Earlier today I did a sort of trade deadline preview, although there’s not much to work with this year. The only player that the Pittsburgh Pirates have been connected to was traded tonight when the Angels acquired Huston Street. That’s not something I’d lose sleep over, as the price was very high, as it usually is for closers.
In less than two weeks, the trade deadline will have passed. I think it’s going to be a relatively quiet one, similar to last year, for a lot of reasons I listed in my preview. The short of it is that the second Wild Card spot keeps so many teams in contention that you have too many buyers, not enough sellers, and too many people on both sides who can’t really figure out where they stand. As a result, expect another busy month of August.
Whether the deadline is in July or August, it’s something I don’t like. And I’m not speaking as a web site owner here, who makes a living off page views, and who sees those page views sky-rocket during trade deadline season. I’m talking about as a fan of the game, and as someone who hates to see artificial needs created.
That’s what the trade deadline is. It’s an event which creates the idea that teams have to make an upgrade, and that they have to make a move. It’s an arms race, where teams have to respond to a move by a competitor with their own move to keep the balance. It’s borderline a reflection of American society today, where no one is ever satisfied with what they have, and are always looking for more, because the idea that you’ve got enough of something is just out of the question.
The trade deadline leads to some of the absolute laziest analysis I’ve ever seen in baseball. Every year the teams that made moves and added names are the winners. The teams that didn’t make any moves are the losers. There’s no digging in to see how a player might upgrade a team, and whether the cost of that upgrade in the long-term really justified the short-term gain.
Some of this is because there are two economic systems in baseball. Historically, the buyers at the deadline are usually big market teams. The sellers are small market teams. Big market teams don’t need to worry about prospects, because free agency is a viable option for them. So they deal those prospects to small market teams, who need to get something from their soon-to-be-departing stars. This is an approach only big market teams can take, without repercussions.
Over the last few years, it seems like more small market teams have been “buyers” at the deadline, with some of them showing a resistance to giving up top prospects. The Rays hardly ever do this. The Pirates haven’t given up any impact guys, but have parted with some good prospects. I think the reason that teams are hesitant to deal top prospects is the same reason why we’re seeing more small market teams contending. These teams have been on the other side of this equation. They know just how much a trade can build up the system. They know that small market teams become competitors by building with young talent that is cost-controlled for many years. Once you start trading that young talent away for older players under control for a small amount of time, you reach the top of your ascent in the MLB standings, and gradually start making your way back down to the next rebuild.
Then there’s the question of how much is enough? The Pirates have the makings of the best outfield in baseball. Over the next two years they will be adding a lot of talented pitchers, and could have one of the best young pitching staffs in the game. They’re contenders now, and they’re only going to get stronger moving forward. In the next year we could see Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and/or Adrian Sampson making the jump to the majors. On an optimistic timeline, Josh Bell could also make that jump. If Bell doesn’t make it by then, he could arrive in 2016, and he’d probably be joined by Tyler Glasnow. Alen Hanson could be in the mix somewhere, depending on whether he can add consistency to the defensive side of the game. This isn’t considering any outside help, or any prospects who could emerge as surprises between now and then.
The Pirates are a good team now, and they’re only projected to get stronger moving forward. I think they’ve got some needs now. There are positions that could be upgraded, but I think most of those positions are better left to the guys currently in the system, with the hope that certain players play better in the second half. The moves they need to make this year are minor. And as the team improves, there will be less of a need for in-season moves. Yet the pressure to make a deadline deal will always be there, and the only way for the Pirates to appear competent is to deal their future for a rental, ignoring the fact that such a trade could look like a disaster a year or two later. And if the deal did look bad at that point, the people calling for the deal in the first place would just be calling for a similar deal later, and ignoring how the last one turned out in the long run.
Then there’s my other big issue with the trade deadline — trades are the only upgrade that count. The Pirates may have already upgraded their team this year. They added Jeff Locke to the rotation in early June. They added Gregory Polanco to the outfield around the same time. Vance Worley stepped up as a depth starter, and will be their number five starter until Gerrit Cole returns. They added Ernesto Frieri, who seems like a reclamation project where you hope the fix comes quick. They also added Rafael Perez, who is two years removed from being a solid reliever, and has a little more time to rebound than Frieri. Going forward they could add players from their farm system, including Nick Kingham if they need rotation help.
But those moves don’t seem to count. The Pirates had some of those guys in the system already, or they signed someone, or acquired someone who was having a down year. They should count though. They should factor in to the trade deadline analysis. The Pirates have already upgraded their rotation this year. There were calls for someone like David Price before that upgrade, and thus the need for Price should go down now that the Pirates have strengthened their rotation. I’m not saying that there is zero need for Price. What I am saying is that the need for Price is much lower now than it was at the end of May, and it might be to the point where the short-term need isn’t worth the long-term cost. This is all because the Pirates have already upgraded their rotation in-season, despite the fact that the upgrade didn’t come via trade.
I know how the Pirates got here. They got to this point by building from within, making trades as “sellers”, and building with young talent. They were sellers in 2009, dealing Nate McLouth. That got them two of their five starting pitchers this year. They dealt a successful Sean Burnett for a struggling Joel Hanrahan, who was later dealt for their current closer and one other bullpen arm. They got Vance Worley in a deal for cash, Edinson Volquez was signed as a reclamation project, and most of the rest of the roster was home-grown.
You don’t win a prize by spending the least to build a contender, or by having the most shrewd moves. That said, when you’re a small market team with a limited budget, you kind of need this approach to contend for the long-term. Once you start making big market moves — dealing a lot of young talent for one older rental — then you start moving away from what got you to contender status in the first place. You start making moves that will hurt you more in the future than they help you in the present. You do this because that’s the only way you can be a “winner” at the trade deadline.
Winning the trade deadline doesn’t matter at all. Winning games is the only thing that matters. Rather than being a trade deadline winner for a few years, I’d rather be an annual trade deadline loser, while keeping a strong organization, sticking to the approach that led to contending in the first place, and providing the opportunity to be a trade deadline “loser” for a lot more years to come.
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