Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/19/14
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The Pittsburgh Pirates have built up a pretty good farm system under Neal Huntington’s watch. Our own Marc Hulet ranked them ninth before the season, and over at ESPN, Keith Law ranked them eighth. They have also simulteanously been upgrading their Major League core, and have morphed into a contender this season. To do this at the same time, you have to get a little bit lucky, and you have to be a little bit creative and you can’t be squeamish about taking risks. They showed the latter two elements in trades both yesterday — when they acquired Travis Snider — and today by making two deals that essentially swap out Casey McGehee for Gaby Sanchez.

The first, and more important deal, sends outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and a 2013 competitive balance draft picks to the Marlins for Gaby Sanchez and minor league reliever Kyle Kaminska. According to Jim Callis from Baseball America, that pick is currently slated to be the 33rd selection in next year’s draft, and will carry a $1.525 million price tag, which is none too shabby, especially for a player that wasn’t even on the active roster. It would be very easy to declare this a huge win for the Marlins, especially if they no longer considered the 28-year old Sanchez to be part of the future in Miami (small caveat — here’s the list of players picked at #33 — not a lot of All-Stars in that group. Though obviously that doesn’t mean Miami won’t get someone good). That they also get a wild card in Hernandez, who once upon a time (2009, to be exact) was a top-100 prospect, and is still just 24 years old, is a nice get.

At the same time, this deal is no skin off of the Pirates’ collective backs. For one, Hernandez likely never had a place in Pittsburgh even before the team acquired Snider. And second, while the draft pick would be nice, it means nothing to the Pirates at this point. They didn’t do anything to earn it, and they have two first-round picks next season anyway. Even better, they may have acquired the perfect platoon-mate for Garrett Jones. McGehee had been filling that role, but Sanchez could prove an upgrade for two reasons.

For starters, Sanchez won’t cost as much going forward. McGehee is making $2.5375 million this season, and just by being in the majors and playing in 90 percent of his team’s games this season, his salary was likely to go by at least $500,000, but probably closer to $1 million. Sanchez, on the other hand, hasn’t yet reached arbitration, and any first-year bump he will get is going to be dampened by his being optioned to Triple-A earlier this season.

The second reason is that Sanchez is probably just plain better than McGehee. Since the start of 2011, success has been fleeting for McGehee. He hit .291/.360/.532 across 89 plate appearances this June, but remove that month and he has hit .219/.277/.337 across 804 PA since the start of ’11. There’s also the question of which McGehee is the real McGehee — is it the guy who posted a 6 wRC+ against lefties last season, or the one who has posted a 119 wRC+ against them this season?

There are, to be certain, questions surrounding Sanchez’s play. In the season’s first two months, his plate discipline eroded, while his strikeout percentage ticked further north. For a guy who was such a disciplined hitter coming into the season, it was a troubling development, as was his newfound inability to hit a fastball. Then again, both may have been flukes. Back in Triple-A, Sanchez’s walk-rate re-inflated, as did his ISO and SLG. Now, granted, he’s facing inferior competition there, but Sanchez wouldn’t exactly be the first Marlins player to suffer a demotion, be traded, and then find success elsewhere.

When the Bucs parted with Brad Lincoln, Huntington said he would find a reliever in short order, and he actually found two in Kaminski and Chad Qualls, who was acquired from the Yankees for McGehee. Qualls has been much maligned this year, but if you look at his splits the last three seasons, you find that he while lefties are firebombing him, he is doing just fine against right-handed hitters. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle probably would have preferred someone who could fill Lincoln’s exact role, as Hurdle frequently pushed Lincoln past the three-out barrier. Then again, few managers like to burn through their bullpen playing matchups like Hurdle does, so Qualls may work out just fine as a ROOGY.

Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were fluke contenders, and they faded as the summer progressed. This summer, they are legitimate contenders, and Neal Huntington and Co. have done their best to augment their core while not robbing their future at the same time. In netting Gaby Sanchez for a draft pick, and then turning the dead wood that was Casey McGehee into a reliever who may replace some of what they lost in Brad Lincoln, the Pirates made some calculated gambles. But the payoff is a balanced roster with upside. Sanchez isn’t going to carry Pittsburgh to October, but if he hits the way he did last season, and this season in Triple-A, he and Garrett Jones will form a very effective first-base tandem.


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