Thursday, July 23, 2015

Pirates At the Trade Deadline

UPDATE, JULY 23: The Pirates have traded for Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

Friday, July 31 is Major League Baseball's trade deadline. That's not really true: It's the non-waiver trade deadline. After the 31st, teams can still trade (and they will), but traded player must clear waivers first.* So while there will still be trades after next Friday, there won't be as many, and they won't involve as many stars.

Every fan of a team with a hope of making the postseason wishes their team would make a trade by the deadline. The problem is, fans are usually unrealistic. I heard a Mets fan express hope that the Mets, who are starved for offense, would pursue Padres left fielder Justin Upton, who's a free agent after this season. The fan suggested the Mets could offer Jon Niese (who's arguably the team's No. 5 starter), Rafael Montero (who hasn't pitched since April due to a rotator cuff injury), Zack Wheeler (out for the year following Tommy John surgery), and Bartolo Colon (who is 42 and has a 6.00 ERA over his last ten starts). If you want a top player who's signed for a few years--say, Phillies starter Cole Hamels--you're going to have to give up top prospects or major league-ready farm talent. Even if you want a two-month rental, like Upton, the Padres have the option of keeping him, giving him a qualifying offer over the winter and, when he signs with another club, getting a draft pick after the first round next summer for him. So unless you're going to offer at least the equivalent of a second-round draft pick, you're not going to make a deal. If the Mets call the Padres and offer a No. 5 starter, a 42-year-old, and a couple injured guys to the Padres for Upton, the Padres are going to hang up the phone on them.

With that in mind, it's tough to do trades at this point in the season. The buyers are looking for the one or two players that can push them into the postseason or improve their chances of success when they're there. There aren't that many players like that around. Sellers are looking for a king's ransom of prospects. Teams aren't willing to give them up. So don't expect a flurry of deals.

For the Pirates, I think it's unrealistic to expect them to pursue pitching. Sure, Hamels or the White Sox's Jeff Samardzija or the Reds' Johnny Cueto would be great to have, but the latter two are free agents after the season, and besides, the Pirates are in good shape in their rotation. Any of those three pitchers would be an upgrade over Charlie Morton or Jeff Locke, but the Pirates are well-positioned to make the postseason with the rotation they have now. In the postseason, you need an ace (Gerrit Cole) to pitch a Wild Card game, but you really need only four starters anyway because of all the off days. I just don't see a lot of upside for the Bucs from adding a frontline starter.

Similarly, the Pirates' bullpen, with the second lowest ERA in the National League, isn't a source of weakness. I could see the merit of adding someone to give some of the relievers a breather--the Pirates have four of the 22 pitchers in the league with 43 or more appearances, the most in the league--but as I've pointed out, the relievers' pitch counts aren't particularly worrisome. I'd say that unless there's an injury we don't know about, the Pirates don't have a big need to add significant pitching help. The Phillies would like to trade closer Jonathan Papelbon, and Jonathan Papelbon would like to leave Philadelphia, but he's not the type of player the Pirates seem to need.

As I pointed out over the All-Star Break, the Pirates are very good at four positions (catcher, second base, left field, center field), OK at one (third base), and bad at three (first base, shortstop, right field). Let's look at the weaknesses:

  • Shortstop: Jordy Mercer, probably out until September with a sprained knee, was having a lousy year, but that's mostly due to a terrible start:  .171/.225/.198 slash line through May 23. Since then, he's hit a respectable .290/.333/.395. I expect the Pirates to make do with Jung Ho Kang's bat and Pedro Florimon's glove at short until Mercer's healthy rather than pursue a trade.
  • Right field: Yesterday, the Padres optioned third baseman Will Middlebrooks to AAA. Middlebrooks, you may recall, was a sensation when he was called up by the Red Sox in 2012. In 24 games in May that year, he batted .316 with six homers. In 23 games in June, he hit .288 with four homers, and in 18 July starts, he hit .294 with another three homers. So in his first three months, he had a .301/.331/.525 slash line, hitting a home run every 18 at bats. Since then, he's batted .212/.259/.364, with a homer every 28 at bats. It's looking a lot as if those first 236 at bats were a head fake, with the real Middlebrooks emerging in the 849 at bats since. That's the risk of reading too much into a young player's hot start.
The reason I'm telling you this about Middlebrooks is that Gregory Polanco started his career batting .306/.392/.435 over his first 21 games with a home run every 28 at bats. Since then, he's hit .227/.299/.329 with a homer every 73 at bats. His OPS of .628 since his hot start is similar to Middlebrooks's .625. So what do we believe, Polanco's first 85 at bats or the 516 since?
The Pirates could definitely seek an upgrade over Polanco, but there are two problems. First, he's not exactly like Middlebrooks. He was a year younger than Middlebrooks in his rookie year, and a more highly-touted prospect. He's a decent, if sometimes erratic, right fielder, while Middlebrooks is, depending on the fielding measure, around an average third baseman. Second, Polanco is one of only two left-handed batters in the Pirates lineup--three if you count switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker--and he's been solidly average (but not bad) against right-handed pitching (.258/.333/.382 slash line this year; the league average for non-pitchers is .260/.323/.402). So what probably would make the most sense for the Pirates would be a right handed-hitting platoon partner for Polanco, rather than getting a full-time outfielder (like Upton) who'd put Polanco on the bench or in AAA. I'd be surprised to see the Pirates go after a full-time replacement, but a right-handed fill-in, like the Phillies' Jeff Francoeur, whose lifetime .786 OPS against southpaws is almost double Polanco's .428. Francoeur, rumored to have been discussed by the Phils and Pirates, is another player who's never come close to living up to the hype generated by a fast start, but he has the virtue of being cheap: $950,000 for 2015, with no obligations beyond this year. Another possibility is an encore performance from the Reds' Marlon Byrd, who contributed to the Pirates' winning season in 2013 after a waiver-period trade from the Mets in 2013, though he's 37 and nearing the end of the road.

  • First base: Like Polanco, Pedro Alvarez is a left-handed hitter. Like Polanco, he's been much more effective against right-handed pitchers (.237/.307/.437, all 12 of his home runs) than lefties (.179/.233/.214). Unlike Polanco, he's an absolute butcher in the field, with more errors here in mid-July (15) than any National League first baseman's had in a full season since Prince Fielder had 15 in 2011. A good-fielding right-handed hitter could relegate Alvarez to the bench (or get him traded). There are two first basemen widely assumed to be on the trading block: The Brewers' Adam Lind and the Red Sox's Mike Napoli. Lind is having a good season at the bat (.293/.374/.515), and isn't too expensive (signed for $7.5 million this year, $8 million team option or $500,000 buyout for 2016) but he's a below-average (though not terrible) fielder and the Brewers, in rebuilding mode, are likely to hold out for top prospects (i.e., they're unlikely to want Alavarez). Napoli bats right and is a good fielder but, at 33, could be nearing the end of his career: following an injury-riddled (he missed 43 games) .248/.370/.419 last year, he's batted .198/.296/.353 this season, making him the worst-hitting regular first baseman in the American League this year. So the upgrade over Alvarez from Napoli, other than in the field, is unclear.
So it looks like this for the Pirates: The most obvious need is a right-handed bat, to platoon with, or possibly replace, Alvarez or Polanco in the lineup. Given who's available, and the Pirates' understandable (given their small-market status) unwillingness to part with top prospects, I do expect a deal, albeit likely a smaller one, for a right-handed hitter who may not be with the club next year. Byrd, with a .918 OPS against lefties this year, seems to me to be the most likely choice. But fans hoping for a blockbuster are probably going to be disappointed. 

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