James McDonald is only half of the story

Grant Brisbee writes about the worst trade of the last five years at SB Nation today, and it might surprise you to see that he chose the Octavio Dotel for James McDonald deal from the 2010 trade deadline. You can read the whole thing for his reasons.

I’ve actually been thinking about this trade (and others) quite a bit lately as I turn the Pirates’ offensive struggles over in my head. The reason for that isn’t just McDonald, though. It’s true that the Dodgers trading McDonald for Dotel was a ridiculous and terrible move for them, but the part of the deal that no one remembers except for Pirate fans is that the Pirates also got Andrew Lambo in the trade when he was at a point in his career that he was still something of a prospect.

You can probably guess the direction that this is headed. Here are the pitchers on the Pirates’ (fairly good) pitching staff acquired by Neal Huntington in one way or another:

  • James McDonald
  • Charlie Morton
  • Erik Bedard
  • AJ Burnett
  • Jeff Locke 
  • Joel Hanrahan
  • Jason Grilli
  • Chris Resop
  • Juan Cruz
  • Kevin Correia
  • Dan McCutchen

The only pitchers on the club not currently acquired by Huntington are Brad Lincoln, Jared Hughes, and Tony Watson. Hughes and Watson’s careers both took off recently after a move to the bullpen precipitated by the current front office. I suspect we may be saying the same thing about Lincoln in a year or two. Jeff Karstens will be on the list, too, when he returns from the disabled list. The Pirates acquired all of those players for virtually nothing. The players that they traded away were either sold high (Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth) or inconsequential. 

Meanwhile, the Pirates are an awful offensive team. Two of the club’s best hitters were in the system when Huntington (McCutchen, Walker) took over. Here’s a partial list of hitters acquired by Neal Huntington to attempt to “bridge the gap” so to speak, the way his pitching staff has the last two years: 

  • Lastings Milledge
  • Andy LaRoche
  • Gorkys Hernandez
  • Andrew Lambo
  • Brandon Moss
  • Akinori Iwamura
  • Ryan Church
  • Matt Diaz
  • Clint Barmes
  • Rod Barajas
  • Bobby Crosby 

I’ll admit that I’m cherry-picking somewhat here. Casey McGehee looks like a decent pickup and I think Yamaico Navarro may be as well, while some of these guys were acquired to play bit roles and as bad as Barajas and Barmes look, it’s awfully early in the year. Huntington hasn’t batted 1.000 on acquiring pitchers, either, with Ross Ohlendorf mostly being ineffective and Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris not panning out at all like the team hoped. It’s early for Bedard and Burnett, too, and those acquisitions could go poorly for the Pirates.

The trend mostly holds true in the minors, too: the team’s best prospects are pitchers. Huntington’s made four high first round draft picks and while it’s early to judge any of them (particularly the last two), the hitters (Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez) have been mostly disappointing while the pitchers (Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon) have been mostly encouraging. The trend doesn’t hold quite as well all through the system because the Pirates’ Latin American scouting team has uncovered some very promising young hitters, but the Pirates’ system has been very pitching-heavy for most of the Huntington/Smith/Stark era. 

The question that results from all of this is the easiest, most obvious question in the book: Why? Are the Pirates better at identifying pitching talent than hitting talent? Are they better at identifying undervalued pitchers? Do they find pitchers with fixable flaws and fix them? Do they over emphasize defense in the hopes that they can get a bargain on a useful player?

As usual, I’d suspect that all of those theories have a little bit of truth to them. That means that the biggest question of all for the Pirates is probably this: how do they reverse the trend? How do they fix their offense? How quickly can they do it?

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.