Mark Madden: Pirates in race to trade deadline, not postseason |

Mark Madden: Pirates in race to trade deadline, not postseason

Mark Madden
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Chris Archer leaves a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in the seventh inning, Friday, July 12, 2019, in Chicago.

This year, like last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in the race.

But it’s a different kind of race.

The Pirates’ payroll is $71 million, their lowest since 2012. Given that picayune amount, the Pirates aren’t really trying to contend. But they want to create the illusion of contending so people attend games, buy merchandise and watch games on TV.

It’s working, at some minuscule level.

The Pirates cut payroll by 19% this season, but attendance is up almost three percent. That’s an increase of 518 people per game.

Those 518 people should be fingerprinted and put under observation.

The Pirates’ illusion took a hit when they got swept in three games at Chicago’s Wrigley Field this past weekend. What couldn’t happen, did. The illusion is giving way to reality. That reality dictates that the Pirates will finish around .500 and out of the playoffs. Like last year.

July is the Pirates’ September. They don’t race to the finish. They race to the MLB trade deadline, which is two weeks away.

The goal isn’t to stay in the race. The goal isn’t to build for the future. The goal is profit by way of maintaining the illusion. The Pirates manufacture and sell hope.

Even the slightest attendance increase is found money given how much unearned cash (like revenue sharing) flows into the Pirates’ coffers annually.

When the Pirates got pitchers Chris Archer and Keone Kela at last year’s trade deadline, they were 56-52: Six games behind the division lead, three games out of a wild card.

Before Monday night’s game at St. Louis, the Pirates were 44-48: Five-and-a-half games behind the division lead, three-and-a-half games out of a wild card. It’s almost exactly the same position they were in at last year’s trade deadline.

What should the Pirates do?

Their pitching is despicably bad. Their team ERA is 5.01, up more than a full run from last season. Getting an average starting pitcher in a ho-hum deal would be like slapping a butterfly stitch on a shotgun wound.

Baltimore already moved Andrew Cashner. Kansas City already dealt Homer Bailey. The Pirates won’t get Madison Bumgarner from San Francisco.

Maybe the Pirates shouldn’t have acquired Archer. That was done at least partly for the sake of PR. It led to no good. Archer has been mostly rotten. Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow have done well with Tampa Bay, Glasnow’s arm problems duly noted. That deal might wind up being historically bad.

The Pirates look like sellers.

That wouldn’t be good PR. Trying to maintain positive PR might lead to them standing pat or making a minor transaction.

But if the Pirates could get the rumored package from Los Angeles for closer Felipe Vazquez, they absolutely should make that deal. The Dodgers might part with two big-time prospects. Closers are disposable. The Pirates have proven that again and again.

That’s also the kind of deal GM Neal Huntington is good at making: Trading now for later.

If other teams inquire about outfielder Starling Marte, the Pirates should listen. But Marte is having a very good season and has two more years on his contract (via team option) at relatively affordable prices ($11.5 million, $12.5 million).

It’s difficult to trade Gregory Polanco because his arm is shot. Corey Dickerson and Melky Cabrera are pending free agents, but return for them would be small potatoes. Francisco Cervelli’s concussions make him impossible to dump. Prospects like Cole Tucker and Ke’Bryan Hayes should stay, especially with Meadows and Glasnow gone.

It’s hard to draw a bead on the Pirates because their primary motivation is profit. You need to compete to make more money, but the illusion thereof is doing OK.

The Pirates will either stand pat or make a small get. Vazquez stays.

Huntington said he would “honor” the resiliency of the current roster by adding or keeping it intact.

These Pirates do play hard for 27 outs. But they’re four games under .500. To “honor” that is revelatory about your ambition (or lack thereof).

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