I was so busy today with all of the site coverage of the trade deadline, followed by seeing Billy Roth pitch in Bristol, that I didn’t get a chance to read all of the “Trade Deadline Winners and Losers” articles that I love to hate-read this time of year. Those articles are actually the worst articles, in my opinion, no matter when they come up. The Draft. The Trade Deadline. The Winter Meetings. The Off-Season.
The reason they are so bad is because it’s such a lazy concept, and it’s way too simplistic. Sure, it sells. Everyone wants to see if their team is considered a winner or a loser, just to see how they did. But the reality is that these articles don’t tell anything about how a team prepared for the rest of the season. Instead, they tell you who added the best players (the winners), and who didn’t add or added lesser players (the losers).
But to really judge a team, you need to evaluate the entire team, their needs, how the team would do without any moves, and how they impacted their long-term. Last year the Athletics and Tigers were winners at the deadline, but were they really winners? They probably make the playoffs anyway without adding big names, and maybe they aren’t rebuilding a year later. Meanwhile, the Giants, Royals, and Pirates didn’t go all-in with big trades, and they find themselves as some of the best teams in baseball a year later. And while the Pirates didn’t make it any further than the Athletics, the Giants ended up beating the Royals in the World Series.
So I’m not going to sit here and simply say that the Pirates were winners or losers at this deadline. Instead, I’m going to take a much more complex approach and look at the strategy involved, the guys they added, the guys they gave up, and the overall short-term and long-term impact.
This was a seller’s market, with established players fetching some pretty ridiculous returns in terms of prospects. The Pirates had prospects to trade, and they did trade a few. But when rental pitchers are getting top 25 prospects, that’s not really a market a small market team should be taking part in.
The thing about the deadline is that it makes people ignore what happened the first four months of the season. It makes people think that the only way their team can win going forward is to make a big splash, and add a player who can get everyone excited about a long playoff run. And this is the wrong approach.
The Pirates are the third best team in baseball, and the second best in the NL. After tonight, they are on pace for 95 wins. The only knock against them is that they’re in the same division as the best team in baseball, the Cardinals, who are on pace for an unreal 104 wins. So you can’t fault the Pirates for not being in first place.
One of the only issues with the Pirates is that the team that put them on this 95 win pace isn’t around right now. Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer went down with injuries, and A.J. Burnett just hit the disabled list today. They needed replacements, so that they can maintain their success going forward. They could also use some upgrades elsewhere, but they really didn’t need anything major, as long as they replaced the injured players.
While everyone else was spending prospects, the Pirates took a different approach to fill their needs. They took on a lot of salary, going for aging veterans who have seen good results in the past, and might have a little something left in the tank for a pennant run this year. The Pirates added Aramis Ramirez, Joakim Soria, Joe Blanton, Michael Morse, and J.A. Happ close to the deadline, along with Travis Ishikawa earlier in the month of July. In total, they added just over $8.8 M in payroll over the final two months of the season, putting their projected payroll over $100 M (which doesn’t count the swap of Morse and Tabata and the unknown cash that is changing hands).
The strategy here makes a lot of sense. The Pirates spent money and saved their top prospects. They went with a lot of guys who are either somewhat productive this year, or who have been very productive in the past, or both. They didn’t get any major upgrades, but they didn’t need any major upgrades. They needed replacements for Harrison, Mercer, and Burnett, along with a few other options here and there. That’s what they got.
The plan is solid, and makes total sense. But there’s another factor to consider here — the implementation of the plan. The Pirates didn’t give up anything they’d miss. They could afford the extra payroll, and they have plenty of prospect depth to deal the guys they dealt. They’ve also had a lot of success in the past with buy-low and value additions at the MLB level, getting tremendous value where no one else can see it (Francisco Cervelli, Russell Martin, Jung-ho Kang, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, etc).
They’re buying low on some of these guys, and giving up things they won’t miss, all while hoping for an upside that isn’t far in the past for most of their additions. That’s a great plan in theory, but only if you pick the right players. It’s the exact plan that led to Sean Rodriguez being acquired for Buddy Borden over the off-season, and their prediction that Rodriguez could play a big role isn’t looking good right now. You could make the same argument for Corey Hart. But then you might also have to expand it to Burnett, who was coming off a down year himself, and turned it around until recently.
To get a feel for the chances of each player succeeding for the Pirates, let’s take a look at who they added.
Aramis Ramirez – He fills the immediate need for infield depth with Harrison and Mercer out. The only problem is that he’s been horrible since coming over, with a .455 OPS in 22 plate appearances. That’s a small sample size, although they’re 4-2 since Ramirez joined, which should tell you something about the “need” for upgrades on an already good team. Ramirez just needs to hold down the fort until Harrison returns. If he’s hitting at that point, he could free up Harrison to be a super utility player. If he’s not hitting, just like right now, then he’d be chalked up as a disappointment and a bad addition.
J.A. Happ – He’s never really been great, looking mostly like a fourth or fifth starter. His xFIP in the last two years has been in the 3.95 to 4.02 range, which is a strong number four starter. The Pirates are losing a guy with one of the best stat lines in baseball, so Happ won’t replace Burnett. But if he can hold his own while Burnett is out, and pitch like a strong number four starter, he could give the Pirates a chance to win a majority of their games until Burnett returns. The Pirates have obviously had success turning pitchers around. Some of that success seems lasting (Liriano, Volquez), while other success stories seem short-lived (Vance Worley). They don’t have much time with Happ to turn him around, but you hope it’s enough to make him another success story.
Joakim Soria – It’s hard to see this move as anything other than adding for the playoffs to shorten games. Soria has been a great reliever in previous years, but has been below replacement level this year with Detroit. His advanced numbers look like a nightmare, with an extremely lucky BABIP (.222) and strand rate (94.7%). But his line drives are down, his velocity is up, and he’s still posting good results, even if the advanced metrics don’t back it up. The Pirates needed an extra set-up man to take the pressure and workload off Tony Watson, while also adding another great reliever to the pen to shorten games. If Soria can bounce back to his 2014 form, then the Pirates will have a dangerous 7th, 8th, and 9th, putting them in similar situation to the Royals last year.
Joe Blanton – This isn’t a huge move. The bullpen needed a lot of help, and the Pirates basically swapped out Worley for Blanton. They felt Blanton could do better in shorter relief roles, which means they won’t have a dead spot in the bullpen for weeks at a time like they had with Worley. They might also increase their starting depth if Worley can get back to Triple-A and work on whatever was going wrong for him. If that happens, expect them to have both guys in the majors in September. Until then, Blanton’s numbers have been just as good as Soria’s this year. He’s not a bad 6th/7th option.
Michael Morse – This is where things get interesting. If the Pirates had added Morse this time last year, it would have been seen as a huge upgrade. There’s good reason for that. He posted a .279/.336/.475 line, and was successful against both left-handers and right-handers. The success led to a two-year, $16 M contract with the Marlins. He has since struggled to the tune of a .213/.276/.313 line. That’s in line with his 2013 numbers, only with less power. So is Morse on a rapid decline? Or did he just not perform well in 174 plate appearances with the Marlins, which might be the most dysfunctional clubhouse and organization in baseball? If he’s in a rapid decline, then the Pirates turned Jose Tabata into Morse, and it really doesn’t hurt them much (assuming the cash from the Dodgers wipes out the difference in salaries). But if Morse can bounce back to his 2014 numbers, then the Pirates just got a steal, and a big upgrade over Pedro Alvarez at first base, along with an option for 2016 until Josh Bell arrives.
What They Gave Up
I’m not going to go into big detail on this part, because I’ve written about it a lot the last few weeks. The Pirates have a strong farm system, with a lot of prospects they can trade without missing them in the short- or long-term. They traded two of those guys in JaCoby Jones and Adrian Sampson.
Jones is showing positive signs at shortstop this year, and has a lot of raw power, but also some plate patience issues. I think he can reach the majors and start at short, but he’s risky with the strikeouts. The Pirates don’t have to take that risk. They have Jung-ho Kang and Jordy Mercer in the majors the next few years, and Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, Kevin Kramer, and Adrian Valerio in the lower levels. Jones was basically in no-man’s land in the Pirates’ system.
Sampson was struggling lately with his command, thus removing him as an option for short-term rotation depth. The addition of Happ made it so that the Pirates wouldn’t even have needed Sampson at all this year, so it made sense to deal him. Long-term, the Pirates have better rotation options in Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, and Nick Kingham. They also have plenty of depth in the upper levels for next year, like Chad Kuhl, Jason Creasy, Angel Sanchez, and Casey Sadler and Brandon Cumpton if they each return well from injuries. Sampson wasn’t performing well enough right now to be an option, and was just one of many depth options in the future, considering the Pirates’ strong pitching staff.
Finally, there’s the cash, which the Pirates could definitely afford. That, plus the Pirates trading from strengths, means they didn’t really take on any long-term risks here.
When you think about it, the plan for the deadline is potentially brilliant. I know, you’re not supposed to say that, because you can’t say anything good about the Pirates. They’re only the third best team in baseball, but we’re supposed to act like they can’t draft, can’t trade, can’t add talent through free agency, and that no one in the front office knows what they are doing. You can criticize their moves, but unless you scream they’re doomed in all caps over not adding an ace at the deadline, you’re really not being objective, because the only way to be objective with a team on pace for 95 wins is to act like they’re on pace for 95 losses.
But yes, this plan is potentially brilliant, and here is why.
First of all, the Pirates aren’t catching the Cardinals with one big upgrade. They’re currently 5.5 games back in the standings, and no matter how good the Pirates do, the Cardinals never lose. Adding a star player and trading away huge pieces of the future might add an extra win or two at best. But that type of addition wouldn’t close the gap alone.
So why not take a bunch of smaller gambles and hope that they work out? Not all of them will work. Happ is no guarantee to put up his xFIP. Ramirez might not hit. Morse might not return to his 2014 form. Soria might not return to shut down reliever status. Blanton might be a disaster as an extra guy in the bullpen. Expecting the best from each guy is ridiculous.
But what are the odds that none of them work? Isn’t that opposite reaction just as ridiculous? What happens if Morse suddenly finds his 2014 bat, or Soria suddenly becomes the 2014 shutdown version, and gives the Pirates a Royals bullpen? You start thinking about just one or two of these guys reaching their not-so-distant former upsides, and the Pirates suddenly have a few big upgrades that might give them the same chance at getting close to catching the Cardinals, all without sacrificing the future on such a long-shot.
But the reality is that catching the Cardinals is going to be near impossible at this point, unless the Cardinals suddenly start falling back to Earth. And the other reality is that the Pirates are most likely making the playoffs, and they’re most likely hosting the Wild Card game. And as we saw last year, adding that big name at the deadline doesn’t guarantee success here. The Pirates would be better off adding five lottery tickets, and hoping that one or two of them hit. After all, they’re starting as one of the best teams in baseball. You add a lights out Soria or a strong hitting Ramirez or Morse to the corner infield, and suddenly that third best team in baseball becomes a bit more dangerous. Oh yeah, and this time make sure Gerrit Cole is the starter for that all-important game.
There is so much wisdom out there that says big moves don’t really do anything for playoff chances or playoff runs. Maybe if you’re in a tight race, a big addition could be the final push to get in to the playoffs. But the Pirates aren’t in a tight race. They’re four games up on the Giants, and five games up on the Cubs. They lost some guys to injuries, but just filled those needs.
They have a tough schedule down the stretch, but they also could have a stronger team down the stretch, depending on when the injured players return, how the replacements do, what role the replacements will play, and how many of those deadline lottery tickets work out. So I don’t see them dropping out of home field in the Wild Card.
A Familiar Strategy
The way I look at it, the Pirates needed to replace their injured players to try and maintain their 95 win pace team. Beyond that, they were set up well to host the Wild Card game again. They could have gone for one big move and sacrificed key pieces of the future. Instead they went for several smaller moves, didn’t trade anything or anyone they’ll miss, and added several guys who have the chance to bounce back to their recent success, with the hope that one or two actually make that transition and become steals at the deadline.
And if this uncomfortable strategy sounds familiar, then maybe it’s because it’s basically the same strategy the Pirates used in the off-season when they added Francisco Cervelli, A.J. Burnett, and Jung-ho Kang, among others with question marks surrounding their 2015 potential. Some of those guys haven’t worked out (Hart, Rodriguez, Bastardo), but a few worked out in a big way, and that led to big results so far in 2015.
Imagine if the same thing happens with the trade deadline additions.
**I pointed out on Twitter tonight that we had 11 articles in the last 24 hours (with this being number 11). That’s all on the Pirates, with a lot of insight from people who cover the prospects and the big league team live. This wasn’t just because of the trade deadline. During the month of July, we averaged over seven articles per day. And that doesn’t include all of the individual reports in the Prospect Watch, which are like mini-articles themselves at times. We already have eight articles planned for tomorrow, and probably at least ten, depending on transactions.
For those of you who aren’t subscribers, you can get all of this Pirates coverage for $2.99 per month, or less on an annual plan. That breaks down to a penny per article, and you get all of our live coverage from all over the system, plus the best nightly prospect report out there, plus every update on the system, and analysis to go with each update. Speaking of that content, here is the rundown of what our subscribers received today:
**Prospect Watch: Broxton Stays Hot, Garcia and Roth Throw Gems. We had live reports from Indianapolis, Altoona, Bristol, and the GCL. My report from Bristol focused on right-handed pitcher Billy Roth, who is one of my sleepers. We’ve been making big changes to the Prospect Watch, and have a very special announcement coming tomorrow. Check back in the afternoon for that.
**Here were the trades, along with our analysis of each deal included (specific focus on the Happ/Sampson deal, for obvious reasons):
**Neal Huntington on the J.A. Happ and Michael Morse Trades. Neal Huntington spoke with the Pittsburgh media about the deals, and we have the quotes.
**Pirates Place Burnett on DL, Recall LaFromboise, DFA Guerra. The fallout from the trades.
**There were minor league transactions today as well. I’d expect more tomorrow:
**Josh Bell Promoted to Indianapolis. We already know this is coming tomorrow. Ryan Palencer will be in Indianapolis to cover Tyler Glasnow’s Triple-A debut, and that might also end up being Josh Bell’s Triple-A debut. Sean McCool will have an article on Bell tomorrow afternoon, and Ryan will have an article on Glasnow on Sunday morning.
**Minor Moves: Dan Gamache Promoted to Indianapolis, Erich Weiss to Altoona. A lot of guys moving up, and I’d expect more tomorrow following the Bell promotion. No word yet on any moves, but as always, we’ll update throughout the day.
**Morning Report: The Improbable Season From Yeudy Garcia. John Dreker looks at one of the big breakout pitchers this year, who then went on to have another great outing. Right now I’m lined up to see Garcia pitch on August 10th, and hope that the schedule holds up.
**I’m off to Charleston, WV in the morning, where I’ll be covering the West Virginia Power for the next three days, followed by four games in Morgantown next week. Then I’ll wrap up the weekend in Pittsburgh, covering Sunday Night Baseball, before making my way back down to Charleston to hopefully see Garcia. After that, it’s back to Bradenton to see the Marauders and the GCL Pirates wrap up the year.