The lead up to the trade deadline has been pretty bland so far. The Pirates are looking at relievers. The Pirates are looking at more relievers. They like A.J. Burnett, kind of, but don’t like his salary for 2015. More relievers. Interest in Marlon Byrd, for some reason. Relievers. Not really interested in Burnett anymore because of the 2015 salary. Just to specify: left-handed relievers.
And that was the way it was until this afternoon, when news came out that the Pirates were emerging as dark-horse candidates for Jon Lester. That’s a big rumor, but it’s not too far off what we’ve heard before, with the Pirates showing interest in Lester. The key difference here is that Josh Bell’s name was thrown in to the Passan rumors, which created an afternoon and evening of debates over a theoretical trade that would send Josh Bell to the Red Sox for two months of Jon Lester.
As Pat Lackey pointed out on Twitter today, this is the most divisive trade discussion for Pirates fans.
On one side you’ve got Jon Lester. Saying that he would help the Pirates is pointless. He would help any team. You can dream about the impact he could have on the rotation down the stretch. You can dream about him taking the ball in games one and five in the NLDS, and hopefully, his impact in the World Series. He’s gone at the end of the year, and there’s no chance the Pirates are re-signing him, especially after the Red Sox couldn’t reach a deal with him. But the chance that he could help win a World Series is tempting enough to ignore that he’s a rental. Especially when the division is so close, Milwaukee is falling back to earth, and the Cardinals and Reds have experienced major injuries.
On the other side, you’ve got Josh Bell, who is starting to break out this year and realize his upside. While the dreaming on Lester is short-term, the dreaming on Bell is long-term. He’s got the potential to be a .300 hitter with 25-30 homers a year, and could be up in a year or two. He doesn’t fit in the plans for the Pirates’ outfield, but his bat projects to be good enough to work at first base. You could dismiss this as projections that might never happen, or dismiss him as a prospect with no guarantees. But keep in mind that those are the same arguments made over the last few years about Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, and Gerrit Cole. If the Pirates give up Bell for Lester, and don’t win it all, then Bell lives up to his potential, it could be a trade that haunts the Pirates for years.
In short, you’ve got a player that is good enough to allow you to dream about a World Series, and a prospect who could be good enough to provide an impact bat for 6.5 years, and might be too much to pay for a rental.
Of course we later heard that the Red Sox wanted Bell AND Tyler Glasnow, which takes this from “interesting debate” to “completely insane.” Then we heard that the Pirates don’t want to include top prospects like Bell and Glasnow. As we learned when the Astros trade discussions were revealed, we really don’t know much about what is going on behind the scenes. The Bell rumors might just be coming from Boston, even if the Pirates have no intention of dealing him.
But let’s talk about the concept of dealing Bell for Lester. The general reaction in these issues is to take a firm stance, and ignore that the other side of that stance has any valid points. I personally wouldn’t deal Bell for Lester. No matter who they’d trade for Lester, he would be a massive addition to the roster. He’d be worth about two wins over the remainder of the season, which is a significant boost that very few can match in a mid-season trade. That doesn’t count what he could contribute in the playoffs. But there’s a limit to what a player is worth, and Bell is over the limit for Lester (never mind Bell and other prospects). With my stance in mind, I want to look at both sides of the issue, since this isn’t as simple as saying “yes” or “no” to a trade idea.
The Idea That There is a Window and When to Cash In?
I don’t believe that small market teams have a window to compete. I think with the right moves, you can be competitive for the long-term. A lot of Pirates fans look at Andrew McCutchen’s contract as the window, guessing that they can’t compete when he’s gone. I think it’s definitely possibly for them to continue to be competitive beyond the 2018 season, as well as all of the years leading up to 2018. I think a big part of this is not only adding additional bats to take over for McCutchen, but also adding a good long-term pitching staff to rival the young talent level the Pirates have in their outfield right now.
Most fans don’t care about 2018. Or even 2015. They only care about now. Outside of answering questions about when a certain player could arrive, I don’t spend much time thinking about future years. It’s mostly pointless, since so many things can change in a year, two years, or more. But an MLB GM needs to at least have a rough guide of the future, the players who could be a part of that future, and the players who are expendable. They can’t make a move for 2014 and worry about anything after this season at a later date. And thus we get the balance between short-term needs and long-term needs.
The goal should be to reach the playoffs in as many years as possible. To paraphrase Billy Beane: the goal is to get to the playoffs, and anything after that is just luck.
The Pirates have a young team that only projects to get better in the future. They’ve got one of the most talented outfields in the majors, and when it all comes together, they could have the best outfield in the majors. They have a lot of talented young pitchers ready to come up in the next year or two, with some already in the majors. They’ve got top prospects like Bell, who could play first base, and Alen Hanson, who might be able to stick at shortstop, but could work at second base.
There’s nothing wrong with dealing a prospect to try and make a better run in one of those years. That’s not something the Pirates can afford to do every year, since it would basically create a short window for them to contend. So which year do you make that move? Or, in the case of the Lester talks, what is it about this year that makes it worth it to pay big for a rental?
One argument you could make is that the Pirates don’t project to need pitching in the future as much as they do now. Jameson Taillon could be in the majors by mid-season next year. Nick Kingham should definitely be in the majors by that point. Tyler Glasnow looks on pace to join them in 2016. They’ve got Adrian Sampson tearing it up in Altoona, and looking like a sleeper middle of the rotation guy, possibly arriving next year as well. And looking at the current rotation with Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Vance Worley under control beyond the 2014 season, there might not be room for all of those pitchers. Or there would be extras in case of injuries.
So if there’s a year where it makes sense to deal for a top of the rotation guy, this year makes more sense than future years, where Gerrit Cole is more established, and other potential top of the rotation guys join the mix. That said, what about the cost?
Josh Bell’s Future With the Pirates, and the Limited Avenues to Get Impact Talent
It’s no surprise that the Red Sox would want Josh Bell. They’ve always wanted him. They wanted him in 2011, when he told every team not to draft him. They passed on him four times before the Pirates took him in the second round, believing he was un-signable. The Pirates gave him $5 M, which led to the Red Sox complaining, and then the draft getting changed.
The reason Bell got $5 M was because he was projected to be a guy who could hit for plus average with plus power. He’s starting to live up to that hype this year, showing the potential to eventually be a .300 hitter with 25-30 homers. That potential is what got him placed in the mid-season top 50 prospect lists.
Bell is a right fielder, but the Pirates don’t need a right fielder any time soon. They’ve got their outfield of the future set, and if Bell is to play a role in the future of the team, it will require one of two things: a move to first base, or a trade to make room for Bell. I’d say the bigger possibility would be a move to first base, which is a long-term need for the Pirates.
If first base wasn’t a need for the Pirates, then this might be a different story. Ike Davis hasn’t been the greatest pickup. The first base platoon will be getting more expensive in the coming years, which removes some of the benefit of having a platoon, rather than just paying for a good first baseman. The Pirates will never be a player for impact talent on the free agent market. They could go for impact talent on the trade market, but they’re giving up a lot of long-term talent for short-term rentals, like a deal for Lester. The best way for the Pirates to get impact talent is to develop their own.
It’s not a guarantee that Bell reaches his upside. But if the Pirates want an impact first baseman, Bell is their best chance. And based on the internal options, he’s one of the only chances they have. That’s not a player you can easily deal for a two month rental, even if that rental is a great player.
So who can you trade?
The Pirates have been stocking up on prospects over the last several years. In the last three years they’ve seen breakout players each year. It was Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson in 2012. Tyler Glasnow broke out last year, and Nick Kingham emerged as a top prospect. Adrian Sampson and JaCoby Jones are starting to break out this year, while Josh Bell is starting to live up to expectations.
Eventually, the Pirates will reach a point where they’ve got an excess in prospects. We’re starting to see that with the outfield, and could start to see it with other positions in the not-too-distant-future. Some of that excess can be used for depth, while the excess can also be used for trades. Those trades could send prospects away that wouldn’t hurt the Pirates at all in the short-term or the long-term.
The rotation is close to that point. You can never have too many starting pitchers, but young starters do carry good value. It’s hard to see where Adrian Sampson fits in the rotation, either in the short-term or long-term. He’s a guy who could be expendable, although he probably wouldn’t carry top 100 prospect value. It’s possible he could be considered a Grade B pitching prospect, which would be worth $7.3 M.
The bigger value the Pirates might have could come from the shortstop position. Since the start of June, Jordy Mercer has a .295/.340/.421 line in 201 plate appearances. His defense at the shortstop position has been improved this year. He’s got a limited time in the majors, so it’s hard to say what is the real version. Is he the hitter he was last year, and since the start of June this year? Or were the first two months of this season more than just an outlier and a slump?
If Mercer can handle the shortstop position, then the Pirates won’t have a need there for a few years. That could be enough time to bridge the gap until JaCoby Jones arrives in the majors. That would make Alen Hanson a guy who could be traded. The risk here is that Jones might not stick at shortstop. But that’s also a risk with Hanson, due to his inconsistency and lack of focus on routine plays. You could trade either shortstop, but Hanson might have more value right now, since he’s widely considered a top 100 prospect, while Jones still has some question marks. The Pirates don’t seem to be making Hanson untouchable, based on all the rumors. I can’t say I’m surprised by this. Back when he was suspended for a week, I heard from a scout who offered up the comparison to Robbie Grossman. Back in 2012, Grossman received a similar week-long suspension for unknown reasons. Two months later, he was traded, despite still rating highly as a prospect.
The outfield is the big area where the Pirates don’t have a spot for the short or long-term. Bell could move to first base. Guys like Mel Rojas and Willy Garcia either aren’t established enough to be big trade pieces, or don’t have the upside to be big trade pieces. All of the rumors had Austin Meadows as someone who is untouchable by the Pirates, but he would make the most sense to deal if you’re dealing a top outfielder. Meadows also has the potential to be an impact bat. He could be the guy who eventually takes over for Andrew McCutchen. But you’re talking five years from now, in an organization that has had a lot of success developing outfielders. Five years ago, Starling Marte was just making the jump to the US, Andrew McCutchen was just entering the majors, and Gregory Polanco had just signed for $150,000. If you dealt Meadows, it might hurt in the long-run, but there’s plenty of time to find a replacement. The only way you’d regret the trade is if you think Meadows could be a mega star, or if you failed to develop a prospect to replace him.
What Would Happen if the Pirates Traded For Lester?
No matter what side of the debate you’re on, I think everyone can agree that a trade for Lester would be a huge boost for the Pirates. They’d get one of the top pitchers in the game this year. If Francisco Liriano continues pitching the way he has been pitching since the All-Star break, and if Gerrit Cole returns healthy and productive, then the Pirates could have a dangerous 1-2-3 down the stretch, and in the playoffs.
The question of Lester comes down to cost. If it’s the rumored Bell AND another prospect, then there’s no way he would be worth it, as you’d be sacrificing too much of your future. I think Bell alone would be too much. But there are top prospects you could deal to match Lester’s value, without hurting the team in the long-term.
That’s really the key to any deal for Lester. If the Pirates trade for him, they’re getting a great player for the rest of the season. The hope is that this wouldn’t be followed by years of great regrets for giving up way too much for a rental — even a very talented rental.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.