The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates (52-48) find themselves in a tough position with the trade deadline fast approaching and the team’s position in the standings a bit different than in the past three years.
Currently, the Pirates are third in the NL Central and trail the division-leading Chicago Cubs by 8.5 games; Pittsburgh is an additional two games out of making the playoffs as a wild card.
So, at the trade deadline, should the Pirates be buyers or sellers — or should they simply stand pat?
Let’s take a look at each of the scenarios:
Will the Pirates be buyers?
If the simple answer applies then, yes, at least according to general manager Neal Huntington, who sees this season as another year of improving the club.
This move would send the right message to Pirates fans who remain disappointed in what they feel was an underwhelming off-season — which they see as supported by lack of depth in the back end of the rotation.
The bullpen has been a struggle for Pittsburgh. Reliever Jeff Locke has been vulnerable, especially on the road. And the Pirates’ young arms have been hit with injuries and some bumps in the road. Juan Nicasio was moved to the bullpen, and Jonathon Niese had the worst first half of his Major League career — so much so that Huntington essentially said as much, something the carefully worded GM typically avoids.
And the aforementioned pitching struggles don’t even include Gerrit Cole’s triceps injury and a disappointing Francisco Liriano. In short, the Pirates’ starters have been leaving games earlier than normal on a more consistent rate.
In regards to the starting pitching market, it’s hard to upgrade without paying a steep price. According to FOX Sports Ken Rosenthal, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer will command an asking price of prized prospects Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows. It’s quite possible the price would change as the deadline arrives, but it’s likely that Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly or even Matt Moore would be dealt.
To help the rotation, other possible fits could include Jeremy Hellickson of the Philadelphia Phillies or Hector Santiago of the Los Angeles Angels.
From a bullpen perspective, the Pirates have been linked to Jeanmar Gomez, also of the Phillies. Gomez could push the bullpen into a familiar scenario with Neftali Feliz being a sixth- or seventh-inning man, Gomez or Tony Watson pitching the seventh or eighth and Mark Melancon closing.
The Point of Pittsburgh mentioned the legitimate and affordable option of Milwaukee Brewers left-handed reliever Will Smith, who has three additional years of control. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has always loved the idea of having two left-handed bullpen options. Pittsburgh reliever Kyle Lobstein has been promoted and demoted his fair share this season, and the Cory Luebke experiment was a failed one, so bringing Smith in could possibly be a bullpen remedy.
If there’s a trade upgrade to be made, it’ll come on the pitching side — the offense appears to be fine.
Is selling the right move?
In this market, it’s tempting to sell. The Pirates aren’t stupid — they just saw what the New York Yankees got from the Chicago Cubs for closer Aroldis Chapman — and they’re running out of time before Melancon is out of their price range.
Huntington has said a player is always available if the right offer comes along. And Melancon could bring in that kind of offer. The Washington Nationals could be a match, especially considering they were one of Chapman’s suitors and are in need of a bullpen upgrade.
There are other trade options, too.
It’s no secret the Pirates have a good bench. Hurdle considers this his best bench as the Pirates’ manager and, quite possibly, in his career. Perhaps it’s time for Pittsburgh to break that bench up and trade someone like Matt Joyce for some pitching help. Joyce has been among the best pinch-hitters in the Major League this season, so he could be attractive to a team.
John Jaso has shown he can play first base and, though management has shown faith in his abilities, moving him could be a play. If Jaso is moved, the Pirates still have other options at first base. Rookie Josh Bell still has some learning to do, but he could contribute in a bench role if the team isn’t comfortable with him starting, and David Freese could man the position in the short term.
In some of these scenarios, selling wouldn’t necessarily be a punt on the season. These moves could help the team now — and in the future.
Maybe standing pat is the way to go
Perhaps the Pirates already have what they need and all that remains is time. On paper, Pittsburgh is playing the easiest second-half schedule of any Major League team. This could mean that, if the Pirates are just patient and trust the current on-field product, not making any moves will pay off.
Time could definitely help the pitching staff as Glasnow and Chad Kuhl recover from minor injuries. Glasnow still has some learning to do to be a mainstay in the Major Leagues, but Kuhl showed something in his last start against the Nationals before he was sent down.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen also has to be able to get into a consistent approach. If the Pirates stand pat, they’ll be banking on it. His offensive abilities are often enough to will the Pirates to win games.
If catcher Francisco Cervelli can show he’s 100 percent recovered from his hamate bone injury, that would be akin to acquiring a solid player. The same can be said for third baseman Jung Ho Kang, who has gone an offensive slump recently.
Which road will the Pirates take?
Last season, the Pirates were very active at the trade deadline, acquiring Joakim Soria and Aramis Ramirez, among other players.
For the first time in a while, any of the three options (buy, sell, do nothing) are possible.
Sure, the Pirates will certainly look for that “perfect” deal. But, it’s most likely that, perhaps other than a making a minor deal or two, they’ll stand pat.
It’s hard to read what the Pirates will do. They want to buy, but it takes two to tango and, given the Pirates’ needs and the limited number of names being floated out there, the likelihood of a deal being made isn’t high.
Image credit: Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports