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The case for the Gaby Sanchez trade

Justin K. Aller

David Todd and I discussed the Gaby Sanchez trade on our last podcast, and I again came out against it, with the idea being that it's difficult for the Pirates to draft stars, and a competitive-balance pick in the 30s at least represented the possibility that the Pirates might get a star, even if it wasn't a particularly likely possibility.

Huntington addressed the Sanchez trade again in his interview with David last week:

You see a comp pick, and there's the risk, is that we may have given up David Wright. But ... there's about a 15 percent chance of getting an everyday big-leaguer in the 30 to 40 pick range ... We felt like it was worth that 15 percent chance that we were going to get an everyday big-leaguer. ... The draft is much more scripted than it's ever been, it's much more difficult to get a tough sign to slide later, to be able to maybe take him with that sandwich pick.

Looking through previous drafts shows Huntington's analysis to basically be correct -- most years, one or two players between 30 and 40 turn out be decent regulars, and a much smaller percentage turn out to be David Wright (who was taken with the No. 38 overall pick in 2001).

* * *

Maybe the most striking aspect of my trip to PNC this week was what I saw outside the stadium. You know those huge player photo banners that decorate the outer walls of the ballpark? Remember what a joke those used to be? You'd walk by and wonder if the world really needed a 12-foot portrait of Tike Redman, or Humberto Cota or Josh Fogg, and if it was just a giant joke on you that those portraits existed anyway. Well, this week I walked by the banners and saw six or seven in a row of players performing inarguably well or downright brilliantly.

This is not 2005. The Pirates are not a joke. And so, while the Pirates should have assessed (and, I'm sure, did assess) the value of a competitive-balance pick versus the value of Gaby Sanchez based on some quantitative standard (like projected WAR, for example), there's more to the Sanchez deal than that. In 2005, it would have been a ridiculous trade for a team with no future. But in 2012, it meant something different.

Sanchez has played very well in 2013. But it's not a case of him merely playing well. He's playing well because he's essentially in the correct role, getting slightly less than half his plate appearances against lefties (against whom he's posted a 1.153 OPS). Moreover, it's a role the Pirates can use, since Garrett Jones doesn't hit lefties well. Sanchez is good for the Pirates, and the Pirates are good for Sanchez.

If any fans of, say, the Cardinals happen to read this, they'll probably think, "Well ... yes. And?" But to me as a Pirates fan, I almost feel as if I'm trying to express something there was never any need to communicate before, like Ricky Gervais in The Invention of Lying or something. Look over the Bucs' roster. Jason Grilli looks like he was born to be a closer. Russell Martin is helping all the pitchers look better, while also contributing offensively. The same goes for Starling Marte. Justin Wilson and Vin Mazzaro are ably compensating for the Pirates' starters' difficulties going deep into games. Clint Barmes is gobbling up ground balls induced by pitchers like Wilson and Mark Melancon.

In other words, there's symbiosis all over the place, and the roster is full of players who are well-suited to their roles. Those are the marks of a well-constructed team. Gaby Sanchez has been good because of Garrett Jones, who has been good because of Gaby Sanchez. I'm used to seeing this happen in other teams, but I'm not used to seeing it happen with the Pirates, who usually seem to have three or four good players with 21 or 22 average or bad players scattered randomly around them.

The Rays' acquisition of Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett prior to the 2008 season was the key move that changed the Rays from a random accumulation of talent to an actual team. It might be premature to declare that the same thing is happening to the Pirates (and I'm not saying they're as good as the 2008 Rays, although I'm sure some idiot somewhere will gleefully claim I was saying that if the Pirates find more ways to disappoint us). But man, this sure feels like that. To get Garza and Bartlett, the Rays gave up Delmon Young, who at that point was still perceived as a very, very high-upside player. The Rays probably had a much clearer read on Young than most of us on the outside, obviously. But at the time, I didn't like that deal from the Rays' perspective, and I'm not sure I would have even if I'd known whatever they knew about Young. That was mostly because I still thought of the Rays as being in a random-talent-collecting phase, not in a building-a-team phase.

Collecting talent and building a team aren't mutually exclusive, and it wouldn't be wise for the Pirates to, say, draft a major-league-ready reliever at No. 9 this year instead of a player who might be a star four years from now. But I think Neal Huntington's behavior in the past year suggests he's mostly building a team now, and not just randomly collecting players who might one day be good. Gaby Sanchez is a useful player, but the Marlins were mostly using him as a Random Talented Guy, playing him every day even though he has a career .893 OPS against lefties and a .708 OPS against righties. The Pirates are using him as part of a team by utilizing his strengths (pounding lefties and playing good defense at first) and minimizing his weakness (hitting righties).

So the Marlins have the No. 35 overall pick in the draft now. Maybe they'll end up with the next David Wright. But they probably won't. And the more I think about it, the more I think that's probably fine. For once, the Pirates have bigger fish to fry.