Pirates trade deadline in review: Convention is the worst enemy

On June 30th, Jose Bautista took an awkward check swing and left the Blue Jays/Angels game in the fifth inning. It was unclear how serious the injury was, but it had the potential to be bad. While everyone waited on the news that night a report came across Twitter that Anthony Gose had been pulled out of his game in Las Vegas. The implication was that if Bautista was hurt, it would be Gose that would take his place. A ripple went across the Blue Jays fans that I follow on Twitter: Gose and not Travis Snider? Snider had been killing the ball in Vegas and seemed like the logical choice to take Bautista’s place. The implication was clear, even to a non-Blue Jay fan that night: Alex Anthopolous was done waiting for Travis Snider. “That’s the kind of player I’d like to see the Pirates take a chance on,” I thought when I came to this realization. 

A month later, and that’s exactly what the Pirates did. They traded Brad Lincoln for Snider a few minutes after midnight on the day of the deadline, they traded Gorkys Hernandez for Gaby Sanchez as the deadline approached, and they traded Casey McGehee for Chad Qualls right at the deadline. They did all of this a week after trading Rudy Owens, Colton Cain, and Robbie Grossman for Wandy Rodriguez. That’s some pretty serious turnover in the course of one week, so let’s take some time and talk about what the Pirates did. 

The three main acquisitions that the Pirates made were Rodriguez, Snider, and Sanchez. It’s impossible not to notice that all three players will be Pirates beyond 2012. Rodriguez’s contract takes him through 2013 with a player option he’s almost certain to use in 2014, Snider won’t even be eligible for arbitration until 2014, and Sanchez won’t be aribitration eligible until 2013 or 2014. These players are all here to both help the Pirates down the stretch in 2012 and to pave the way to what we all hope is more success in the future. Rodriguez is 33; the Pirates can probably expect him to be anywhere between solid and very good over the next 2+ seasons. He doesn’t have dominant stuff, but he can generate swings and misses and he’s learning to get groundballs as he gets older. He makes the Pirates’ rotation a lot better right now, in the same way that Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett did over the winter. Snider is 24. He was one of baseball’s best prospects a few years ago, but he’s lost some of that luster. Still, his power is real he’s young enough that there are reasons to think he’ll turn himself around. Sanchez is 28. As of yesterday morning, he was in Triple-A because he started 2012 off in a horrible slump. That said, he’s one year removed from two seasons of decent play at first base and just a year ago, he drew 74 walks and had a .352 OBP. He looked like he found that patience again in the minors after his demotion, and he mashes left-handed pitching. The combination of Snider and Sanchez at the very least add depth that only existed in theory before these trades. Snider gives the Pirates four real outfielders, which means no more Garrett Jones or Drew Sutton trying to catch flyballs. It means Alex Presley is the fourth outfielder; he’s a reasonable and better option than Drew Sutton to give Starling Marte nights off if he struggles or gets a bad matchup. It means Jones and Sanchez split time at first base and that a majority of the at-bats there won’t go to Casey McGehee. All of this helps the Pirates, even if Snider isn’t appreciably better than his career line of .247/.308/.429.

There’s this thought that exists that because the Pirates traded for two players that have spent most of 2012 in the minors leagues and whose better days may be ahead of them instead of right in this very moment that they didn’t do enough at this deadline or that the front office isn’t fully committed to seizing the opportunity that’s been afforded to them in 2012. I’ve read all of those arguments and I’ve talked to some of those fans and I understand the concern, but honestly, I don’t see it. Look at the trade market this year; the best rental hitter available was Carlos Quentin and he wasn’t traded. Seeing the price the Dodgers paid for Shane Victorino, I think it’s a safe bet that it would’ve required Brad Lincoln to have him sent to Pittsburgh instead of LA. The Pirates chose Snider. As mentioned above, Snider’s hitting .247/.308/.429 for his career. Victorino’s hitting .261/.324/.401 this year. His power is mostly gone, so his value now is as a leadoff hitter. His OBP since 2010 is .336. Maybe he fits the Pirates’ needs slightly better right now, but I don’t think that’s a sure thing. The only other real option for the Pirates at this deadline to upgrade the offense was Hunter Pence. It’s hard to say what Pence would’ve cost the Pirates; Lincoln for sure, probably Tony Sanchez, maybe another depth prospect. Maybe a little more than that, since that haul is basically just a reliever and two depth prospects. Pence is a good hitter, but I’m not sure he’s the hitter that Pirate fans seem to think he is. He’s having a down year and I think that that down year is more in line with his true talent than his breakout year of last year. 

Here’s my issue with the thought that the Pirates prioritized the future over the present in trading for Snider instead of Pence or Victorino: Derrek Lee was one of the all-time great trade deadline acquisitions by anyone last year — he was cheap and he was good beyond what the Pirates’ or anyone could’ve possibly imagined on July 31 and he played strong defense at first base and he was worth exactly 0.8 wins above replacement. If he hadn’t hurt his wrist and missed 23 games and he would’ve performed in those 23 games the way he did in his 28 in black and gold, let’s say he would’ve been worth 1.5 wins. That’s a significant contribution for a deadline pickup over ~60 games. Victorino’s been worth 1.3 wins over 101 games this year. Pence, because of his moose-on-rollerskates defense, has been worth 0.6 in 101. It’s incredibly unlikely that the difference between Snider and Pence or Victorino will be even one win over the course of 60 games, even if Snider struggles and fails to exceed his career numbers to this point. 

What the Pirates did at this trade deadline upset a lot of people because it’s unconventional. Young teams that are contending for playoff spots aren’t supposed to survey the lay of the land and decide to get younger. It’s not something people do. Neal Huntington took a calculated roll of the dice here; he’s betting that over the course of 60 games that Travis Snider won’t be much different than the more established players that he could’ve traded for (and remember, pretty much all of my scenarios here deal with him not hitting — it’s also possible that he just flat-out starts mashing his way to Game 162) and that Snider is more valuable in the long-run, which makes him a better return for a trade chip that obviously held some value like Brad Lincoln. That’s certainly a risk for him to take on a number of levels and it’s unconventional as hell. That’s part of the reason that I love the strategy. The Pittsburgh Pirates don’t ever get to be conventional. The Pittsburgh Pirates don’t ever get to take their eyes off of the future, even when the present is important. That’s baseball reality in 2012 and the Pirates certainly know what happens to teams that forget it.

The Pirates took a different approach to the deadline than people expected. Of course they did. I don’t think I would’ve wanted anything else. The important thing is that the Pirates are also better today than they were 10 days ago. Given the players traded to other teams yesterday, I don’t think they’re significantly worse today than they would’ve been if they’d taken a more “traditional” approach to the deadline. It’s true that this could backfire, but it’s also true that there’s a real chance that this approach will make them better in 2012 than if they’d followed a more conventional path. On top of all of that, they’re also better for 2013 and beyond than they were ten days ago. That doesn’t matter to Pirate fans now and it shouldn’t, but it’s still important. That’s a good trade deadline. 

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.