First Pitch: Do the Pirates NEED to Make a Trade?

The breakout performance by the Pittsburgh Pirates this year has drawn a lot of comparisons to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008. Because of those comparisons, there have been some suggestions that the Pirates should take a similar approach at the trade deadline, making a big splash with a big trade. The Brewers dealt their top prospect, Matt LaPorta, for two months of C.C. Sabathia.

There was another surprise team in 2008, and that was the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays took a different approach at the deadline. Rather than making a big splash, they kept their team together. They didn’t make any major additions, even though they had the loaded farm system to do so. In the end the Rays and Brewers both made the playoffs, despite different approaches, and neither won it all.

There’s one thing I’ve never understood about the trade deadline. Why do contenders NEED to make a deal? If a team can contend as it is currently built, then why is it absolutely necessary for them to upgrade? I understand the arms race factor of it. Your opponents are upgrading, so you want to match the pace. But is that really necessary? The Brewers and the Cubs had that battle in the summer of 2008, adding Sabathia and Rich Harden, respectively. But the Rays didn’t participate in that game. They were three games up on the Red Sox at the deadline. Boston added Jason Bay. The Rays still won the division by 2.5 games.

For contenders, making that big splash at the deadline seems more like a luxury than a need. You’re adding a boost, “just in case”.

It’s still strange calling the Pirates “contenders”, but that’s what they are. They moved to a one game lead in first place tonight, and nine games above .500. There was the second half collapse last year, but as I pointed out yesterday, that’s unlikely to repeat as this team looks legit. So do they NEED to upgrade the team at the deadline? Or is that more of a luxury?

The Pirates have the fourth best record in baseball. Will that continue? Probably not. But it’s showing that they’re legitimate contenders. Last year they were “contending” despite staying close to .500. They were only contending for most of July because the top teams in the division hadn’t broken out yet.

They are contending this year largely because of their pitching. James McDonald and A.J. Burnett look like the real deal. Erik Bedard started the season strong, but has struggled since an injury in early May. Jeff Karstens isn’t a flashy pitcher, but he put up strong numbers last year, so he’ll have a long leash to work with. Kevin Correia has been extremely lucky, putting up respectable numbers, despite a low strikeout rate and lucky advanced metrics.

The pitching might need some help down the stretch, especially if Correia, Karstens, or Bedard struggle. But the Pirates don’t necessarily have to make a trade for that help. They’ve got three major league ready starters in Triple-A in Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens, and Jeff Locke.

Then there’s the biggest issue this year: the offense. Lately the offense has been on fire. Andrew McCutchen has been one of the best players in the game. Pedro Alvarez is hitting for power, and lately he’s hitting for everything. They’re also getting help from guys like Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee, Drew Sutton, and Michael McKenry.

Down in Indianapolis the Pirates have a few solutions. Starling Marte has been hitting well lately, and could provide a boost at the deadline. Jeff Clement is tearing the cover off the ball. He’s also a year younger than Casey McGehee, so it’s too early to write him off, especially with his Triple-A numbers this year. Then there’s guys like Matt Hague and Jordy Mercer who could fill in if there’s an injury in the majors.

For the first two months of the season, the offense was horrible. Ever since June started, the offense has been one of the best in the league. They’re not this good, but they’re not as bad as the start of the year. The Pirates were lucky to win as many games as they won in April and May, considering the offense they had. But that luck is only limited to April and May. They don’t have to continue as the best offense in the league to justify winning, but if their pitching holds up, and their offense plays somewhere in the middle, they can put up wins without people constantly pointing to the Pythagorean record.

So far this year the Pirates have been winning because of their pitching. They’ve got the internal depth to maintain that success, even if a few of the guys in the majors struggle. There’s not much of a need to make a deal for pitching. On the hitting side there’s a little bit more of a need for help, but eventually Starling Marte could provide a boost. They’ve also got some depth to help out, and as long as McCutchen and Alvarez lead the team, with the occasional hot streaks from 1-2 other guys, they should put up respectable numbers.

So do the Pirates need to make a trade? I think it’s more of a luxury than a need. I’d love to see that luxury, but I wouldn’t deal any big prospects away. And I’d even be hesitant to deal some of the upper level guys who rank in the 8-20 range in the system. I’d much rather see a deal like last year, where the Pirates don’t give up much in value, and take on money instead. That way they get the luxury of adding a boost to a contending team, all while preserving their future and giving the future team a better chance to compete.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Astros 6-4. Also, the Dodgers beat the Reds 4-1, moving Pittsburgh in to sole possession of first place.

**Pirates Notebook: Bucs Playing With Confidence, Finishing the First Half Strong.

**Prospect Watch: Lots of Strong Pitching, Lots of Power Tonight.

**Von Rosenberg, Offense Solid as West Virginia Blasts Lakewood.

**Locke and Clement Lead Indians To 8th Consecutive Win.

**Jordy Mercer in Pittsburgh, But Who Will He Replace?

**International Prospect Trends: June 2012.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • HamburgBucco

    What a great article Tim! That’s exactly what I was thinking: Do we need a trade ?
    With our options in the farm system not really. The team could improve no end if Barmes started having an average season instead of a lousy one. If Correia and Bedard were to pitch a bit more consistently. Otherwise the team chemistry is great.
    Are there players out there we might get in a trade and who are better than what we already have ? Certainly, but at what price ? Our farm system is just fine now and I want to see those lads perform in a Pittsburgh uniform long-term, not for any other team.
    Let’s face it, a player acquired in a trade would cost 3-4 good or very good prospects at this point and I wouldn’t want to sacrifice that. Money, okay but no future talent.
    I don’t even wanna see the likes of Locke, Grossmann, Mercer, Holt, Curry, Alderson or Sanchez leave. I can’t see the Pirates getting fair value in a trade, we’d have to give up too much. So NO trade for me!

  • NorCalBuc

    The Pirates have the fourth best record in baseball. Will that continue? Probably not. But it’s showing that they’re legitimate contenders.

    Tim, through the rest of the month, 21 games beginning with SF, there are ONLY three games against teams with a winning record – the Giants. It’s very possible for this team to be 15 (+/-)>.500 come Aug 1.

    It’s VERY possible this team’s record gets MUCh better throughout the season, as Aug and Sept look winnable as well. Remember, we have a LOT of games against Chi, Hou, Mil and St Louie

    • Lee Young

      NorCal…I’ll have some of what you have been having in your smoothies! :)

  • Lee Young

    Tim……if YOU had to call up one of our AAA pitchers to replace Bedard, who would it be?

    Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens or Jeff Locke?

  • ElGaupo77

    Keep harping on Clement. Everyone is dismissing him. Clement at 1B and Jones in RF vs a RHP would be pretty sweet. Clement is .308/.368/.586 in 185 AB against RHP. If we have a stretch with a bunch of RH starting pitchers we should recall him.

  • Greatone1210

    I think we need to trade for one player, SP or position player, that will provide some insurance should one of our current players start to falter. At this point in the season, we are firing on all cylinders and working hard to take the division. But there are some things that need to take place for us to continue. We need to improve our OBP especially from the top-of-the-order guys. We need to do a better job stealing bases. We need to continue hitting for power and picking up more doubles. But what we really need is Tabata to regain his composure, Marte to keep raking so he can make his way to the club, and for some of the sub .220 guys like Barmes and Barajas to make a little more contact so to get on base. I think Cutch, Pedro, and the rest are pretty good and will continue to stay right around where they are at currently if not better. Starting pitching is decent especially with depth at AAA and the bullpen is good enough to last us. So really what we need are for our current players to stay consistent and for our upcoming players like Marte and returning players like Tabata to bring their best to the table.

  • leadoff

    Some of us have been calling the Pirates contenders since ST, talent is talent, that is what contenders are made of, the Pirates have contending talent. The young core is maturing, IMO they will get even better than they are.
    Nothing is broke on this team right now and nothing needs fixed right now, that could change in five minutes, a deal the Bucs can not pass up might come along in one phone call, an injury or two could happen, but right now, just ride with it and don’t panic with a couple of losses in a row.
    They might want to start talking contract with Pedro, now might be the time to grab him.

  • Brian

    I don’t think it’s a luxury to get a shortstop who can do better than a .229 OBP in 250 plate appearances. There’s a lesser need at the corner outfield positions – but if Barmes isn’t replaced then upgrades are needed to counteract his poor bat. The playoff race will likely be decided by one or two games – I’d absolutely trade minor league pitching depth for a playoff spot this year.

  • Kirk Lee

    I keep reading people say “Andrew McCutchen has been one of the best players in the game.” I hate to sound picky, but Andrew McCutchen has been THE best player in the game. So far.

    • Robb Rowe

      Based on what? The ancient stat we keep like on old teddy bear, called batting average? Have you seen Mike Trout with your own eyes.

      In terms of wRC+ (a measure of runs created) McCutchen he ranks 2nd, but is tied with Mike Trout, who has played 17 fewer games than McCutchen, so we can call that 3rd (since Trout has created the same amount of runs in fewer games).

      In terms of WAR (wins above replacement) he is actually tied for 7th at 4.0, again behind Trout, who is 3rd at 4.7, only 0.1 behind the Major League Leader David Wright, who has played 18 more games than Trout.

      Again, I think considering the gap in games played we can say that by these more comprehensive measures of a player’s value (that include defense) that Trout has actually been the best player in the game so far this season.

      That said McCutchen is a totally ridiculous player and I would die to have him on the Padres (the abusive relationship with whom I keep coming back to).

  • Dave Parker’s Unfiltered Camel

    If the offense continues to produce descent numbers, I can see them trading for a starting pitcher. Yes, we have options at Indy, but Morton is lost for the season, Bedard has a history of injury problems, Karstens was hurt last year and this year. It wouldn’t take much to eat into our depth, so I can see making a trade for more pitching. I still think Bedard should take a start off to rest. Bring up one of the Indy pitchers or use Lincoln in a spot start. He’s not been the same since his injury.

  • Daryl Restly

    I would much rather the Pirates hold onto their prospects and let them develop. There’s nothing better than home-grown talent. It’s cheaper in the long run and you know exactly what you got. That said, I do remember in 1990 the Pirates made a trade with the Expos that sent curveball specialist Scott Ruskin, OF Moises Alou and IF Willie Greene to the Expos for Zane Smith. Zane was a pretty good pitcher for the Pirates his first go-around with the team. But, would I have liked to have kept Moises Alou instead. Yes, as he had a long and productive career. Who knows what the Pirates might have had if the Pirates hadn’t traded him. And on top of that, Willie Greene had a few good years with the Reds.

  • VtTom

    Tim makes a strong argument. I seem to recall most of the columnists listed St. Louis as a trade deadline “loser” last season on August 1 because they lost out on the available closers. The eventual results speak for themselves. If the Pirates do make a trade, Jeff Francoeur is an interesting name. Will Myers is about to replace him in the Royals outfield. I believe Francoeur had a good postseason with Texas in 2010 with Hurdle as the hitting coach. Last Sunday’s Boston Globe threw out the name Vernon Wells as another guy who could be had if the Angels were willing to pick up the majority of his salary. The paper mentioned the Pirates, Dodgers and Indians as possibilities.

  • Anthony Closkey

    They need a better shortstop and another veteran starting pitcher to eat late season innings. Only Burnett pitched close to 200 innings last year, so (barring injuries or other rest) they’ll all be stretching out to new extremes at the end of the season (even before playoffs). Come September, and regardless of when they’re called up, that AAA pitching depth are all going to be pushing their innings limits too.