On the Pirates' goals and the possibility of trading Garrett Jones

Justin K. Aller

I begin this article not knowing exactly what I think about the question in the title. My initial response goes something like this:

1) The Pirates won't get a lot for Jones; and

2) They have no other legitimate, established major-league performers at first base or right field; and

3) I'm f***ing sick of the Pirates trading away veterans, and it's time for them to put a good team on the field. Therefore,

4) No, the Pirates shouldn't trade Garrett Jones, so shut up, Charlie, and stop writing this.

It seems to me, though, that the possibility of a Garrett Jones trade brings to the surface a number of uncertainties, some of which we haven't explored so much. So allow me to pose a series of questions.

How good is Garrett Jones? Honestly, not very. He hit 27 home runs last year, of course, but he gives back a lot of value in the field, and his struggles to get on base don't make him a great bet in seasons where he doesn't hit for so much power. ZiPS projects he'll be 1.2 wins above replacement this year, much worse than Starling Marte (at 2.6, to which I would add, "Yes, please"), who will start in left, and behind Gaby Sanchez and Alex Presley. Jones is also only marginally ahead of Jose Tabata.

Should the Pirates just trade Jones to dump his salary, then? Don't be an idiot.

If the Pirates were to trade Jones, can they replace him without losing a beat? That's the $64,000 question if you're thinking about trading him, of course, and there's certainly a good chance that they can. Of all the Pirates' serious 1B/RF options, Jones is by far the best hitter, but he's also the worst fielder, perhaps by a similar margin. If one of the Pirates' younger hitters, like Travis Snider or Jerry Sands, steps up, the Pirates won't miss Jones much, especially since Jones, in his age-32 season, might experience a decline anyway.

What if the Pirates trade Jones, and no one does step up? Well, that's a legitimate possibility, and that's where you run into problems. For all his faults, Jones offers the Pirates their best shot at a 25-homer season out of either first base or right field, and also their best hedge against a complete mess of a season where Tabata is a headcase who can't run, Snider and Sands can't hit high-level pitching outside the PCL, Sanchez can't hit righties, and Presley remembers the universe intended for him to be a batboy.

Are the Pirates likely to be offered a deal that makes it worthwhile for them to take that risk? No, probably not, which is why I don't think Jones will be traded.

But what if they are? Well, then, it's time to answer a host of other questions. For example:

What is the Pirates' goal here? Is it to win a championship? Because if we're being honest, the Pirates aren't exactly poised for that. Their pitching staff, while stronger than in some recent seasons, is built around two good but aging starters (A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez), a complete wild card (James McDonald), a crafty but frail young veteran (Jeff Karstens) and a bullpen full of question marks. Andrew McCutchen is likely to take a step back this year, even though he'll probably still be great. The Pirates' best hope of contention this year will be a strong defense led by Clint Barmes, Russell Martin and Marte propping up a mediocre pitching staff, while McCutchen goes nuts offensively and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez take steps forward as hitters.

That could happen. But the most likely outcome is that the Pirates will finish fourth, behind the same three teams that finished ahead of them last year. At the very least, they're well behind the Reds and Cardinals, which means the Bucs are longshots even now, in late January. It's strange; there's been a lot of analysis and criticism of the Pirates' moves this offseason, but rarely has it been predicated upon the Pirates' likely place in the standings in 2013.

Why is that? Probably because most fans have entered the sort of "screw it" territory encapsulated in point 3 above. The Pirates still aren't that good, really, but they're better than previous editions, and 20 years of losing is a long time, so let's please not talk about how the Reds look like a much better team than the Pirates and instead concentrate on taking ourselves seriously for once, sort of, regardless of how pathetic that might actually be.

Again, then, what is the Pirates' goal here? To have a winning season? To get to the playoffs? To get to the playoffs at some point beyond 2013? I don't know. That's not entirely bad, of course. To some degree, all teams have to balance short-term and long-term goals, and the Pirates' best course of action in, say, 2008 only seemed so incredibly clear to most of us (and by "us" I mean the Bucs Dugout community) because the franchise was in such disastrous shape. It's only the franchises at the extremes (with the DOA 2008 Pirates at one end and the clearly-going-for-it current Nationals franchise at the other) who have the luxury of pursuing their goals with so little ambiguity around to confuse them.

But I have a pretty high tolerance for ambiguity, and I'm still confused. It used to be easy to judge the Pirates' moves in the context of their organizational goals. Now, it's really difficult. If the Pirates got offered a reasonably good prospect for Garrett Jones, should they take the deal? I can't think of any compelling reason why they shouldn't, beyond "I'm sick of this" and "Screw it." The Pirates still aren't, by any reasonable expectation, legitimate contenders, and I think many of us have been avoiding that conclusion this offseason, even though we all know it's true.

Still, "I'm sick of this" feels like an awfully compelling reason right now, after 20 years of losing, and five and a half years of Neal Huntington. This weekend, I was in DC with my freshman roommate Ryan. He's a Nats fan, and he reads Bucs Dugout as a well-informed fan of baseball but not of the Pirates. He told me my blog was getting depressing recently, because the Pirates have had a "halfway-decent GM" for five years, and it still looks like they aren't going to the playoffs.

We can spend all day arguing about where on the spectrum of "halfway-decent" Neal Huntington falls, but I think Ryan had it right. We're five years into Huntington's tenure, and things are much better than they were, but not nearly good enough. And so when we talk about a potential trade of someone like Garrett Jones, particularly when it's a deal that involves exchanging value in the present for value in the future, it's hard to know what to do.

As an organization, the Pirates aren't in the dire straits they were in five years ago. But they're not where we hoped they'd be, either. If we categorically reject the idea of trading Jones for, say, a reasonably good prospect, doesn't that amount to a form of denial? Are we not saying that we're actually where we need to be, or very close to it? These are just questions, but at this point, questions are all I have.

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