A few weeks ago I was talking with one of my fantasy baseball buds about a trade idea that seemed like it had no chance of taking place. He mentioned that he was listening to MLB on XM, and they were discussing how Justin Upton could be dealt, and how he’d be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Pirates. So when the rumors came out yesterday that the Pirates were interested in Upton, I already had been thinking about the subject for a few weeks.
First of all, the Pirates getting Justin Upton in the short-term would be huge. There’s no denying that. Prior to the season, Keith Law named Andrew McCutchen the second best player under the age of 25. Number one was Upton. The rankings may have changed with guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout moving up, or possibly Upton moving down, but the overall impact would be the same. Having two of the top young players in the game on the same team would be huge. And they’d be on the same team through the 2015 season.
You can dream on Andrew McCutchen and Justin Upton playing together. Add in Pedro Alvarez, and that’s a dangerous middle of the order for the next several years. Throw in whatever prospects are remaining after an Upton deal, and you’ve got a young team that can contend not just this year, but for the next few years.
But I think in the middle of that dreaming, people are overlooking a few key things.
First, I don’t think people are giving enough thought as to how much Upton would cost. In my look at Upton’s trade value, I noted that it would probably take Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, one of the Indianapolis left-handers, and a Grade B hitter like Robbie Grossman or Gregory Polanco.
A lot of the arguments I saw were based around “Justin Upton is better than Starling Marte”. If it was a 1-for-1 swap, then those arguments would be valid. But it’s not just Upton for Marte. It’s Marte, plus one of the top pitching prospects in the game, plus a major-league ready starter, plus a borderline top 100 outfield prospect. Just to hammer that point home, let’s look at what the Pirates would have to give up.
First, there’s Jameson Taillon. Pitching prospects with number one upside are rare. I think Pirates fans have forgotten about this because they’ve managed to get so many of them over the last three years. In 2009, the only hope for the Pirates to eventually get an ace was for one of the 2009 prep pitchers to break out in to a stud pitcher. Three years later and the Pirates have three potential aces in the system, and one potentially on the way if they sign Mark Appel.
Just because you have multiple ace prospects, doesn’t mean you’re going to have multiple aces. The Pirates have four who could have that upside, with Cole and Taillon being the best bets. That means they’d be fortunate to have two of those pitchers reach their potential. The Pirates have a lot of top of the rotation prospects. But that doesn’t mean some of those guys should be trade bait. Those are very rare pieces to have. Taillon is a guy who could be up in 2014, and pitching for the Pirates for six and a half years or more, with the first three and a half years coming at league minimum salary. That’s huge.
Then there’s Marte. We’ve always been higher on Marte than anyone else. Prior to the 2011 season we had Marte as the number two prospect in the system, focusing on the talent and ignoring the strikeout numbers and the lack of power. Earlier today I was asked about Marte, and I responded with my opinion that I feel Marte could end up being close in value to McCutchen and Upton. I was told that was a bold statement, but why can’t he?
In Andrew McCutchen’s final year in Triple-A, he hit for a .303/.361/.493 line in 201 at-bats. Starling Marte currently has a .290/.350/.492 line in 331 at-bats in Triple-A. One difference is that Marte puts up higher strikeout numbers and lower walk numbers. But those numbers aren’t out of control. Marte has a 22% strikeout rate this year, and a 6% walk rate. McCutchen’s walk rate was 7.7% in his final year.
I also saw several people point out that Justin Upton was an MVP candidate in the majors at the age of 23, while Marte has yet to play a game in the majors at the age of 23. That really doesn’t say anything, other than Justin Upton is very good. Are we supposed to believe that if a player doesn’t come up by the age of 23 and put up an MVP season, he can’t be good? McCutchen came up at 22. Is that extra year the difference?
Marte is an outfielder who is on the verge of being ready for the majors. He’s a guy with a ton of upside, plus he has better defense than McCutchen and Upton. He’s got some real power, and not just the 10-15 home run type you’d expect from a leadoff hitter. He saw a power increase last year, and he’s seen another one this year, with an ISO over .200. And he’s not just a small, skinny hitter. For those that haven’t seen him, he’s ripped. I’ve seen him put up some impressive home runs, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he tops 25 in the majors one day. Add in the years of control, and the cheap price, and he’s a very valuable player for the Pirates.
Then there’s one of the Indianapolis left-handers. Whether that is Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, or Justin Wilson, all three have value to the Pirates. If Pittsburgh needs second half replacements for Kevin Correia and Erik Bedard, they’ll need to turn to two of those three. Next year Correia and Bedard will be gone, which means two of those three will have to be up. The year after that, A.J. Burnett and Jeff Karstens will be gone.
Other pitchers will emerge through the system, but the Pirates will need depth. And if you’re dealing Taillon and one of the Indianapolis pitchers for Upton, then your 2014 rotation is Gerrit Cole, James McDonald, the remaining two Indianapolis starters, and Kyle McPherson, while hoping that some lower level starters emerge to provide depth. Not to mention, all of those upper level guys have to work out. The way I see it, talking about the pitching depth now is kind of like the talk about the outfield depth pre-season. Everyone wondered what the Pirates would possibly do with Alex Presley and Jose Tabata when Marte came up. Now they’re wondering who will fill the other outfield spot for the long term, even after Marte arrives. Until there’s actually a log jam at the major league level, there’s no such thing as “excess” in the minors.
Finally, there’s an outfielder like Robbie Grossman or Gregory Polanco. The loss of one of these guys wouldn’t be as bad as some of the guys above, although they’d fit the same argument as the pitchers above. The Pirates have two long term outfield spots open. Marte could take one, but who takes the other?
You might have noticed a common theme above. Years of control, and affordability. That’s a big thing people are over-looking here. I’ve seen people say “adding Upton could convince a big free agent to come here”. How are you going to afford a big free agent when you’re eventually paying McCutchen $10 M and Upton $14.5 M? And that’s not counting arbitration raises to James McDonald, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker. The Pirates could raise their payroll, and they should if they continue winning and improving their attendance. But PNC Park limits their payroll ceiling. They’re not going to see three million or more fans a year. PNC Park isn’t that big. So the odds of increasing to the $80-90 M range like Milwaukee are slim. The Pirates are likely to top out in the $70-75 M range, like the Rays.
It might not be what people want to hear, but the Pirates have limits as a small market team. Small market teams can spend more than $50-60 M, but there is a ceiling, even with tons of fan support. And the Pirates would have a hard time putting a team together under that ceiling if you’ve got McCutchen and Upton combining for $20-25 M a year in their final two years, plus a big free agent ($10-15 M?), plus Pedro Alvarez, James McDonald, and Neil Walker going through arbitration.
The biggest question with Upton is: do the Pirates need him? There is a difference between wants and needs. It’s a difference that a lot of people don’t understand. As it pertains to baseball, a “need” is something you can’t compete without. A “want” is something you could do without, but serves as more of a luxury.
The Pirates are competing right now without Justin Upton. They could use more offense this year, but they could get that offense from Carlos Quentin or Shane Victorino for much, much less. Keep Starling Marte and he might provide that offense. Yeah, Upton is under control through the 2015 season. But do the Pirates “need” Upton to compete in those years? I believe they can compete without him. They’ll be adding Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, Robbie Grossman, and others. Upton is a luxury, and he’d cost the Pirates a ton in prospects.
Last night I wrote about how I look at the Rays as a guide for what the Pirates should do. The Rays don’t make moves like this. They don’t sell multiple prospects for a high-priced major league player. They don’t really sell any prospects. They bring their prospects up, win with young, affordable talent, and when the talent gets close to free agency they either let them walk, or trade them to reload the system, and replace the departing players with new prospects.
And let’s be honest. This won’t end with Upton. In the off-season, people will call for players to be added. How great would it be to add Player A to McCutchen and Upton? Next year at the deadline, if the Pirates are competing, there will be a call to add a piece for the stretch. You know, because a team that wins for the first four months can’t possibly win in the final two months without that extra player. It’s never enough. It’s an endless cycle that confuses “wants” with “needs”.
The Pirates are contending now, and while it would be amazing to see Upton on the team, they could still be legit contenders if they added a much cheaper piece. Down the road they could remain contenders by relying on their prospects from within. Maybe Upton gives them a better chance than Marte. But what if you throw in Taillon and Grossman to join Marte?
Finally, the usual response is “prospects aren’t guarantees”. This is very true. It’s a big reason why the Pirates shouldn’t trade a group of their prospects. You’re reducing the chance of getting help in the future. And let’s not act like major league players are a guarantee. Just look at Upton this year. He’s not exactly putting up an MVP season. Whether that’s a conflict with ownership, concerns with his shoulder, or something else, it shows that year to year major league production isn’t guaranteed. You can’t trade for Upton and then print playoff tickets for 2013-2015. You’re putting all of your eggs in one basket in that scenario. The odds of a prospect failing are bigger than the odds of Upton failing. But the odds of four top prospects all failing to reach their potential isn’t likely. Especially when you’re talking about one of the top pitching prospects in baseball (Taillon), and two players who look major league ready (Marte, Indy left-hander). That increases the odds on the prospect side of this trade.
Those are the odds the Pirates need to take. They can’t afford to focus on one player. They need to build around a group of players. It’s the Rays approach, and the benefit is that they can afford a player struggling (like Desmond Jennings this year), because they’re not just relying on that player. That’s not the case with Upton.
This isn’t a small market move. It’s a move that big market teams make. It’s a move that teams like Boston or New York make, because if they eventually need a player down the line, they don’t have to turn to prospects — they can just turn to the free agent market. That’s not the situation for the Pirates. They need prospects. They need to build with prospects. They need affordable players who are under team control for six years, because while they can increase their payroll, the reality is that their payroll potential has a ceiling. And really, there’s no need to make this move. It’s a luxury, dressed up as a necessity just because people are thinking like a fantasy baseball team and dreaming of the possibilities of Upton and McCutchen together. But the Pirates can win without Upton. Need proof? Check the standings.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates beat the Giants 13-2 to finish the first half 48-37.
**Pirates Notebook: McCutchen, Walker Power Bucs to Strong First Half Finish.
**Prospect Watch: Matt Curry Continues Hitting, Jeff Clement Hits 13th Homer.
**Prospect Notebook: Marte Could be Promoted During Midst of Pennant Race.