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Ask BD: Examining potential Pirates trade options

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Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The dog days of summer are upon us, and a few weeks out from the All-Star break the Pirates look (somewhat fortuitously, given their inauspicious start) like one of the best teams in the National League. I attended their games in Washington last Saturday and Sunday--I think we can conclude that the Pirates' best chances of winning a pennant involve paying me never to watch them play again.

In transactions that don't involve my premature relocation to Siberia, however, it's the season of speculation regarding whether the Pirates will/should make a significant trade over the next month. The most recent Ask Bucs Dugout included one such question:

PedroPower: Who would you target as the right handed platoon mate for Pedro or would you consider a trade for a first baseman who could possibly handle both left and right handed pitching and offers decent defense?

Charlie already addressed this question--this will simply serve as a more extensive discussion of the topic.

Assessing our realistic options for improvement at first base is predicated on our ability to determine what we can expect, over the rest of the season, from our existing first basemen: Pedro Alvarez, Corey Hart, Sean Rodriguez, and Andrew Lambo. In other words, while it's easy to see the grass as always being greener on the other side, many of the available players may not be meaningfully better than the guys already on our roster. And in that case, dance with the one that brung you, amirite?

In addition to evaluating the incumbent quartet of first base options, then, we need to determine how we should expect the potentially-available first baseman to perform over the rest of the season. The simplest way to do all this is to look at ZiPS rest-of-season projections for all the relevant players.

The chart below sorts both our guys (yellow) and potential trade targets (blue) by projected rest-of-season wRC+ as of June 23rd. Note that UZR/150 figures are not ZiPS projections, but measures of career performance, given the difficulty of projecting defense and the small sample sizes involved. As for the definition of 'potential trade target', I tried to identify guys who aren't totally useless, play for non-contenders, and might actually be available at the deadline (so no Goldschmidt). Feel free to let me know if I've omitted anyone interesting.

ZiPS Rest-of-Season Projections as of 06/23/15

It's reasonable to take some of these numbers with a large grain of salt. Career UZR is an admittedly imperfect method for measuring a first baseman's defense; also, many of these players would likely outperform their projections if platooned more aggressively. The first issue is most relevant to the oldest first basemen (Morse, Napoli, Hart, Baker), for whom using career UZR may overestimate their defensive prowess. The second is most relevant to the right-handed first basemen who would presumably take over the Hart/Rodriguez half of our current platoon. Jeff Baker, for instance, is a career .299/.354/.516 hitter against lefties and a .232/.283/.350 hitter against righties. We should always be skeptical of large platoon splits, given their well-documented  tendency toward heavy regression, but it's not unreasonable to believe that ZiPS is selling Baker a bit short.

What to make of the table, then? I think the most obvious conclusion is that several of the options being discussed are unlikely to move the needle much from a simple Alvarez/Rodriguez platoon (assuming Hart continues receiving minimal playing time/stays injured). I identified eight potential targets, and I think we can separate them into two rough groups--those who represent minimal upgrades (Baker, Morse, Ruf, Canha, and LaRoche) and those who would be meaningfully better than the options already at our disposal (Lind, Pearce, and Napoli). Let's call them team Bullington and team Cole, respectively, just because contrasting the two of them makes me irrationally happy.

Team Bullington

Jeff Baker, as previously mentioned, is a capable lefty masher showing no obvious signs of offensive decline. Unfortunately, he's a miserable defender, so while he might be a slight offensive upgrade on Rodriguez he's unlikely to provide much overall value. BD's collective antipathy toward Corey Hart aside, Baker isn't a hugely dissimilar player from Hart.

Michael Morse's reputation for defensive ignominy is mostly due to his repeated misadventures in the outfield--he's been an adequate defender at first base over the course of his career. His current .211/.268/.289 line also seems to be partially the product of bad luck--he still hits the ball very hard in the air (almost 97 MPH), he's just hitting the ball on the ground more often (58% of the time, up from 45%), and his already-subpar plate discipline has decayed a bit further. Morse has survived much longer than you'd expect given that his only real tool is his raw power, and guys with poor contact skills don't tend to age well. It's possible that he has something left in the tank and can return to form as a solid bench bat, but we shouldn't, in the absence of any other reason to doubt ZiPS, believe that he's a substantively better player than the guys we already have. He's also signed to a two-year, $16M deal that doesn't end until the end of 2016, which is probably the final nail in the coffin for his candidacy as a 2015 Pirate.

Darin Ruf and Mark Canha are both overage right-handed first basemen with unimpressive raw power (90 and 92 MPH FB/LD velocity, respectively). Ruf is pretty much the definition of a replacement-level first baseman, and while Canha's more interesting due to his strong plate discipline (I was hoping he'd fall to the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft), the history of similar players isn't particularly kind, and Billy Beane reportedly likes Canha enough not to sell him cheaply. I would be intrigued if we could acquire Canha without surrendering anything particularly useful, but (A) that's not likely, and (B) he's more of an upside play than a guy who we should expect to reliably outperform Rodriguez/Hart.

Adam LaRoche/Lefty McThump probably isn't even an option due to his salary, but he would appear, superficially, to be an upgrade on Alvarez (which, in turn, would upgrade our bench bat situation). He projects as a better hitter than Alvarez, and he's been a substantially better defender over the course of his career.

But I believe there are reasons for caution.

LaRoche is 35, his power's declining, and his contact ability has eroded considerably--simultaneous declines in the hit tool and power tool are rarely a good thing for an aging player, as it's tough to rationalize that the player might be trading power for contact (or vice versa). LaRoche's fastball production hasn't seen a huge drop, which is a good sign that the bat speed is still there, but there certainly isn't a shortage of red flags.

Team Cole

Adam Lind has been a legitimately good hitter for the last few years (wRC+ of 131, 141, 126), something none of the previous guys can really say. He projects to be a better hitter than any other potentially available first baseman, and there aren't any obvious signs of decline in his profile. He absolutely needs to be platooned, as he's a career .214/.260/.333 hitter against lefties, but it's not as if that's introducing a new problem. He's an adequate, if unspectacular, defensive first baseman, and he's signed to a team-friendly contract ($7.5M this season, $8M team option for next season). The Pirates have reportedly considered acquiring Lind in the past, as well.

Given all this, why would the Brewers trade him? They acquired him last winter for the underwhelming price of Marco Estrada. Estrada, recent no-no flirtations aside, is both more expensive and probably worse than Jeff Locke and Vance Worley, and the trade (which looked great at the time) looks like a steal now. With the Brewers fully committed to rebuilding, they'd likely want an interesting prospect or two for Lind. There could be a potential fit here, but it would depend almost entirely on the Brewers' asking price. If it's Willy Garcia, I'd do it in a heartbeat. If it's Tyler Glasnow, not so much.

The encore to Steve Pearce's magical 2014 campaign has been something less than ideal--the former Pirate is hitting a Morel-esque .206/.276/.355. While part of Pearce's ugly line is undoubtedly due to a horrifically-unlucky .228 BABIP, it's not as if he's simply a victim of random chance. His peripherals (walk rate, strikeout rate, ISO) have all regressed from last year.

A deeper examination, however, reveals some causes for optimism--while Pearce's raw power is unspectacular (between 92-93 MPH on FB/LD), his hard hit rate is unchanged from last year, and though he's hitting fewer balls in the year, he's hitting more line drives and fewer popups. His worsening walk/strikeout rates also aren't supported by his Pitch(fx) data. The graphs below (courtesy of BrooksBaseball) illustrate Pearce's relatively-unchanged strike zone discrimination and plate approach:

Pearce has always had a decent eye, and that doesn't appear to have changed. ZiPS agrees that Pearce isn't finished, pegging him for a solid .246/.326/.440 line. Pearce is also a very strong defensive first baseman, to such an extent that that Orioles used him as a second baseman earlier this year and he performed admirably. And Pearce isn't totally inept against righties (career 90 wRC+).

It's unclear what the Orioles would ask in return for Pearce. They're still very much alive in the AL East race, and while Pearce has been losing playing time they may well believe that it would be premature to give up on him (they're certainly aware of all the information I posted above). So while he'd be an asset to us, whether we could acquire him depends on the cost.

Of all the options available to us, however, Mike Napoli might make the most sense. The Red Sox are almost certainly out of contention. Napoli's contract is up after this year, and it's large enough that simply shedding the salary could be a compelling reason for them to move him. There have even been recent rumors that other teams are curious about Napoli's availability.

Napoli's poor performance (.199/.295/.381) this year is, as with Pearce, largely the result of bad BABIP luck--he's only hitting .232 on balls in play. Unlike Pearce, however, Napoli's peripherals have shown no signs of decline. His walk rate and strikeout rate are around his career norms, and his raw power is still quite strong, with an average FB/LD velocity of 94 MPH. There's a reason ZiPS is optimistic about him returning to form.

Napoli has relatively large platoon splits, yet the Red Sox have never aggressively platooned him--if he ended up facing a disproportionate number of lefties in Pittsburgh, we should expect his production to be even better. He's a strong defensive first baseman, as well.

As with the other two attractive options, the question with Napoli is less whether he would improve our team and more what he might cost. And in Napoli's case, the 'cost' isn't just in terms of prospects--it's in dollars. Napoli's making $16M this year, and any trade would presumably have to involve either the Pirates covering the rest of his salary or contributing proportionately more attractive prospects. Saying 'prospects' might even be a bit of a misnomer--as a theoretically-contending team that should expect to be back in the hunt next year, the Red Sox would probably be most interested in shorter-term pieces who could help sooner rather than later. Maybe Nick Kingham, Jeff Locke, or Alan Hanson. It's difficult to speculate until all the suitors (and there will be suitors for Napoli) have emerged.

And there's the rub--we need to acknowledge that this is very much a sellers' market. The addition of a second wild card team has expanded the field of teams who can credibly call themselves contenders, and correspondingly decreased the number of teams willing to sell at the deadline. As basic economics would seem to dictate, reducing the supply of available players while increasing the number of teams demanding those players is going to lead to pretty steep prices. I'd be willing to bet that if any of the three top targets I've identified changes hands at the deadline, the return will be surprisingly large.

The best way to 'win' the trade deadline is not to need anything at the trade deadline. You're not going to come out of a deadline trade looking good in terms of raw value--just ask Billy Beane whether he'd like to have Addison Russell back. Or ask Neal Huntington about Dilson Herrera. If the Pirates do make a move, it should be for someone who will actually move the needle. And if they don't? We'll probably end up thanking them for their restraint in five years.