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The concept of buying prospects

Divisional Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Not sure how many of you noticed a bit of an unusual deal a few weeks back. It did not involve the Pirates, so it might have snuck under the radar for most. But when the San Francisco Giants acquired Zack Cozart from the Angels a month or so ago, it caught my attention. Not because Cozart is any great shakes; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Cozart parlayed a career year during his age 31 season in 2017 with Cincinnati into a three-year, $38 million pact with the Angels, and all he’s done since then is disappoint. In his first year with the Halos, he suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, putting an end to a season in which he hit a paltry .219 in 224 at-bats. Last year, his shoulder continued to bother him, and he wound up coming to the plate just 107 times. He finished with a .124 average and a microscopic .322 OPS.

So why in the world would the Giants acquire him and his $12.7 million contract? Well, in order for the Giants to take Cozart off the Angels’ hands, Los Angeles also agreed to give the Giants its first-round draft pick from 2019, infielder Will Wilson. It was your quintessential salary dump; in fact, the Giants already have DFA’d Cozart.

There’s no guarantee that Wilson, who was selected 15th overall in the June draft, will be a star, but San Francisco’s second-year baseball ops chief Farhan Zaidi must have thought it was worth gambling $12.7 million on it. Baseball America wrote following the deal that not many scouts believed Wilson was worthy of being chosen in the first round, despite being named the top player in the Atlantic Coast Conference at North Carolina State. He didn’t set the world on fire during his pro debut last year, batting .275 with a .768 OPS in 204 plate appearances at Orem of the rookie-level Pioneer League.

The book on Wilson leading up to the draft was that he was a high-floor, low-ceiling type who lacks speed and might be a better fit at second base than shortstop. So, what if he never lives up to his first-round pedigree? Perhaps he could still be a useful player. And what if he does perform like a first-rounder? Then the Giants just essentially bought themselves a solid performer for $12.7 million and whatever salary he’ll earn during his time with the club. For the first three years, at least, that will be somewhat minimal, depending on changes to the collective bargaining agreement.

The concept of buying prospects isn’t new; in fact, the Pirates were a party to such a transaction at the 2016 trade deadline when they dealt a struggling Francisco Liriano to the Toronto Blue Jays. In return for taking on the agony of watching Liriano nibble, nibble, nibble – and the remainder of his $17 million or so in salary obligations — the Jays also obtained two Pirates prospects – outfielder Harold Ramirez and catcher Reese McGuire.

We all remember the reaction – and it wasn’t pretty. Ramirez had shown some potential as a hitter in the minor leagues up to that point, and McGuire was a first-round draft pick in 2013 who at the time was billed as the Bucs’ catcher of the future. As it turns out, Ramirez never reached the big leagues in Toronto, although he did hit .276 with a .728 OPS in 119 games with the Marlins last year during his age 24 season. McGuire, who turns 25 in March, scuffled at the plate in his first two years of full-season play in the Pirates’ system and some felt he would never hit enough to be more than a big league backup. However, he charted an .872 OPS in 104 plate appearances last year for Toronto after hitting .247 for Triple-A Buffalo.

So, will either ever hit the big time in the big leagues? It’s too early to say; some players mature later than others, so it’s possible both could become serviceable players – or better.

The Giants’ decision to acquire Wilson got me to thinking – since the Pirates have never been ones to make a splash in the free-agent marketplace, would they ever be willing to go the route of buying prospects? After all, Spotrac projected the club’s 2020 payroll at $58 million – the fourth lowest in the major leagues – and John Perrotto of the Trib had it projected at $69 million, which he pegged as the second-lowest in the bigs. So they certainly have money to spend.

What if they scoured the rosters of their competitors and looked to take an overpaid player off someone’s hands in exchange for said team throwing in a legitimate prospect? There are no doubt plenty of players out there who fit the bill.

One player in particular who caught my eye was Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. An outstanding defender, Kiermaier signed an out-of-character – at least for the Rays – six-year, $53.5 million contract with Tampa Bay and still has four years remaining. He’s due $10.2 million in 2020, and his salary escalates to $11.7 million in 2021 and $12.2 million in 2022. The final year includes a $13 million salary and a $2.5 million club option.

Kiermaier hit just .228 with a .676 OPS last year, finishing with 14 home runs, 19 stolen bases and 55 RBIs, and graded out to a 1.5 WAR, according to FanGraphs. I’ve not heard any talk about the Rays being unhappy with Kiermaier, but given their thrifty ways and the acquisition of Randy Arozarena from St. Louis earlier this winter, perhaps they would be amenable to getting rid of Kiermaier – and a prospect of some repute – for someone taking that salary off their hands. Would the Pirates be interested?

Talk surfaced Saturday that the Pirates and Mets have reignited talks involving Starling Marte. I’m not at all opposed to shopping Marte and dealing him if the price is right. What if the club parlayed a Marte deal and a Kiermaier acquisition, with different teams being involved? They would essentially be exchanging salaries, as Marte is projected to earn $11.5 million this year and $12.5 next year. In Kiermaier, they would be getting a plus defender, and perhaps a prospect to help restock the farm system. And in return for Marte, they also would no doubt fetch a fair return. The only question mark: who would the Rays want – and what do you think would be a fair return from the Pirates?

Kiermaier obviously isn’t the only target out there. If you get bored, take a look at some of the rosters around baseball with an eye toward those whose contracts are out of whack with their production – and with an eye toward organizations that might be willing to deal prospects in order to shed salary.