Earlier this week Jon Morosi of Fox Sports wrote that the Pirates needed to add some depth at the trade deadline, especially for their over-worked bullpen. It’s probably too early to talk about deadline strategies, since the deadline is over two months away, and most trades don’t start happening until late June. But considering the article, I thought I’d look at the state of the Pirates.
One issue I’ve always had with the deadline is that it sort of peer pressures you into making a move. A contender is good enough to be one of the best teams in the league for two-thirds of the season, but if they don’t add that key piece at the deadline they’ll fall apart and have no chance the final third of the season. The trade deadline is all about the grass being greener on the other side, mistaking wants and needs, and just general tinkering to the roster out of fear that you won’t make the necessary moves while you still can.
I’ve never believed that every contending team needs to make a big move at the deadline. Just look at the Rays in 2008. They didn’t make a move and were criticized for it. They went on to the World Series. Before you suggest that a move could have won the World Series, I’ll point out that there are way more teams who make moves at the deadline each year and don’t even make the series. Plus, the Rays weren’t “one player away” from winning that series. So, no.
One of the biggest praises I’ve heard about the Pirates this year from people on the outside has been about their depth. We’ve already seen that depth step up with guys like Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Jordy Mercer, and soon we’ll see it with the guys returning from injuries. Adding Francisco Liriano was like making a huge in-season trade. Adding Charlie Morton in a few weeks will be like making two trades. They’ll upgrade the rotation, and they’ll give the bullpen a boost by moving Jeanmar Gomez back to long relief.
So do the Pirates really need to make a move? Let’s look at the state of each position.
In the early part of the season the rotation has tapped into the depth to the extreme that Jeanmar Gomez will make his fifth start tomorrow. Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens are both working their way back from injuries. Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin both are on the Triple-A DL. Gerrit Cole doesn’t look close to being ready for the majors. If a starter goes down before Morton or Karstens return, the Pirates would have to turn to Andy Oliver, who has a 2.87 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 53.1 innings in Triple-A, but also has 39 walks in that time.
Morton should be back in early June, as he has three rehab starts left. Karstens won’t be too far behind. Morton will replace Gomez in the rotation, while Karstens will likely go to the bullpen. That would make Gomez the seventh starter on the depth chart, rather than having him fifth. We’re not even talking about James McDonald here.
The top of the rotation looks good with A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Francisco Liriano has been an extremely pleasant surprise so far in his first three starts. Jeff Locke is due for regression, but should still settle in around a solid number four starter. Adding Morton as a fourth or fifth starter could have some value.
It wouldn’t hurt the Pirates to make a splash and add a pitcher on the trade market, much in the same way they added Rodriguez last year. They can probably hold off on any decisions until they see what Morton and Karstens will do. That said, they can’t depend on Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, Morton, and Locke to remain healthy the rest of the year. They also need to be cautious with Locke, as he could wear down late in the season pitching extended innings. I’d say the need for a starter is minor. If they have to give up a top prospect, stick with the internal options. If they can get a Rodriguez deal, go for it and add to the depth.
All the talk has been on the bullpen, but the Pirates don’t really need depth. As David Todd pointed out tonight, Morton will push Gomez to the bullpen, and Karstens will add to the pen. I wrote a few weeks ago how the Triple-A relievers will also provide depth. And it’s not like the Pirates would go out and trade for an established reliever. That’s not their style. If they add any bullpen depth, it will likely be through minor trades or waiver wire claims. Those guys would be no better than the options already in the system. I wouldn’t say this is a need at all.
The biggest problem the Pirates seem to have with the bullpen is who goes out when Morton and Karstens return? I could see Bryan Morris going down, just because he’s one of few with options. He’s pitched well, but you could DFA Vin Mazzaro, since they wouldn’t need him with Karstens and Gomez on the roster, and they’ve got options who are just as good in Triple-A. When you’re talking about waiving a guy with a 2.87 ERA in 15.2 innings, with good K/BB ratios, you don’t have a bullpen need.
Russell Martin is holding things down, and if he gets injured they have Tony Sanchez waiting to take over in Triple-A. Sanchez is hitting, and has better defense than Michael McKenry. He could also replace McKenry if he goes down.
The first base platoon is working, so no need to make an upgrade.
Neil Walker isn’t having a good year. He’s got a .234/.341/.306 line this year. By comparison, Clint Barmes has a .228/.273/.307 line. Walker is getting on-base more, but otherwise he’s on par with Barmes, who doesn’t get a free pass. If Walker was from anywhere else other than Pittsburgh, there would be demands to replace him. He hasn’t hit lefties in his career, and he’s only got a .653 OPS against right-handers. At the least the Pirates should consider platooning him, giving Jordy Mercer some time at second against lefties. I don’t see the Pirates upgrading Walker’s position outside of a platoon.
I mentioned the numbers from Barmes above. The Pirates love him for his defense. I like Barmes for the defense, and feel that the team can afford to lose some offense at short for that defense up the middle. They’ve got a few above-average ground ball pitchers, which makes that defense important. They’re also getting offense from catcher and center field, which means they can afford to lose some offense at one position.
Pedro Alvarez is doing his normal routine. On the season he is slumping, but he has started to heat up lately. He looks like a platoon option, and the Pirates have been going that route, benching him against more and more left-handers. I’m not sure that Brandon Inge is the answer here, since he’s gone downhill against lefties the last two years. That is continuing this year with a .524 OPS in a small sample size.
The Pirates could platoon second and third base, and it wouldn’t hurt the bench since they’d always have two infielders available. I think Mercer would be fine for the platoon at second. They have some internal options who could be better at third, but might want to look for outside help as well. The internal options include Matt Hague, Jared Goedert, and Chase d’Arnaud. All three of those guys hit lefties very well, and have played third base.
There’s a #MartePartay going on, and there’s no need to stop it.
I’d say the Pirates are set here.
Travis Snider and Jose Tabata are both doing a good job of hitting right-handers. The problem is that neither player is hitting lefties. This would be another good platoon option, although there are two problems. First, Snider and Tabata are each out of options, so you’d have to get rid of one of them to make room for a guy who can hit lefties. That creates the problem of which one do you choose? The Pirates aren’t going to get much in return for either player by trading them since they’re both looking like platoon guys. If they find the right circumstance, they might be able to deal for a platoon option to hit lefties. Or they could just ride it out and hope one of the two starts hitting left-handers. If they go for an internal option, Jerry Sands would be a guy who can help, as I wrote today.
The Pirates might have a need for a starting pitcher, but that will depend on how well Charlie Morton does when he returns, and whether the current starters can keep this up. There’s no need to deal a top prospect for a starter as long as they’re getting this production from the rotation.
The bullpen will be helped by the return of Morton and Karstens. There’s also plenty of options in Triple-A.
The offense is set at catcher, first base, left field, and center field.
Second base, third base, and right field could be upgraded with platoon options who can hit left-handers, although there are internal options for each position.
The offense from the shortstop position is weak, but the defense helps to make up for that.
The Pirates could try to go for an everyday player to fill one of their platoon needs at second, third, or right field. However, I’d say they should take the Wandy Rodriguez approach here. If someone could be had for a cheap price, go for it. If it costs top prospects, go with the cheaper internal options.
At this point the Pirates are contenders and one of the best teams in the NL. That could change as the season goes on. However, they’re about to get a boost in the rotation with Charlie Morton, and in turn a boost in the bullpen. They’ve already got the depth in place for pretty much every position. They’ve got cheap ways to upgrade their weak positions with platoon players. They just added what could be a huge upgrade in Liriano. If they start struggling, the needs could change. Right now I don’t see any urgent needs that they would have to fill externally by the deadline.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.
**Check out the new episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 4: Are the Pirates For Real? Plus a Jameson Taillon Interview.