The mid-season hot stove has officially heated up, and the Pirates seem to be right in the middle of the hottest trade talks. Sitting in first place in the N.L. Central with a 48-37 first half record, the debate is on for Pirates fans – should the Bucs go “all in” and make a play for a big-name player? Should they go the bargain route, similar to the 2011 deals for Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick? Would they be better suited to sit tight and allow their internal options to fill the holes on the major league roster? These questions are the main topic of every sports talk radio show and message board this week, as the All Star break puts us every so closer to the looming July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
Regardless of what GM Neil Huntington decides to do in 2012, it will hopefully have a better effect than the two deals he made last summer. While the Pirates didn’t give up any mentionable value in the Lee or Ludwick deals, both trades seemed to come too late to help avoid the slide that doomed the 2011 season. Lee provided some decent pop for the Bucs when he was healthy, hitting .337 with 7 homers and 21 RBI in 113 plate appearances. Ludwick was a major disappointment, only managing a .232 average in his 38 games in Pittsburgh. Both deals came on the heels of a 2-5 road trip to Atlanta and Philadelphia, a span of games that seemed to truly rip the spark out of a team that was 53-47 heading into the trip. The Pirates lost their next seven games after the July 31 trades, the meat of a 10-game losing streak that for all intents and purposes eliminated the Pirates from contention.
There is little doubt that the 2012 Bucs are a deeper, more experienced team that should be able to avoid a major slide. With that being said, the Pirates still lack the stretch-drive experience of the Cardinals and Reds – the two teams that should be the main division race rivals for the rest of the season. The additions of A.J. Burnett and Rod Barajas have given the Bucs a shot of playoff experience, and the continued development of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker into legit major league All Stars (and MVP candidate in McCutchen) has solidified the roster immensely. Even still, the Pirates have some holes to fill – be it via trades or in-house minor league talent that is ready to arrive at the big league level. The regressing of OF Jose Tabata, and his subsequent demotion, has led to a mix-and-match situation in RF. SP Erik Bedard has been maddeningly inconsistent, and often times flat-out horrible. That has left the Pirates with two immediate openings that need to be adequately filled if the Bucs intend on seeing this amazing season through to the finish.
The Pirates have been linked to such splash-worthy names of Phillies SP Cole Hamels and OF Shane Victornio, Padres OF Carlos Quentin, and even Arizona OF Justin Upton – a 24-year old two-time All Star who is being shopped by the Diamondbacks. All of these players besides Upton would be essentially “rental” players, free agents at the end of 2012. Despite that fact, the cost of acquiring top-line talent would be prohibitive for a small market team like the Pirates, requiring the trade of top-tier prospects. Upton specifically would command a return that could set the Pirates development back 2-3 years, and would do so with a contract that will pay him over $40 million through the next four seasons. While it is tantalizing to consider the production that an outfield consisting of both Upton and Andrew McCutchen could accomplish, the potential prospect package heading back to Arizona would inevitably include either Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon, and possibly OF Starling Marte. That is a major hit to a farm system that has slowly built its way back into a talent pipeline under Huntington, who inherited an organization devoid of any legitimate talent from predecessor David Littlefield.
The Pirates outfield situation has become less of a concern since the addition of utility player Drew Sutton, who since June 24 has hit .313 while manning a corner outfield slot. Sutton is not a long-term solution to the problem, although he has played admirably while out of his natural infield environment. Starling Marte could be that long-term fix, a 23-year old five-tool player who was the talk of spring training and has excelled at both AA-Altoona and AAA-Indianapolis. The rumors of a Marte promotion have been making their rounds in Pittsburgh, with the play of Sutton quite possibly being the only delay to the move. If Marte is promoted, fans should expect the same type of adjustment period that McCutchen experienced during his rookie season of 2009. Even with that, there is reason to believe that Marte could be an immediate upgrade over any combination of outfielders currently on the roster. This is a player that could be another building block for a team that won’t truly hit on all cylinders until 2013 at the earliest, when Cole and Taillon could be ready to step into the starting rotation. Of course, any team that is contacted by the Pirates about a trade this summer will have the name Starling Marte on the tip of their tongue. He is the type of prospect that major deals are built around, and would probably step right into the starting lineup for any team that he is traded to in 2012.
The starting pitching situation is likely to become more of a factor as the season gets deeper and the innings pile up. While A.J. Burnett has proven to be a workhorse starter who can be counted on for 33-35 starts, he is the only current starter who has reached the 200 IP level in his major league career. James McDonald is having a Cy Young-caliber season, but nobody truly knows how his arm will hold up once September rolls around. Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens look like they could provide some quality innings in the second half. Even if all four of these pitchers stay healthy until the end of the season, that still leaves the Bucs with a gap to fill. Trading for a top of the line, elite starter like Cole Hamels or Matt Garza would give the Pirates a rotation that matches up with the best in the National League – but once again, will come at a cost. Another option would be to look at cheaper trade options – guys like the Cubs Ryan Dempster, the Padres Clayton Richard, or even old fan favorite Paul Maholm. The Pirates could probably make a deal for any of that group without touching the Cole/Taillon/Marte threesome, which seems to be the line of demarcation in determining whether a deal should be done or not.
The Pirates have some intriguing starters at Indianapolis that could be ready to step in this summer. The rotation at Indy includes Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, and Rudy Owens, a trio of left-handed starters who have developed rather nicely this year. Locke is the only one of the three with major league experience, having made four less than impressive starts late last season for the Bucs. His 2012 campaign has renewed his prospect label – a 7-4 record with a 2.92 ERA and 84 K’s over 95.2 IP. At 24-years old, he seems to be the best bet for an addition to the big league rotation – and thus, he is also a formidable trade chip should the Pirates decide to make a deal. Wilson has also made an impression on scouts, averaging over a strikeout per inning in only his fourth professional season. The 2008 5th round pick has started a team-high 18 games for the Indians, but may be better suited to spend a full season at the AAA level while he improves his control. His 4.2 BB/9 number indicates that he hasn’t gained full confidence over his power arsenal. Rudy Owens name has been thrown around as a spot starter this season for the Bucs, who have yet to pull the trigger on the move. His 2.89 ERA leads Indianapolis, and he has shown the ability to pitch deep into ballgames – throwing 106.o innings in 17 starts. Owens is another name commonly brought up in trade evaluations, and he could be the key to any mid-level trade the Pirates attempt.
It has been said that you can never have too much young pitching, but the Pirates may actually be at that point. The trio of Locke/Owens/Wilson were expected to be contributors in the time prior to the arrival of top prospects Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Luis Heredia. This, of course, was before the trade for A.J. Burnett and the development of James McDonald as an ace. This is a great situation to be in for the Bucs, allowing them to seriously consider trading any of the AAA staff, while maintaining their long term goals. Players such as Quentin and Victorino could be within reach if the Pirates are willing to part with one or maybe even two of these pitchers. Adding a key offensive piece to the major league roster without trading any currently contributing players or high-end prospects would be a huge confidence boost to the organization.
Within a few weeks we will know what course of action the Pirates organization plans to take, and no matter what happens, a winning season appears to be within reach. That alone would change the course of the Pirates franchise. Furthermore, the idea that we are even debating the addition of players such as Cole Hamels completely changes the way fans and players alike think of the Pittsburgh Pirates. This should make for a very interesting July, and should the Bucs keep their current pace, one of the most historic Octobers in Pittsburgh history.
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