To contend in 2020, Pirates can’t trade just for minor league prospects
A year ago, Neal Huntington approached the trade deadline with the hope of pushing the Pittsburgh Pirates toward the postseason.
They paid a steep price, including first-round draft choices Austin Meadows and Shane Baz, for experience and talent, adding Chris Archer to the starting rotation and Keone Kela to the bullpen. Even a jaded fan base believed it was capital well spent. The Pirates’ front office finally was making the kind of bold moves playoff contenders make.
Now, with the 2019 trade deadline looming at 4 p.m. Wednesday, fans — and probably some people in management — wouldn’t mind seeing Archer and Kela sent elsewhere.
Neither player would net much, though. Archer (3-8, 5.58 ERA, 1.44 WHIP) leads the National League with 25 home runs allowed, and Kela is coming off a 2½ month stay on the injured list and a two-game suspension.
But something must be done to position the Pirates to contend in 2020. Here are some thoughts:
1. Trading Lyles is a start, but not enough
The Pirates received Double-A pitcher Cody Ponce for Jordan Lyles, who made 17 starts this season.
The Pirates have not announced their immediate plans for Ponce, but is he ready to jump directly from Double-A to the majors in 2020? It’s not enough to trade for players who first must come through the minor league system. The big league club needs help.
2. Rebuild the starting rotation
Even if Jameson Taillon’s elbow problems suddenly disappeared, the Pirates would need two starters. One to replace Lyles and another to upgrade the staff in general. But if you lose Taillon to Tommy John surgery or decline the $8.25 million option on Archer’s contract or trade him, the need becomes more acute.
Mitch Keller could earn one of those spots, but he’s been trusted to make only three starts (12 innings) for the Pirates this season, compiling a 10.50 ERA and 2.25 WHIP. He’s been good in Triple-A Indianapolis (7-4, 3.41 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 972/3 innings), but most big league hitters have been a challenge for him.
If they decide to trade an asset such as .303-hitting left fielder Corey Dickerson, immediate pitching help must be part of the return.
3. Other candidates to go?
Dickerson is an obvious option because he’s a good player and is unsigned for 2020, but injuries have limited him to 122 at-bats this season. If Dickerson is traded, however, Huntington should cross his fingers that Gregory Polanco puts his shoulder problems behind him next year.
After Dickerson, wish Huntington luck finding a desirable trade chip.
Other available players with major league pedigree who might help a contender are limited to Melky Cabrera, who turns 35 Aug. 11; Jung Ho Kang (hitting .170, with eight errors and 10 homers as a backup); Kela and 35-year-old relief pitcher Francisco Liriano.
The top minor league prospects should be untouchable. The Pirates need to add young talent to the 40-man roster, not delete it.
4. Trade Vazquez if you must, but prepare to suffer the consequences
Yes, it makes sense for a team that is 46-59 and 10 games out of first place to trade its closer. Especially if he’s one of the best in the business with an arm that can carry a team to the World Series and would bring back a trove of riches.
For the Pirates, there’s nothing left for Felipe Vazquez to save.
But Huntington recently said, “We fully anticipate Felipe will be closing the next (Pirates) playoff games.”
Of course, he has the right to change his mind if the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, offer players who can help the Pirates now.
The Pirates traded Mark Melancon in 2016 after he had saved 30 games that season and 51 the year before. Vazquez was part of the return.
If they trade Vazquez without getting another relief pitcher, who becomes the closer? Kyle Crick? Kela? Chad Kuhl, coming off Tommy John surgery?
At a team-friendly salary of $5.75 million, Vazquez is worth keeping if teams aren’t offering ample return.
5. Get pitchers who can keep the ball in the park
Too many pitchers are giving up too many home runs, and we’re not just talking about Archer.
The Pirates went into Cincinnati on Monday night having given up 155 home runs in 105 games, third-worst in the National League. Meanwhile, the bullpen has surrendered 63 homers.
Huntington has shown a knack for building good bullpens. He must do it again, even if it takes him well into the winter.
The inability to find the right guy to bridge the sixth, seventh and eighth innings has been one of the biggest reasons for the Pirates’ decline.
6. Trade Marte? Are you nuts?
Marte has been a maddening player for much of his time in Pittsburgh. He is a supremely talented athlete who has hit .300 only once (.311 in 2016) and been to only one All-Star Game in eight seasons.
Like Vazquez, however, the return must be outrageously and immediately helpful. The Pirates don’t have another center fielder like him in their system, and he fills the dual role of a hitter who can get on base ahead of Josh Bell and hit home runs (17).
Even when Marte is fooled and hits a groundball in the infield, his speed can put him on first base.
Trading him involves too much risk.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .