According to Baseball Prospectus' comparative depth charts the Pittsburgh Pirates are getting below league average production at only two positions: shortstop and right field. The average National League team has received 1.1 WARP from the shortstop position, the Pirates have received -.5. The NL average for right field is 1.2 WARP, the Pirates have received -.1. (WARP is Baseball Prospectus' version of WAR.)
The Pirates may have found a (temporary?) fix at shortstop as Jody Mercer has generated .4 WARP in his stint at the position. Regardless if Mercer works out or not, the Pirates are unlikely to enter the trade market looking for a starting shortstop.
Rather, as talk about trading for Giancarlo Stanton attests, the Pirates are most likely to be serious about upgrading right field. It is a glaring weakness and a position for which an upgrade can be made at a reasonable cost. A reasonable cost, that is, if they avoid the Stanton sweepstakes.
Let me preface my modest proposals by first admitting that analyzing trade ideas is not my bailiwick. Indeed I believe this is my first post on the topic. However, I have made a lot good trades playing Out of the Park Baseball, so there's that.
I should also mention that I am not a fan of trading for Stanton. There are many fine articles that have been written on this topic and Charlie and David discuss it in this podcast. I don't have much to add to what's been written or said other than that if this season has highlighted anything, it is the importance of depth. The Pirates have a lot of it, and they'll have more of it in the future if they hold on to their high-end assets. Moreover, and perhaps this is a product of a conservative temperament that has slowly descended upon me in middle age, Stanton's injury history represents a risk I'm not eager accept at such a steep cost of prospects.
Four right fielders not named Stanton
There are four players that the Pirates should consider targeting for a right field upgrade. In order: Chris Denorfia, Norichika Aoki, Nate Schierholz and Avaisail Garcia.
Denorfia (age 32)
I've liked Chris Denorfia's game for a long time. He is a reliable right-handed bat, a solid defender, a productive baserunner and contract friendly ($2.25 in 2014). For his career he has a .841 OPS vs. left-handed pitchers; posted a 5.7 UZR in right field; and has 43 stolen bases. His WAR sits at 1.8 for 2013, with ZiPS seeing him as adding .9 more. A Travis Snider/Garrett Jones/Chris Denorfia combination is a solid right field platoon and probably makes Brandon Inge expendable. (By the way, Denorfia is considered good clubhouse guy.)
The problem with acquiring Denorfia is that the Padres appear to have designs on contending this season. They are one game under .500 with a -23 run differential, but only three games back in the NL West. MLB Trade Rumors reports that the Padres are looking for starting pitching and have shown interest in both Matt Garza and Rickey Nolasco. If they are serious about contending, they may not want to move Denorfia. Even if they are willing, the Pirates would be forced to consider moving someone like Francisco Liriano. While Liriano is at peak value and has a history of volatility, the Pirates are unlikely to move a core piece in their starting staff. Even if it meant getting Denorfia-plus-more. It is situations like this where a healthy and productive Jeff Karstens and James McDonald are really missed.
The scenario that puts Denorfia in play at a cost acceptable to the Pirates is for the Padres to fall off a cliff and another team in the division to get hot in the coming weeks. If the Padres stumble Denorfia may be had at a cost that doesn't touch the current 25 man roster, or dive too deeply into prospect depth.
Aoki (age 31)
Norichika Aoki is an intriguing option. Even though he is a left-handed hitter, he has hit left-handed pitchers well, .296/.347/.392. His defense has been solid (5.2 UZR in two seasons) and he's stolen 39 bases. He is making only $1.25 this year, has $1.5 club option for 2014 and is arbitration eligible after that. Aoki has been a 1.3 WAR player this season, with ZiPS projecting him to add 1.0 more. He would slot in nicely at the top of the Pirates order.
Jayson Stark reported that the Brewers would "gladly listen" to offers for any position player except Segura, Braun and Gomez. The Brewers are looking for young starting pitching and the Pirates have some. If Cole and Taillon are taken off the table, the question becomes if the Pirates have a strong enough combination of starting pitching prospects to offer in return. One possibility, which is going to be completely unpopular, but remember this is my first time writing about trades, is moving Jeff Locke at peak value. Locke's below-the-surface numbers resemble an oil tanker full of regression steaming towards shallow waters (ZiPS sees a 4.63 ERA for the rest of the season). And, I don't necessarily mean to make a direct comparison here, but there was a time that James McDonald was viewed as untouchable.
In the end, though, the 31 year old Aoki probably is not the type of game changing right fielder that makes moving the 25 year old Jeff Locke a very good option. This is a situation where a healthy Phil Irwin or Kyle McPherson would make things very interesting. Still, the Pirates may be able to seduce the Brewers with two or three mid-range prospects that would be acceptable from Pittsburgh's point of view.
Schierholtz (age 29)
Buster Olney matched up the Pirates and Nate Schierholtz in a June 21 tweet:
Also, about Schierholtz: Remember that PIT GM Neal Huntington and Cubs' Theo/Jed have made multiple trades in the past. A fit there, too.
On the surface this doesn't make much sense for the Pirates since Schierholtz is a left-handed bat who has had trouble hitting left-handers since 2011 (72, 38 and 48 OPS+ the last three seasons). However, as Dave Cameron notes his career splits are not that bad, 85 OPS+ vs. LHP. Cameron concludes that any team picking up Schierholtz is looking at collecting 3 WAR for about 6 million in salary.
Schierholtz is a couple years younger than both Aoki and Denorfia and he would be under team control in 2014. Moreover, he would seemingly bring more power to the lineup as well. However he also represents larger investment in terms of salary (likely $5.0 million in 2014) and roughly equal cost in terms of prospects, and that is the rub.
The Cubs are selling Schierholtz very high. He has posted a .905 OPS this season, in no small part due to playing in Wrigley where he is OPSing 1.054 compared to .747 on the road. For the additional cost in salary and prospects the Pirates would taking on greater risk than Denorfia or Aoki. The risks being: (1) he could actually be terrible vs. lefties and (2) may not be able reproduce his Wrigley numbers in PNC Park (although PNC is left-handed hitter friendly). Aoki has not only hit left-handers well in the Major Leagues but, take this for what it's worth, he seems to have hit them well during his time in Japan. Denorifia is reliable vs. left-handers and with the exception of this season, has posted even better numbers away from hitter unfriendly Petco Park.
In sum, any move not involving Stanton should involve a bat that can be put near the top of the order vs. lefties with a fairly high level of confidence in productivity. I'm not sure Schierholtz provides that. I think Aoki and Denorfia do. Schierholtz is as costly, but less predictable, than the other options.
Garcia (age 22)
Avisail Garcia is a right field prospect that the Tigers have long coveted, but appear willing to move in pursuit of a closer. Garcia entered the 2013 as the Tigers #2 prospect. In 132 career plate appearances, Garcia has posted a .276/.316/.362 line. He has earned the nickname "mini-Miggy" because of his body-likeness to Miguel Cabrera.
The Tigers are in full-on "win now" mode and it would cost the Pirates either Grilli or Melancon. If you take intangibles out the equation, I'm open to discussing Grilli, but I'd want more from the Tigers. This would be no-brainer if the Pirates weren't in the position that they're in. As it is, however, I can't see the Pirates making any kind of move that messes with productivity they're getting from the back end of the bullpen. Moreover, the Pirates are in a position to look for a proven upgrade in right field, so trading for a potential high-end prospect doesn't make much sense. It is interesting only because if you had offered me this deal before the season, I'd have taken it in a heartbeat. But as things stand on June 26, this is not going to go anywhere.
So, if the Pirates don't get involved with Stanton, which I don't think they should, there are two potential upgrades in right field that I think the Pirates should seriously pursue, one that doesn't excite me very much, and another that is tantalizing but undoable given the Pirates' position.
Denorfia and Aoki could come at relatively low cost in terms of salary obligations and a reasonable cost in terms of assets lost. They would instantly turn the Pirates right field into league average. Nate Schierholz is also a possibility, but I'm not as bullish on him as perhaps I should be. Avisail Garcia is interesting, but that ship likely sailed with a 48-30 record.
(Edit: I left out Andre Ethier and AlexRios out because I don't like their contracts. Josh Willingham doesn't interest me.)