby Crosby.  However, they added a Major League ready starter in the Dotel trade, bringing in James McDonald.  They added a starting catcher when they sent Carrasco, Church, and Crosby to Arizona, with Chris Snyder also bringing in additional salary.  The Lopez trade didn’t work out as well as the other two, although it was basically a swap of a middle reliever for a possible bench bat and a possible middle reliever.  Considering the 2011 bullpen, the loss of Lopez wasn’t huge, even if John Bowker and Joe Martinez didn’t work out.

The Pirates weren’t really buyers, but they weren’t really sellers either.  They didn’t make a move that hurt them long term.  They added some guys that provided an instant upgrade to the team, even though they traded away 20% of the active roster.  So can they be in that neutral ground again this year?

When the Pirates were starting their rebuilding process, I often said that the consecutive losing streak shouldn’t impact the moves they made.  Many people wanted them to go out and make some short term additions, trying to break .500 and end the streak.  A team should take the same rebuilding approach whether they’re one year removed from a winning season, or 18 years removed.  In fact, the “quick fix” approach is what probably extended the streak, as Dave Littlefield spent years holding on to players until they were pending free agents with little value, rather than blowing up the team all at once and going with a total rebuild.  But everyone knew they needed to rebuild in 2008, and over the last few years.  Things are a bit different now that the team is winning in July.

If the Pirates made a trade, you can bet that there would be a group of people ready to burn PNC Park to the ground.  That would be the case, even if the trade strengthened the team for the long term, all while providing no short term downgrade, similar to the 2010 trades.

As an example, Paul Maholm is at his highest value right now.  Joel Hanrahan is at his highest value right now.  Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers are looking for pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen, and have a loaded farm system.  I’ve talked before about how one of Hanrahan or Maholm would be enough, value-wise, to land top shortstop prospect Jurickson Profar.  Whether Texas makes that deal is another question.  Shortstop prospects like Profar, who has an .877 OPS as an 18 year old in low-A, are extremely rare.  So if the Pirates could get one for a guy like Maholm, who is only under control for one year beyond the 2011 season, it’s something they definitely have to consider.  While it may not go over well, considering how Maholm is pitching, any move would be easier to make when you consider that the Pirates have Ross Ohlendorf returning in August, and have Brad Lincoln as another rotation option to replace Maholm.

We’ve talked a lot about the Pirates getting in a situation where they have a full rotation, and options in the minors, only to see them deal from the rotation, bring up a minor league pitcher, and upgrade the system.  Ideally, this is done with no drop off from the major league production.  The downside (and the reason people don’t like suggesting these moves) is that you’re already getting success from a guy like Maholm, while you don’t know how Lincoln will do in the long term, and you don’t know how Ohlendorf will bounce back from his injury.  But don’t confuse current success by Maholm as a guarantee of future success.  Maholm had a 4.03 ERA after his July 18th start last year.  From that point forward, he made 13 starts, with a 6.81 ERA in 71.1 innings.  That’s been the story of Maholm’s career.  He’s never been consistent for an entire year.  Maholm is almost like Xavier Nady.  When he’s on, he’s good.  At the same time, it’s tough looking past his current results to see his flaws (consistency with Maholm, injuries with Nady).

Hanrahan is a bit of a different story.  Again, people might not want to deal him because of the comfort factor.  This time the comfort relates to the closer role.  Hanrahan has been one of the best closers in the league this year.  It is to the point where a lead heading in to the ninth inning is pretty much an automatic win.  But the idea that Hanrahan can’t be traded stems from the lofty expectations and misconceptions about the closer role.  The role is blown up to be something it’s not.  The idea is that it takes a special arm and a special mindset to perform in the role.  Yet every year an unknown name like Craig Kimbrel or John Axford emerges as an elite closer option.  And here’s the thing about those elite options: they rarely last.  Look no further than Joel Hanrahan.  In 2008 he emerged as the new closer in Washington.  In 2009, he blew up, and was traded to the Pirates.  Now, he’s back to being a dominant reliever, and is far better than he’s ever been.  But how long will it last?  All it takes is one bad season, or even one or two horrible months, to totally remove Hanrahan’s value.

The idea that Hanrahan can’t be replaced is false.  The Pirates have candidates on the roster, such as Jose Veras, Chris Resop, and Evan Meek.  Sure, there’s no comfort factor with these guys.  However, it wasn’t that long ago that people weren’t comfortable with Hanrahan as the closer.  it’s hard to remember that now, but heading in to the season there were questions on whether he could handle “the pressures of the closer role”, with people pointing back to his struggles in Washington.  The pressure of the closer role almost seems like something that exists in the minds of the fans, rather than the closers.  I’m not saying there’s no pressure in the 9th inning, but when we’re talking about nerves, it seems like we’re talking more about how comfortable fans are, rather than how comfortable the closer is.

Like Maholm, the Pirates could seriously upgrade their system by dealing Hanrahan at his highest value, and they stand a strong chance of maintaining his production with guys like Resop, Meek, and Veras.  In either case, the Pirates could wait to deal them in the off-season, although they lose value by removing the chance to sell to a team that is in the middle of a pennant race, and they run the risk of each player declining in value over the final months of the season.

If the Pirates did happen to deal someone like Maholm or Hanrahan, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be able to make a move that would classify them as buyers.  There’s a sentiment that teams who can add payroll this year have a big advantage on the trade market.  The Pirates are a team that have room to absorb payroll.  I talked last week about what it would cost for a high priced guy like Carlos Pena.  If the Pirates absorbed the rest of his salary, they could land him for very little, possibly sending off a Tyler Waldron/Nate Baker type pitching package from the lower levels.  Pena’s remaining salary, assuming he was traded on July 31st, would be about $3.3 M, which would put the Pirates right at $50 M this year, a number they could easily afford.  That addition would be a huge boost to the middle of the lineup, and might take some pressure off of a returning Pedro Alvarez.

So the question is, can the Pirates be both buyers and sellers?  Can they trade Maholm and/or Hanrahan for a big return, replace them with Ohlendorf, Lincoln, Meek, Veras, or Resop, and at the same time, make a move to upgrade the offense with a Carlos Pena type addition?  They have a chance to deal Maholm and/or Hanrahan, all while maintaining good production with their internal replacements.  They also have a chance to boost the offense by taking on some payroll.  The best part is that both moves would be great for the system in the long term.  The additions from a Maholm or Hanrahan trade could add some top prospects, while the act of taking on salary for a guy like Pena could allow the Pirates to upgrade the team, while not losing much from the minor league system.

The Pirates are technically contenders right now, although I don’t think you’ll find many people who will buy in to the fact that they’re strong contenders, or that they’re built to contend for the long term with the current roster.  For that reason, if they can make a move to boost the system and help their long term chances, all while keeping their short term chances a possibility, then they definitely need to make that move, even if it wouldn’t be the most popular of moves right now.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Corey Barcus

I wish they would become sellers, and sell the team to a billionaire and not a millionaire.


I would like to see the Pirates aquire 1B Chris Davis from the Rangers. I’m not sure who they could swap for him, but I don’t think they would have to give up much. He continues to be blocked by guys like Michael Young and Mitch Moreland. He is still young at 25, and he has had success in the majors in the past. He’s currently batting .372 with 20 home runs and 55 RBIs in just 37 games at AAA-Round Rock. Those numbers are insane. He would also be a great long term bat, which would be better than the Carlos Pena trade in my opinion. Although, I wouldn’t be upset if the Bucs aquired Pena. Overbay has always been known for his defense, but I think the Bucs could take a slight downgrade at defense for a better bat.


At the beginning of the year, I thought Maholm would be gone at the trade deadline, no matter what.  But given the lack of progress with Wilson and Owens at AAA, it might be better to keep Maholm, as he is the only major league left-handed starting pitcher we have right now.  For that reason, I agree that maybe Olson should have started instead of Lincoln for that spot start in last weekend’s doubleheader, even though Lincoln had otherwise earned the chance.

Trading Hanrahan would be a bad idea all around, no matter what the return was… it would just be a swift kick in the stomach to the players and the fans. 

Finally, I have zero confidence that Ohlendorf will contribute anything to the Pirates when he returns from injury, and question whether he will even be tendered a contract for next year.


Tim ~ You’ve struck out on three points in your article, in my book.

Strike ONE ~ Doubting the competitiveness of this team.   No doubts for me.  The young pitchers are simply maturing.  Morton, McDonald and Karstens are pitching up to their potential.  Hanny as well.  No smoke and mirrors after  > 80 games, with our success against the AL as well.  

Our offense will mature at some point, as well.  Only Cutch has taken steps expected of him.  So will Tabata, Walker and Pedro.  But, as we know, PITCHING is 75% of the game, and this team is NOT over its ability on this score.

Strike TWO – You site Maholm’s performance from last year, indicating a coming downward spiral for Paul.  This is a basically absurd comparison. This is NOT last year’s defense, attitude, management, and capability. 

Strike THREE ~ Dealing Hanny.  Of course not.

Tim ~ essentially you’ve missed the entire scenerio of the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates.  They have won series against Boston, Philadelphia, Cincy, St Louis, AZ and others BECAUSE of 1) management, 2) pitching, and 3) defense.

I live in the greater S.F. area, and this Gigantes team is built on the same foundations.  With the Gigamtes, you can trash ALL of the sabremetrics hoopla, ’cause there ain’t now way a team with Aubrey Huff batting 3rd or 4th should win the World Series.  BUT, look at my THREE points as to why they are successful, and it is the same formula for this team. 

This Pittsburgh team is competitive right now, at 3 > .500, with the expected improvement in the second half of Tabata, Walker, and Pedro, and they WILL be there in mid-Sept within 3 games of 1st place.  Even with sub-par performances from the above three, this team is basically within a weekend of games of FIRST PLACE.

Your analysis basically swung and missed on their entire season.  Therefore, I’ve got to say “YER OUT!”


Tim ~ I really don’t care about the sabre numbers hoopla.  Karstens ERA is where it is; Correia has won the most games in the league up to last nite; Hanny is the number one reliever in the game.  You can trash all of the whiff-and-poodle stat-geeks WHEN this team pitches like it does.  >80 games, Tim.  This ain’t magic.  There is a reason behind this pitching success, as I stated in my previous post. 

WHY do Maholm’s numbers differ this year, versus his past second half performances.  uhhh, Tim, this team IS NOT last year’s squad that lost >100 games.  It is NOT the teams of Bay, Sanchez and Wilson, who could never even put together a 75 win season.  You’ve got to understand the THREE major indices of basebeall, and you’ll realize WHY this team is winning, as I’ve stated in my initial post.

Trade Hanny?  Tim, we do not trade Hanny for the same reason we did NOT trade ANY other number 1 position players of my lifetime.  You build around these guys.  I’ver seen the Bucs’ win three World Series titles, and they did NOT trade any of their number 1 players.  Other franchises who are winners do not do this (save for the extreme exception).  For a BIG basket of return value, I WOULD trade Starling Marte, or Jose Tabata, or Charlie Morton, but NOT the number 1 reliever in the game.


1) Could it be the coaching staff that is around him now?  I mean Joe Kerrigan may have been really good but him and JR were not on the same page.  Every team that Maholm has been on has been a young team but the big difference is having a Manager that knows how to win with a young team.


Your logic, tho sound, would mean that my boyhood hero, Roberto Clemente, would have stayed appx. a .280 hitter, with 11 hRs per year and 65 RBIs (aapx).  NO!  His talent and therefore potential far surpassed his learning years.

Logic only pertains to deductive reasoning (static measurements).  HOWEVER, sports, as in most of life, are DYNAMIC.  Clemente was NOT the player in 1961 that he was in 1959.  But Tim, the stats and logic you use propose that his future would be dictated by his early years.  NO! 

Maholm is far surpassing his previous years because  of the multiplicity of factors that I’ve mentioned in my previous threads (management, defense and pitching).  Over the past four years, the Rays, Rockies, Phillies and Giants (and Tigers, Indians, D-bakcs and Pirates this year) have all surpassed their expected norms because of the multiplicity of factors.

Your poodle dribble stats geek material makes for fun reading, but in no way pertains to the play on the field.


Ok so Player A pitches 1336 innings and has a 3.62 era at this point in time Player A is now 29 years old.. you saying by the numbers he will not be any better then what he shows now?????

The same player now 34 has pitched 1097 innings since turning 30 and is posting a 2.85 era 
So is he pitchig over his Head?


His SO/9 was 6.3 he raised it to 7.4 in those splits
His walks he did cut in half it seems but thats the thing he got better…. So is it possible Maholm is getting better?

Hank Stull

Then lets just hope his Luck dont run out


I think this article is well-reasoned and thought out; the Pirates should certainly be looking for value for Maholm and should not rule out being overwhelmed by some GM falling in love with Hanrahan.  Likewise, Pena would be a signifcant and affordable short-term upgrade over Overbay.


One thing we have to look at is this:  we are in contention in a not-so-great NL Central this year.  We are not great, but better than we have been for years.  That said, we need to seize opportunities that present themselves to make the organization better overall…to put us in contention for years to come, not just in 2011.

I look at it ALL this way — if someone puts an offer for Hanrahan on the table that we cannot refuse…then we don’t refuse it.  We are NOT sellers when it comes to Maholm or Hanrahan — and as such we should expect to be OVERPAID for those players rather than us taking a bath on them.


Appreciate the thought; but I don’t think you realize the Buc’s 40 man roster situation


yes yes yes,but get a lot for hanrahan . Maholm on the other hand has about 10-12 starts left after july 31 and 9.75 million next year so the team you trade with has to weigh that in the return. Right now paul is earning 9.75 but if he slips and we all know paul, some team  might want some money coming back to be on the safe side.


Don’t forget Ramos, Espinosa, and Zimmerman.  The Nats are going to be very good in a year or so, barring any further injuries.


Craig Kimbrel didn’t just come out of nowhere, Braves had been grooming him for that role.  


To think that closer’s just fall of trees is silly, it takes a special mind set and tool’s to do that job as good as Hanrahan has done this year, please don’t trade either player. 


I know were talking about the pirates here but just think about the nationals line up on the offensive end in a couple of years. If rendons injuries turn out to be nothing they could potentially have a combo of Zimmerman,Worth,Harper,and Rendon how scary could that be and some nights you’d have strasburg shutting them down pitching


I know its sick, I thought about the same thing when they Drafted Rendon.  Well if you think about it, its going to make one heck of a Playoff series when you have Taillon, Heredia, Cole and Allie going against them


I think the 8th and 9th inning punch of meek and hanranan could be that case I wouldn’t trade hanranan. I’d absolutely deal maholm to me he has a little better stuff than zach duke. Like zach he had some outings were he was very good but he just doesn’t have the consistancey that it’s worth keeping a spot for a guy we could get in a’s another question why’d it take us 3 years to realize a guy like karstens could be a very good starter with a low era and a great walks to inning comparison?

Rick Macurak

“The Pirates are technically contenders right now, although I don’t think you’ll find many people who will buy in to the fact that they’re strong contenders, or that they’re built to contend for the long term with the current roster.”
Agreed. It’s hard to argue against the fact that a large factor in their contention is a result of the NL Central lacking a powerhouse team this season.  If the Pirates were .500+ & 10.5 games back of a strong St. Louis or Milwaukee team (or both) going into the all-star break (see: NY Mets) I don’t think there’d be nearly as much excitement.  In fact, even at 4 games over .500, the Pirates still 5.5 games back in the wild card race — meaning they likely have to IMPROVE over their statistically improbable first half record and hope the NL Central teams’ slumps continue in order to make the playoffs.

There is something to be said for team chemistry, attitude & momentum, though, and Hurdle has been a wizard in keeping the team competitive despite injuries, etc. Even though statistically & logically your argument for trading both guys makes sense, I’d be nervous about the locker room reaction if two of the team’s top performers were plucked by management for (single-A?) minor-league return. They’re living on the edge as is — if the team truly believes a Division crown or wild-card berth are realistic goals this season I think it would be a failure by team management to do something that might push them over.


I wouldn’t phrase the Pirates first half as statistically improbable, after all, they are only 4 games above .500.    Their record since they were 18-23, a pace equivalent to 97 wins, is more of the unsustainable type.

Rick Macurak

Fair enough, I don’t mean to incite a statistics debate.  I’m merely suggesting that perhaps an important reason they’re 4 games over .500, despite being in the lower 3rd in the major offensive categories (runs, batting avg., on base %, slugging), is something intangible like “team chemistry.”  My gut says the stars will have to remain aligned in order for this Pirates team to continue to win at a playoff-contention pace. (And I really hope they do, because it’s been a fun summer so far.)

Dehn Unterzuber

Good article. I think trading Maholm and Hanrahan is a potentially great idea. I feel comfortable with Lincoln starting over Ross. 

I agree Profar could be an outstanding pickup. But I am not sold totally. I think we could send them Maholm for Profar and move Lincoln into his spot in the rotation. In the long run we would benefit but maybe suffer a bit this year.

Going after Pena would be beneficial for numerous reasons. I really like this idea. 

Additionally, I want Hunter Pence. End this platoon setup. DFA Diaz, keep Jones as he plays OF/1B. Also don’t forget Doumit coming back. Will be offensive upgrade over McKenry though a defensive downgrade overall. 

Trade Presley while he is hot and a middle prospect along with cash. That should be enough to get Pence I think.


 I have one big problem with trading a ML-caliber LHSP or a (right now) top-flight closer for a low-A SS….he is a low-A SS.

It might not be 3 or 4 years before we see him in Pittsburgh.  I’d want Martin Perez (LHP in AA @ 20 years old) just for starters.  If that prices us out of Profar, then so be it.  Go grab the Sardinas kid they have at SS (in Rookie ball) if we want a low-level SS with some upside + Luke Jackson (RHP in A ball — look at those K numbers), and find someone else.

We at least obtain a pitcher that is on the cusp of producing in Pittsburgh, plus add talent to the system.  Just my opinion.


I like the Presley trade idea.


So the Maholm comment I will go with but not the Hanrahan idea.  When your team doesnt score that many runs such as the Pirates you need a guy like Hanrahan.  Now if the Pirates were blasting Homeruns and were in a bunch of blow out games then yeah go for it, cause no one else in that bullpen is as consistent as Joel.  I understand the system does need help but that trade would not put enough bats into the system to make it worth it.  We need an MLB bat right now to help but cant spend to much so a player that fits that Profile is Nolan Reimold,  and what sucks is hes starting to get playing time and his stock is going to go up


If I was told that Maholm or Hanrahan were traded, I would be outraged at first thought. But after reading what they could get in return,  I am totally open to the idea. I think that this team could make a run for the playoffs with the returns of Tabata and Alvarez, and possibly a trade for Carlos Pena. But at the same time I don’t think we would have a prayer in a playoff series. I am all for getting a top SS prospect like Profar. He would really boost our system in a position of need and add to our young core of prospects. I could see a team consisting of McCutchen, Walker, Tabata, Tony Sanchez, Cole, and Taillon leading is to the promise land. Landing a guy like Profar would really add a lot to that core.


The roster crunch coming in the next week should be very interesting. I think they should move Diaz or overbuy or both for young hard thrower that might fill a back end role. Making it easier to deal hanrahan. Sadly I think darnaud and pressley will probably be sent down once Pedro tabata and cedeno are back they need everyday abs and with garret jones Diaz and overbay there may nit be enough. If they’re within 3 of first come end of July it’ll be hard to trade maholm. Maybe offer him at the end of year plus some cash to someone. I know this is unlikely but who’s to say can’t be traded and resigned.


The Maholm issue is the reason I wanted to see Garrett Olson pitch the July 2nd game instead of Lincoln. If Olson is somewhat effective as a left handed starter on the major level, then the Bucs could afford to trade Maholm. I speculate that the Pirates will wait up to the last day of the trading deadline and analysis where they are after the series against the Cardinals, Braves, and Phillies has run it’s course. This will also allow them to get a read if Overbay can sustain bat consistency like he has the last two weeks. 

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