The Pirates, Giancarlo Stanton, and trading prospects

David Schoenfeld lit a fire under Pirate fans this morning with his post on ESPN's SweetSpot blog entitled, "Pirates need to make big pitch for Stanton." The Stanton in question is, of course, the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton. You can probably guess Schoenfeld's logic from here, but let's lay it out. The Pirates need offense, Giancarlo Stanton is one of the best power hitters in baseball, the Marlins are perpetually willing to trade good players for prospects, and the Pirates have plenty of prospects. This does, in fact, seem like a line of thought worth pursuing, even if it's only as a thought exercise. 

In fact, let's think of this as a thought exercise. There is no direct evidence that the Marlins plan on trading Stanton at this point in time, even though it seems like a safe bet that they'd be willing to listen to the right offer.  Stanton, like Justin Upton last year, is very young and insanely talented and would be under team control through 2017. That means that if the Pirates think they can acquire Stanton, they should consider doing so even if the price seems outrageous. Schoenfeld put the price of Stanton at Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, Tony Sanchez, and a "decent C-grade lefty," which I'll define as Joely Rodriguez, I guess, because there really aren't any other guys that fit the bill for the Pirates (Andy Oliver isn't really a propsect at this point and Zack Dodson isn't really all that good). Rodriguez is probably more of a C+ guy, if we're being honest, but then, we're talking about Giancarlo Stanton. 

That is a king's ransom, obviously. Polanco and Taillon are both in the top 20-25 prospects in all of baseball right now. Tony Sanchez is having a great season at the plate with Indianapolis this year. Strong defensive catcher with even a smidge of offensive upside are useful players, as Pirate fans are learning from Russell Martin this year. Rodriguez is having a breakout year for West Virginia, with a 2.85 K/BB ratio at the age of 21 and lefties are pretty scarce in the Pirates' system. And still, you have to consider this. Stanton won't turn 24 until November and he just hit his 100th career home run. As a 21 year old, he 34 home runs in 150 games. As a 22 year old, he hit 37 homers and sluggled .608 in 123 games. He draws walks in about 10% of his plate appearances. That puts his career OPS at .900 despite striking out a ton and only having a .270 career batting average. Stanton is, essentially, a right-handed version of everything you hoped Pedro Alvarez would be in 2008. Taillon and Polanco are great prospects that every team in baseball would kill for, but they're still just prospects. Stanton has successfully graduated from that status.

I'm still wary of this trade, as proposed by Schoenfeld, though, and here's why: I'm not sure it's  future-facing enough for a small-market team like the Pirates. Gregory Polanco only has 20 plate appearances for Altoona, but he looks like a really special player. Last spring, no one had any idea who he was. Now, he's a Top 25 prospect that can hit for both average and power with very good patience for a young Dominican player. He's fast, he's a great defensive outfielder, he's the proverbial five-tool prospect right now. As a 21-year old prospect right now, he's basically a better-rounded version of what Starling Marte was as a 22-year old prospect. The sky really is the limit here.

Let's re-frame the trade this way: what if the Pirates were only going to get Stanton for the rest of 2013 and 2014. Would you trade Jameson Taillon, Tony Sanchez, and Joely Rodriguez for that? Certainly Stanton would be a huge upgrade on what the Pirates have in right field now, but that's a pretty steep price to pay for 200-230 games of Stanton. This is hypothetical based on Polanco's development of course, but if Polanco meets his potential that's what this trade boils down to. Remember that picking up Stanton doesn't come without risk, either; this year he's dealt with shoulder and hamstring injuries and last year he lost time to knee and oblique injuries. 

This hasn't even considered what losing Sanchez and Taillon would mean to the future of the Pirates. By 2015, it's almost certain that Wandy Rodriguez, AJ Burnett, and Russell Martin will no longer be Pirates. Taillon and Sanchez aren't necessarily locks to be future All-Stars, but at this point it seems pretty likely to think that they'll be contributors in some form to the Pirates by then. Pedro Alvarez is far from the player Pirate fans hoped for three years ago, but where would this 2013 team be with Brandon Inge at third base every day instead of Alvarez? So who catches for the Pirates after Martin if not Tony Sanchez? The journey to get to Martin was pretty ugly; who wants to repeat that process again? What does the rotation look like without Taillon? Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, and then what? The Pirates have prospects for both battery terminals, but besides Taillon, Sanchez, and Nick Kingham, they're all awfully low in the minors. For the short term, they would almost certainly have to fill these holes with external options. External options do not come cheaply. In 2015, Andrew McCutchen will be making $10 million, Stanton will be in his second year of arbitration, and Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker will be into their arbitration process, as well. Where does the money for free agent regulars or starting pitchers come from at this point?

All of this seems really negative, but that's not the point. The point is that this trade is only obviously hugely beneficial for the Pirates in the short-term, and that means that it has to be pretty carefully considered. That doesn't mean it should be ignored.There is obvious long-term value in having Stanton (who could be a generational-type power hitter) in a Pirates' uniform through 2017. This 2013 Pirate team is a good team now, while future theoretical Pirate teams are not guaranteed to be. Still, if the main certain benefit from this trade comes in the immediate future, then it's also worth considering that whatever it is that Stanton brings to the Pirates is dimished vs. the field of trade candidates (Josh Willingham and company) over a 60 or 70 game sample. 

The bottom line here is that I think it's really hard to come to an easy verdict on this kind of question. The Pirates have stockpiled quite a bit of talent and much of it is concentrated in starting pitching and outfielders. They will probably make a trade involving some of that talent at some point in the near future. How could they possibly get a better player in return than Giancarlo Stanton? And yet, if the Pirates are going to unload a gigantic concentration of talent for a young and proven player, what are they accomplishing by acquiring someone that duplicates the strengths of their minor league system?

Of course, all of this is just a thought exercise for now. The Marlins are still holding fast to the idea that they're not trading Stanton. The Pirates have given no indication that they think the time is now to pull a franchise-remodeling trade. In our hypothetical universe where this trade would be discussed, though, I'm happy that I'm not the person that would have to pull the trigger on it. Even with all of the space I've used discussing the trade in this post, I'm still not completely sure what side I'd come down on.

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.