Starting Nine: Pirates have needs, but buyer beware
1. According to the Baseball Prospectus projection system PECOTA, the Pirates have an 83.3 percent chance of returning to the postseason. The problem is the data-based forecast has the Pirates with 16.9 percent odds of winning the division thanks in part to the imposing, infallible St. Louis Cardinals, and predicted regression from runs allowed to playing time (injuries). The Pirates could use some help, but it's not going to be easy to acquire.
2. Consider this trade market an “extreme” seller's market, according to Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. The second wild card is keeping many teams within playoff contention.
3. The other change is the sellers are less interested in prospects and more interested in acquiring young, major league talent, according to Huntington. This trend began last year when the Pirates believe they made a competitive, prospect-laden package for ace David Price only to see him land in Detroit in a three-way deal that involved young major league, or near MLB-ready, talent. Why the change?
“The impatience of the industry,' Huntington said. “The expectation that you can turn an organization around in a year. Rather than (targeting) the best prospect in the system that may be in A-ball, teams are starting to look for the guy in Triple-A that might have an impact in a year or two.”
An extreme seller's market coupled with sellers looking for young MLB talent doesn't bode well for the Pirates' chances of acquiring a second-half difference maker. Moreover, if the Pirates' internal projections are close to PECOTA, would they overpay in a year they are not favored to win the division?
What to do with Polanco?
4. With his upside, youth and club control, Gregory Polanco is the one young MLB talent teams are likely interested in. But considering the Pirates offered Polanco a seven-year deal last June before he had a major league plate appearance, it's unlikely the club sells low on Polanco, who fell out of Fangraphs.com's top 50 trade value rankings last week. Polanco has shown signs of finding his swing, and the Pirates are likely best served by patience and hope of a second-half breakout.
5. On a side note, would Polanco reconsider if the club made a similar seven-year offer today? Should the Pirates re-offer?
6. The trade rumors associated with the Pirates have been tied to strengthening the bench. And in this market, targeting depth will come with a more palatable price. It's also an admission the Pirates' depth this spring was overstated. It's true that Jung Ho Kang has provided infield depth, but now that he's filling in for the injured Josh Harrison, the only bench bat that has been league average or better is that of Chris Stewart.
The Corey Hart scratch-off lottery ticket didn't work out. Sean Rodriguez's bat is a liability. The Pirates have been looking for a fourth outfielder since dealing Travis Snider. Perhaps that is where the search should focus if the Pirates are unable to upgrade first base, where Pedro Alvarez remains the club's most glaring liability (-0.4 WAR).
7. The Pirates' reported interest in Jeff Francoeur, if serious, is curious. While Polanco is perhaps in need of a platoon partner, Francoeur is batting .211 against lefties this season with a .540 OPS. Overall, he's a below replacement-level player.
8. One name that would make a lot of sense? Marlon Byrd, who could at least be a platoon option (.864 OPS vs. lefties) for Polanco, and he's a second-half hedge if Polanco can't get his bat on track. For a team that has struggled to lift the ball in the air this season, Byrd remains a flyball hitter (career best .89 groundball-to-flyball ratio). The cost? Two months of Byrd in 2013 cost the Pirates Dilson Herrera, who if still in the system, would likely be the Pirates' future second baseman. The Pirates have another such second base prospect, Alen Hanson, in the system.
Iron hot. Strike?
9. Why is this is an important window of opportunity? Consider the Pirates have two of the industry's top 13 assets in Andrew McCutchen (No. 9) and Gerrit Cole (No. 13), according to Fangraphs.com's top 50 trade value ranking. Trade value is tied to current ability, future projection and contract terms, and McCutchen and Cole have value in all three categories. It's going to be difficult for the Pirates to have such a staff anchor and lineup anchor together at the same time — and controlled together through 2018.