The Pirates at the deadline: what happens next?

Two Sundays in a row, the Pirate blogoship has been set on fire by two words: Justin Upton. Everyone that’s watched the Pirates (particularly yesterday) knows that the Pirates need to get an outfield bat to help Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates do have some tradeable minor league resources and holy crap would trading for Justin Upton represent a sea change in the way the Pittsburgh Pirates. There are a lot of questions, though, and not just with a Justin Upton trade. Let’s try to answer them. 

Who should the Pirates be willing to trade? 
We learned yesterday that the Pirates appear willing to trade Starling Marte for Justin Upton, but not Jameson Taillon or Gerrit Cole. I’ve repeatedly said that I thought that getting Upton would take Marte and Cole or Taillon, but let’s leave that aside for a second and focus on the Pirates’ position. 

There are almost no circumstances under which I’d think it was OK for the Pirates to trade Gerrit Cole. Real, true aces don’t grow on trees and there aren’t that many of them floating around. Cole could be one and he’s probably less than a year away from making his debut in Pittsburgh. Taillon’s very close to the same status with the caveat that he’s struggled a bit at Advanced-A this year and that while he deserves some leeway for being younger than Cole, he’s not quite as much younger as you’d think given their relative draft positions (13 months). That’s not to denigrate Taillon at all; he’s a young guy that throws hard, he’s got good control, he makes some fantastic starts, and the upside is there. The only player that I’ve seen the Pirates connected to that I’d even consider including Taillon in a trade for (if I were Neal Huntington) is Justin Upton, and even then, it’d be something I’d think long and hard about. 

Of the Pirates’ three best prospects, that leaves Marte as the one that I’d most consider trading and even trading Marte makes me a bit wary. Marte’s upside is pretty high with the power he’s shown the last two years and while the strikeouts are a concern, he’s still very raw even though he’s not very young for a Triple-A prospect because he didn’t come to America or play any kind of full-season ball until he was 20. Still, he’s a quick centerfielder with power-hitting potential and the Pirates have a quick centerfielder with power and if they could flip him for a guy like Upton, who’s not at all old (Marte was born in October of 1988, Upton in September of 1987) and who’s signed for a few years and who has a more traditional power stroke, it’s easy to see why that would be an upgrade for the Pirates. Marte’s not a guy that the Pirates should be willing to move in a rent-a-player deal; he’s a guy they should be thinking of as a future contributor and only listening to trade offers if a future contributor is coming back.

Beyond those three players, there’s not a chance in the world that the Pirates are trading a hulking 17-year old that’s having a ton of success in the New York Penn League and it’s pretty unlikely that they’d trade a 19-year old middle infielder that’s slugging .577 in full-season ball (that’s Luis Heredia and Alen Hanson, if you’re not up to date on the farm system). Most of the other young hitters at West Virginia (namely Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell) are probably off limits, too, because they’re so young that their value is mainly in potential and not trade value. 

What about the Pirates and Zack Greinke/Cole Hamels/Matt Garza?
The Pirates’ rotation could use help. There is nothing in the Nine Worlds that can convince me that Kevin Correia isn’t a ticking timebomb with his 3.8 K/9 and betting on Erik Bedard or one of the completely untested lefties at Triple-A is shaky at best down the stretch in a playoff race. It’s definitely possible that a McDonald/Burnett/Karstens plus whatever the Pirates can get from the last two spots is enough to get them into the playoffs, but that’s far from a sure thing. I think the Pirates’ offense is a bigger priority right now, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be considering finding pitching on the market. 

That being said, the big name pitchers that the Pirates are consistently being attached to (specifically Cole Hamels, but Greinke, too) are rental pitchers. Someone is going to give up a good prospect for a pitcher like that, but I’m not sure it’ll be the Pirates. If we consider that it was Matt LaPorta that got the CC Sabathia deal done a few years ago, we can probably assume that it’ll be a prospect on the Starling Marte level that gets a Hamels/Greinke deal done and Garza will probably require a little more since he won’t be a free agent until after the 2013 season. Honestly, I don’t see the Pirates making that sort of deal, unless …

What do the Pirates really think of Starling Marte? 
Ken Rosenthal wrote this today about Starling MarteScouts and executives from multiple clubs continue to express doubt about the ability of Pirates Triple-A outfielder Starling Marte to become a star.

He went on to detail questions about his power, his defense, his ability to hit good fastballs, and his base running instincts. Of all of these criticisms, the one about the defense seems unfair but the others are probably valid. As Pirate fans, we’re conditioned to hope for the best from the prospects, but the question I have is this: What do the Pirates think of Starling Marte? Because if they think that he could end up being more Gorkys Hernandez than Andrew McCutchen as a big leaguer (and this is a possibility), then that’s a player that I’d be considering using to build a trade for a few months of Cole Hamels.

This is virtually an impossible read for us to make from the outside; there are valid concerns about Marte and valid reasons to think that he could become one heck of a big league player. The range of outcomes for his career strikes me as being extremely broad right now, which is a reason for at least some pause with a guy that’s 23 and in Triple-A, no matter how raw he might be. Which is to say, again, that Marte is a good prospect and the Pirates’ best position player prospect, but far from a slam dunk. The Pirates can and should and probably will attempt to build an offer for Justin Upton around him, but we should at least consider the possibilty that the Pirates have the same (or a similar) opinion of Marte that the scout that spoke to Rosenthal has and that the reason we’re hearing Marte come up in the Justin Upton discussions isn’t because the Pirates really want Upton, but rather because they’ve determined that they’re at a sell-high point on Marte. If this is the case (and I’m by no means saying that it is), then something like a Marte-for-Hamels deal becomes a possibility. 

So what’s going to happen?
I still don’t really think an Upton deal is all that likely, to be honest. The Pirates just don’t have enough in the system to make that deal go through behind Marte without including Taillon, and I’m guessing the Pirates would be slow to make that move. That’s fine, though maybe worth discussing in more depth at a later date if that’s what it looks like we’re heading towards. I do think something’s going to happen, though. 

Carlos Quentin’s name comes up a lot as a rental target for the Pirates and he makes plenty of sense. He’d be more costly than Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick were last year, but not nearly as costly as a Hamels/Greinke type. I think Shane Victorino would make plenty of sense for the Pirates, too, in that there’s a fair argument to be made that the Pirates could use a table-setter much more than another bopper right now (though there’s also a fair argument to be made that Victorino’s not much of a table-setter anymore). Whatever the case, I do think the Pirates add a bat and if it’s not Upton, Quentin and Victorino (in that order) make as much sense as anyone. 

What about pitching? I don’t know; there’s not much available to the Pirates that feels like an upgrade if they don’t go for a Hamels/Greinke type. They can sacrifice some of their Triple-A pitching depth for, say, Carlos Quentin, but they’d have to give up pretty much all of it for Quentin and Wandy Rodriguez. Maybe that’s a good idea, and maybe it’s not; it really depends on what your opinion is of the Locke/Owens/Wilson trio right now. Same goes for putting a guy like Robbie Grossman into a trade; his value and his place in your future could radically change in a year. How much of the cabinet is worth emptying into this particular playoff run, if you’re hoping to have more playoff runs to make in the future? Even if they keep Taillon and Cole and Marte, the path forward post-2012 is altered substantially if the Pirates trade Locke and Owens and Wilson. 

I don’t really have answers to these questions, of course. They’re just the ones that I have in my own head as we press forward towards the biggest trade deadline in recent Pittsburgh Pirates history. 

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.