For years, the Pirates organization has been a frontier in creativity bettering their team. Whether it was overpaying in the MLB Draft, implementing the shift, signing reclamation projects for cheap, or bypassing the major free agent signings to rather reinvest into their own players for team friendly contracts, they are always thinking outside of the box to structure a successful team within their limitations. This season has proven to be nothing different, kind of.
The game plan heading into 2016 was certainly not far off track from previous years. They signed reclamation pitchers that fit their structure, signed Gregory Polanco to a long term extension, and still utilized the shift. What has differed is the production from their pitching and where they place in the standings. Today, as I write this on June 30th, they are 38-41 and 14 games back in the NL Central. Also, they’re 3.5 games back in the Wild Card standing with the Dodgers, Mets, Marlins, and Cardinals all ahead of them as the Nationals, Cubs, and Giants have earned top honors in their divisions at this point. The team play has led to many fans and people around baseball to believe this team will sell. Though, the fact that it is only the end of June and due to the poor play around the N.L. they’re only 4 games back of the wild card, others are inclined to see this team stay the course and go after the playoffs they so desired to see in April. This puts the Pirates in a peculiar place and their creativity may just be what the doctor ordered. Let me explain this in a bit more detail.
It has been clear all season that the Pirates pitching, especially their bullpen, has been the achilles heal of this team. The bullpen as a unit holds a 4.11 ERA which ranks 18th in MLB and a -.2 WAR which is good for 29th in all of baseball. If the Pirates were to go for it, they clearly would need probably two solid bullpen options at this point. With the amount of bullpen arms that will be on the block, it shouldn’t be a tough task to acquire the need. However, with them already in such a hole it might be a losing battle at this time anyways. Say they do get a couple of arms and their play improves, but not drastic enough and they don’t get into the playoffs. This would seem like a wasted effort and a hit of valuable prospects that could have been used down the road.
On the other hand, the team could rescind their efforts and decide to sell. This option is very intriguing because the Pirates certainly have a lot of pieces that could bring in valuable returns. For instance, Mark Melancon could be one of the top coveted closers on the market had he be made available. In recent history, the Orioles traded their #3 prospect in Eduardo Rodriguez for Andrew Miller in 2014. In the same year, the Tigers traded for Joakim Soria and gave the Rangers two top ten prospects in Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel. This goes to show how much value a proven closer commands in today’s game.
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Not only would Melancon be made available, but players like Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, John Jaso, David Freese, and possibly even Francisco Liriano could be dealt for a full blown sell. Though they wouldn’t hold the value of Melancon, all of these players could certainly help to stockpile the Pirates as they retool and go for it all over again in 2017. With the core the Pirates have in place, adding to that already lucrative farm system could put this team up to the likes of the Chicago Cubs in terms of talent and depth. This path would surely take the Pirates out of the race and glaring solely towards the future.
This is where I think the Pirates could sit down and get their creative juices going. Sure, you are thinking here goes another web blogger putting on a GM hat and creating some more ridiculous deadline deals that probably insist on the Pirates trading Austin Meadows for Mike Trout and thinking it’s a fair deal. That is not the direction I am taking, but I think there is something to honestly consider here. The Pirates could ultimately have a chance to sell off some of their own pieces while still going for a playoff run. It would be the ultimate addition by subtraction, but this is how it could work out.
Francisco Liriano has been a common name popping up in the trade talks. It has been rumored that the Orioles, Red Sox, and Marlins are all possibly interested and these are just the teams that have made public. I think the Marlins make an interesting case due to Jim Benedict now being with the organization and also being very familiar with Liriano. Of course, the Marlins have been known to make some crazy trades over the years, so you can’t take anything out of the question here. Liriano has been an ace quality pitcher over the past few seasons, but he’s seeing his worst season since coming to the ‘Burgh. His 5.33 ERA and 7.6% K/BB rate, which ranks 12th worst in baseball, are all contributing to this teams pitching woes. If a team is wanting to add him to their roster, it’s not entirely out of the question to think better pitching could replace him from within our team already.
So, say we make a deal with Miami. It would be fair to think that the return wouldn’t be great. If the Pirates were making this deal while still making a playoff push, they would have to see a return of a bullpen arm. The Marlins could make a lot of sense here because they actually do have quite a but of quality arms in their bullpen. A player like Kyle Barraclough could make a ton of sense in a deal like this. With pitchers such as A.J. Ramos, David Phelps, and Dustin McGowan all having fabulous seasons, Miami could afford to make this trade off to stabilize their rotation. Plus, Miami’s farm system is ranked one of the worst in baseball, so they know they are likely to have to trade from the majors to make a deal happen. Barraclough would certainly help stabilize the Pirates bullpen with his 2.93 ERA and 40.4% strikeout rate. Not only is this a solid deal for the Pirates this year, but Barraclough also doesn’t become a free agent until 2022.
With Liriano out of the picture, it would be time to see what Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl can do over the course of the season and then possibly Tyler Glasnow. It is very likely that these two pitchers have their struggles as this would be their rookie season, but with their struggles it would be hard to imagine them pitching any worse than the production Liriano provided to this point. Both have had very successful season in Indianapolis. To be honest, Taillon could prove to be a very valuable pitcher who makes a mark this season as a front of the order rotation arm. It’s only a matter of time before Gerrit Cole makes his return to the rotation and gives this team the ace they have been missing. At that time, a rotation of Cole, Taillon, Niese, Kuhl, and Locke would be in order and possibly a later call up of the #8 prospect in baseball, Tyler Glasnow. There is certainly nothing sexy about that rotation, but it’s possible it gives this team a chance.
John Jaso is another player I think the Pirates would be wise to trade. Due to his .272/.351/.397 slash line and proof that he can handle the first base position shows he would be a commodity that teams would have interest in. He would certainly be sought after in the A.L. due to the DH, but he now adds value to an N.L. team at first. Again, this isn’t a deal that I am foreseeing or predicting, but a team such as the Chicago White Sox make a good fit here. The White Sox are in need to add a lefty hitter to their lineup and since Adam LaRoche is out saving the world, they could use someone to play first base at times. Jaso could be a great match here due to his low salary and on base skills that the ‘Sox desperately need. As in the previous deal, a bullpen arm is something the Pirates would look to go after. Players like Dan Jennings, Zach Putnam, and Nate Jones are all relievers the Pirates could target in this deal.
The Mets, Astros, Rangers, and Nationals could also be a solid target as they obviously need help in the corner infield. Losing Jaso for the Pirates, much like the Liriano deal might not prove to be such a loss with Josh Bell waiting in the wings. We all know the Pirates are patient when it comes to their prospects, but Bell has reached 476 plate appearances in Triple A. Also, the kid is hitting an impressive slash of .316/402/.526 on the year and has finally started to show that in game power we were waiting to see develop. In 76 games this year, Bell has hit a total of 11 home runs. It is very much possible by trading Jaso to stabilize the bullpen, we could essentially see the same amount of production at first if not even better.
If going for it is in the cards, it would be best to hang on to Melancon, Freese, and Joyce as their production is too invaluable to lose at the moment. Melancon would continue to serve as this team’s closer as he has totaled 22 saves with a 1.48 ERA to boot. Freese could handle 1B/3B duties for Kang and Bell in a reserve role while providing a solid bat off of the bench. Freese has continued to put up great numbers and has a slash of .284/.361/.796 in 218 at bats. Lastly, Matt Joyce would continue to be a tremendous fourth outfielder and a bench bat who, for just signing to a minor league deal, is batting .292/.420/.1.004 in 113 at bats.
The other aspect in making these moves is the salary relief the team would see. Liriano is set to make $13.6 million next year while Jaso is schedules to only make $4 million. Both of these are very reasonable to each players value, but with the emergence of Josh Bell, and the potential rotation of Cole, Taillon, Glasnow, Niese, Kuhl/Locke, each of these players could be expendable next season. This would give Pittsburgh almost $18 million in 2017 to play with to really sure up this bullpen and add some smaller pieces that may be needed. Again, the addition by subtraction is showing to be quite valuable for the 2017 season as well.
To think it still wouldn’t be an uphill battle to make the playoffs this year is being unrealistic. There is still a hole the team has created that they must find themselves digging out of. However, with the wrath of injuries to the Mets pitching staff with Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard, the recent struggles of the Nationals and Cubs, the now aging Cardinals, and the weaker second half schedule the Pirates have, it’s not unrealistic to be optimistic about their chances. Pittsburgh would be able to better themselves by losing a couple of players, replacing them with players we currently have within our organization, and adding relievers to our bullpen. It would be safe to say they could also squeak out a mid level prospect or two to add to the already potent farm.
Pittsburgh would be agreeing to ride or die with this team for 2016, hoping that the youngsters can turn it up and serve as valuable assets to the team. In doing so, they really cannot play any worse and could potentially make a solid run for the playoffs. It may not be a complete sell to collect a ton of prospects, but they also wouldn’t have to sell any of the farm to gain the holes in the relief core. Pittsburgh could come together and enjoy the ride being a competitive baseball team while also seeing the young kids grow up before them. If the expectations are not lived up to and the team doesn’t make the playoffs, the other positive would be getting the rookies some big league experience before they open the incredible 2017 season that could be. Either way, it’s a very creative way to get Pittsburgh back into this playoff hunt, and creativity has become the Pittsburgh way.