COMMENTARY | With the Pittsburgh Pirates set to kick off the second half of the season against the division rival Cincinnati Reds and with the trade deadline a mere two weeks away, the Pirates have found themselves in the enviable position as buyers, not sellers.
However, just one game back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the lead in the NL Central, and with a nine-game cushion over the Washington Nationals for the second wild-card slot, the team can't afford to rest at the deadline, especially after two straight late-season collapses.
Said Pirates GM Neal Huntington, the "experience of last two Julys won't affect what we do, or don't do, this trade deadline."
But Huntington is in a difficult and different position now. Even though last year's acquisitions didn't help the club top .500 or reach October, Huntington should be heartened by his recent history at the deadline. Last year, the team acquired Wandy Rodriguez, who gave the staff depth and another season with a mid-3.00 ERA before going down with injury; Gaby Sanchez has crushed lefties to the tune of a .961 OPS as part of a first-base platoon with Garrett Jones; and Travis Snider, despite struggling mightily in right field (and playing one of the positions that Huntington will look to upgrade), had a number of big hits while Jose Tabata was on the disabled list.
No longer dealing veterans for prospects as he was when he first took the job, Huntington must now find a way to improve the sixth-worst offense (3.84 runs per game, .697 OPS) and a rotation that has been strong but is due for some regression.
While Huntington surveys the trade market, the Pirates currently are rumored to be in on the Cubs' Matt Garza, who may command too high of a price, as well as Nate Schierholtz, who may not be the difference-maker fans are hoping for. It will be important to not empty the farm system in hopes of a big-name rental. That's just not how this Pirates club has been built.
Coming into the season, the Pirates had the league's fourth-lowest payroll, relying on smart drafting, player development, and low-risk, high-reward free-agent signings and acquisitions to get where they are now. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Starling Marte, and Jordy Mercer have all graduated from the farm system and are under team control through the middle of the decade. Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, and Gaby Sanchez were acquired in smart trades. AJ Burnett came over after the New York Yankees were fed up with him, despite strong strikeout and walk totals. Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin have been two difference-makers found cheaply on the free-agent market, Liriano signing for a mere $1 million and is in the midst of the best year of his career. These were all shrewd moves for a ballclub that has been laboriously constructed.
But despite all of their work and the team's first-half success, the Pirates are not built for a one-year, all-in shot at the World Series. Few teams with payrolls south of $180 million are. Which is not to say they don't have a chance, as the playoffs are a crapshoot or "gauntlet of randomness," according to Billy Beane. The best way for the Pirates to continue to succeed in the season, in the playoffs, and in their market, is to continue winning, year after year, stamping World Series lottery tickets along the way, something that seems nearly impossible after 20 consecutive losing campaigns.
But the core of the team is young -- Gerrit Cole only seven starts into his major league career, with a number of players in the pipeline to help the team. When Neal Huntington took over as GM at the end of 2007, the club was ranked 19th in organizational strength. This year, they're ranked seventh.
Of course, the purpose of the sport is not to continually be in the hunt, it's to win baseball games. And with the rate of attrition for minor league prospects, there comes a time to deal them away. Sure, the Pirates have three players in Baseball America's Midseason Top 50 with Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, and Alen Hanson, and another three on Baseball Prospectus' list (substitute Tyler Glasnow for Hanson). But what are the chances that all of them succeed?
Just look at the Kansas City Royals' farm system of 2011 that was viewed as the greatest farm system of all time. While the players are still young and anything could happen, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have struggled, Wil Myers was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays, and John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, and Danny Duffy have fought injuries and ineffectiveness. It's now 2013, the sheen is off, and the team is six games under .500. Of course, there are no guarantees -- Huntington's 2011 acquisition of veterans like Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee also not pushing the Pirates to postseason soil.
But this year is different. This Pirates club is stronger, not the mirage of previous versions.
It's a better position to be in than the role of constant seller, always on the rebuild, but it doesn't change the difficult task ahead for Huntington. Six years on the job, this is his team now, and its success or failure will be a comment on him and his staff, whether he sits idly by or blows up the farm system in hopes of acquiring the final piece for a postseason run.
Flags fly forever, but Huntington must remain cautious as he forges ahead. Otherwise the Pirates could quickly plunge back into the depths of the last 20 years.
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