Two years and one week ago, I wrote the most polarizing article in TPOP’s history. It was not intended to be that, mind you. Rather, the premise was that the 2015 Pirates prospects were having a down year collectively and as a result of that poor performance, it could make Neal Huntington’s job at the deadline more difficult.
But once you insult anything to do with the Pirates’ minor leagues, the Cultists of Saint Timothy will appear on your e-doorstop to justify their spending of money to read about 31st round picks laboring away in Bristol and West Virginia. The comments, which I published in full aside from the ones telling me of creative ways to enjoy the pleasures of my own flesh, are humorous to re-read. Imagine having the vitriol to get so worked up about something as banal as minor league baseball players.
The article itself and the conclusions I drew stand true today two years later. The sole difference is that Josh Bell has finally tapped into his in-game power and, yes, he does have enough power to be a Major League 1B. I’ll set aside the facts that his batting eye has been sacrificed in the name of power and that he continues to having the ugliest throwing motion I’ve ever seen for a player.
And now here we are two short years later and the Pirates find themselves on the periphery of a playoff chase, at a numerically-pleasing 50-50. I left them for dead on the side of the road three weeks ago, after their team-wide soiling at the hands of the San Fran Giants in a sweep at PNC Park, but they’ve admirably rallied to get themselves back in the mix. I still think that the Cubs will accelerate from this point forward to win the NL Central and that the Pirates can’t run down the Rockies/Diamondbacks for a wild card, but they’re at the point where they are a viable candidate to ‘buy’ at the deadline now.
Something to keep in the back of your mind in the run-up to the trade deadline is that the Pirates have some cash to burn from unused payroll. With Kang on the restricted list all year ($2.75M) and Marte on for half the year (1/2 of $5.33M), they have $5.4M in that pool. Add in the $2.1M saved by cutting Jared Hughes and his $2.8M 2017 salary and you have the Buccos sitting on $7.5M of earmarked cash. There should be no excuses for players costing too much money to obtain their 2017 salaries.
The problem is that the Pirates prospects, especially the key ones that could potentially front-line a key trade, are having off years. You can see this empirically by looking at the stats of OF Austin Meadows (.248/.313/.358) and Kevin Newman (.265/.312/.361). Even Mitch Keller (68 IP, 61 K, 28 BB) is looking more like a #3 starter than the front-end starter he was trumpeted as prior to this season. You can also see it objectively by how the Pirates prospects have slid in the eyes of Baseball America’s Top 100 midseason list compared to the preseason list. Austin Meadows dropped from #6 to #22, Kevin Newman from #55 to #88. Only Mitch Keller has improved, slightly, from #22 to #15. No new prospects have entered the fray through pop-up play, while Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow have left by exceeding their prospect eligibility. Tyler Glasnow’s disastrous major league trial has torpedoed most of his trade market value. Mid-tier prospects like Elias Diaz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Yeudy Garcia have sputtered for most of the year.
I will say that after three uninspiring drafts from 2014 to 2016, I was very pleased with the 2017 draft. The Pirates broke out of their rut by drafting high upside players, especially on the high school side, with Shane Baz, Steven Jennings, Connor Uselton, and Calvin Mitchell. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Baz on the back half of the Top 100 list for 2018.
The types of players who are most available on the trade market, though, may not require a plethora of prospects to obtain them, which is fortunate for the Pirates. On the surface, the Pirates three main needs are: 1) 3B 2) bullpen 3) starting pitcher. When looking over the list of 3B by WAR, none pop out as trade candidates, as they’re either on contending teams or on teams in a similar fringe position like the Pirates. Mike Moustakas would have been a great candidate, but the Royals decided to not listen to all the pundits and went out and contended this year. The nerve.
But the Pirates could shift Josh Harrison to 3B and pursue a 2B in a trade, of which there are two intriguing candidates in the form of Jed Lowrie (OAK) and Ian Kinsler (DET). Lowrie is on the last year of a 3-year deal and is making $6.5M this year, so he’s due approximately $2.2M. Lowrie also has a $6M team option ($1M buyout) for 2018, so he could be good Kang insurance for 2018, as well. For Lowrie, the Pirates could absorb his salary in full and return a very low level, low tier prospect to Oakland. Ian Kinsler is starting to show some wear around the edges at age 35, but he’s still a reliable bat and a high-quality defender at 2B. His contract is a little bit more thought provoking in that it is for $11M this year ($3.67M remaining, approximately) but he has a $5M buyout on a $10M team option. There’s not really a lot of delta between the option and the actual deal. This is one that the Pirates could have the Tigers kick some cash in the deal in order to up the quality of prospect returned to the Tigers.
There are so many relievers out there on the market that it’s hard to pin down just one or two, but I would be interested in Kyle Barraclough and A.J. Ramos from the annual Miami Marlins street sale. Ramos has one year of control after this, so his return wouldn’t be much more than sending on one or two B-minus level of prospects, but Kyle Barraclough has four years of control remaining and may require opening up the prospect bank to some level.
I can’t see the Pirates in play for an upper tier starter like Yu Darvish or Sonny Gray, but that would require a pinch on the Pirates prospects hoard. Even though Darvish is a pure rental until the end of the year, he’ll still command a player of Meadows or Keller’s caliber, plus other secondary pieces. Gray would require the same prospect haul (two top 100 types, plus one other prospect from the organization’s top 10, and one prospect from the organization’s top 20), but he’s controlled for two more years through arbitration.
After those two, the market for starting pitching gets real hairy. The majority of the rentals out there have multiple warts, either on the surface or once you start to look under the hood at their peripherals. The only one that is moderately interesting is Jhoulys Chacin (SD) and not just because I want to hear John Wehner repeatedly butcher his name during games. His $1.75M contract only has less than $600K remaining, so the Padres are going to want to cash this lottery ticket in for something decent back. He might require a Steven Brault-type back in exchange.
My personal prediction is that if the Pirates enter the trade market it won’t be until the last day. I think Neal Huntington wants to fully evaluate this team’s chances at a playoff run before committing significant monetary or Pirates prospects assets to augment it. If the Pirates do buy, it will most likely be by frittering around on the edges with a second tier level of player, in the zone of J.A. Happ and Ivan Nova, in hopes of tweaking them to their fullest potential.