First Pitch: Do the Pirates Need to Make Any Trades This Year?

Earlier this week Jon Morosi of Fox Sports wrote that the Pirates needed to add some depth at the trade deadline, especially for their over-worked bullpen. It’s probably too early to talk about deadline strategies, since the deadline is over two months away, and most trades don’t start happening until late June. But considering the article, I thought I’d look at the state of the Pirates.

One issue I’ve always had with the deadline is that it sort of peer pressures you into making a move. A contender is good enough to be one of the best teams in the league for two-thirds of the season, but if they don’t add that key piece at the deadline they’ll fall apart and have no chance the final third of the season. The trade deadline is all about the grass being greener on the other side, mistaking wants and needs, and just general tinkering to the roster out of fear that you won’t make the necessary moves while you still can.

I’ve never believed that every contending team needs to make a big move at the deadline. Just look at the Rays in 2008. They didn’t make a move and were criticized for it. They went on to the World Series. Before you suggest that a move could have won the World Series, I’ll point out that there are way more teams who make moves at the deadline each year and don’t even make the series. Plus, the Rays weren’t “one player away” from winning that series. So, no.

One of the biggest praises I’ve heard about the Pirates this year from people on the outside has been about their depth. We’ve already seen that depth step up with guys like Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Jordy Mercer, and soon we’ll see it with the guys returning from injuries. Adding Francisco Liriano was like making a huge in-season trade. Adding Charlie Morton in a few weeks will be like making two trades. They’ll upgrade the rotation, and they’ll give the bullpen a boost by moving Jeanmar Gomez back to long relief.

So do the Pirates really need to make a move? Let’s look at the state of each position.

Charlie Morton's performance when he returns will go a long way to determining whether the Pirates need to add a starter at the deadline.
Charlie Morton’s performance when he returns will go a long way to determining whether the Pirates need to add a starter at the deadline.

The Rotation

In the early part of the season the rotation has tapped into the depth to the extreme that Jeanmar Gomez will make his fifth start tomorrow. Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens are both working their way back from injuries. Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin both are on the Triple-A DL. Gerrit Cole doesn’t look close to being ready for the majors. If a starter goes down before Morton or Karstens return, the Pirates would have to turn to Andy Oliver, who has a 2.87 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 53.1 innings in Triple-A, but also has 39 walks in that time.

Morton should be back in early June, as he has three rehab starts left. Karstens won’t be too far behind. Morton will replace Gomez in the rotation, while Karstens will likely go to the bullpen. That would make Gomez the seventh starter on the depth chart, rather than having him fifth. We’re not even talking about James McDonald here.

The top of the rotation looks good with A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Francisco Liriano has been an extremely pleasant surprise so far in his first three starts. Jeff Locke is due for regression, but should still settle in around a solid number four starter. Adding Morton as a fourth or fifth starter could have some value.

It wouldn’t hurt the Pirates to make a splash and add a pitcher on the trade market, much in the same way they added Rodriguez last year. They can probably hold off on any decisions until they see what Morton and Karstens will do. That said, they can’t depend on Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, Morton, and Locke to remain healthy the rest of the year. They also need to be cautious with Locke, as he could wear down late in the season pitching extended innings. I’d say the need for a starter is minor. If they have to give up a top prospect, stick with the internal options. If they can get a Rodriguez deal, go for it and add to the depth.

The Bullpen

All the talk has been on the bullpen, but the Pirates don’t really need depth. As David Todd pointed out tonight, Morton will push Gomez to the bullpen, and Karstens will add to the pen. I wrote a few weeks ago how the Triple-A relievers will also provide depth. And it’s not like the Pirates would go out and trade for an established reliever. That’s not their style. If they add any bullpen depth, it will likely be through minor trades or waiver wire claims. Those guys would be no better than the options already in the system. I wouldn’t say this is a need at all.

The biggest problem the Pirates seem to have with the bullpen is who goes out when Morton and Karstens return? I could see Bryan Morris going down, just because he’s one of few with options. He’s pitched well, but you could DFA Vin Mazzaro, since they wouldn’t need him with Karstens and Gomez on the roster, and they’ve got options who are just as good in Triple-A. When you’re talking about waiving a guy with a 2.87 ERA in 15.2 innings, with good K/BB ratios, you don’t have a bullpen need.


Russell Martin is holding things down, and if he gets injured they have Tony Sanchez waiting to take over in Triple-A. Sanchez is hitting, and has better defense than Michael McKenry. He could also replace McKenry if he goes down.

First Base

The first base platoon is working, so no need to make an upgrade.

Second Base

Neil Walker isn’t having a good year. He’s got a .234/.341/.306 line this year. By comparison, Clint Barmes has a .228/.273/.307 line. Walker is getting on-base more, but otherwise he’s on par with Barmes, who doesn’t get a free pass. If Walker was from anywhere else other than Pittsburgh, there would be demands to replace him. He hasn’t hit lefties in his career, and he’s only got a .653 OPS against right-handers. At the least the Pirates should consider platooning him, giving Jordy Mercer some time at second against lefties. I don’t see the Pirates upgrading Walker’s position outside of a platoon.


I mentioned the numbers from Barmes above. The Pirates love him for his defense. I like Barmes for the defense, and feel that the team can afford to lose some offense at short for that defense up the middle. They’ve got a few above-average ground ball pitchers, which makes that defense important. They’re also getting offense from catcher and center field, which means they can afford to lose some offense at one position.

Third Base

Pedro Alvarez is doing his normal routine. On the season he is slumping, but he has started to heat up lately. He looks like a platoon option, and the Pirates have been going that route, benching him against more and more left-handers. I’m not sure that Brandon Inge is the answer here, since he’s gone downhill against lefties the last two years. That is continuing this year with a .524 OPS in a small sample size.

The Pirates could platoon second and third base, and it wouldn’t hurt the bench since they’d always have two infielders available. I think Mercer would be fine for the platoon at second. They have some internal options who could be better at third, but might want to look for outside help as well. The internal options include Matt Hague, Jared Goedert, and Chase d’Arnaud. All three of those guys hit lefties very well, and have played third base.

Left Field

There’s a #MartePartay going on, and there’s no need to stop it.

Center Field

I’d say the Pirates are set here.

Right Field

Travis Snider and Jose Tabata are both doing a good job of hitting right-handers. The problem is that neither player is hitting lefties. This would be another good platoon option, although there are two problems. First, Snider and Tabata are each out of options, so you’d have to get rid of one of them to make room for a guy who can hit lefties. That creates the problem of which one do you choose? The Pirates aren’t going to get much in return for either player by trading them since they’re both looking like platoon guys. If they find the right circumstance, they might be able to deal for a platoon option to hit lefties. Or they could just ride it out and hope one of the two starts hitting left-handers. If they go for an internal option, Jerry Sands would be a guy who can help, as I wrote today.

The Needs

The Pirates might have a need for a starting pitcher, but that will depend on how well Charlie Morton does when he returns, and whether the current starters can keep this up. There’s no need to deal a top prospect for a starter as long as they’re getting this production from the rotation.

The bullpen will be helped by the return of Morton and Karstens. There’s also plenty of options in Triple-A.

The offense is set at catcher, first base, left field, and center field.

Second base, third base, and right field could be upgraded with platoon options who can hit left-handers, although there are internal options for each position.

The offense from the shortstop position is weak, but the defense helps to make up for that.

The Pirates could try to go for an everyday player to fill one of their platoon needs at second, third, or right field. However, I’d say they should take the Wandy Rodriguez approach here. If someone could be had for a cheap price, go for it. If it costs top prospects, go with the cheaper internal options.

At this point the Pirates are contenders and one of the best teams in the NL. That could change as the season goes on. However, they’re about to get a boost in the rotation with Charlie Morton, and in turn a boost in the bullpen. They’ve already got the depth in place for pretty much every position. They’ve got cheap ways to upgrade their weak positions with platoon players. They just added what could be a huge upgrade in Liriano. If they start struggling, the needs could change. Right now I don’t see any urgent needs that they would have to fill externally by the deadline.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.

**Check out the new episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 4: Are the Pirates For Real? Plus a Jameson Taillon Interview.

**Prospect Notebook: Jerry Sands Could Be a Good In-Season Addition For the Pirates.

**Is Stetson Allie a Future All-Star, Platoon Player, or Minor League Director?

**Pirates Notebook: Snider’s Slam Swing Sustains Strong Start.

**Draft Notes: Jim Callis Draft Chat Recap and News.

**Prospect Watch: Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson Combine For Eight Hits.

**Francisco Liriano Digs Up A Gem In 1-0 Pirates Win.

**Minor League Schedule: Glasnow Starts Tonight, Morning Start For Altoona

  • What do you think of possibly trading for Josh Rutledge?? He has major league experience and was recently sent to AAA. Could be a buy low option like the Snider trade and Rutledge can easily be the future SS or 2B (depending on how long Walker lasts). I’m not sure what the Pirates would have to give up to get the deal done, but they should strongly consider it. Young shortstops with power don’t come around very often and the Rockies already have one.

  • Wow Tim you of all people. Neil Walker ? platoon him with Mercer? really?
    After 2011 being a top 5 offensive 2nd basemen in baseball followed by a 2012 that he was on pace for 20 + HRS and 90 RBI before a freak injury, these following a 2010 call up which he was amazing. This year tearing the cover off the ball with no luck early and started getting real hot and got another freak injury. He does not get the Hometown pass What get’s him a pass through this slump is he has not got the same amount of time to get in a groove. McCutchen hasn’t been much better until recent. What also get’s him a pass is his proven track record of driving in clutch runs. There is no better hitter in the clutch on this team. He is a career 500 hitter with the bases loaded. Let’s give a player who has produced a ton in the past a break and be patient. No Barmes doesn’t get the same treatment because he’s never proven he can hit a lick

  • Possible trades:

    The Indians and Rangers both have terrific SS depth in their minors, and may well be in need of pitching help at some point. This could be a way to extract useful value for the organization from some of the AAA bullpen arms or depth starters.

    Long-term upgrades to 3B and/or 2B would be welcome. (No deal for Headley unless an extension is in place.) Tabata probably does have some decent trade value since he has a deal in place at modest numbers, and of course starters and relievers could be available.

    Overall, though, I agree with Tim’s assessment – nothing seems to be required, and the lack of organizational depth that fueled the back-to-back collapses may well already be in place.

  • I believe Huntington should use the Snider/Lincoln trade as a template for the kind of trade he makes this summer. Rather than trading multiple prospects for older veterans like Rodriquez and Sanchez, he should try to find a blocked prospect, such as Snider was, who can help the team for the next three or four years. It’s unfortunate that the Pirates greatest need is for a SS since good ones are hard to acquire. It’s also unfortunate that the Walker and Alvarez need platoon partners. But…. These are the areas I want Huntington to explore.

  • After today, I’d say that they also need a new Garret Jones.

  • letsgobucs22
    May 23, 2013 4:12 pm

    Mazzaro has been very solid. He has had 2 bad outings in late April (one in a game they were already getting routed against the Cards). Other than that, he hasn’t been scored upon and has pitched multiple innings in several key situations, including extra innings against the Brewers.

    Tim, wouldn’t the Pirates option Watson down before even considering DFA’ing Mazzaro? I know they like having 2 lefties in the pen, but Watson has been the least effective reliever this year (along with Hughes who already got sent down). Contrares should also rank below Mazzarro in the pecking order if they insist on keeping Watson ahead of better performing relievers.

  • This might be a little apples to oranges but with what the Penguins did in the same city by acquiring a semi-All Star team, NH and the front office will likely get unjust (in my mind) criticism if they are contending and don’t make big splashes at the deadline. I agree not much change is needed, at least looking at the roster construction May 23rd.

  • Great write up.
    I think the Bucs will be aggressive in much the way they were last year, looking at pieces that are not simply rentals, and can have an impact in the future. Maybe finding a better actual platoon piece for Snider, so the splits are correct. Perhaps a better platoon piece for Alvarez.

    I don’t see anything huge, but something similar to bringing in Snider.

  • IMO, I see some regression from Grilli and Melancon at this time, much the same as McDonald. Both pitchers fastballs are not what they were at the beginning of the year, both relied on those fastballs. Struggling to get through the 8th and 9th innings is going to more prevalent shortly. It could be that either or both of them could use some extended rest, something that is not going to happen, but it does appear that Hurdle is aware of this by his admission that he wants Grilli to have 2 rest days instead of 1 since his last outing, I am aware that he threw a lot of pitches, that was because he did not have his 94-95mph out pitch.
    Mazzaro is not going anywhere, the Pirates want and love bullpen pitchers that can give the team more than one quality inning in relief, he was an excellent pickup.
    So the bottom line is they might need to come up with a closer or setup guy before the year is out.

  • “Center Field

    “I’d say the Pirates are set here.”

    I LOL’ed.

  • I think, assuming the Pirates are still contenders come deadline time, a four-corners right handed bat would be useful. As Tim writes, Inge isn’t a lefty-masher anymore, plus he has a career-long pattern of fading in the second half.

  • Tim, good analysis. (I say that because it agrees with mine right down the line). The Bucs should keep their eyes open for the veteran bat at third base. My only possible suggestion is that the Bucs should be willing to give up an actual prospect to add a Matt Garza.

  • I just think it’s pretty amazing that the Buccos are in the position that they are. During spring training I was seeing their pitching staff and really worrying about getting enough quality out of the back end of their starting staff. Now, whoa – nearly every start is better than any of us could have hoped. I see James Mac as a possible trade piece. I don’t want to see him moved and then become an All-Star but given the number of starters that we might have by mid-June they’ll be overloaded with arms. The Indianapolis guys aren’t gonna get much work in Pittsburgh anytime soon and that includes Cole if this keeps up.

  • Tim: There are some reasons to do a trade, but mostly I see a need to shed a few players for the option to get better. You talk about Morton like he is an automatic replacement for Gomez as soon as he returns. Morton is 29 and has struggled to a 23-45 record in MLB with a career 5.06 ERA. Gomez is 25, 16-16 record in MLB with a 4,86 ERA and this year with the Pirates he is 2-0, 2.78 ERA – unless he implodes, he is staying put in my book. Can we trade Morton and Karstens? Even if two of our Rotation were injured we have better, younger, and more affordable pitching at AAA than those two. Promote Gerrit Cole and put Jennmar Gomez into the role of long relief/spot starter. Inge may have run his course, but he provides an experienced bat off the bench. And, we have Hughes, Welker, Black (?), and others at AAA who can provide plug-in relief help, if needed. This team has great chemistry and a meddling GM can do nothing but ruin that by bringing in guys who may not fit with the personality of this group – stay the course, build for the future.

    • Hurdle has already said Morton will replace Gomez.

      • Clint did not clear that through me, so I guess my vote and argument are worthless. So far, everything has been on automatic pilot, but I would much rather have Cole learning by watching, learning, and interacting with Burnett, Rodriguez, and Liriano than trying to achieve some sort of status at AAA that is useless in the long run. For that matter, I would not have any difficulty bringing up Taillon from AA rather than “ground chuck”.

  • I am so happy to finally see the bullpen depth in needs. All I keep seeing is they cant sustain the number of innings on the bullpen. Hurdle isn’t Dusty Baker. The number of innings is relative. Yes we want to lower it from where it is. But innings on a bullpen mean nothing. It is innings on each pitcher. But with what I think is a ton of depth the buccos can move up and down guys with options late in year and those innings may be on different people. The only two innings tht worry me is melancon and grilli. The rest we can mix and match especially in September when rosters expand.

    • Well said. We have some interchangeable parts in middle relief and it’s only Melancon and Grilli that need to be closely monitored. I liked what Hurdle did last night following Grilli’s high pitch count on Tuesday.

      My focus would be on extending AJ or Wandy so that we know we have some depth for next year. If neither seem interested, then I would look for a deal similar to last year’s deal for Wandy.

  • I’d like to see the Pirates go after an experienced lefty reliever. Wilson is good but still young. Watson is very iffy. Get someone like MIA Mike Dunn or KC Bruce Chen. As far as a starter is concerned get someone like Brandon Morrow from Toronto. He is signed through next season at 8 million with a team option for 2015. That deal is tailor-made for Neal. They won’t necessary need to give a top prospect. You can deal Irwin, Cumpton, Sadler, Dodson in no particular order. If Walker doesn’t improve his terrible bat Inge won’t cut it. Get a solid U bat like LA’s Nick Punto.

  • great write up…isnt it funny how we all love Walker but realize he’s slumping this year so far? With his consistant track record the last few years, i feel he’ll come around, atleast i hope so. I dont think you can do anything with Walker mid season as he seems to be a leader of the clubhouse.

    Would love to see another Wandy deal and maybe a consistant bench bat that can hit both lefties and righties well for a late game situation, we really dont have that…I wish C. Beltran wasnt with the Cards or he would be a great option for the playoff run as a switch hitter and could fill RF, he’s a 2014 FA. Pitching maybe Brett Myers, Ubaldo Jimenez, James Shields type guys that are FA w/ options. It’s nice to dream.

  • HamburgBucco
    May 23, 2013 4:47 am

    Thanks for writing this article, I meant to write something in a similar vein on the Pirates’ MLB forum. I feel we are pretty much set up well in all positions on the field. I never understood the emphasis people put on the trade deadline. It can help you of course if youe have a need somewhere due to injury or because your farm system doesn’t offer alternatives.
    I like the way our farm system is (finally) set up, both as far as pitching prospects AND hitting prospects are concerned. I’d like to see these guys come through a la McCutchen, Walker, Mercer and Locke – and not lose these guys to other teams in a trade that more often than not doesn’t work out as planned (plenty of examples for that in the past with the Bucs). Right now we have a more than adequate squad and options to mix things up for different games.
    Of course you contemplate a trade if a good (young) player with a high ceiling becomes available, some kind of guy that may help your team for many years to come, a guy like Snider for example.
    But you always have to take the risk that the trade won’t work for you and usually you’d have to give up top prospects in such a trade, prospects I don’t want to see in other organisations, but ours.
    So unless we are getting an injury crisis I don’t see the need for any trades this year. If someone wants to trade for one of the McDonalds though…

  • Looking to 2014, there is cause for concern in the rotation. Burnett and Wandy will be free agents (assuming Wandy declines the option); we don’t know what we have in J Mac and Morton; Karstens is a free agent; and Cole hasn’t shown he’s ready to take the reins. That leaves Liriano, Locke and a whole lotta question marks – certainly a rotation short of a #1 or 2. If you can swing a deal for a front end starter signed through at least ’14, that might be the way to go. Problem is, it’s not like there are a lot of quality guys out there with that profile who might be available. No thanks, Josh Beckett.

    Otherwise, an infielder who can hit lefties.

    • Good points, but I’m more concerned about 2013. 2014 will take care of itself.

    • I could see Burnett returning. If he doesn’t, then they have some money to spend on a free agent with the departures of Wandy and Burnett.

      Cole is the wild card here. You don’t need him this year, but you do need him in 2014. That’s why they should take their time developing him this year, rather than trying to get him up in the majors early.

      I’d also move Justin Wilson to the rotation if he continues having a great year out of the bullpen.

      • That money might be going to a 3rd basemen from San Diego, the Bucs made a pretty significant offer to the Padres for Headly recently.

      • Justin W….hitting 95+ from the left side…How many SP in MLB are doing that. He then drops a 78 MPH curve..