There are a lot of things to be discussed right now, but before we start discussing them we need to get the obvious thing out of the way: the Pirates traded for Wandy Rodriguez last night and they sent Rudy Owens, Robbie Grossman, and Colton Cain to the Astros in return.
There are some particulars that need hashed out: the Astros owe Rodriguez $13 million in 2013, when he’ll be 34, and they have a $13 million team option ($2.5 million buyout) in 2014. On one hand, this means the Pirates aren’t just picking up a two-month rental to help them in this particular playoff run. On the other, it means that Wandy is old and expensive. The good news is that the Astros are eating some cost in the deal; according to Dejan Kovacevic, the Pirates will pay Rodriguez $8.5 million this year and the option will be $7.5 million in 2014 (DK calls the option a player option instead of a team option, which is different from how Baseball Prospectus/Cot’s has it listed; I’m honestly not sure which it is). That’s expensive, but it’s manageable.
With that out of the way, let’s start with the Pirates’ end of things. I don’t think the Pirates’ rotation is quite the strength right now that many others make it out to be; James McDonald is struggling after the break, Erik Bedard is constantly walking a fine line between effectiveness, disaster, and injury, AJ Burnett is old, I don’t understand Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia has sold his soul for low-K-rate success, and not one of the three Indianapolis lefties (Owens, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson) impress me enough to think that they can help in a pennant race. There’s talent there, for sure, but there’s plenty of downside, too. Because of this, I’ve been constantly pricking my ears up at any rumor that attaches the Pirates to a pitcher: the obvious fix all year has been to add a slugger or a leadoff hitter, but that doesn’t mean that the team couldn’t be equally improved by adding a starting pitcher.
Still, I wasn’t crazy about the idea of selling the farm for a rental, no matter how excellent (Hamels/Greinke), and the next tier down (Dempster) didn’t seem that appealing to me given the likely price. I threw Rodriguez’s name out in my trade deadline preview as a guy that made some sense to me; he’s probably as talented as Dempster, but not nearly as over-valued and he’s signed for longer. Since 2008, he’s got a 2.74 K/BB ratio and 7.9 K/9 to go with his 3.45 ERA and he’s mostly fixed the home run problem that haunted him early in his career and I don’t see a velocity dip in 2012 even though his numbers are down a bit. Basically, he’s Paul Maholm with a nasty curveball. That fits well in PNC Park, which is tough on right-handed hitters, and it helps stablize the Pirates’ rotation a lot. Instead of wondering if Correia is going to implode and how Brad Lincoln will fare in the rotation in his place (or instead of him how Locke/Wilson/Owens adopt to the big leauges), the Pirates have a proven and consistent and pretty good big league starter to put in his place, and they’ll have him at least through 2013, too, which is a good thing given Erik Bedard’s pending free agency.
In return, the Pirates are giving the Astros some quantity, if not quality. Rudy Owens and Colton Cain are pretty similar prospects at different points of development; they’re lefties with good control but without much in the way of swing-and-miss type stuff. Owens, in his bounceback season at Indianapolis this year, is only striking out 6.5 hitters per nine innings. Cain is 21 and in Advanced-A and only striking out 6.1 hitters per nine. Both of these guys could be serviceable big league pitchers, but the reality is that you want to see minor leaguers miss more bats than they do. Really, in my mind, they both were trending towards Zach Duke on the “Zach Duke <——-> Paul Maholm” scale of serviceable left-handed big leaguers.
That leaves Grossman. Really, Grossman’s served as an interesting counterpoint to Starling Marte as the two of them have risen through the Pirates’ system. Marte is basically all tools; he’s tall and he’s fast and he’s lithe and the raw ability is clearly there for him to be a star baseball player, even though his strikeouts and his walks raise some big red flags. Grossman isn’t built the same way as Marte, he doesn’t play defense the same way, and even though he’s taken some time to really develop, he’s always drawn walks and he’s consistently cutting down on his strikeouts and he’s done all the things that make Major League players under-rated. Grossman’s not a Major Leaguer, though, and so there’s always been real questions about whether his power and speed and patience would develop into a big league regular. Compared to Marte he makes an interesting study, but he’s just not the same type of prospect.
It’s easy to sell these prospects short now that they’re leaving town; this isn’t really my intention. Grossman and Owens and Cain are among the Pirates’ best prospects behind the Marte/Taillon/Cole/Heredia/Hanson/Polanco cluster. Three young players for a 33-year old will always be at least a little bit of a gamble. The thing is, there’s a big gap between the Pirates’ top tier of prospects and their second tier; these guys are almost certainly depth at best. Sometimes these sorts of deals for depth pan out far better than expected (Jeff Karstens), but lots of times, they don’t. As a Pirate fan, I feel like I’ve spent much of my life waiting on guys like Owens and Grossman and Cain, only to see them fall short for any one of a hundred reasons.
That’s really the heart of this deal; the Pirates got a pitcher in Wandy Rodriguez that will almost certainly make them better down the stretch this year and next year. They did so without giving up any of their top prospects and really, with Rodriguez in the fold, the depth that a pitcher like Owens provides is far less necessary. In short, the Pirates improved themselves and managed to minimize their risk. That’s what the trade deadline is all about for a team in contention, right?