As we approach July 31, we will preview what each team is projected to do in advance of the non-waiver trade deadline. For a complete listing of our previews, click here.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 43-47, 4th in the NL Central
The Pirates finished the first half of the year still kind of in the mix for a postseason spot. They are seven games back of the Brewers for first in the division after struggling for the first two months, then playing above .500 from June until the All-Star break.
The Pirates have begun a critical 16-game stretch that will determine what they will do come the deadline. They won the first game of a three-game series against the Cardinals, who are in third place at 43-46. After this series, they have a four-game set against the Brewers. They have to play well during this stretch in order to make up ground against these two teams plus the defending World Series champion Cubs, who are in second at 44-45 but just acquired the most sought-after starter on the trade market in Jose Quintana from the White Sox on Thursday and are possibly going after Athletics starter Sonny Gray.
They have to try to do it while dealing with the never-ending trade rumors about starter Gerrit Cole and the franchise’s most beloved player right now in center fielder Andrew McCutchen. These two players have been talked about being dealt all season long and they will continue to draw a lot of interest, making general manager Neal Huntington’s job a little bit harder as to which direction he wants the franchise to go in as each day passes.
What moves have they made so far?
Pittsburgh has not made any significant trades or signings. In fact, all the Pirates have done is either put players on the restricted list or designate players for assignment.
In March, they had to put third baseman Jung Ho Kang on the restricted list because he was denied a visa to enter the U.S. Then in April, the Pirates were forced to put center fielder Starling Marte on the list after he was hit with an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. However, Marte is set to return from his suspension on Tuesday.
They also designated second baseman Alen Hanson and pitcher Pat Light for assignment in June, and did the same to Antonio Bastardo in July. Hanson and Light were claimed off waivers by the White Sox and Mariners, respectively.
Are they buyers or sellers?
The Pirates are on the fence right now as to whether they are true buyers or sellers. Again, it all depends on how they play during the next 2 1⁄2 weeks. Huntington said to Stephen Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday that they do not have a “clear-cut answer” as to which way they will go.
“We need to start playing better baseball more consistently, as quickly as possible,” Huntington said to Nesbitt. “But it’s not like the next two weeks are going to determine our fate. All the games up to this point in time have played a role in determining our fate as we go forward.
“That’s a very long-winded way of saying we will look to add to this club in the right scenarios. We also need to be cognizant of the fact that we want to be competitive again next year, the year after and as many years into the future as possible.”
For contenders right now, they hope the Pirates will be sellers and will unload their stars (Cole and McCutchen) in hopes of giving them the arm or bat they need to put them over the top. And for some Pirates fans, selling these pieces could give them hope the franchise will bring back top young prospects who can help make it contend for several years.
However, sources close to the Pirates said to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports in June that they do not “intend to tear down” their team this year when talking about the likelihood of dealing McCutchen. In addition, the Pirates can spend some money because they have not had to pay Kang or Marte so far this year and Huntington told Adam Berry of MLB.com that the Pirates will "gladly pour the money back into the club" if there is a chance to do it.
If the Pirates decide to buy, they may try to do what they did last year when they dealt top-of-the-line closer Mark Melancon and eventually acquired Felipe Rivero, Ivan Nova, Bastardo and Drew Hutchison to fill out their pitching needs.
Who could they trade (or target)?
If any blockbuster deals go down with the Pirates, it will more than likely involve Cole and McCutchen.
Outside of Gray, Cole is the biggest name circulated on the trade market for starters. Though he is 7-7 with a 4.43 ERA so far, Cole has gone 54-37 with a 3.43 ERA for his career, with 19 of his wins coming during the 2013 campaign in which he was an All-Star and had 202 strikeouts in 208 innings pitched. Along with his stellar pitching, the 26-year-old Cole is under team control through the 2019 season, giving contenders such as the Astros and Yankees — the two teams most associated with trying to acquire Cole — a young frontline starter who can help them keep competing at a high level.
As for McCutchen, the former NL MVP, had been involved in a ton of trade talks in the offseason. The Dodgers, Nationals, Mariners, Rangers and Yankees were among the teams interested in the five-time All-Star who revived the Pirates, but was coming off his worst season in 2016 after hitting .256/.336/.430. Though he struggled in the first two months of this year, McCutchen went on fire in June, as he slashed .411/.505/.689 with six homers and 23 RBI en route to earning the NL Player of the Month award. McCutchen, who has a career .292/.381/.490 slash line, is eligible for free agency after this season, but does have a team option of $14.5 million for 2018, making any team contending for the playoffs considering him as a possible rental for the end of this year and next year if he plays well down the stretch.
However, Huntington told Peter Gammons on July 7 that they aren’t going to deal Cole “unless someone calls with a Sale offer,” referring to the four-prospect package the White Sox received when they dealt ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox in the winter.
“We haven’t had a real conversation about Gerrit, and I don’t see us doing so,” Huntington said. “We think we can be serious contenders next year, the way (Jameson) Taillon, (Ivan) Nova and (Tyler) Glasnow can develop, especially with Gerrit at the front, as well as three or four other good young pitchers. There’s no reason we can’t be better with Cole and McCutchen going into next year. Our goal is to maintain a level of competitiveness every year, and not to have to jump back and build all over again.”
And prior to his conversation with Gammons, Huntington told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com that the Pirates believe they will keep McCutchen, but he admitted that they still have to entertain offers for him if they make sense.
"We anticipate Andrew continuing to be a Pirate until something changes -- whether it's through free agency or someone coming in [with an offer] that we believe can help this organization over the big picture,” Huntington said. “That's the hard reality. We'll listen on anybody. We have to. It doesn't mean we're looking to move him or actively engage. There's active and passive engagement, and we'll always be open for passive engagement if somebody wants to come to us."
If they buy anybody, they could try to get a third baseman since they will probably be without Kang this year and 34-year-old David Freese has not been performing well lately at the hot corner. They could also look for a reliever to strengthen their bullpen. Otherwise, they will probably look to their farm system for potential upgrades, with top prospect Austin Meadows heading that list.
The Pirates find a way to keep themselves in contention long enough that they will not deal either Cole or McCutchen.
Barring an offer that Huntington can’t refuse, Cole and McCutchen will not make sense for the Pirates to deal as long as they are in the hunt. Plus if Marte returns to his All-Star form from 2016, then the Pirates will be a dangerous team.
Even if they fall short, the attention will then shift to how to keep this team competitive in 2018 and if McCutchen will be worth trying to resign in the offseason.