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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:

2010

2009

2008

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

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