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May 24, 2011

Painting the Black

Should the Pirates Walk the Plank?

by R.J. Anderson

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A report linking the Rangers to Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan made slight waves over the weekend. Folks within the Rangers organization denied the speculation, as team sources are wont to do, and now the talk concerning the deal will permeate not only front offices—assuming there was some form of communication there to begin with—but also the fan and analyst communities. In related news, the July 31 trading deadline is nearing.

By now, most teams know what they need. They also know what they don’t need. The most compelling aspect of the 2011 deadline is the identity of the sellers. Only two teams are more than 10 games under .500; everyone else is either in play or on the bubble, Pittsburgh included. That said, the Pirates are still very unlikely to make the postseason. Entering today, the PECOTA-generated playoff odds have them reaching the tournament less than one percent of the time. 

If the playoffs are an unattainable goal, then why is Pittsburgh’s potential as a seller unclear? Few teams have identities tied so closely to losing. The Cubs might, but the North Siders have a fan base rabid (or delusional) enough to fill Wrigley Field without fail. Right now, the Pirates finishing at .500 would qualify as a success for a once proud baseball city. One might imagine that the very thought of breaking even could be inspirational enough to sway Pirates GM Neil Huntington toward holding on to his vets in order to give the long-suffering city a victory, even if it proves to be a pyrrhic one.

However, it’s not Huntington’s style to shy away from an ugly finish in pursuit of a mediocre showing that might cost his club in the long run. Since becoming general manager at the end of the 2007 season, Huntington has orchestrated a number of midsummer trades to turn short-term fixes into long-term possibilities. Here is the CliffsNotes version of those trades:




Despite Huntington’s reputation for being active on the trade market, he has not encountered a situation quite like this. The Pirates are 22-24 on May 23, good for only fourth place in the NL Central, but within five games of first and within three games of second. Of course, merely playing well through this point does not ensure future success. Huntington knows this well: on May 23, 2010, the Pirates were in fourth place at 19-23. Pittsburgh would go 38-80 the rest of the way to finish with the worst record in baseball.

The city seems to be taking the 2011 Pirates more seriously, as the team is enticing nearly 19,000 through the gates per game—at this time last season, the Bucs were topping just over 17,000 in attendance. With so many teams remaining treading water or losing ground in the attendance department, the sight of PNC Park with 2,000 more bodies per game is encouraging. Alas, just as there is no guarantee that the Pirates can maintain a record at or near .500, there are no assurances that those additional fans will continue to show up.

Rooting for the Pirates to keep their veteran pieces in order to win 81 games instead of 75 is not the sabermetric style either. Nate Silver’s research on marginal wins (which is now freely available, thanks to our new open-door article policy) suggests that a team in Pittsburgh’s position should look to sell in most situations based on the revenue involved. Silver did note exceptions to the rule—like when a team has converging young stars—but that does not seem to fit the Pirates.

Instead, Pittsburgh is in a position where many of its top prospects are at least a season away from the show. Kevin Goldstein pegged only four of the team’s top 11 prospects with chances to reach the majors in 2011 and had their top three prospects slated to reach the Show in 2013 or later. Some in-house solutions are on the way, like catcher Tony Sanchez and pitcher Rudy Owens, but unless the Pirates make a number of waiver claims and trades, the 2012 core will bear a strong resemblance to the current core.

Therein lies the catch-22 facing Pittsburgh. In order to fit Sanchez, Owens, and even Brad Lincoln into the plans, they have to make a trade or two. The Pirates’ current catching tandem of Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit should garner interest on the open market. Doumit, at least, will appeal to teams in need of an offensive-minded catcher, first baseman, or designated hitter, as he currently owns a .286 TAv—the 10th-best mark among catchers with 50-plus plate appearances. A good-hitting catcher doesn’t supply the production you want from your DH or first baseman, but hey, Doumit is out-performing Albert Pujols so far.

As for Owens and Lincoln, the Pirates rotation has pitched at a very high level, considering the club’s recent history. Even by the most archaic of measures, earned run average, only James McDonald has a below league-average ERA—and even then, McDonald was the team’s best starter last season and had some injury issues earlier in this campaign. It’s easy to envision a contending team calling about Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia; both are under contract through the end of next season.

The Buccos still have a few veterans who could be on the move regardless of the team’s record. Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz have added little this season, so swapping them out for low-grade minor-league arms could be a means of inserting younger alternatives, like Steven Pearce and Xavier Paul. Even if the production stays the same, the costs will drop, and maybe the Pirates can throw another arm with a trace of upside onto the future bullpen pile.

All told, the Pirates are in a nice position, much like a batter in a 2-0 count. They can look for an offer and take action if they get one, but otherwise, their contracts and lack of coming attractions give them the ability to retain some short-term pieces through the end of the season. It might prove difficult to turn that patience and insistence on value into positive public relations work, but holding onto spare parts for the sake of finishing at or near. 500 wouldn’t serve them well.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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I don't know if I agree with your premise. I think the Pirates are in a unique situation where it might actually behoove them to hold on and try to reach .500, sabermetrics be damned. With their ongoing record for futility, marginal, even cosmetic gains like simply breaking the slide may have great repercussions in the fan base beyond what Nate Silver could have measured. As long as what they do does not hold down a good prospect from making it, they really don't have much to lose by going for .500 but may have much more to gain than the common revenue generation models allow.

May 24, 2011 04:35 AM
rating: 0

But, Hanrahan is their most trade-able asset. Isn't he also signed through 2013 or so? Won't they be able to get a respectable haul for him, isn't that worth it more than the repercussions?
Haven't the Pirates already alienated the fan base to an extent and therefore, how much worse could it get?

Not arguing, just curious.

May 24, 2011 06:43 AM
rating: 0

Well, the way I see things, the more a fan base is alienated, the more it will take in terms of on-field success to win them back. So, yeah, it could definitely get worse - long-term worse.

May 24, 2011 07:48 AM
rating: 0

Again though, the Pirates have been horrific for years now, do you really think there's a lower level for them? Cam Bonifay and Littlefield weren't the bottom?

May 24, 2011 10:45 AM
rating: 0

In terms of bums in seats, yes, there is always potential for a lower level if fans do not feel that the management is as committed as they are. In terms of on-field ability, I think the Pirates are well past the worst.

May 24, 2011 11:16 AM
rating: 0

Perpetual rebuilding seems to be BPs mantra. Teams are both trying to win and to provide entertainment. You can't forget about that.

May 24, 2011 07:07 AM
rating: 2

PNC is beautiful, and I look forward to the day when meaningful games are played there.

May 24, 2011 07:36 AM
rating: 1

Provided they keep their youth, I see only one reason to keep a player who has a higher salary and not give another young guy a shot. At some point they are going to need to sign Free Agents and no one will want to go there for a long term deal with the idea that they may be traded in 7 months. That's really the only reason I can see them wanting to hang onto the older guys.

May 24, 2011 07:56 AM
rating: 1

Just reading the blurb of this article on the home page, my first thought was, "again?"

May 24, 2011 08:03 AM
rating: 1

Who on the Pirates roster could extract an impact talent in a trade? Probably only McCutchen, and obviously he's not going anywhere. If the Pirates can't add someone who can impact a pennant race, then I don't see the point of trading away the Diaz's and Correia's on the roster. The only reason would be cost savings, and how much do you really need to save when your payroll is already below $40 million?

May 24, 2011 08:46 AM
rating: 0

I doubt that the Pirates will be significant sellers at the deadline this year. Huntington is in the final year of his contract (unless he was given another secret extension), and a late-season swoon would all but guarantee that he would be sacrificed, regardless of whether those moves were proper in a vacuum. He may trade a few pieces away, such as Maholm, Doumit, and/or Overbay, only because they would seem to have ready-made replacements: Lincoln, Snyder, and Pearce/Jones. But if Huntington were to trade off any of the young and promising Pirates, such as Hanrahan, it would only feed the narrative in town that a player shouldn't want to succeed unless he wants to be traded away.

Furthermore, it is overwhelmingly in the Pirates' interest to pursue .500 as a goal, even if it would be meaningless in other situations. The biggest limitation on the Pirates currently is their $40-$50 million payroll. The payroll will only increase when revenues increase (or until the team is sold to a new owner with deeper pockets, which isn't happening). Pittsburgh is a great baseball town, as evidenced by the fact that millions of people still show up for games despite a generation of losing. Yet there is still a great deal of apathy and skepticism about the team. If the Pirates put up a .500 record, it would actually shock the city and unleash much of the dormant enthusiasm. Ticket sales would increase, revenues would rise, and so would the payroll. Simply put, a .500 record should very much be the team's goal this season.

May 24, 2011 08:57 AM
rating: 4

I wouldn't call Hanrahan a young, promising player. He is 29 and has been around seemingly forever, previously as a 'failed' Dodgers prospect. To me one of the Pirates saving graces over the last few years is their ability to prove that just about anyone can become a closer. When even recent history has Matt Capps, Jose Mesa, Salomon Torres, and Octavio Dotel as closers, it just goes to show how much some teams get starry-eyed when 20+ saves show up after a guy's name.

I wouldn't blow up a team that in all likelyhood has no real chance of making the playoffs but give the organization, and its fans, a mental boost by making a run at .500 in order to get that monkey off their backs. Look at the Royals 2003 season. How much press was gained when they had their first winning season after 9 years of futility? A break in the losing streak would help the Pirates organization a lot even if by saying "we are at .500 now and our best prospects are still on the way!"

May 25, 2011 01:38 AM
rating: 2

We're quite a ways off from the trade deadline, and odds are the Pirates will not be close enough to .500 at that time to make it a difficult decision. The decision will most likely be whether to try to get ~75 wins or 70 wins.

May 24, 2011 12:04 PM
rating: 1

"Pittsburgh is a great baseball town"??? What I recall, even when good (the Bonds and before then the Stargell years) their attendance was pretty crappy for a contender.

May 24, 2011 14:09 PM
rating: 0

I don't know, I am asking. Are we talking capacity % or total attendance? They had one of those cookie cutters that left you a mile away from the game in the expensive seats.

May 25, 2011 07:19 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

They topped out at 5th in the NL (out of 12) in the Stargell years, and 6th in the NL (out of 12) in the Bonds years. Not great, but not awful, either, given that Pittsburgh is one of MLB's tiniest markets.

May 25, 2011 14:21 PM

A competitive team has another advantage: it increases revenue and might encourage the owner to spend more money in subsequent seasons. I certainly wouldn't break it all down. Sure trade the Overbays and the like though.

May 24, 2011 14:38 PM
rating: 0
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