Pittsburgh Pirates: Major Trade That Originally Was Under The Radar


When the Pittsburgh Pirates made this trade, it was originally an under the radar move, but could pay dividends in the near future.

The Pittsburgh Pirates finished the 2018 season with an 82-79 record and 4th in the National League Central. The Bucs struggled throughout the season at shortstop. Longtime shortstop Jordy Mercer struggled at the plate hitting just .251/.315/.381 with an 85 wRC+ in 436 plate appearances. Defensively, he had -9 DRS, -0.3 UZR and -0.5 range runs above average.

So one of the offseason goals for the Pittsburgh Pirates was to find a shortstop. They made what originally looked like a small trade with the Cleveland Indians. In the trade, the Pirates acquired Erik Gonzalez, Tahnaj Thomas and Dante Mendoza for Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff. Out of all the players, Gonzalez was the one who got the most attention, but overall this looked like a depth-for-depth trade.

For most of Gonzalez’s career, he was blocked at every infield position. The Indians left side of the infield had two MVP candidates in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana handled the right side of the infield, and eventually Yonder Alonso in 2018. Luplow was in a similar situation with the Pittsburgh Pirates having Starling Marte, Corey Dickerson and Gregory Polanco all coming off strong years.

Up through that point of Gonzalez’s career, the infielder had 275 plate appearances from 2016 to 2018. He only hit .263/.292/.389 with a 77 wRC+ and .293 wOBA. Not really an upgrade over Mercer offensively, but Gonzalez had shown he can more than handle shortstop defensively. Gonzalez’s UZR/150 was 1.8, while having a UZR/150 over 5.0 at third base as well (8.3). But there had to be some interest in Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has shown flashes of talent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the 2019 season he hit .322/.349/.407 with a 99 wRC+ and .324 wOBA in his final 63 plate appearances of the season. In a 135 plate appearance stretch in 2020, he hit .280/.306/.456 with a 101 wRC+.

At shortstop, he has +3 DRS, 1.7 UZR/150 and 2.1 range runs above average and at third, +6 DRS, 4.2 UZR and 0.5 range runs above average. But aside from those two stretches, he’s overall been nothing more than a defensive replacement level player. He only has a .262 wOBA and 61 wRC+ since arriving in Pittsburgh.

But we’re looking at potentially a game-changing trade for the Pittsburgh Pirates. A 61 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR across 103 games and 349 plate appearances is not franchise-altering. Who in this trade is going to be a major player? That would be Tahnaj Thomas.

What the Pirates liked in Thomas was the raw talent in his arm. An international signing out of the Bahamas in 2016, Thomas was actually signed as a third baseman but moved to the mound. Thomas pitched 38.1 professional innings between Rookie Ball and the Dominican Summer League and struggled really badly. His biggest issue was control as he walked 33 batters.

The next year, Thomas pitched 19.2 innings at Rookie Ball and was showing improvement. While it was less than 20 innings, Thomas walked just 10 of the 80 batters he faced and struck out 27. He did have a 4.58 ERA, but he was overall showing improvement. This was when the Pittsburgh Pirates traded for Thomas.

Thomas spent his first season in his new organization with another year at Rookie Ball, and the results only got better. Thomas was still striking out batters at an insane rate 29.5%, but he significantly improved his control. His walk rate not only dipped below 10%, but all the way down to 7%, which would have been well below the MLB average of 9% in comparison. Home runs have never been an issue for the powerful right hander, as he put up a HR/9 of just 0.93. Overall, Thomas had a 3.17 ERA, 3.67 FIP and 1.11 WHIP, all of which were career bests. His xFIP also sat at a solid 3.49.

The  biggest weapon Thomas has is his fastball. It has elite potential as FanGraphs sees it as a future 70. Not only does he have above average spin, but he can throw it into the high-90s and can touch 100 MPH. What his breaking ball is is up for debate. Some see a curveball, some see a slider, it could be a mix of the two, or he could have both. Regardless of what it is, everyone seems to be in agreement that it’s a wipeout breaking ball.

His third pitch is a change up, which he’s still working on. Some have projected him as a closer, but Thomas is a guy who wants to stay in the rotation, and I don’t see why he couldn’t if his change up develops and he doesn’t suffer a major injury that would force him to take on a role that would give him less innings.

Thomas is the 72nd best prospect per FanGraphs, and FanGraphs has the highest success rate of prospects to major league players. He has a Noah Syndergaard fastball, but with more spin. His breaking pitch seems to have two different variants that are even throwing off scouts. He’s also working on an off-speed changeup that could be an average pitch.