Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Time To Trade? When The Market's Right...

OK, the Bucs have three guys hitting .250+, and just a pair with an OPS over .631. They're not just at the bottom of the pack batting for this season; they're approaching historic futility levels, going all the way back to the dead ball era in some categories. The fans are rightfully in a snit, as the pitching has been been more than competent and they can sniff a competitive squad, if only the bats would cooperate.

So why no movement on adding a stick or two?

Well, first there's history, often cited by the FO. And there is a reason the trigger isn't pulled this early in the season. It's because most teams are still in an evaluation period and trying to determine who is really dead weight versus who is just off to an Adam LaRoche type spring.

In Pittsburgh, the evaluation part is pretty easy now that they're almost two months into the season. Cutch, Neil Walker (tho off to a slow start, especially in power numbers) and super utility guy Josh Harrison are the only Pirates who seem to have any idea of a Louisville's purpose. Still, that doesn't mean that the FO is looking to make wholesale changes, for various reasons.

Jose Tabata will get a chance to build on his .221 BA. His peripheral line of grounders, flies and liners matches with his career numbers. The only major discrepancy is his batted balls in play (BABIP) average, which at .256 is 50 points under his lifetime norm of .307, so hope exists that he'll find a little more grass in the coming months.

Ditto with Pedro. His slugging and ISO (isolated power) are a little above his career norms and he's hitting more fly balls than ever, but discipline has been really lacking. His strikeout rate is at a career high and his walk rate at a career low. That mirrors personal highs in swings at pitches outside the zone (35%), which he misses 54% of the time. But on a team woefully lacking in power, he'll be given every opportunity to become a fixture in the middle of the order.

Clint Barmes is on a long leash, having signed the richest Pirate free agent contract ever and with next season guaranteed. In addition, the Pirates may feel that with Harrison and Jordy Mercer that they have internal candidates who should perform around league average. Throw in a weak marketplace, and SS looks like a spot they'll have to survive for awhile.

The catchers, Rod Barajas and Mike McKenry, are actually kinda doing as much as the FO could have reasonably projected - low average, lower OBP, but with occasional home run power and good D with room to progress to their norms. Tony Sanchez isn't exactly fast tracking it at Altoona and may never develop into more than a defense-first catcher. Everyone in the league is looking for depth behind the plate, so this is another area that is what it is.

That leaves the two likeliest spots they'll look to beef up. One is the third (and fourth) outfielder. With Alex Presley and Nate McLouth fizzling while Starling Marte is trying to tighten up his game at Indy, the need is pretty obvious. Gorkys Hernandez is on the roster now, but as a glove-first guy, making him better suited for a bench rather than everyday role. Internally, no one is ready to step into a starting role today.

The other spot is the first base tandem of Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee. On paper, they looked like a good team. In real life, not so much.

Jones, who finally is being used as a true platoon player, is still hitting just .221 with a mere 3 walks to go with 28 K in 95 at-bats. McGehee has been a most pleasant surprise defensively at first, but is batting .189 with 18 hits to go with a dozen walks and no homers. An everyday first baseman should be high on the list for the FO. Matt Hague or maybe Jeff Clements are internal candidates. Hague is projected as a James Loney or Casey Kotchman type player, while Clement may be, like Jones, a late blooming stopgap.

The second reason teams don't deal early is because they have long-term internal fixes, who for service time reasons are held back until mid-June. That's not the case for the Pirates. Marte was the only really fast tracked guy in the minors, and he's hitting .260 with a raft of Ks in AAA, although a hot month could land him in Pittsburgh sooner rather than later. First base doesn't have an elite thumper in line, either.

Another key reason teams don't deal early is because of leverage. The deeper into the season, the more teams that are buying will overpay to get who they want.  And with the wild card, theoretically there should be more buyers than sellers this year. How this dynamic will work out for the Bucs is iffy, given their current straits. Whether there's more value to be gotten from a deal by holding on until the dog days or by dealing quickly so the trade partners can maximize a player's use is a case-by-case scenario dependent on the perceived urgency of each team's needs.

The Bucco strength is pitching, and it's widely assumed Joel Hanrahan's contract and the rental status of Erik Bedard will put them in play as key trade pieces. The Pirate bullpen is deep, too, and they could probably deal one of those arms.

We'll assume for the sake of debate that AJ Burnett and James McDonald, along with Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia are off the table, along with Cutch, Walker and Alvarez, though it could well be, as the FO is fond of saying, that they'll listen to an offer for anyone. We picked those guys because they are the core group of the 2014 roster (except for Burnett, who we think has more current value as a Pirate), which coincides with the seventh year of rebuilding, the MLB benchmark for a top-to-bottom organizational redo.

So the Pirates are in a position to deal some pitching, whether now or in July, as the market dictates, and can offer some youngsters as sweeteners - remember, you can't hoard players forever; sooner or later the 40-man roster comes into play. That's a good thing; pitching is always a commodity that's highly sought.

That segues into the final reason deals aren't cut early - desperation, the trailer trash relative of leverage. Pittsburgh may have begun to investigate the market; as Clint Hurdle told the media after this afternoon's game: "For all you know, we’ve been looking for two weeks." It doesn't take a genius of a GM to figure out the Bucs are over a barrel as far as hitting talent is concerned, and are trying to pull a Jesse James act on Neal Huntington.

That sword cuts both ways; injuries can catapult a club into this category, giving Pittsburgh an edge in some cases. No matter what the cause, the Pirates have to be careful to keep their focus down the road, not on instant gratification.

Whatever move the Pirates make shouldn't be in the Derrick Lee mold, at least now. Competing deep into the 2012 season is viable for a couple of reasons (weak division, wildcard, strong pitching), but it can't be at the cost of lowering the Pirate window of opportunity that should pop open in a couple of seasons.

As noted, the positions likeliest to be addressed are first and corner outfield. Nobody is breaking down the doors in Pittsburgh's minors to claim those spots, so the Pirates should stick to their guns and hold out for guys that can keep the job instead of a baby sitter. Ideally, they should be searching for someone who is blocked or redundant for another team, can provide at least a couple of year's worth of value and whose best days aren't in the rear view mirror.

We'd assume that's what Huntington is looking for, and that's why putting a deadline on a deal is such a tricky proposition. Several things have to fall in place for an early season deal - and they can; teams are already shopping guys - but in this situation, we'd hope that the FO weighs both the short and long range implications before pulling the trigger. There are way too many holes in this team to fill en masse, but they can fill in the first six spots in the lineup.

Hey, there's no doubt this club needs shaken up at this point, and we would prefer that it happens sooner rather than later to keep the season interesting. We just want to see the pieces fit into the big puzzle.

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