A Look At Potential Pittsburgh Pirates Trade Targets

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JUNE 27: Mike Leake #8 of the Seattle Mariners pitches the ball in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on June 27, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JUNE 27: Mike Leake #8 of the Seattle Mariners pitches the ball in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on June 27, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /

With the trade deadline just 15 days away, the Pittsburgh Pirates have all the reason to be active in order to make a legit playoff push down the stretch.


Fireworks, barbeques, pool parties, beach days, and the MLB Non-waiver Trade Deadline.

As the month moves along, the temperatures gradually rise, and the heat intensifies, just like the hot stove. With the deadline just three weeks away, the Pittsburgh Pirates have every reason to be aggressive on the market.

The record is not pretty, salvaging a 44-49 win-loss total four games after the end of the All-Star break, but the Pirates find themselves right in the thick of things in the NL Wild Card race, sitting just 3.5 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals.

The season to date has been very up-and-down for the black and gold. They started 12-6, as the starting pitching was lights out and looked at as maybe the deepest rotation in all of baseball.

One 8-game skid later, the Pirates were 12-14 and looked inept on offense, scoring just 18 runs in that span.

Fast-forward to the middle of May, and manager Clint Hurdle has his squad back to a respectable 24-20, despite injuries to both Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams.

Another month later, everything seemed to be falling apart. At 30-38, the Pirates offense struggled, the starting pitching was run thin, and the bullpen was largely ineffective. Things looked bleak, sitting in last place, nine games back of the division lead.

Nonetheless, riding a 14-7 stretch prior to the All-Star Break put them back in the race, there’s no reason general manager Neal Huntington shouldn’t explore several options to improve this team in hopes to make the Pirates a legitimate playoff team.

On offense, the team has been good in some areas, average in others, and near the bottom in a few. For example, they are 15th in OPS (.764), third in batting average (.271), and 26th in home runs (98). Overall, they average 4.85 runs per game, just above the league average of 4.80.

What may come as a surprise to many, the Pirates are tied for fifth in the MLB in batting average with runners in scoring position at .272. And, although the month is still young, the Buccos are first or second in practically every offensive statistic so far in July.

With a bench that’s been strong, and a lineup that’s been hot, there’s no glaring need on offense for this Pirates team. However, pitching is an entirely different discussion.

A team ERA of 5.01 (entering play on Monday) is good for 24th in the MLB, and 14th in the National League. If you remove the month of April, the Pirates pitching staff has pitched to a horrid 5.54 ERA. Breaking it down even further, the starting pitching alone has a 5.81 ERA since the beginning of May after starting off the year with a 3.15 ERA through April.

With Taillon and Steven Brault currently shelved, that leaves Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer, Jordan Lyles, Williams, and Dario Agrazal as the five-man rotation coming out of the break. As both Taillon and Brault are expected to return soon, with Brault as early as next week and Taillon potentially by the end of the month (although that’s not a sure thing), Hurdle and Huntington are going to have to make some crucial decisions about who stays and who goes.

Of the five arms that are currently active, Musgrove and Williams are the only two that warrant a guaranteed spot in the rotation moving forward. Archer has struggled mightily with a 5.49 ERA and a 5.91 FIP, while Lyles has gotten by with a 4.36 ERA and a 4.16 FIP.

Agrazal has been a nice surprise thus far, owning a 2.81 ERA in three starts, two of which going six innings against the Houston Astros and the Brewers where he allowed one and two runs, respectively. But he’s still largely unproven, and with the Pirates in the playoff hunt, and their luck with injuries, they can’t afford to stand pat at the deadline.

That being said, here are some potential trade targets for the Pirates to go after before July 31.

RHP Zack Wheeler, NYM

Once part of a young crop of arms that came up for the New York Mets prior to their miraculous World Series run in 2015, Zack Wheeler finds himself trapped in a cycle of mediocrity that surrounds that franchise. To make matters worse, Wheeler actually missed that World Series run as he was in the midst of a two-year recovery process from Tommy John Surgery.

After struggling in 2017, and putting together an exceptional full season worth of starts in 2018, Wheeler has fallen right in between those two levels in 2019, pitching to a 4.69 ERA in 19 starts. Despite that, the 29-year-old has accumulated 119 innings and 130 strikeouts, both of which rank him in the top five in the National League. Additionally, he owns a 3.69 FIP, which suggests that he’s pitched better than what his ERA may indicate.

With Wheeler set to hit the free agent market this winter, the Mets will have to sell him off as a rental, making him more affordable for the Pirates front office to take a stab at. On the flip side, this also makes him an attractive option for many other teams as well, forecasting a competitive market for the Mets starter.

RHP Mike Leake, SEA

It’s no secret that the Seattle Mariners are in full rebuild mode, trading the likes of Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura and Edwin Encarnacion all within the last eight months. One player that they’ve held onto is Mike Leake.

Leake signed a five year deal with the Cardinals prior to the 2016 season. But after struggling to find much success with the Red Birds through nearly two seasons, he was traded to Seattle in late August, with three years still left on his deal.

His time with the Mariners has been rather pedestrian, pitching to a 4.17 ERA in 54 starts. Nonetheless, he’s made at least 30 starts in each of the last seven seasons, showing his durability, something the Pirates pitching staff has lacked in 2019.

Unlike Cashner, Leake has a rather large sample size of starts at PNC Park, being that he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds from 2010-2015. In 17 starts in Pittsburgh, Leake has a 2.92 ERA over 104.2 innings.

One potential snag that may deter the Pirates front office from going after Leake is his contract. The 31-year-old is owed $15 million ($4 million paid by STL) for next year, and $18 million in 2021 ($5 million buyout). It’s not an absurd amount of money, and Seattle may take some of it on as well, but even so, it may be more than the Pirates are willing to pay regardless.

LHP Tony Watson, SF

Reunion? The former Pirate setup man and 2014 All Star has found success over in the bay area, unlike another former Pirate reliever. In 109 appearances out of the bullpen for the San Francisco Giants, Tony Watson has a 2.86 ERA with 5.44 K/BB ratio.

Watson does have a slightly higher ERA this year at 3.11 and an even worse FIP of 4.38, as he’s given up the long-ball at a higher rate this season. Despite that, he still has his highest career K/BB ratio at 6.5 and a respectable 1.15 WHIP.

The Pirates bullpen has been very inconsistent this season, outside of closer Felipe Vazquez. It’s also a very young bullpen, so the presence of a veteran like Watson, as well as someone who’s played for the Pirates for several years could help this team in a multitude of ways.

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Lastly, Watson does have a $2.5 million player option for 2020 with a $500 thousand buyout. Given that the Pirates are very familiar with who he is already, and $2.5 million is very affordable, I don’t see why the front office wouldn’t look at Watson as a viable option before July 31st.