First Pitch: The Pirates Had the Right Deadline Strategy

There are a lot of extremely short-sighted opinions on the trade deadline out there today. People wanted the Pirates to make a big splash. Deal prospects away, if that’s what it takes, but go for it all this year. Worry about future years when they come. This is all that matters. Small moves don’t help. Only big moves can truly lead to a contender.

That’s a dumb way to run a baseball team.

Now I expect the different opinions. You’re going to have every opinion possible covered, just considering how many Pirates fans there are out there. But the facts are the same.

The first fact: the Pirates are 59-44. They have the fifth best record in all of baseball, sit four games up in the Wild Card standings, and sit three games back in the NL Central race. It’s not like they should be desperate to add talent at this point.

The second fact: the Pirates didn’t get here by making big, flashy moves. They got A.J. Burnett for two marginal prospects, and by taking on salary. They got James McDonald for relief pitcher Octavio Dotel. They got Garrett Jones as a minor league free agent. Michael McKenry was basically bought from the Boston Red Sox. Most of the bullpen came either via cheap free agency deals, waiver claims, or in Joel Hanrahan’s case, as a minor part in the Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge swap. Then there’s the internal prospects that they basically decided to build around.

So why would the Pirates change the approach that got them here? They built a legitimate contender by making small moves that paid off. They did the same thing this week. They added a post-hype prospect in Travis Snider. The results could end up like Lastings Milledge. Or they could end up like James McDonald. They bought low on Gaby Sanchez. Best case scenario, he reverts immediately to his pre-2012 form, basically doing the same thing Joel Hanrahan did after he arrived via trade.

It takes me to that simple question I ask for every baseball move: What Would the Rays Do?

The Rays don’t trade top prospects away. They build from within. They deal established players away, go with youth, avoid making big splashes via free agency, try to lock up their players to team friendly deals, and aim to make low-key additions with a lot of upside. They don’t deal for guys like Hunter Pence or Shane Victorino.

The Rays have managed to be competitive year after year in the toughest division in baseball, with a small payroll, and going up against the biggest spenders in the game. That’s the goal. It’s not to go for it all the first time you become a contender. It’s to become a contender that can go for it all year after year.

There’s two things I believe about the trade deadline. First, I think the need is overblown. The Pirates have the fifth best record in baseball. Why do they need to make a move? You either believe they’re legit — in which case they aren’t desperate for help — or you believe they’re a fluke — in which case one player probably won’t help them. Not to mention that dealing the future to improve a “fluke” is a bad plan.

I believe the Pirates are legit contenders. Look at the record, but more importantly, look at the team. They’ve got an MVP favorite in Andrew McCutchen. Pedro Alvarez is on pace for over 30 homers this year. Neil Walker is starting to come around with the bat. They just added top prospect Starling Marte for a spark at the top of the lineup. Garrett Jones currently has an OPS better than Hunter Pence. On the pitching side they have A.J. Burnett and James McDonald looking like top of the rotation starters (with the exception of a few recent starts from McDonald). Their pitching staff has been one of the best groups in the majors.

This isn’t a fluke team. A fluke team doesn’t include MVP favorites and Cy Young candidates. And because I think this team is legit, I don’t think it’s necessary to make a big splash. Sure, it helps the team, but that help might be unnecessary, in exchange for weakening your team in the future.

The second thing I believe is that trade ideas are all about comfort. Fans want to see comfort in a “name” player. You add Hunter Pence, and people know the name and associate him with production, even if that production isn’t around this year. You add Travis Snider, and some people don’t know his name, while others point to his poor numbers at a young age. It’s more comfortable dealing for Pence. But that comfort has costs. You’re going to pay a lot more for Pence than you are for Snider.

The thing about the comfort is that it doesn’t guarantee anything. The players who cost more and come with the recognizable name could easily struggle, while the lesser known, higher risk player could put up strong numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised if Snider puts up better numbers than Pence and Shane Victorino for the remainder of the year. The latter two are having down years, while Snider has looked like he’s turning things around, granted in a small sample size.

The Pirates didn’t need to make a splash at the deadline. They’re legit contenders who continued making the low-key, high upside moves that got them to this point to begin with. It would be foolish to abandon that strategy and start making flashy moves to add a level of comfort to the team’s chances, all while sacrificing the future in the process.

And let’s clear one thing up. You don’t have to enter the trade discussions with a one track mind. It’s possible to make moves that can help in 2012, 2013, and beyond. The Pirates did exactly that. They upgraded their team — which was already contending — and in the process they added players who can help future teams.

The Pirates had the right approach at the deadline. They didn’t sacrifice their future, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted. They added guys with upside. An outfield with Starling Marte and Travis Snider might not bring comfort to fans, but this is the way small market teams need to build if they want to obtain long term success. Snider and Marte aren’t guarantees to work out. But that doesn’t mean they’re guarantees to fail. Both players have legitimate chances to help the Pirates this year, and in future years. Most importantly, the Pirates improved their team, and the team they improved was already one of the top teams in the majors.

The desire for a big splash is more of a luxury than a need. If a big splash is the difference between the Pirates contending and not contending, then the Pirates probably weren’t contenders to begin with. If you’re saying that the team can’t contend without a big move, then you’re basically saying that the team wasn’t a contender before the deadline, despite the record. That’s not something I believe. I believe the Pirates were contenders heading in to the deadline. And because I believe they were legit contenders, I don’t think the need for a big splash was necessary.

The Pirates didn’t get to where they currently are by fluke. They got there by practicing strategies that small market teams should use if they want to be successful. They basically took the Rays’ approach. And hopefully that will lead to the team continuing to contend this year, as well as contending in future years when their top prospects — who are still in the system — come up to help the guys currently contending on the major league roster.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Cubs 5-0.

**Pirates Notebook: Profiling the Trade Deadline Additions.

**Pirates Focus on Short Term and Long Term Help at the Deadline.

**Prospect Watch: Cole Has Best AA Start, Clement Homers, Four Hits For Rojas.

**Chris Leroux Goes Six Innings, Jeff Clement Homers in Indians Loss.

**Gerrit Cole Pitches Six Shutout Innings.

**Pirates Acquire Gaby Sanchez and Prospect From Marlins.

**Pirates Deal Casey McGehee for Chad Qualls.

**Pirates Designate Drew Sutton For Assignment.

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.
  • Anonymous

    Great article Tim! I was bummed when I found out that Garza was going to the Cubs. I’ve been pitching (pun intended :) the idea of the Pirates acquiring Garza since November and that would have been the best time for them to deal for him. I believe Garza’s value, though high, only skyrocketed after Cliff Lee signed and Zach Greinke was traded to the Brewers. Cubs GM Jim Hendry is trying to keep up with one of their divisional rivals and probably overpaid for Garza’s services. It’s great for the Rays because they got the maximum value for Garza to the tune of 5 prospects. I’m glad the Pirates didn’t deal 5 prospects for Garza. I would have been willing to part with one of the Altoona starters, Meek or Hanrahan, and one or two lower minor leaguers for Garza, but not 5 prospects!

    Changing topics now, do you intend to write a story on how the Carlos Gonzalez signing may influence the Pirates’ ability to keep Andrew McCutchen long-term?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I don’t think the Gonzalez signing impacts McCutchen. Gonzalez had a huge season in 2010, to the point where he was a serious MVP candidate. Cutch has been good, but not to that level where he would receive around $10 M a year in an extension.

      Also, I’ve mentioned this a lot, but signing players this early is rare. The Rockies signed Troy Tulowitzki once he reached arbitration. They signed CarGo after two full seasons. We’ve only seen one full season from McCutchen. You don’t find many instances where players sign extensions this early.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Tim, agree with you on he importance of building the minor league system, I have long advocated how the minor league talent has handicapped Huntington, especially in the pitching dept. When they needed a pitcher, they had no where to turn, 2011 might be the first year since Huntington has been here that he will be able to turn to the minor leagues and call up a credible pitcher when he needs one.

  • Anonymous

    I agree totally on the Attendance…the Pirates might be able to keep a extra guy or two the Rays couldn’t…because we all know soon as the Pirates start winning Pittsburgh is a unbelievable sports town and PNC Park will be filled almost every night.

    • Anonymous

      There are flaws in using Attendance figure to project future payroll number. For example, last year Toronto only averaged ~100 people more than the Pirates per home game, yet their payroll was $62.2 M vs. the Pirates $35 M. Also, one of the few teams the Pirates had better attendance, the A’s, had a payroll of $51.6 M.

      Personally, I’m a big follower of the Bucs, and I’m definitely not yelling to “sell the team!”, but it gets frustrating that it just doesn’t seem like our FO is willing to spend more in a market that is definitely a bigger market area than a Toronto or Oakland, yet our locals that don’t go to the games are blamed for the Piratess spending.

      One note to tim, I personally ordered your book, but while reading your last post about how you’d like to afford to do more this upcoming year. I’ve seen web sites that offer viewers the ability to donate to the website at the click of a couple buttons and paid through Pay pal (the late watchtvsitcoms.com comes to mind) as an option to get alternative means of funds. I know I personally would be willing to donate $20-40 per year, as that was my plan with the PBC Bog for this year until the announcement that DK wasn’t covering the Bucs exclusively any more. I definitely prefer your coverage than to any of the local coverage.

  • Anonymous

    It would be like farmers eating their seeds instead of planting them……… It has taken 3 long losing years to get to the point of having a respectful minor league system and to start trading away those prospects for a few more wins is crazy. It will take another 3 years of good drafting to get this farm system really fluid and running like a well oiled machine. I just wish the whole Pirate Nation would get behind what they are trying to do.

  • http://twitter.com/rssgvegas Ryan Suchy

    We’ll have to agree to disagree here. First I disagree that you have to continue to build a team with the same philosophy as you started with. I like the Bucs plan to get where they are now and for the future. That does mean they can’t take a gamble here and there.

    There’s also a difference in being competitive and being a champion. I honestly think the Rays missed a great opportunity for a World Series a couple years ago and right now I question if they can get back to that point anytime soon. I think the Bucs have a window right now they had to take advantage of.

    I also disagree with the thought they are either legit or a fluke. I think they are a legit playoff team, but not a legit world series contender. I think there were a couple players available who could’ve put us there, Pence being one of them. It’s just that we have issues in our lineup that I think can be exposed come playoff time. I think our lineup is too similar. Lots of power across the board, but too many K’s, mediocre avgs, and not enough guys just getting on. Snider is no different. Pence has actually been playing much better than his numbers have indicated. Aside from a poor past couple weeks he’s had a OPS % of .912 since May 1st. He’s also dealt with most of his key offensive mates on the DL and he hasn’t been pitched to kindly. Same thing happens to Cutch in close games and we still don’t have anyone behind him that scares pitchers enough to not pitch around him. I think that’s a big issue come playoff time. Pence’s OPS is almost .900 when he’s batting 4th or 5th this season, which is where we would’ve used him. I like Garrett Jones but he’s nowhere close to a comparison as a guy like Pence. Plus I wanted Jones with Pence. For those that say there’d be a hole still if Marte was traded for Pence, who’s to say we still also couldn’t get a guy like Snider still or Snider himself?

    Bottom line to me is that I thought we could make the playoffs this year with this team and still do. I thought with a couple additions we could start dreaming even bigger. I do agree we at least are better than we were last week so it’s not totally bad and I know if you do make the playoffs all bets are off. It’s just a little disappointing we didn’t do more, especially after seeing so many guys get traded and contending teams not really having to give up that much for them. Playoffs are never a given, heck look how quickly the Phillies became sellers. Prospects are just that, prospects! They’re unproven commodities, so why not roll the dice once and get a proven player or two? I don’t think that would kill the franchise or our progress!

    That being said, it is what it is and now we move on. Let’s go Bucs!

  • http://twitter.com/Spazaru Murray Passarieu

    I mostly agree with this. Teams like the Pirates can’t mortgage their future for a guy like Pence unless it guarantees them a shot at the World Series and of course nothing guarantees that so it’s futile to put all your eggs in one basket. I think the Pirates are legit as far as the wild card or MAYBE to contend for the division title. To say they’re legit if they had to play the Rangers or Angels I think is dreaming, but that’s just baseball the way it’s set up. Neal did the best he could here. I’m not sure why we gave up the draft pick to get Qualls but other than that, I like the moves.

    • Lee Young

      I agree that we can’t mortgage the future.

    • indybucfan

      The draft pick was for Sanchez. I loved the moves. Would Lincoln have gotten this return a year ago? He’s done well in the role he was put in, but arguably, we may have the same type of pitcher waiting in AAA in Bryan Morris who I would like to see. I’m not crazy about Qualls. I would’ve rather seen Morris brought up, but bullpen guys seem to come here and turn it around, so I’ll trust Neal on this.

  • John DiVito

    Great job Tim! I agree with you on all accounts. I think the trade deadline is a great place to build for the future, even if you are contending, because teams get so desperate to make a move. If you are willing to put up with a little bit of anger from your fan base, you can make some really shrewd moves, like Neal did yesterday.

    Seriously, the upgrades are great:
    RF before trade: Presley, Harrison, Sutton, Jones… eek
    RF after trade: Snider, who should provide good power and defense

    1B before trade: Caey McGehee… every night… eek
    1B after trade: Jones (at his most valuable position) and Sanchez, who is a big upgrade over McGehee

    Bench before trade: Sutton and Harrison usually playing out of position, Mercer
    Bench after trade: Presley (where he has value as a 4th OF), Harrison (back in his proper role), Mercer, Sanchez, who is better against RH than McGehee so he is a legit bench bat!

    Bullpen is the only place we downgraded, and that was our strongest position!

  • RandyLinville

    “A fluke team doesn’t include MVP favorites and Cy Young candidates.” I disagree with this. I think that sometimes what makes a fluke team a contender are players playing at an unexpectedly high level.

    Take two teams of the 1980s as an example. The 1984 Cubs and the 1988 Dodgers. Both teams finished under .500 the year before and the year following their playoff year. Both teams had both the Cy Young and MVP winners on the roster. Often times success is driven by players playing above expectations. That isn’t to say that those award winners weren’t legitimate ballplayers – Sutcliffe, Sandberg, Gibson and Hershiser certainly were. But their individual success helped carry an otherwise flawed team to the post-season.

    I love Cutch. Everybody loves Cutch and with good reason. But do we think he is going to be Rod Carew with power every year? Excluding the Colorado air (Larry Walker) and steroids, only Gwynn, Boggs and Carew have hit better than .360 more than once since the divisional era began in 1969. This very well could be the best year he ever has (hopefully not, but it could be). Burnett’s success has been nothing short of a wonderful surprise. I’d count another year of him pitching like this as an even greater surprise. In other words, I think this team is more flukey than you think it is. I don’t think this team is as good as it has played.

    All that being said, I think the FO did a fine job at the deadline.

  • Chauncey Jordan

    Huntington is doing an incredible job. People lose sight of where this team was just 2 and a half years ago
    Our lineup then/now
    Doumit/Barajas
    Laroche/jones-G. Sanchez
    F Sanchez/n. walker
    J. Wilson/Barmes
    Andy Laroche/Pedro
    Nyjer/Marte
    cutch/cutch
    Brandon Moss/Snider

    Duke/AJ
    Maholm/McDonald
    Ohlendorf/Wandy
    Morton/Karstens
    Snell/Bedard

  • duckwoes

    I am actually quite excited with the moves. They will miss Lincoln short term, but I do believe this could be a real good trade going forward. Also, it’s quite puzzling to me why the Marlins would sell low on Sanchez, and I think it is selling low when you look at his previous two years. The potential is certainly there, although no guarantee it returns of course. Milwaukee team MVP of 2010 Casey Mcgehee can attest to that

  • Lee Young

    Trading the #33 pick AND the $$$ for Gaby is NOT buying low, imho.

    And Wandy’s 5.48 ERA since May has me not liking THAT deal either.

    The only deal I liked was the Snider deal…and if he busts, then we got screwed bigtime yesterday, because our bullpen is decidedly worse without Morris.

    And Chad Qualls? Here’s hoping he gets lost going to Cincy….lol

  • Kevin_Creagh

    Tampa Bay has done a lot of things very well — great scouting and development, great job of signing key players to extremely team friendly deals.
    However, I disagree with following their “hoard all the prospects” mentality because they have had legitimate WS-capable teams and missed the chance to add 1 or 2 key pieces to give themselves a better chance. For all of their great seasons, they have zero WS titles to show for it. And in the end, “Flags Fly Forever” is all that counts. Now the Rays window is going to start to close after 2012. Their farm is not very fallow, thanks to all the keys guys already promoted and their lower draft positions affecting the talent level.
    The Pirates had a pretty good trade deadline (a lot of callers/posters seem to overlook Wandy was the big acquistion a week earlier). Their window is just opening now and could stay open for 3-4 years in my estimate. But if they’re as close as the Rays were in 2008 and 2010 and are reluctant to part with a prospect for a key player, that’s when I’ll be upset.

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    I don’t buy the “they could have won the World Series with an addition”. They were after Jason Bay in 2008. But Bay wouldn’t have made a difference in that series against the Phillies.

    When it comes to the World Series, I don’t expect much. That’s not how I grade small market teams. The World Series is won year after year by teams in the top half of the league in payroll. Small market teams stand very little chance there. Considering the economics of baseball, and the tough AL East situation, it’s incredible what the Rays have done. The lack of a World Series just speaks toward the game, and not the team.

  • buccotime57

    All it takes is to get hot at the right time of the year..look at the phillies last year…once your in anything can happen..string together a couple great starts from aj/jmac/wandy and you have a banner

  • szielinski

    MLB is an effed up economy. The Yankees draft and trade poorly, Cashman gets the OK to sign a future HOFer. The Rays, Reds, Pirates….

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Well, this is all opinion. It might work out that this was the way to go, and it might not, too. This genius front office took Robinzon Diaz over Jose Bautista, so not all moves are golden. The price for Shane Victorino was the same price for Snider, except that he makes a LOT more money. I’d rather have Victorino. 19 straight losing seasons doesn’t equate to great management. No one thought THIS team would contend like this. Best case I saw them hanging around in a weak Central, maybe 5-6 games over .500 tops. That doesn’t mean trading Taillon for a rental, but something better than other teams AAAA guys they’ve given up on. Had that already with Milledge.

  • szielinski

    A soundly argued, sensible, realistic and well-written article. I’m sure the Smizikastanis coughed up fur balls the moment they began to read it.