I haven’t been posting much about the trade deadline to this point, because I’m just not sure there’s a ton to talk about that’s different than what’s already been discussed. Let’s do a quick rundown of what I haven’t discussed yet, based on the Pirates’ MLB Trade Rumors page.
The Pirates seem interested in LaTroy Hawkins, who fits their needs only in that he is a human with an arm capable of propelling a baseball. In terms of peripherals, he’s striking out less than one batter every two innings, and he doesn’t even have a ridiculous Jared Hughes ground ball rate to help you trick yourself into thinking he might be better than he probably is. Honestly, I can’t see the Pirates picking up Hawkins unless it happens on August 31st and they can immediately expand the rosters. Next rumor, please.
Jon Morosi tweeted yesterday that the Pirates are interested in Antonio Bastardo, which we knew, and in bringing Marlon Byrd back, which is news. There are two ways to consider this news. One is to be really, really nervous about the health of Starling Marte after his second concussion of the season. We haven’t heard much of anything from the team about him since he went on the disabled list last week and it’s certainly possible that he’s got lingering symptoms that have the team worried about him missing a stretch run. The other way to consider it is this: if Josh Harrison becomes the Pirates starting third baseman when Marte comes off the disabled list, which I think is something that has to be considered now that his bat is warming up again and Pedro Alvarez’s throwing gets worse every day, then the Pirates will only have one backup outfielder and one useful right-handed bench bat. Byrd would be awfully useful as a right-handed pinch hitter/platoon partner for Gregory Polanco down the stretch, especially given the team’s struggles with left-handed pitching. He’s signed through next year, which could be troublesome in either scenario, but it’s certainly easy to imagine how he would upgrade the Pirates’ roster quite a bit for the second year in a row. This is something worth considering, though. In general, if the Pirates don’t get Byrd, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get a right-handed outfield bat that’s not really on our radar yet
Finally, Nick Cafardo at the Boston Globe thinks that the Pirates might get involved with the Jon Lester trade talks. On the one hand, this strikes me as unlikely because Lester is a rental and I’m not sure the Pirates are in position to pay dearly for a rental player (more on this in a second), but on the other, well, there are only so many teams in baseball that can legitimately swing a trade for a Lester or a David Price and the Pirates are absolutely one of them. As crazy as this sounds, John Lackey is a much more attractive option on the Red Sox for the Pirates right now. He’s basically righted the ship these last two years, and because of his elbow injury in 2012, he’s under contract for 2015 at the big league minimum. That contract might make him almost as pricey as a Lester rental in a trade, but Lackey is definitely worth considering here. I’m not just saying that because we have the same last name.
Now that we’ve got the rumors out of the way, I want to talk trade deadline big picture stuff. If we’re being honest, I hate this time of year. People mostly use it as a way for them to shout their own opinions of the front office at each other without any desire to listen, and it drives me up a wall. The reality of this year’s deadline for the Pirates is this: they might not do anything. They might not have to do anything. I watched Gerrit Cole’s rehab start last night, and while his command wavered in a few places, I thought he mostly looked like Gerrit Cole, which is good news for a guy that has barely pitched these last two months. Francisco Liriano’s last start was awfully promising. If you put Cole and Liriano into the rotation at a high level and put Edinson Volquez in the bullpen and let him uncork his fastball a bit, it’s possible that every problem that I see that the Pirates have right now more or less takes care of itself down the stretch. Honestly, with a healthy Liriano and a healthy Cole both dealing, there’s a legitimate chance the Pirates are the best team in the National League.
Here’s the thing, though: just because the Pirates might not have to do anything doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t. This Pirate team is a very good baseball team on its best nights. The National League does not have any overwhelming favorites this year. We’ve spent years talking about windows and farm systems and prospects and all of this stuff, but we’ve now entered a point where you have to ask yourself just how certain you can be that next year will bring a better opportunity to win a World Series. I’m not saying that to write off next season or the year after, I’m just saying that as amazing as Andrew McCutchen is, he’s only got so many years of Olympus-level MVP performance in him. I’m saying that there are absolutely zero guarantees with Josh Harrison, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez down the road. I’m saying that I don’t know what happens if Russell Martin goes elsewhere this winter, even though I think that he probably will and he’ll probably do it at a price that the Pirates would be crazy to pay. I’m saying that I don’t know what happens with Cole or Taillon or Glasnow down the road.
What I’m really saying is that this Pirate team has a chance, and if the right opportunity presents itself, then I think that they have to take it. That doesn’t mean cleaning the prospect cupboard for one year of Jon Lester or even for a year and a quarter of David Price. That doesn’t even mean that they’d be wrong for standing pat. The best way to view this, I think, is through last year’s Marlon Byrd trade. As a cautionary trade deadline tale yesterday, Tim Williams tweeted out some Dilson Herrera stats and then said that he wasn’t sure how much Byrd helped the Pirates last year, but if they didn’t have him they’d still have Herrera, and he’d be the second baseman of the future. This is factually true*, but the idea that the Byrd trade was a mistake is a sentiment that I have a lot of trouble gettting behind. Marlon Byrd turned last year’s Pirate lineup from a mediocrity that was occasionally dangerous based on the whims of Pedro Alvarez into something that was a force to be reckoned with. The Pirates lost to the Cardinals, but they effectively played them to a standstill in a five-game series. With one or two more breaks in that series, who knows what happens? The Pirates had a good team last year and Byrd made them a better team. It didn’t ultimately pay out in a pennant or a World Series trophy, but losing Herrera didn’t cripple or ultimately compromise the farm system. They gave something up, but they gained a real opportunity that I’m not sure that they otherwise had. I don’t think the Pirates should empty the cupboard for an ace. I don’t think they should make a move for the sake of making a move. But I do think that this Pirate team has a real chance in 2014, and that means that while the decisions to improve that chance are always going to be complicated, difficult, and risky, they’re worth considering here.
*I mean, we can debate whether the difference Byrd made in the lineup gained them home field advantage in the wild card game last year, since the real difference between them and the Reds was more like one or two games than it was the four games the standings showed, thanks to the season-ending sweep, and we can debate whether Byrd helped them win that wild card game with his early home run, but the larger point that the Pirates didn’t get past the NLDS with Byrd and that not getting past the NLDS is not functionally all that different than losing the wild card game holds true.