The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of baseball’s biggest surprises this season. However, being tied for the best record in baseball, they are mired in a tough divisional battle. In the NL Central, they sit tied with the St. Louis Cardinals and at 45-34. The Cincinnati Reds are right in the thick of things only a few games behind.
The Pirates are good, but if they want to win their first Division title in more than 20 years, they may need to make a move.
Pitching clearly isn’t the problem. As of Wednesday, the Pirates owned the second-best ERA in the league at 3.23. That staff has been anchored by 2nd year phenom Jeff Locke. Locke is 7-1 and his 2.06 is a sliver higher than the Mets’ Matt Harvey for the league lead. After Locke there’s A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano who both have experienced a resurgence in Pittsburgh. The two have a combined ERA well under 3.00 and are striking out more than a batter an inning this year. Wandy Rodriguez has been solid and Pittsburgh has just recently called up impressive rookie Gerrit Cole, who is 3-0 behind a 100 mph fastball. As if all that weren’t enough, the Pirates recently got Charlie Morton back from injury – and he’s been solid in his two starts.
What Pittsburgh really needs is a bat. And the most pressing need is probably in the outfield or at first base. Despite having one of the best records in the majors, the Pirates rank only 19th in the league in runs scored and 23rd in batting average.
The Bucs are set in 2/3 of their outfield with All-Star Andrew McCutchen and rising youngster Starling Marte. Both are terrors on the basepaths, batting close to .300, and have a bit of power. In the third outfield spot, Pittsburgh has used a number of players including Travis Snider and Garrett Jones. Both have produced moderately, but the Pirates could use an upgrade there for sure. Another player there would also be welcome because Jones plays at first base, too, primarily with Gaby Sanchez. That trio of players is good but not great, and Pittsburgh would be better off with a star player at either position.
The good news about all that pitching is that the Pirates can use one of those players as trade bait. Pittsburgh won’t trade its young star Cole and Burnett has been such a positive influence that it’s hard to envision them shipping him out somewhere. But anyone else could be expendable depending on what they can get in return. None of their other starters alone will net much of a return, but paired with a prospect or two, it might be enough to land a quality bat.
Pittsburgh has had some injury issues to several starters, but with long reliever Jeanmar Gomez in the bullpen along with a few other options including James McDonald and Brandon Cumpton, the Pirates have options if someone else goes down or struggles.
So what could be some viable trade options? Andre Ethier with the Dodgers could be available with Yasiel Puig stepping into the spotlight, but he’s still owed more than $80 million on his contract – probably far more than the Pirates want to take on in salary. Alfonso Soriano has also been discussed by fans as a potential option, but while his contract ends after next year, he’s due nearly $20 million for 2014 – again, too rich for the Pirates’ blood unless they can get Chicago to take on a significant portion.
A player like the White Sox’ Paul Konerko could be a solid fit. The contract of the first baseman ends this year so the Pirates wouldn’t be taking on too much salary. The only problem with Konerko is that he really doesn’t provide much of an upgrade offensively over the aforementioned Sanchez/Jones combo.
And ironically, the White Sox have another player that could be the best ultimate fit for Pittsburgh – outfielder Alex Rios. Unlike Konerko, Rios has another year left on his contract with a team option for 2015. He’s owed a high, but not completely unmanageable fee, of $12.5 million next year and would be a bigger upgrade in the outfield than Konerko would be at first base. If the Pirates are all in this year, a player like Rios could help.
One issue the Pirates have is their general lack of willingness to part with one of their young stars or top minor league prospects. It’s unfathomable to imagine the Pirates including Locke or Cole in any deal. And Marte seems like an unlikely option to go as well since one of the areas they need help is in the outfield. It’s possible, I suppose, that if the Pirates find the perfect deal for a big bat that minor leaguers like Josh Bell or Jameson Taillon could be considered. But Pittsburgh has always been hesitant about moving top prospects. Since the team isn’t much of a spender in free agency, they’ve focused on drafting and developing their own talent in-house. Instead of trading for a high-dollar player, the Bucs would rather save their pennies and pay a younger option for several years while he is still under team control.
It will be interesting, though, to follow the team’s approach this season. This is the best Pirates team of maybe the last 20 years and with the sudden pitching depth, trading someone like Taillon may not be as far-fetched as it once was. I still believe Pittsburgh will lean towards keeping their top prospects, but if the front office is convinced a trade means the difference between making the postseason, this could be the year they go all in.
Whichever direction the Pirates go, though, the team is sorely in need of a little more offense.
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