The trade deadline is less than three weeks away, and the Pirates have work to do as they push for a playoff spot. Here's what I think they should, and probably will, do at the trade deadline.
The Pirates have gotten great work out of many of their position players this season, and upgrading on them will be tough. Among their starting eight, their biggest weakness has been first base, but unless they're itching for a Justin Morneau or Garrett Jones reunion, there isn't much on the market. It's probably better for the Pirates to just stick with Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez and hope Davis remembers he's supposed to hit for power.
Upgrading the bench won't be easy either, and they're probably not going to improve on Chris Stewart or Clint Barmes -- those guys are bad hitters, but most other backup catchers and backup infielders are too. (Fun fact: Barmes and Gregory Polanco have the same fWAR.) It would be nice if the Pirates traded for an upgrade on Travis Snider, but the more I think about it, if they were planning on doing that, they probably wouldn't have let Chris Dickerson go. That might have actually been a small mistake.
The Pirates aren't trading for David Price. Well, never say never, but it's incredibly unlikely. There simply isn't a precedent for the Pirates making huge trades for veterans like that. Given that the Bucs would probably be looking at mid-grade pitchers if they entered the market (guys like Ian Kennedy, say), their best course of action might be to stick with the pitchers they have. One happy byproduct of all the pitcher injuries they've had is that Jeff Locke got an opportunity and now looks like a very credible big-league starter. Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton have made good on their starts too, perhaps to more limited degrees. So if the Pirates can get Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole healthy, they can start Liriano, Cole, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez and Locke, with Worley and Cumpton picking up any extra available starts. That's not an ideal rotation, but given the likely prospect cost of acquiring mid-grade rotation talent, it might be their best bet.
And lest you think I'm being a wet blanket, let's remind ourselves that prospects-for-veterans trades have consequences. I thought the deal that brought Marlon Byrd to Pittsburgh last August was a great one given the size of the hole the Pirates had in right field and the high stakes for which they were playing. But Dilson Herrera, however limited his upside might be, is now hitting .313/.366/.430 between Class A+ and Double-A at age 20, and he looks like a very good prospect. Vic Black is harder to get a handle on, but he's pitched effectively for the Mets and probably would have been able to help the Pirates' bullpen this season. Speaking of which ...
Ah! Here is where the Pirates can, and probably will, do some things. I'm not sure I'd be in any rush to pay premium prices for a name reliever like Huston Street or Joakim Soria. Street is a good-not-great pitcher who's partially a creation of PETCO Park. Soria is a different story, but I'd still rather the Pirates not be the team giving up a couple of top-15 prospects for a reliever the Rangers can sell as a Proven Closer(TM). If the Pirates can get guys like Street or Soria fairly cheaply, great, but I'm skeptical that will happen.
That said, they need to do something. The Pirates' bullpen is in a tough spot right now, in that they have two guys in Ernesto Frieri and Stolmy Pimentel who they don't (or, in Frieri's case, shouldn't) trust. I like the potential of both pitchers, but the Bucs probably can't continue to play mad scientist with both of them -- the organization is beyond the point where it should be using roster spots to conduct experiments. When the Bucs acquired Frieri, I didn't appreciate what a project his mechanics would be. Jason Grilli was probably one bad outing from getting DFA'ed himself when the deal went down, so the Pirates didn't give up anything, but it's been frustrating to see him pitch well for the Angels. The Pirates could have used that pitching when he was in Pittsburgh.
What the Pirates really need is a right-hander, and a lot of the better relievers pitching for bad teams are either left-handed (Andrew Miller, Oliver Perez, Antonio Bastardo, Neal Cotts, Wesley Wright, Mike Dunn, Tony Sipp) or young-ish and therefore unlikely to be traded (Ken Giles, Neil Ramirez, Kevin Quackenbush, Brad Boxberger). Junichi Tazawa or Burke Badenhop might make sense if the Red Sox decide to sell. Ronald Belisario of the White Sox actually might be a sneaky buy-low candidate -- he has good stuff and gets tons of ground balls, but has a poor ERA this year. That's pretty similar to the rationale for acquiring Frieri, though.
Other possibilities might include Carlos Torres (Mets), Chris Hatcher (Marlins), Casey Fien (Twins) or Brad Ziegler (Diamondbacks). An outside-the-box idea, and one that I actually really like, would be to acquire someone like Brandon Workman of the Red Sox, a young pitcher who has experience both as a starter and as a reliever. They could use him in the bullpen this season, then as a starter in 2015 once Liriano and Volquez depart. (The Red Sox are trying to clear space for Workman by trading Jake Peavy, but they have enough pitching to be fine even after trading both pitchers.) In any case, the Pirates need to do something, and given the relatively low prospect cost of relief help, I'm confident they can and will.