I’ve always believed that the best approach for small market teams is to build a farm system that constantly provides replacements for the players in the majors. When a star player is ready to leave, the system will ideally have a guy ready to take over and provide the same production. The system will also allow the team to trade guys away as they get in to their expensive years, while replacing them with an internal option that is only being held back by the expensive player that was blocking him.
The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t to this stage yet. Their rebuild really started with the 2008 draft, and they’re just now getting to the point where players from that draft are reaching AAA and the majors. Considering that the 2011 season saw players from the 2006/2007 drafts make their way in to the majors, I’d say this is a normal progression rate. The Pirates have some areas of depth, and some areas where they lack any depth what-so-ever. The biggest area of depth on the team seems to be the outfield.
The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen anchoring the outfield in the majors. McCutchen had a big year in 2011, seeing a boost in his power numbers. His overall numbers over his first three seasons have been consistent, with a career .822 OPS. The Pirates have at least four more years of control over McCutchen. Since he’s arguably the best player on the team, any talk of trading him is pre-mature.
On either side of McCutchen, the Pirates have young outfielders who are just getting established in the majors. Jose Tabata and Alex Presley are expected to start at the corners next year, with both outfielders being under control for a long period of time. Presley has six years of control remaining, while Tabata is under control for eight more seasons, after signing an extension this year which bought out control of his first three free agent years.
Presley is coming off a year where he hit for a .298 average and an .804 OPS in 215 at-bats. Tabata hit for a .266 average and a .711 OPS in 334 at-bats, following a season in 2010 when he hit for a .299 average and a .746 OPS in 405 at-bats. Presley is going to be 26 years old next year, so to expect him to drastically improve on his numbers would be asking a lot. If he maintains an .800 OPS, that would be ideal. Tabata, on the other hand, will be 23 next year. For that reason, he’s a better shot at improving on his numbers going forward.
In the minors the Pirates have a lot of outfield depth throughout the system, although the two standout prospects for the short term are Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman. Marte just had a huge year in AA, hitting for a .332 average and an .870 OPS. Grossman had a breakout season in high-A, with a .294 average and an .869 OPS. He has since carried his hot streak over to the Arizona Fall League, where he has seven homers and an OPS over 1.100 in 100 at-bats.
Marte will be starting off in AAA next year, with Grossman starting off in AA. Their proximity to the majors, combined with their strong 2011 seasons has people wondering what will happen in the outfield going forward. The Pirates have three young outfielders in the majors, all with four or more years of control. So who moves to make room for the prospects?
There are two popular suggestions that have gone around. The first is to trade Andrew McCutchen and get a huge return. In theory, that’s not a bad idea. However, in reality, I don’t see it happening. I broke down McCutchen’s trade value this past season, and with his years of control remaining, his production, and the strong possibility that he could improve on that production, I’m not sure there’s a team that could provide a return to make the deal worthwhile. Not to mention, McCutchen is the best player on the team, and is the only position player who looks like he could be a star. You don’t trade that guy unless you absolutely have to. You keep the star player, and trade one of the lesser options to make room for the prospects.
The Pirates Can't Trade Jose Tabata
The second suggestion has been to trade Jose Tabata. A lot of this is probably based on the 2011 numbers, with Presley putting up an OPS that was almost 100 points higher than Tabata’s. The problem here is that the Pirates can’t trade Tabata. There are various reasons for this. One of the big reasons is that it’s way too early to be talking about trading anyone. Marte and Grossman both had big years, but neither player is knocking on the doors of the majors. It’s not like when the Pirates traded Nate McLouth and immediately called up McCutchen. Maybe that will change by June 2012, but a lot of things can happen between now and then which remove any guarantees that a guy like Marte will arrive after two months in AAA.
Another reason you can’t trade Tabata is because you’re selling low. There are some people who doubt that Tabata can improve on his numbers right now, although that doubt always exists with every player until they actually improve the numbers. It’s important to note that Tabata is only two months older than Starling Marte, yet Tabata has been in the majors for a year and a half, and Marte has only been as high as AA. That’s not a knock on Marte, since Tabata arrived at a very young age. It does show that Tabata’s numbers shouldn’t be written in stone. As a side note, there will also be people who doubt Tabata’s age. The “guilty until proven guilty” approach is common with any international prospect these days, but it ignores the fact that the identity issues aren’t really a problem in Tabata’s home country of Venezuela. If Tabata were from the Dominican Republic, it might be a different story, since that’s where most of the identity issues come from, due to the country’s poor record keeping.
The biggest reason the Pirates can’t trade Tabata is because of his extension. Tabata’s deal was an extremely team friendly deal. He will make $1 M or less for the next two years. After that he will make $11.5 M in what would have been his arbitration years. Finally he has three options that could amount to buying out his first three free agency years at $22.5 M total. The buyout for those options are $250 K per year, for a total of $750 K. If Tabata improves on his current numbers, his contract would be a steal. If he doesn’t improve on his current numbers, he’s a reasonably paid fourth outfielder, and the Pirates have a cheap escape from his option years.
Tabata signed the deal because he wanted to play in Pittsburgh, which is rare. It’s doubtful that he would have signed such a team friendly deal for any other team. It would be a huge slap in the face if the Pirates locked Tabata up on such a team friendly deal, which bought out control of three of his free agent years, then traded him a few months later. It’s not like when the Pirates signed Nate McLouth to an extension then traded him a few months later. McLouth’s deal was pretty much the market rate, and wasn’t long term at all, only buying out control of one free agent year, with a price that ended up being way too high for his production.
If the Pirates were to trade Tabata, they could kiss any future extensions goodbye. Good luck trying to sign Neil Walker to an extension, buying out any free agent years. Good luck getting McCutchen to give up any free agent years in an extension. And good luck trying to get anyone to give a home team discount to the Pirates ever again. The Pirates made a deal with Tabata. He gave up three free agent years and signed a team friendly deal to stick around in Pittsburgh. They gave him guaranteed money, and essentially guaranteed that he would stick around in Pittsburgh for awhile. Trading him away shortly after that deal would essentially break the deal that the two sides had, and would make it impossible for the Pirates to make future deals.
It’s too early to talk about trading any of the outfielders. Until Marte or Grossman are ready to be called up, we can’t really have that conversation. When one of those options are ready, a trade isn’t exactly necessary. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if the Pirates had four outfielders capable of starting, as that would ensure that the Pirates have a strong replacement if someone goes down with an injury. If the Pirates do make a trade, it can’t be Tabata. They’ve made the commitment to Tabata with his extension, and trading him so soon after that commitment would do more harm than good.