- The Pirates aren't looking to take on big salaries. Look, I think this is kind of a BS argument. The city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, but the Detroit Tigers have the fifth-highest payroll in the majors. Is that because Detroit is a big-revenue market? Of course not; it means the team is owned by a zillionaire who's willing to spend many tens of millions on his baseball team. The Pirates aren't in the same situation, but it's not dictated by the population of Greater Pittsburgh. Whatever, given that constraint, Tulowitzki (will make a minimum of $98 million after this season), Hamels ($76.5 million), Reyes ($46 million) and even Papelbon ($11 million) weren't going to happen.
- A two-month rental doesn't make a lot of sense for the Pirates. Stars who'll become free agents after this season aren't likely to sign with the Pirates, due to the team's salary constraints. So pending free agents would be with the club for only August, September and however long October lasts. That eliminates Price, Kazmir, Cueto, Leake, Zobrist, and Cespedes. Also Gomez, who'll be a free agent after next season (not that the Pirates need a new center fielder).
- A bigger reason rentals don't make sense is the Pirates' place in the standings. They enter play tonight 5.5 games behind the Cardinals, 101 games into the season. Could they overtake the Cardinals and skip the wild card game? Sure, it's possible. Would a Cueto or a Cespedes help? Yes, of course. But realistically, the Pirates have won their league or division 16 times. They have never trailed by 5.5 games or more after 101 games and gone on to win. Giving up prime prospects in pursuit of a divisional title that isn't likely to come? That doesn't make sense. On the other hand, the Pirates are currently three games ahead of the Giants for the first wild card, five ahead of the Cubs, 7.5 ahead of the Mets. Nothing's certain, but they look pretty solid for the wild card, no better or worse. It's hard to justify paying a lot to try to exceed or defend that.
So whom did the Pirates get?
- Aramis Ramirez: Already covered this. He'll fill on at third until Josh Harrison comes back from the disabled list, and will continue to play there when the versatile Harrison plays other positions.
- Joe Blanton: He effectively replaces Vance Worley, who was waived. Most fans have two images of Blanton: The guy who went 2-0 in the 2008 postseason, starting three games that his team, the Phillies, won, en route to the World Series championship; and the arsonist who put up ERAs of 5.33, 5.01, 5.00, 4.99, and a hideous 6.51 from 2010-2013. After taking 2014 off, he signed a one-year contract with the Royals this year, for whom he put up decent numbers: 3.89 ERA, 41.2 innings, 1.20 WHIP, 40 strikeouts and just 6 unintentional walks. He'll fill the role of right-handed long reliever/possible spot starter.
- Joakim Soria: He's probably the best player the Pirates added. He was the Royals' closer from 2008-2011, had Tommy John surgery, and came back as a middle reliever for Texas in 2013. He was the Rangers' closer in 2014 and was traded mid-season to the Tigers, for whom he was the closer this year. He'll take his very good 2.85 ERA and less good 1.8 home runs per nine innings (league average for relievers is 1.0) to the Pirates bullpen, where he'll reduce the workload for his teammates. He'll provide a right-handed counter to left-handed setup man Tony Watson, who had a 1.69 ERA through June 25 and a 7.56 ERA since.
- J.A. Happ: In pitching coach Ray Searage we trust. Happ, a left-handed starter, hasn't had an ERA below 4.00 since 2010, including this year, when he racked up a 4.64 ERA playing for Seattle, which plays in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Yes, the Pirates need a starter now that they've put A.J. Burnett on the disabled list with a sore elbow, but is Happ the answer? Here's a clue: This year he's thrown his four-seam (straight) fastball 49% of the time and his two-seam (sinking) fastball 15%. The Pirates, as you probably know, emphasize sinking pitches that generate ground balls. Before the 2013 season, the Pirates acquired a left-handed starter (like Happ) who threw both types of fastballs (like Happ). The player they signed has virtually eliminated the four-seamer, become a ground-ball stud (seventh highest ground ball percentage), and posted the 14th-lowest ERA in the National League (among 55 ERA qualifiers) in the three seasons since, 3.12. Am I suggesting that J.A. Happ can be the next Francisco Liriano, who's put up those number since 2013? Probably not, but we're talking about the No. 5 guy in the rotation until Burnett comes back, so there isn't a lot of risk. Happ's a free agent after this season, and his performance to date probably dictates a pay cut from the $6.7 million he's making in 2015.
- Mike Morse: I've talked about the Pirates' need to add a right-handed bat. Morse, a right-handed bat that's due $8.5 million in 2016, probably wasn't anybody's first choice. He batted .294 with a .343 on base percentage and a .514 slugging percentage in four years in Washington from 2009-2012, followed by a terrible .215/.270/.381 in 2013 with Seattle and Baltimore in 2013, a .279/.336/.475 rebound with San Francisco last year, and another bad year to date, .213/.276/.313 with the Marlins. He's been injury prone, but his role in Pittsburgh is likely to be that of pinch hitter and right-handed platoon partner for Pedro Alvarez at first, which should reduce wear and tear. He's a bad fielder at first, which constitutes an improvement over Alvarez. He can also play outfield, in the sense that Kardashians can read poetry: It's possible, but you'd rather not see it. He has been worse than useless against left-handed pitching this season (2-for-22, no extra base hits) but over his career, his .271/.331/.473 slash line against southpaws is a lot better than Alvarez's .198/.267/.322.
All told, the Pirates improved themselves, in my view. Maybe not dramatically--Morse gives me flashbacks to Justin Morneau, whom the Pirates acquired at the end of August in 2013 and batted .260 with only 3 RBI over 25 games--but Soria eases pressure on the bullpen, Ramirez and Happ address short-term injury-related needs, and Blanton may be an upgrade over Worley. It's nothing flashy, but the Pirates don't appear to be a team that would benefit from flashy nor be hurt by the lack thereof.