Am I getting ahead of myself by talking trades in May? Probably. A lot can happen between now and August. The Pirates could start to perform a lot more like their Pythagoreon record would suggest they should. In that case, they’d end up selling. Players struggling at weak positions could snap out of it.
Again a lot could happen between now and August, but what if a trade happened before then? They’re rare for sure, but there are a few teams buried deep in the standings with little to no chance or aspirations to get out. I’ll break down the areas the Pirates could look to upgrade and what teams could make early moves.
Third Base (-0.8 fWAR, 30th in MLB)
I had high hopes for Jung Ho Kang coming into the season, but sadly, he hasn’t just under delivered, he’s been downright awful. With as much time as he missed from competitive baseball, extreme rust should not have been a huge surprise. Whether or not he’ll snap out of it remains to be seen, but I’m not holding my breath. In just 17 plate appearances, Jake Elmore has racked up a -0.3 fWAR. He’s never managed to actually perform above replacement in his career. He likely won’t help matters even if he’s had a genuinely solid start to the season in Indianapolis. Colin Moran has produced more than the rest of the bunch, but he’s barely kept his head above replacement level. Josh Bell’s breakout gives me hope for Moran down the road as I see them as similar players. However, the Pirates can do better than Moran in the short run. Jose Osuna rounds out the Pirates’ internal options and while he’s an upgrade over Elmore, I don’t see a platoon of he and Moran getting the Pirates to average at the hot corner.
Catcher (-0.4 fWAR, 26th(t) in MLB)
Catcher is a tricky position for the Pirates as they have talent that is under producing. The Pirates have gone from the fourth most productive catching tandem in baseball in 2018 to the fourth worst this season. They’ve been average defensively, but the bats have let them down. Elias Diaz has at least hit singles lately, but his .017 ISO and 3.3 BB% to start his season have severely limited his productivity. Francisco Cervelli has slid down the batting order, but some of his troubles can be tied to a .250 BABIP. The Pirates can’t afford sub-replacement production from any position let alone from a position thought of as a strength. Can they consider upgrading here if Diaz and Cervelli don’t improve?
Shortstop (-0.2 fWAR, 27th in MLB)
If I took a poll, I suspect shortstop would rank atop the positions fans would think the Pirates need to improve. That likely has something to do with the perception of the position coming into the season. Erik Gonzalez was bad. Cole Tucker fields the position well, but after a quick start, he has really struggled with the bat. Thankfully, Kevin Newman has performed well since returning from injury. His .447 BABIP isn’t sustainable, thus making his 3.0 fWAR pace over a 600 PA season unsustainable. However, I doubt he’ll continue to strike out 23% of the time. I’m not sure if he’s the answer, but he’s at least shown he’s capable of hitting well for stretches at the major league level. Still, the Pirates may want to consider adding a rental here in a trade.
Bullpen (0.8 fWAR, 16th in MLB)
The bullpen has been awful in terms of blown saves, homeruns, and stress inducement. However, it hasn’t fared as badly when looking at advanced numbers. Truth is almost every team contending every year could find a slot or two to upgrade in their bullpen. The Pirates have fixed Francisco Liriano for the second time, and he has grown into the most pleasant surprise of the season. Kyle Crick has been shaky at times, but has managed to limit the damage to this point. Felipe Vazquez has been his excellent self. The Pirates need help because the rest of the bullpen has been all over the map or doesn’t have enough experience for my tastes down the stretch in a playoff run. I think we’ll see one of Chris Stratton, Montana DuRapau or Geoff Hartlieb emerge to fill situational roles. Hopefully Keone Kela returns to form following his injury. I think Nick Kingham will eventually even out to fill a middle relief role. All that said, the Pirates still probably need at least one more reliever to step up or they’ll want to add. This is likely the easiest position to fix with an early trade for a rental and I’d like to see that happen sooner than later.
Potential Dance Partners
Here are some teams already out of contention who I think the Pirates could work with well before the trade deadline. I’d also consider breaking down the Nationals, but I think they’ll hold out hope till at least mid-July.
Are you ready yinzers? I think Pirates should kick the tires on a Neil Walker trade to play third base for the rest of the season. Walker is 33 and not nearly the player he once was. He struggled badly with the Yankees in 2018, but he seems like he has bounced back with the bat at least. The Marlins have used him exclusively at first, but he played passable defense at the hot corner in a small sample as recently as last season for the Pinstripes. Since a AAA team has outdrawn the Marlins at the gates as recently as a week ago, I suspect the Marlins will happily unload any salary they can as soon as they can.
The Orioles look pretty rough once again, so rough that I could see them making moves early for the right offer. Problem is, they don’t have a ton of traditional rental type players who I think would interest the Pirates. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Pirates from sending scouts to see the Orioles in person according to Jason Rollison. Jonathan Villar seems like an interesting option for the Bucs. He has proven inconsistent from season to season, but he has more upside than any of the Pirates options at short. He also comes with a year and half of control. This would give Tucker and Newman an extra year to grow into the starting shortstop role. He won’t be cheap, but the Pirates won’t need to give up Mitch Keller and O’Neil Cruz to get him before the end of the June.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals have built a solid young core to their lineup, but the rest of the squad has a notable dumpster fire vibe. Alex Gordon will no question bring a ton of trade speculation leading up to the deadline. Sadly, the Pirates don’t need outfield help. The Royals do have a certain reliever named Jake Diekman who the Pirates probably should have signed in the offseason when he only cost money. I would like them to give the Royals prospects for him now. Diekman is a useful reliever, but not one who will command a massive return even in June. I like that fit. Ian Kennedy has transitioned to the pen effectively and could come cheaply if the Pirates eat $12-14 million of his salary over the next year and half. That probably won’t happen of course.
The Tigers are loaded with rental players and look set to be one of the most active teams leading up to the deadline. They also seem bad enough that they could jettison a few pieces well beforehand in a trade. Gordon Beckham has seen a significant spike in power so far this year and he’s managed 0.4 fWAR in less than a hundred plate appearances at short. Nick Castellanos isn’t doing much better than Moran at this point production wise, but he has hit 42% of balls hard, better than any qualified Pirate. Shane Greene would be a huge upgrade in the bullpen, but he’d also come with a considerable price tag thanks to a year and a half of cheap control. Blaine Hardy could be an interesting reclamation project.