I’ve been asked by a few scouts in the last week what I think the Pirates will do at the trade deadline. Some of those questions were just in conversation about the team and their recent run. Others had the feel of teams trying to get any sort of idea of which way the Pirates might be leaning.
Right now, it’s difficult to get a read on the Pirates, especially after their sweep against the Brewers. That allowed them to climb back to .500, and sit within striking distance of first place in the NL Central. Even after going 2-3 on their current road trip, they’re one game below .500, and 3.5 games out of first place.
Part of this has to do with a weak division. They were 52-49 after 101 games last year, and 9.5 games out of first place. They were 59-42 in 2015, which was their strongest year and the strongest year for the division, but were 5.5 games out of first. They’re only really “contenders” this year because of a weaker NL Central. They’d be 7.5 games back in the NL East, and would have no shot at all in the NL West.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they are technically contenders, and have a shot to take the division in a weak year, even if this is also a weak year for them.
My best guess would be that the Pirates will take a similar approach to last year. They could trade away some smaller pieces, or some struggling players, while also adding to the team. Last year they traded Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon, but ended up replacing those two at the deadline with Felipe Rivero and Ivan Nova.
I never thought Gerrit Cole would be traded, and I don’t think that will happen now. I thought there would be a chance of an Andrew McCutchen trade. However, the Pirates could get similar value for McCutchen this offseason if he continues hitting the way he’s been hitting lately. If they keep him, then they’re gambling that he maintains his trade value. However, the other side of that gamble is that he would be a huge boost to them if he continues hitting like this.
That would be the only area where I think it would make sense for the Pirates to gamble. I’d expect them to add in some way, and that’s not a bold statement. They’ve added at every deadline since 2011, with the exception of 2014. During that season, they pursued a few big names, but the players who were traded were dealt for young MLB players, while the Pirates were offering prospects. It’s probably a good thing that happened. Looking back at those trade rumors this morning, I saw a lot of mentions of Josh Bell, especially for rentals like Jon Lester.
I’d also expect the Pirates to add in the way they’ve done the last two years. They haven’t gone out to get the biggest names at the deadline. Instead, they used scouting and coaching to get some under-the-radar players. They added J.A. Happ in 2015, rather than going for a bigger name like David Price, then saw Happ pitch just as well as any other pitcher down the stretch. They did the same thing last year by adding Ivan Nova. The cost for both rentals was a combination of Tito Polo, Stephen Tarpley, and Adrian Sampson, which is a package that wouldn’t even get in the conversation for a rental like Price.
The Pirates have salary to spend, which could help them make a low-key addition. They saved about $5 M this year with Starling Marte’s suspension and Jung Ho Kang being on the restricted list. They also saved about $2 M when they released Jared Hughes. So there’s about $7 M in the budget that they expected to spend at the start of the year, and didn’t end up spending.
As for bigger name players, I don’t expect the Pirates to do anything that would require trading a big package of prospects, unless they were getting multiple years of control. They’ve been in talks for similar trades in the past, but haven’t pulled off a deal. Again, it’s probably a good thing they haven’t made such a trade, since a lot of the names in previous years have been guys like Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, and others who are currently helping in the majors.
They are at a point now where there is depth throughout the system at certain positions, which would allow them to make a deal while still having prospects for the future. As a few examples, Jordy Mercer has one year of control remaining, but the Pirates have shortstop prospects Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker in the upper levels, along with projectable guys like Stephen Alemais and Adrian Valerio in the lower levels. They have no urgent need for a first baseman with Josh Bell performing the way he is, and have prospects like Will Craig doing well in the minors.
At the same time, the Pirates continue to show an ability to find pitching talent without having to pay big in dollars or prospects. The Happ and Nova trades were criticized at the time, but both worked out well. I’d make the Melancon for Rivero trade a hundred times over, and would even take five years of Rivero over five years of Melancon.
They do have some success stories on the hitting side, but a lot of what has worked for them have been situations where a quality hitter is available due to economical issues. David Freese and Matt Joyce were two of their best recent signings, and both fell to them due to a lack of offers. They need outfield help, have money to spend, and the economic issues could work in a different way. Big salaried outfielders like Melky Cabrera, Jay Bruce, and Curtis Granderson have been rumored to have little interest. There might be others out there who fit the same category of a high paid outfielder who is probably a #4 option right now, but who can still help.
I don’t know if the Pirates are looking at any of those players, but with the position they are in, it would make a lot of sense. They have the money to spend, and it would allow them to keep top prospects while still upgrading the team.
If I’m predicting what will happen with the Pirates, then the easiest prediction would be to say that they will be active at the deadline, and will probably make some addition to the team, whether it’s for this year only (rentals like Happ/Nova), or a move that might help a bit this year and more in the future (such as the Travis Snider trade a few years ago, or even the Rivero trade last year). But it’s difficult to guess what type of specific approach they will have, considering their recent run. I’d have to guess that they would go with a bit of buying and a bit of selling, rather than leaning specifically in one direction.