The breakout performance by the Pittsburgh Pirates this year has drawn a lot of comparisons to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008. Because of those comparisons, there have been some suggestions that the Pirates should take a similar approach at the trade deadline, making a big splash with a big trade. The Brewers dealt their top prospect, Matt LaPorta, for two months of C.C. Sabathia.
There was another surprise team in 2008, and that was the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays took a different approach at the deadline. Rather than making a big splash, they kept their team together. They didn’t make any major additions, even though they had the loaded farm system to do so. In the end the Rays and Brewers both made the playoffs, despite different approaches, and neither won it all.
There’s one thing I’ve never understood about the trade deadline. Why do contenders NEED to make a deal? If a team can contend as it is currently built, then why is it absolutely necessary for them to upgrade? I understand the arms race factor of it. Your opponents are upgrading, so you want to match the pace. But is that really necessary? The Brewers and the Cubs had that battle in the summer of 2008, adding Sabathia and Rich Harden, respectively. But the Rays didn’t participate in that game. They were three games up on the Red Sox at the deadline. Boston added Jason Bay. The Rays still won the division by 2.5 games.
For contenders, making that big splash at the deadline seems more like a luxury than a need. You’re adding a boost, “just in case”.
It’s still strange calling the Pirates “contenders”, but that’s what they are. They moved to a one game lead in first place tonight, and nine games above .500. There was the second half collapse last year, but as I pointed out yesterday, that’s unlikely to repeat as this team looks legit. So do they NEED to upgrade the team at the deadline? Or is that more of a luxury?
The Pirates have the fourth best record in baseball. Will that continue? Probably not. But it’s showing that they’re legitimate contenders. Last year they were “contending” despite staying close to .500. They were only contending for most of July because the top teams in the division hadn’t broken out yet.
They are contending this year largely because of their pitching. James McDonald and A.J. Burnett look like the real deal. Erik Bedard started the season strong, but has struggled since an injury in early May. Jeff Karstens isn’t a flashy pitcher, but he put up strong numbers last year, so he’ll have a long leash to work with. Kevin Correia has been extremely lucky, putting up respectable numbers, despite a low strikeout rate and lucky advanced metrics.
The pitching might need some help down the stretch, especially if Correia, Karstens, or Bedard struggle. But the Pirates don’t necessarily have to make a trade for that help. They’ve got three major league ready starters in Triple-A in Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens, and Jeff Locke.
Then there’s the biggest issue this year: the offense. Lately the offense has been on fire. Andrew McCutchen has been one of the best players in the game. Pedro Alvarez is hitting for power, and lately he’s hitting for everything. They’re also getting help from guys like Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee, Drew Sutton, and Michael McKenry.
Down in Indianapolis the Pirates have a few solutions. Starling Marte has been hitting well lately, and could provide a boost at the deadline. Jeff Clement is tearing the cover off the ball. He’s also a year younger than Casey McGehee, so it’s too early to write him off, especially with his Triple-A numbers this year. Then there’s guys like Matt Hague and Jordy Mercer who could fill in if there’s an injury in the majors.
For the first two months of the season, the offense was horrible. Ever since June started, the offense has been one of the best in the league. They’re not this good, but they’re not as bad as the start of the year. The Pirates were lucky to win as many games as they won in April and May, considering the offense they had. But that luck is only limited to April and May. They don’t have to continue as the best offense in the league to justify winning, but if their pitching holds up, and their offense plays somewhere in the middle, they can put up wins without people constantly pointing to the Pythagorean record.
So far this year the Pirates have been winning because of their pitching. They’ve got the internal depth to maintain that success, even if a few of the guys in the majors struggle. There’s not much of a need to make a deal for pitching. On the hitting side there’s a little bit more of a need for help, but eventually Starling Marte could provide a boost. They’ve also got some depth to help out, and as long as McCutchen and Alvarez lead the team, with the occasional hot streaks from 1-2 other guys, they should put up respectable numbers.
So do the Pirates need to make a trade? I think it’s more of a luxury than a need. I’d love to see that luxury, but I wouldn’t deal any big prospects away. And I’d even be hesitant to deal some of the upper level guys who rank in the 8-20 range in the system. I’d much rather see a deal like last year, where the Pirates don’t give up much in value, and take on money instead. That way they get the luxury of adding a boost to a contending team, all while preserving their future and giving the future team a better chance to compete.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates beat the Astros 6-4. Also, the Dodgers beat the Reds 4-1, moving Pittsburgh in to sole possession of first place.
**Pirates Notebook: Bucs Playing With Confidence, Finishing the First Half Strong.
**Prospect Watch: Lots of Strong Pitching, Lots of Power Tonight.+ posts
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.