The handwringing over the Pirates offense is officially full-blown. And you know what, it should be. It's been documented enough places I don't need to recap it here. The Bucs' offense is historically bad. As I've been saying for a few weeks now, it's amazing this team is remotely close to .500. All credit goes to the pitching staff, which has been nearly as good as the offense has been bad.
It's also been pointed out that the Bucs don't have any offensive answers at Class AAA or even AA. In Indianapolis, there's hope that one day Starling Marte will be a successful major-leaguer. Unfortunately, that day isn't yet upon us. The same may be said of Jordy Mercer and Chase d'Arnaud, but they are both already 25. They're more likely to be utility infielders in the end. In Altoona, only two players with more than 65 at-bats have an OPS over .700. There are some players who might develop into quality major-leaguers, but that will take at least a few years.
So the cupboard is bare. What to do? The media has been loudly demanding that Neal Huntington make a trade. It's an easy argument to rile the fanbase. When you can say 'I don't know what's out there, that's the GMs job,' or 'It's preposterous to say a trade can't get done in May,' you have a pretty unassailable pulpit. And there is a certain degree of truth in each statement. But I have to give Neal Huntington some benefit of the doubt here. He watches the games; he knows what is going on. I feel I can say with almost 100 percent certainty that he has been on the phone at least canvassing the waters of what is available in the trade market. At the same time, it makes no sense for him to publicly respond to any of this in the media. So stones are cast and he basically has to take the hits because this is the team he assembled to represent the Pittsburgh Pirates.
So let's take a look at the reality of today's situation.
First, are the Pirates contenders? I don't think so. I said before the season they would win 69 games and I still think that's going to be close. I strongly believe one additional bat in the lineup will do very little to change the outcome of the season.
Can they be contenders? Of course. Any team that pitches they way the Pirates have has a chance. If the staff continues to be brilliant, the Pirates have a chance to compete. So the $64,000 question is, can the Pirates make the current team better without sacrificing the longer-term plan?
Critics of Neal Huntington, and that list is certainly growing, rightly point to the complete lack of development of position players and scoff at the idea of a long-term plan. The pitching is never likely to be much better than it has been for the past 45 games, so make a move, they argue. It's not an unreasonable position.
Here is the problem. The Pirates have virtually no assets with which to make a season-altering move. I'm going to leave Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole out of the discussion. It's fine for the Pirates to have two players off limits and those two probably should be, with the usual caveats. So let me list all the players in the organization from Class AA up who will bring back a front-line major league player(s).
Andrew McCutchen, Joel Hanrahan and James McDonald.
That's the list. It doesn't mean a bunch of other players aren't valuable. Marte would bring a lot back. Charlie Morton would fetch something. There is some value in the bullpen. But today, a quality, team-altering, plug-and-play major league starter isn't coming back for anyone but the three above.
Let's look at it more closely. Obviously, to improve the offense, the team would have to trade pitching. As terrible as Neal Huntington has been at signing free agent position players, he has been fantastic at acquiring pitching. The Pirates have pitching, but what will it bring back? This is the hard part, because the truthful answer is that we don't know. We can speculate, and that's what makes it entertaining, but it's hard to pinpoint value and need.
And that's the May vs. July problem. If you look at today's standings there are probably five teams that are realistically out of contention. That means most teams still think their off-season plan applies and aren't ready to make dramatic changes. In July, when 65 percent of the script is written, wants and needs are much more easily and clearly defined. So yes, it is much harder to get trades done now. It smacks of desperation. That doesn't mean a trade shouldn't be made, it means that it's a seller's market and the desperate team (the buyer) is less likely to get equal value since most teams aren't necessarily looking to sell.
Back to the pitching and what to trade. As great as the Pirates pitching has been, I'm not sure the individual components will bring back more than what might be lost. Let's look at the starters:
James McDonald: An emerging pitcher around whom the team should probably build its rotation.
A.J. Burnett: 35, under contract for next year. Very limited market this past offseason, which is why he's a Pirate.
Erik Bedard: Injury-prone, having not completed his last four seasons. Limited return. July trade highly likely.
Charlie Morton: Erratic history. Probably more upside than trade value, based on limited major-league success.
Jeff Karstens: Hurt. No trade value at the moment.
Kevin Correia: Free agent at season's end. No trade value.
Brad Lincoln: Maybe the most interesting name. Seems to have taken a big step forward this season. Can start, but has been electric out of bullpen. Cheap. Certainly should be made available, but he's unproven, with value all on the come, so it's hard to think he brings back much.
As for relievers, we have seen the market pay up for closers in the offseason, but so far not in-season, even with many closers injured. Every team has looked internally for answers. That doesn't bode well for the Pirates, because it clearly is a position of strength.
Joel Hanrahan: Dominating closer. Should bring back major-league talent.
Jason Grilli: 30 strikeouts in 17 innings this season. Stuff has been almost a filthy as Hanrahan's, but he's 35 and is a free agent at the end of the season. Some trade value.
Juan Cruz: Has been effective, but command is always an issue. Little market in offseason. No trade value.
Chris Resop: No trade value.
Evan Meek: No trade value.
Tony Watson and Jared Hughes: Young, effective and cheap. Probably more valuable to Pirates than on the trade market. Small chips.
None of Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens or Justin Wilson is going to bring back a major-league-ready player. With scouts viewing their current ceilings as back-of-the-rotation starters, there won't be demand. Every team feels they can develop these types on their own in their system. Certainly Owens has reestablished himself as a prospect with his good start, but it's hard to see him bringing much value until he succeeds at the major-league level.
What the Pirates do have in Indy is a ton of journeyman depth. Jo-Jo Reyes, Daniel Cabrera, Doug Slaten (who has a June 1 promote or grant FA date) and Tim Wood have all been very successful in AAA. Unfortunately, none has been able to generate that success in the majors, and are all trying to resurrect their careers.
There it is. I'd assume everyone except Andrew McCutchen, and possibly James McDonald, is available right now and the Pirates' brain trust is in a board room searching for answers. The reality is the Pirates have a few pieces to offer to get quality in return. These are undoubtedly tough times for Neil Huntington, but it's the team he's assembled. Can he find a dance partner and make a bold, season-changing trade to impact the lineup? And should he? If you think the hitting will regress to the mean, won't the pitching most likely do so as well? How Huntington goes about overseeing it for the next two to three months will probably play a defining role in whether he gets to oversee it for the next two to three years.
Oh, and fire the hitting coach. Sure, the blame doesn't rest squarely on Gregg Ritchie, but his position is "hitting coach." Time for a new voice.