It’s July 5th and the Pittsburgh Pirates are 44-41 with five games against the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, who only have 64 wins between them, before the All-Star break, then another three against the Astros when the break ends. There’s somewhere between a non-zero and very good chance that when the Pirates open their series against the Cincinnati Reds on July 18th, they’ll be doing so at five or six games above .500 as the first place team in the National League Central.
The Pirates are 11th in the National League in on-base percentage, 13th in OPS, and 12th in runs scored. They’re fifth in ERA and runs allowed, but dead last in strikeouts and 14th in walks. It’s easy to say that there’s a reckoning coming for this club and maybe there is, but they do play good defense and have a bullpen that shuffles between very good and absolutely lights out depending on the whims of Jose Veras and Chris Resop and Tony Watson. The defense has helped mitigate the ugly pitching peripherals thus far and could continue to do so, while very good pitching in high-leverage situations is one thing that tends to help a team outpeform their pythagorean record.
Right now, the big question that surrounds the Bucs is whether or not they’re “for real” and how to approach the trade deadline with whatever the answer to that question is. That’s a difficult value judgment to make, though. Even if you don’t feel like the Pirates are going to be able to keep up the pace of play that they’ve established, if they’re in first place on July 18th, they’re probably going to have in the ballpark of 50 wins, which is well more than half the number they should need to make the playoffs this year unless the Brewers or Cardinals or Reds rachet up the pace in the second half.
There’s a point in the year where you become a contender simply by virtue of being a contender up to that point. I’m not sure exactly when the Pirates hit that; I suspect it’s in early August after they play the Braves and Reds and Cardinals. Huntington’s challenge is navigating the trade deadline without having that knowledge. Will Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Doumit and Steve Pearce be enough to get the Pirates there? Does Brad Lincoln give an overworked rotation enough depth?
Unless the Pirates completely tank against the Astros and Cubs in the next two weeks, I don’t think Huntington can be a seller at the deadline. They certainly don’t have to trade anyone this year with options on Doumit and Maholm. Within the last month, both Jonah Keri (in a general post) and Dave Cameron (writing specifically about the Pirates) at FanGraphs have made the argument that at some point, teams in rebuilding mode have to start trying to win in the present because the future is uncertain no matter how well you’ve planned for it.
The team’s current success aside, Huntington is in a rough spot right now to figure out how to press forward. On one hand, the only true untouchables in the minor league system are the blue chip arms (Taillon, Allie, Heredia, Cole, and maybe Colton Cain), Starling Marte, and possibly Tony Sanchez (depending on how you’re evaluating Sanchez’s power outage this year and how much you think of Eric Fryer’s emergence, you could argue that Sanchez is tradeable if you’re getting a monster return). On the other hand, part of the Pirates’ current approach is casting a huge net for variously flawed, fringey players with a chance to produce (see: Josh Harrison, Chase d’Arnaud, Brandon Wood, and Alex Presley this year) and dealing some of those guys reduces the size of the future safety net to help a team that might still be a longshot to make the playoffs this year.
If I had to guess at what Huntington is going to try and do in the next three weeks, my gut feeling is that he’s going to try and replicate the Chris Snyder trade. When Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Steve Pearce, and Ryan Doumit come back, the Pirates will have some marginally valuable veterans that can fill roster spots (specifically Lyle Overbay, but definitely Matt Diaz and Garrett Jones as well) that the Pirates can swap out for a potential upgrade somewhere by offering to eat salary on both ends of the deal. The Pirates were the worst team in baseball last year, but they essentially acted like buyers at least year’s deadline without giving up any prospects at all by dealing bullpen odds and ends (Lopez was the only lefty last year, but Dotel was certainly replaceable with Hanrahan and Meek pitching so well; this year, Joe Beimel is definitely tradeable and may be able to generate some interest) and taking on salary in exchange for filling someone’s roster.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be interesting to watch the front office’s approach towards the end of the month. They’re essentially going to have to make a move before they’re able to draw a firm conclusion about how good the team they have on the field is and what their real chances to contend are. It’s something that Huntington and company haven’t had to do yet and they way they approach this deadline is going to be very instructive to their long-term view of the team.