When trade speculation involving the Pirates pops up on Twitter, I'm usually the first person to shoot it down. Giancarlo Stanton for Polanco, Taillon, and two other prospects? Stanton would be nice in a Pirate uniform, but I'd think long and hard about trading two A-/B+ prospects and two B/B- prospects for anyone. Alen Hanson's pulled from a game and you want to see Nate Schierholtz or Alex Rios in Pittsburgh now? I mean, those guys would make this team better, but for Hanson? Crazy talk.
This is more a byproduct of working for six (occasionally frustrating) years in a lab towards a PhD. A visiting foreign student in our lab recently asked me about some publications related to my project. I hemmed a bit, and she said, "So, you're critical of it." I'm not just critical of paper, I told her, I'm critical of everything. You have to be. I apply the same standard to the Pirates. I want the Pirates to get better at the trade deadline, but I can't possibly analyze the situation without asking what both the short and long-term consequences are.
There is an easy rebuttal to this, one that Drew Fairservice at Getting Blanked is always ready with: Flags Fly Forever. It's true! If the Pirates give up too much for a rental player at the deadline this year, but win a World Series with said rental player and that concern goes out the window. The playoffs are a million miles away, of course, but it's not hard to dream how this Pirate team could be well-suited to best-of-five or best-of-seven series. They have two pitchers with enough stuff to completely dominate games (Burnett and Liriano), a third pitcher with the best stuff of all who looks better just about every time he takes the mound (Cole), two other starters that can, at the very least, keep the Pirates in just about any game (Locke and Morton), a bullpen that has a lot of talent at the back end and would look deeper with Morton or Cole in it, plus Andrew McCutchen, plus a few other guys that are capable of taking over a week's worth of baseball games if their bats heat up at the right time (Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez).
This is not a prediction or taking anything for granted. This is me reminding you of the famous Billy Beane quote about the playoffs — "My job is to get us to the playoffs. Everything after that is f*cking luck" — and telling you that this Pirate team may not be the most talented team in the National League, but that it's talented enough that if they get to the playoffs that it wouldn't require an act of extreme magic for everything to break right from there.
Here's the thing: if you're going to be a wild card, the new playoffs change the paradign from "f*cking luck" to "a total f*cking coin flip to see if you even get a chance to be f*cking lucky." The Pirates are 7-6 against the Reds this year with six games left. Chances are pretty good that both clubs will end up with nine or ten wins in 19 games against each other before a potential one-game playoff. The thought of a one-game Pirates/Reds playoff both excites and terrifies me.
This is what makes this Pirates/Cardinals series so huge this week. It won't decide anything, not by a long shot, but it will go a ways towards figuring out what the Pirates are playing for down the stretch. If the Pirates win three or four games, they'll be right in the thick of the NL Central battle with the Cardinals, and winning the Central is something worth going out on a limb for. If the Pirates lose four games, they won't be out of contention by any means, but they'll find themselves 4 1/2 back of the Cards, and that's quite a distance to climb against a good team in two months.
That ties the outcome of this series and Wednesday's trade deadline together pretty closely. Maybe it's illogical, but I'd be more willing to stomach a trade of "too much" for a rental player (whatever that's defined as) if it means a division title and a sure berth in a real playoff series. I understand "Flags Fly Forever," but I also understand that in a one-game playoff, Andrew McCutchen could slip and fall between second and third base on a late-game triple and the season could be over on a bit of bad luck. It's an impossible line to toe, but it's one that the Pirates have to somehow tread.
All of which is to say this: nothing ever gets decided in July, but the next four days are really, really big for the Pirates. The first three games of this Cardinal series should at least give some kind of guideline of how to approach the deadline on Wednesday, and final result of the five-game set and the trade deadline will certainly set the tone for whether the Pirates are more than just wild card contenders this year.