The dream wave that the Pittsburgh Pirates rode to the brink of the National League Championship Series in 2013 led to high hopes for the 2014 season. The team broke their 20 year streak of finishing with a losing record, notched a one-game Wild Card playoff victory against the Cincinnati Reds, came just a single victory away from defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in a National League Division Series, and saw star CF Andrew McCutchen rewarded for his stellar season by winning the NL Most Valuable Player award.
The core of the successful 2013 season returned largely intact for 2014, yet the Pirates entered today with a 29-32 record, presently good for 3rd place in the NL Central some 7 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. While their offense is actually scoring runs on a slightly higher per-game basis in 2014 (4.0 to 3.9), the pitching staff that carried them to a 3.26 ERA in 2013 has faltered, and the 3.90 ERA the staff sports in 2014 is good for just 12th out of the 15 NL teams.
The Pirates have made a habit of keeping their pitching staff devoid of large free agent contracts, and they've had success in recent seasons by mixing in promising young arms with a cavalcade of reclamation projects. Last year, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Jason Grilli - among others - remained healthy for the large part of the season, and the mid-year promotion of top prospect Gerrit Cole just bolstered it. 2014's story hasn't played out as well, however, as Burnett left in free agency over the winter, Liriano's walk rate & ERA have risen significantly, and Edinson Volquez - 2014's rotation reclamation project - hasn't performed as well as hoped. Add in that the top pitching prospect in their system, Jameson Taillon, had Tommy John surgery in April, and the Pirates have been unable to replicate their previous model.
Still, the Pirates sit just 2.5 games out of a Wild Card spot, and barring a complete meltdown between now and the trade deadline, they'll be poised to make another run at a playoff spot.
Are the Pirates Buyers or Sellers?
The Pirates have already made moves to improve their club this season, and they'll likely continue to explore marginal upgrades if certain positions continue to struggle. They added Ike Davis from the New York Mets in late April in an attempt to create a more productive platoon at 1B, and they designated struggling starter Wandy Rodriguez for assignment in May with an eye toward improving their rotation.
The Pirates are also on the brink of promoting their top hitting prospect, Gregory Polanco, and the dynamic OF should provide them an offensive boost over the combination of Travis Snider & Jose Tabata in RF.
The Pirates payroll has risen to just under $72 million from just over $39 million in 2010, and while there's been an obvious investment in the product by the McClatchy ownership group and GM Neil Huntington, adding significant payroll mid-season hasn't been in their M.O. Gaby Sanchez, Justin Morneau, and Marlon Byrd have been savvy, inexpensive additions in each of the last two summers, and the Pirates will likely look to similar veteran upgrades at this year's deadline, although this season will likely see them target pitchers of similar status.
As mentioned before, Francisco Liriano has struggled to replicate his bounce-back 2013, and his injury history always makes his dependability a question mark. The Pirates have been counting on Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole as the bulk of their rotation to this point, but with Cole's placement on the 15-day DL this morning, their already thin rotation depth is being tested. Jeff Locke, who was an All Star in 2013 after a brilliant start to the season, was brought up to replace Cole, but had been toiling in Triple-A thanks to a disastrous latter half of 2013 that saw him yield a 6.12 ERA and 1.87 WHIP over his final 12 starts of the year.
Rookie Brandon Cumpton has been tasked with trying to fill the 5th starter's role, but he, too, has struggled in his 5 starts. With Taillon out for the season, Stolmy Pimentel on the DL with shoulder issues, and other top pitching prospects Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Luis Heredia no higher than Double-A, there's no ready-made starter ready to step into the rotation with a bang, either.
The 4.47 collective ERA from the Pirates' starting pitchers ranks 3rd to last in the National League, and that number includes 12 rather solid starts from the now-disabled Cole. Adding even a league-average starting pitcher seems to be a primary focus of any trade strategy, and there should be enough arms out there at the deadline for the Pirates to do some shopping. While the prospect cost of adding a top available arm like Jeff Samardzija, James Shields, or David Price may be too costly for the Pirates liking, adding a middle-tier arm like Jason Hammel, Kyle Kendrick, or even Bronson Arroyo seems like a realistic expectation.
Trade Likelihood: High
Similar to most every non-Colorado team in baseball, the Pirates have opted to employ a defensively gifted SS who struggles to make much of an offensive impact. Jordy Mercer's glove is loved by Baseball Reference's dWAR, but he's also the prime culprit for Pittsburgh shortstops' owning just a .592 OPS, the 2nd worst in the NL. At 35, Clint Barmes, hasn't hit as Mercer's caddie, either, and his previous two seasons worth of numbers don't suggest that his current .217/.294/.250 line stands to improve much.
The Pirates have one of the top SS prospects in the minors in Alen Hanson, but the 21 year old has yet to reach Triple-A and it seems unlikely that he'd be called up before September. For any 2014 impact, the Pirates would need to seek help outside the organization to find any improvement. There's a reasonable chance that the Cleveland Indians will be shopping Asdrubal Cabrera at the deadline, but the veteran SS has hit just .244 with a .305 OBP since his All Star season in 2012, FanGraphs is extremely critical of his range on defense, and he's making $10 million in his last season under contract. Whie the rental-aspect of acquiring Cabrera would be appealing, the minor upgrade coupled with the payroll hit makes picking him up seem unlikely. The rest of the SS market is rather dried up, too, making any substantial upgrade doubtful.
Trade Likelihood: Low
Pieces to Deal
The bulk of the trade chips the Pirates will have to offer are outfielders either in their minor league system or on their big league bench. Jose Tabata is signed to a very team-friendly contract that will only owe him roughly $10 million between now and the end of 2016, and the 25 year old's career OBP of .338 and OPS+ of 101 could be seen as a steal by many teams. Moving him would also allow the Pirates to open a full-time position in RF for Gregory Polanco, with Travis Snider's presence not going to stand in the way of his playing time.
In the minors, Austin Meadows, Josh Bell, and Harold Ramirez all rank among the Pirates' top 10 prospects according to MLB.com (though Meadows has yet to debut in 2014 due to a lingering hamstring issue), and while Pittsburgh may be reluctant to trade them for anything other than an arm like Samardzija, the talent is good enough to bring back that type of return should they choose to shop it. With Polanco, Starling Marte, and Andrew McCutchen forming a young, formidable current OF, choosing to package OF prospects in search of an ace may be the route they take.
Trade Likelihood: High
Joining Polanco, Meadows, and Bell in the Top 100 of most every prospect list is Taillon, but his UCL injury likely takes him out of the running for any major trade this year. Kingham and Luis Heredia, however, could be used as pieces in any large-scale deal, with both also landing in MLB.com's Top 10 system prospects. Heredia has dealt with shoulder issues in 2014, though, which may keep him out of any serious discussions. Moving Glasnow doesn't appear to be a priority for the Pirates, as the team has high hopes for the 19 year old as a part of their future rotation.
Trade Likelihood: Low