The Pittsburgh Pirates have been the surprise of the season in baseball’s first half this year. With a miserable 20 consecutive losing seasons under their belt, the Pirates currently hold the longest streak of sub .500 futility—a record in major North American sports. At 54-36 heading into this weekend, they have a chance to finally break that streak but it’s far from a guarantee. Pittsburgh was 16 games over the elusive .500 mark in 2012 before a complete collapse over the season’s last two months extended the record.
Also consider that after the hot start, things have cooled off a bit. It’s hardly the end of the world, but the Pirates recently went 2-6 after a season-high nine wins in a row. They rebounded to win their last game heading into their weekend series with the Mets, defeating Oakland 5-0, but have lost their past three series’ in a row. With that in mind, will the Bucs’ hand be forced to make a major move at the trade deadline?
If you haven’t been paying attention, Pittsburgh just doesn’t do things that way. The team didn’t make major moves at the last two trade deadlines, despite being in contention to win the NL Central each of at each All-Star break. In 2011, the Pirates added a past-his-prime Derrek Lee and mediocre outfielder Ryan Ludwick to their team hoping to make a splash. The team fizzled out and was out of contention in August. Last season, while fans clamored for the likes of Hunter Pence, Pittsburgh brought in Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider, and Wandy Rodriguez instead. Rodriguez has been a solid addition for the Pirates and all three have helped to some degree this year, but again, those moves weren’t enough to put the franchise over .500.
The key thing to remember about those seasons is that the Pirates were in contention for playoff spots. Despite that, the thrifty Bucs still weren’t willing to make major moves so there’s no good reason to think they will this year.
Another factor for Pittsburgh (and a topic I’ve broached before) is that the club can’t afford to trade away top prospects to bring in stars. For better or worse, the Pirates have decided not to spend a lot of money on their major league roster. They’ve been able to balance that deficiency out by drafting better as an organization and finding deals when they can.
The Pirates converted setup man Jason Grilli into the closer and he leads the National League in saves. They found Francisco Liriano (9-3 with an even 2.00 ERA) off the scrap heap and are paying him only $1 million in 2013. Outfielder Garrett Jones has given the team 85 home runs over the past four years, but they’ve paid him on average under $1 million per season. Jeff Locke, perhaps the ace of the pitching staff, came over as part of the Nate McLouth trade a few years ago and he’s making a tidy $500K this season despite being an All-Star.
Pittsburgh’s moves haven’t always worked out, but they’ve landed some considerable deals in recent years that are starting to pay off.
Keep in mind that it’s not as if the Pirates don’t have prospects to trade if they so desired. Coming into 2013, Pittsburgh had five of the top 80 prospects in the major leagues according to Baseball America including pitchers Gerrit Cole at No. 7 and Jameson Taillon at No. 19.
Cole, now with the Pirates, won’t be dealt since he’s helping the team win games, and Taillon likely isn’t going anywhere as the Pirates have really placed a premium on an abundance of pitching. Pittsburgh also has several exciting position players including Alen Hanson (SS), Gregory Polanco (OF), and Josh Bell (OF), but I wouldn’t expect them to be moved since they are at positions of need for the club. Not only that, but all of those hitters are still fairly low in the system. Polanco is the farthest along, and he’s spent only 21 games in Double-A. If Pittsburgh wanted the middle of the order bat they sorely need, it would cost significantly more than just one of them. Could the Pirates make a deal for a big bat involving several prospects? Sure, they could but it’s not something they’ve traditionally done.
The Bucs have a chance to do something special this season. The club has a long way to go, but has a very real shot at getting into the playoffs. If they do they’ll almost surely do it without making a major trade.