Williams: The Pirates Could Improve By Selling and Turning to the Farm System

There shouldn’t be any questions about whether the Pirates should be buyers or sellers at the deadline this year. They’re 38-42, 5.5 games back in the Wild Card race, and have five teams between them and the two Wild Card spots.

There also shouldn’t be any complaints if they decide to rebuild. At best, the Pirates were looking at a Wild Card appearance this year. They need to aim higher, and the best way to aim higher in today’s MLB is to go all-in as either a buyer or a seller. This isn’t a team where you go all-in and add to the group. And sticking around in the middle is only going to lead to future seasons like this one, where they’re struggling to reach the Wild Card game, with no higher ceiling.

So the best choice for the Pirates is to sell. And that choice only looks like a better option considering the younger players the Pirates have on the way.

The Pirates will likely see Jordy Mercer depart this season, whether that happens at the trade deadline, or following the year when he becomes a free agent. His immediate replacement will be Kevin Newman, who could come up in the next month if the Pirates decide to move on from Mercer early.

As far as value goes, Newman and Mercer are probably going to be the same, despite being different players. That would be an overall below average shortstop, and average at best, depending on how the skills play out. Newman will hit for a better average and get on base more than Mercer, but won’t have as much power. The defense could be about the same.

The Pirates will need Cole Tucker to step up in order to get an upgrade at shortstop. Tucker is struggling in Altoona right now, but has the tools to be better than average if he puts it all together on the field.

At the least, the Pirates should maintain the same production at the shortstop position. It’s the other positions where they could see an upgrade.

Josh Harrison is under team control through the 2020 season, with team options the next two years. The Pirates have Kevin Kramer hitting well in Indianapolis, and that could allow them to move on from Harrison as soon as the deadline. Kramer currently has a 1.080 OPS this month, and has the chance to be a well-rounded offensive player, with the ability to hit for some power, while also playing good defense. Harrison has been about an average second baseman, and Kramer should be an improvement, being above-average or better, depending on how the power translates to the majors.

When I was thinking about this article earlier in the week, I had to go to Altoona for the next group that could help out. But yesterday’s promotions of Mitch Keller and Jason Martin put two more top prospects on the verge of arriving in Pittsburgh. I don’t think Keller or Martin will arrive this year, as there’s no sense in rushing them to the majors for a losing season. But I could see them arriving early next year, with the team possibly taking an Austin Meadows approach where they ignore Super Two and call up the young players when they are ready.

Martin has some impressive power, and has improved his average and OBP results. He’s got the chance to be an above-average outfielder if the power translates over to Triple-A and the majors. The Pirates currently have Meadows doing well, Starling Marte struggling, and Gregory Polanco continuing to be inconsistent. Martin’s proximity to the majors will likely set a deadline for Polanco to find some consistency before the team has to move on. I’d say Polanco has a little less than a year to put things together, depending on how quickly Martin adjusts to Triple-A.

Finally, there’s the rotation, where the biggest boosts could arrive. Mitch Keller is the top prospect in the system, and as Sean McCool wrote this morning, he spent his time in Altoona this year greatly improving his secondary stuff. He’s got top of the rotation upside, and should be a good boost to the rotation, joining Jameson Taillon to lead the future group.

Chad Kuhl’s injury comes at a time when he was finally starting to put things together, due in large part to increased usage of his slider. If he has to miss time, Nick Kingham would come up and take his place. Kingham already looks MLB ready, and some additional time this year in the rotation would allow him to prepare for a starting spot next year, and allow for the team to move on from Ivan Nova, who might have some trade value with the way he’s been pitching this month.

The Pirates will see a boost from their young players, with Newman, Kramer, Martin, Keller, and Kingham ready to join the MLB team in the next calendar year, and some of those guys ready to join the team in the next month. Newman is the only guy from the group who might not provide an upgrade, but he’ll maintain the production at shortstop. The rest of the group could provide upgrades at their positions.

The Pirates can’t count on prospects alone. They’re going to need to add to this group, both through free agency, and by bringing in more prospects via trades (that is how Martin joined the current group, along with other key players for the future like Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove). But the current group, combined with those other guys currently in the majors, will give them a good base to start building upon, and the follow-up moves might help get them beyond the current “struggling for a Wild Card spot” rut that they’re in.

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.

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