The Pirates have officially reached the other side of the rebuilding process.
It was only a few years ago that we saw the Pirates trading away rentals, hoping to land a piece that would help them build for the future. Pirates fans were searching everywhere for information on the player they just acquired, trying to figure out what kind of player he could become in the future. Trades were evaluated on whether the Pirates won the deal, and in some cases you couldn’t believe that another team would make such a move for a rental.
Now we see how the other side lives. The Pirates today traded away a promising prospect, plus a player to be named later who is said to be promising as well, in exchange for two rentals. There is no deep searching for information on the players acquired. Everyone knows what Marlon Byrd and John Buck bring to the table. And you can evaluate the deal, but to do so, you need some perspective.
I thought James Santelli had a great summary of the current situation earlier today. James pointed out that Neal Huntington said the Pirates were willing to make a stupid trade at the deadline back in July. He also pointed out that this deal would qualify as one of those stupid trades, but that it was necessary for the Pirates to make a stupid trade in their current situation.
There are two ways to look at this deal. The first way is to look at it in a vacuum. You have Marlon Byrd and John Buck, who are both only going to be around for one month each, plus playoffs. In exchange for those two, you’re losing two prospects who have promise of a future in the majors, longer than one month each. In a vacuum, you lose that deal. Herrera and the PTBNL aren’t guarantees to have long major league careers, but if just one of them has one good year, you’re giving up much more value than you’re getting back. And remember, this is only in a vacuum.
Now let’s look at the actual situation. The Pirates are contending and need a boost down the stretch. Right field has been an issue all year, and they needed catching depth. They have a loaded farm system, which means they can afford to lose a player or two and not feel the impact.
As it stands, Herrera is a great prospect, but the Pirates have better options. Before the trade, I projected a future middle infield of Alen Hanson and Jordy Mercer. The Pirates also have other options like Jarek Cunningham, Gift Ngoepe, Chase d’Arnaud, Dan Gamache, JaCoby Jones, and Ulises Montilla. None of those guys are strong bets to be a starting second baseman. Herrera ranked ahead of all of them, and I still have Hanson/Mercer as the future middle infield. But all you need is one of those guys to have an Andrew Lambo turnaround, or one of the lower level guys to work out and you’ve got one more strong option to add to the mix. Herrera is a great prospect, but the Pirates won’t miss him.
As for the PTBNL, I’ve heard a name that is unconfirmed. I’m still working to confirm it. I will say that this name isn’t anyone ranked ahead of Herrera in our rankings. He’s also a guy who is talented and has a major league future, but who the Pirates probably wouldn’t miss. That’s a common side effect when you’ve got a top farm system. You’ve got elite prospects at the top of the depth chart, and then you’ve got strong prospects behind them who are totally expendable.
In a vacuum, the Pirates lost the trade. In the actual situation, it’s not about winning or losing a trade. The Pirates just made the right move. You have to consider the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, the Pirates filled a lot of needs. They added a right fielder (need #1) who can hit lefties (need #2) and another backup catcher (need #3). They didn’t trade away anyone who projected to be a part of their future major league team. The Mets won this deal no matter how you look at it from their perspective. For the Pirates, the deal just made sense.
Looking back at some of the trades the Pirates have made, there are two examples of trades the Pirates clearly won that were completely different and illustrate how trades should be evaluated for contenders.
The first trade was the deal that sent Nate McLouth to Atlanta for Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez. McLouth almost immediately went downhill. Four years later, Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton make up 40% of the Pirates rotation, and Gorkys Hernandez was part of a deal that brought back Gaby Sanchez, who has been successful against lefties. The Braves clearly lost this deal, as Morton and Locke have been more valuable than McLouth was. But the deal made sense for Atlanta. They needed to try and win in 2009. They weren’t focused on their 2013 rotation. And the deal doesn’t really hurt them now, as they have plenty of strong starters in their current rotation.
This was a case where the Pirates clearly got the better players in the long-run. However, the only thing that mattered for Atlanta was the short-run. The Pirates got an important boost for their future, but the Braves didn’t trade away an important piece of their future. They also addressed a big need for the present, although it didn’t work out for them. It was a smart move where they addressed a current need and didn’t mortgage the future.
The second trade was the deal that sent Octavio Dotel to Los Angeles for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo. The Pirates were trading two months of Dotel, plus his option year, which wasn’t a great price. In exchange they got two prospects who were the top guys in the Dodgers’ system the year before. James McDonald almost immediately stepped into the rotation for the Pirates. Three years later Andrew Lambo is in the majors after hitting 32 homers in the minors. The Dodgers aren’t missing McDonald or Lambo right now, thanks to their insane TV deal. So why is this different than the Atlanta deal?
The Dodgers didn’t just make a stupid trade in that situation. They were stupid to make a trade. They were 54-51 on August 1st, eight games back in their division, and in fourth place. They weren’t contenders, so to give up any kind of value for a relief pitcher was a stupid move. Of course that’s my feeling on all trades for relievers, but in this case it was especially stupid because the Dodgers were basically throwing prospects away. That was apparent when they traded Dotel a month and a half later for a guy who made it to Double-A and isn’t playing this year. The deal would have made sense if the Dodgers were contending and needed a reliever. They weren’t contending, and paying that much for a reliever was stupid, especially since James McDonald (3.52 ERA in 64 IP) out-performed Dotel (3.38 ERA in 18.2 IP) for the rest of the year.
The Braves were in a position to actually contend. They addressed one of the few needs on their 2009 team. They traded guys away who probably wouldn’t help for a few years, and who wouldn’t even be the top options for Atlanta when they were able to help. Meanwhile the Dodgers weren’t in any position to contend, and probably would have been better off going with McDonald in the rotation or the bullpen. Their TV money makes it so that they don’t have to feel this move, but the Pirates don’t have that luxury.
The Pirates are more like the 2009 Braves in this situation. They are actual contenders. They filled a need. They traded away guys who won’t help for a few years, and who wouldn’t be top options when they are able to help. The Mets absolutely won the trade, but it’s not that complex from the seller’s standpoint. You just need to focus on whether you’re getting more potential long-term value than what you’re giving up. It’s more complex for the buying team. You need to make sure you’re getting the players you need in the short-term, all while making sure you don’t sacrifice any long-term plans. The Pirates handled this well. They filled the short-term need and didn’t hurt the long-term outlook of the team.
This isn’t something the Pirates can do repeatedly. They don’t have the financial resources of the Dodgers to go out and buy a team. They also can’t fall into the Dave Littlefield trap of relying on only one prospect at each position to work out. The Pirates can trade Herrera because their future middle infield projects to be Hanson and Mercer. But if they take that approach with every position, they will inevitably run into a situation where their projected starters don’t work out, leaving them with no Plan B.
In this one case, it makes sense for the Pirates to make a deal like this. The Mets won, and that’s how their side of the deal is graded. For the Pirates, the only grades are based on whether the deal made sense for the team, and whether they acquired short-term help without sacrificing the future. They succeeded in both regards.
Links and Notes
**The newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is up: P3 Episode 18: Prospect Talk With Pirates Farm Director Larry Broadway.
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.