Pirates in 'buying' mode with deadline looming

Rob Biertempfel
| Monday, July 9, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

With baseball's non-waiver trade deadline still three weeks away, it's a seller's market. Already some marquee names — Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Shane Victorino, Justin Upton and Carlos Quentin — appear to be on the block.

The Pirates, seeking to end 19 years of losing, go into the All-Star break with a 48-37 record and first place in the NL Central.

“We're in a buying mode,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

After struggling in April and May, the offense has erupted. But that does not mean the Pirates no longer want to add a bat.

“We need to be optimistic but also realistic about who we are and what we need to do to take another step,” Hurdle said. “You look to get better, so where can you improve?”

In an email Sunday, general manager Neal Huntington avoided tipping his hand: “Our focus is to exhaustively search all opportunities to add to this club and to execute the right move(s) to make this club better.”

According to baseball sources, the Pirates have inquired about Upton and Quentin, both corner outfielders with power. The Pirates also could use a workhorse starter, considering Jeff Karstens' injury history and Erik Bedard's current slump.

But where will the Pirates shop, Tiffany's or Wal-Mart? The time could be right for Huntington to look beyond adding a complementary piece and instead swing a deal for an impact player.

“It would send a huge message in the clubhouse, let the industry know you're serious about winning, and would have a ripple effect on the fan base for next year and beyond,” former New York Mets GM Jim Duquette said. “The Pirates are an up-and-coming organization, and a smart trade would only enhance that image.”

In 2008, it had been 26 years since the Milwaukee Brewers went to the playoffs. In early July, they reached into their deep farm system and dealt four players — including Matt LaPorta, who then was rated as one of the game's top 25 prospects — to Cleveland for left-hander CC Sabathia. It was a big move but also a big gamble.

It worked. Sabathia made 17 starts, including a handful on three days' rest, and notched 11 wins for the Brewers. He tossed seven complete games and posted a 1.65 ERA. Sabathia was on the mound the day Milwaukee clinched the wild card.

The Brewers lost the NL Division Series against Philadelphia. In the offseason, Sabathia became a free agent and signed a seven-year, $161 million deal with the New York Yankees.

After third-place finishes in 2009 and '10, the Brewers last season won the NL Central. In a way, the 2011 division title also is part of the legacy of the Sabathia trade.

“That trade changed the mindset about Brewers baseball,” said infielder Casey McGehee, who played for Milwaukee from 2009-11. “You still hear (players) talk about what a big shot in the arm that was. From the fans' perspective, I think it was a turning point. Put it this way, they gave out a bobblehead of CC a year later.”

The new collective bargaining agreement did away with compensatory picks for teams that lose rent-a-players to free agency. That could help drive down the price tag in a trade and enable the Pirates to swing a big-time deal without having to let go of a top prospect such as Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte or Jameson Taillon.

“It'll still take a big package to acquire a Hamels or a Greinke,” Duquette said. “But a LaPorta type of package won't likely be required this year.”

In the 1990s, the Indians made the playoffs in six of seven years under GM John Hart, who hoarded prospects as a precious commodity.

“There were times in '94 or '95 I could've traded some of our young players,” Hart said. “Bartolo Colon was always the first guy (other teams) asked for. I walked away from some great players (in trade offers). But we were able to perpetuate our run because we held on to some of our good players. Certainly, we traded some good ones. But there were others who we said, ‘We just can't do it.' ”

Former Cincinnati Reds GM Jim Bowden believes the Pirates should hang on to their prospects, even if it costs the team a chance at making the postseason this year.

“That team is making huge strides, but it's not ready to be a World Series contender,” Bowden said. “They're not ready for a Hamels or Greinke rent-a-player. A splashy deal now could really backfire in a few years.”

A better plan this year, Bowden said, would be to part with mid-level prospects for a position player, call up Marte and add Cole to the rotation in September.

“If I'm a Pirates fan, I'd rather see Marte than Victorino in the outfield,” Bowden said. “Keep building. Finishing above .500 for the first time in 20 years would be a great step.”

Sometimes an under-the-radar trade can have a huge impact. Last year Rafael Furcal was instrumental in St. Louis' run to the World Series title. The Cardinals got Furcal from the Los Angeles Dodgers for a little-used minor league outfielder.

“You can't just go for the big names,” Hart said. “If the price of poker is going to be two of my untouchable chips, can we out-scout people and pick up someone else?”

Huntington has a difficult decision to make.

“It wouldn't surprise me if he goes all in,” said Hart, who hired Huntington for his staff in Cleveland in 1998. “But it also wouldn't surprise me if Neal went to the wire and, if the price got too big, he stands pat. It's going to be fun to watch what happens. It could be a watershed moment.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or 412-320-7811.

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