Buying at the trade deadline has become an objective for Neal Huntington in back to back seasons now. Last year, he swung two deals bringing in Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick for cash and a few low level prospects. Everyone knows how the season ended despite getting significant gains from Lee in particular.
This season, the Pirates were labeled as buyers yet remained conservative throughout the final hours of the deadline. Justin Upton, Ryan Dempster, James Shields, Shane Victorino, Juan Pierre, Hunter Pence and Zack Greinke were all on the block, but the Pirates were unable to acquire any of their services for the final push. Instead, Huntington opted to trade for Travis Snider, Wandy Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez, and -to a lesser degree- Chad Qualls.
The Pirates certainly had the resources to acquire the best players on the market, with three elite pitchers and a few blue chip hitters as well. And yet, they went with high risk high reward players at a lower cost; players retainable for 4-5 years instead of two months.
I'll give you a hint. It's not because the Pirates are cheap, and it's not because they think this team will fall apart like it did last year. It's because they realize that the window of success, despite what many have argued, is only starting to open.
The Pirates have had a very successful season so far and many of the key pieces -McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, Burnett, McDonald, Marte, Rodriguez- are all coming back next year with most of those players having contracts stretching beyond 2013. In the minors, they have Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Justin Wilson and Jeff Locke to bolster the pitching staff within the next two years, and they have several prospects in lower levels screaming for a promotion. Why is the window to win only open to this year? Yes, the division is weak this year, and it will automatically get stronger when the Astros leave next season to go to the American League. But this year's team -despite facing the toughest first 40 games of the season- battled against the best teams in baseball. Their record is certainly not a shell based on winning against bad teams, alone.
Neal Huntington is also not an idiot when it comes to trades. The Phillies wanted Brad Lincoln for Shane Victorino, a free agent at the end of this season where he is hitting a meek .261 with nine home runs. The Indians wanted Starling Marte for Shin Soo Choo, a 30 year old who has only played in 100+ games in two of his seven major league seasons. Huntington even voiced after the deadline on 93.7 the Fan that some of the asking prices were so high for players like Victorino and Pence, that he would have been foolish to accept a deal. If you refuse to believe him, ask the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals why they made very little noise at the deadline despite having strong ties to every major player on the market.
To go further with that point, would one player make the difference between winning and losing this division? The Cincinnati Reds are a better team and will probably win the division. That means, to make the playoffs, the Pirates will have to go in as a wild card where they will most likely compete against the Dodgers or Giants. That means the Pirates would likely face Matt Cain or Clayton Kershaw in the postseason. Would the addition of a .270 hitter like Hunter Pence put the Pirates in a position to take that game, alone? Doubtful. Obviously, these are hypotheticals, but they are worth exploring when you consider the sensitivity in packaging a bunch of top prospects for one season.
Despite their success, the Pirates are still in a small market. Regardless of ticket sales, revenue sharing, or Bob Nutting winning the Powerball, the Pirates will always have a small base to generate TV revenue. When your TV market is smaller than Portland, Oregon, you miss out on the multi-billion dollar TV deals that make teams like LA, New York, and Texas so successful. The process to construct this year's winning team had to include a well thought-out plan with minimal errors. Now that the team is successful, the last thing the Pirates needed to do was make a bunch of irrational trades by shipping high-priced prospects out for players who are easily recognizable on a baseball card. Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Justin Upton are all big names with All-Star appearances and playoff experience, but this season, they have all been disappointments with risks and prices high enough to tear down what the Pirates have spent the last five years building.
The moves Huntington made were good moves, for the most part. Travis Snider has a lot of talent and could project to be a corner outfielder with some pop. The risk of him becoming another Jeff Clement is worth worrying about since he has been bounced between the big leagues and AAA for the last four seasons. However, the price for his potential is worth taking a minor gamble on. Brad Lincoln has been excellent this season but, he is also 27 years old and, at best, projects to be a closer down the road. As I've stated before, relief pitchers are a dime a dozen in baseball and with the depth of relievers in AAA, the Pirates would be foolish to keep a 7th inning reliever when they have the opportunity to gain a power bat in the outfield.
Gaby Sanchez is a player the Pirates are hoping to resurrect with a change of scenery. Sanchez has hit 19 home runs in back to back seasons and was an All-Star last year. He is a career .298 hitter against left-handed pitchers and could become a solid platoon player at first base with Garret Jones in the final months of the season. In return, the Pirates gave the Marlins Gorkys Hernandez -a 24 year old outfielder who cannot hit major league pitching and only has one option remaining on his contract- and a bonus pick. Does this deal make the Pirates worse? Absolutely not.
The Casey Mcgehee for Chad Qualls trade is insignificant, in my opinion. Qualls has been horrific this season and I would be shocked if Hurdle used him in high leverage situations. This move was more about clearing Casey Mcgehee off the books to make room for Sanchez. The $250k sent to New York, in addition to Mcgehee, is hilarious given Burnett's complete game shutout and 13th win of the season. Maybe the Yankees should've asked for more.
The Pirates did not fall into the trap the now-rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers did when they mortgaged the system for CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke. Instead, the Pirates aimed at a more successful, small-market model used by the Tampa Bay Rays. The goal is not to pour everything into one season with the belief that the window for success if short, but rather to expand the window to 2012 and beyond. Did these moves hurt the team? Not really. Did they significantly improve the team? Only time will tell. The Pirates are hoping to see future success from Sanchez and Snider, rather than assuming success from a proven All-Star. If they fail, the Pirates have sacrificed nothing to keep them out of the hunt for 2012 and the future. If they work out, the team becomes even stronger and the window of success widens even further.