It’s an enviable quandary. The Nationals were there last year and didn’t handle it well, failing to adjust their long-term plan for the future when their timetable for success suddenly sped up a year. In the end, they shut Stephen Strasburg down in September as they had planned to do all year despite the opportunity to space him out throughout the season and extend him into October, where they found themselves for the first time in their existence.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been in existence much longer than the Nationals, and their dilemma is much different, but the basic principles are the same: At what point do you mortgage the future for a shot at the present, and what do you do if the present gets here sooner than you expect?
The Pirates are nearing the end of the baseball equivalent of multiple life sentences, having suffered through 20 straight losing seasons and back-to-back-to-back rebuilding processes which have yet to reward their fans with a competitive team. They are not only competitive this season, but currently sport the fourth-best record in baseball, and unfortunately, the second-best in their own division.
Unlike the past two years when they have started off strong as over-achievers only to falter as the brutal length of a baseball season weeds out the randomness found in hot early-season starts, this Pirates team is built to be competitive well into the fall.
But are they built to contend? And if not, is this the year to go for it?
The Pirates current re-building process centers on Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole, all of whom are in the majors, but also prospects Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson who are still in the minors. The Pirates have as much depth as any organization in the majors, and there are many others who will play a role in the Pirates’ next contending team, but these are the franchise names around whom the Pirates can plan their immediate future.
The term immediate future, when it comes to long-term organizational planning, means something different than it does to fans. From an organizational standpoint, Taillon, Polanco and Hanson, all of whom are in Double-A, are close enough to the majors that the Pirates can begin to make major league decisions based on having them in their future. Other prospects, like 18-year-old Luis Heredia, may be as talented as other prospects, but his distance from the majors and the pitfalls in between mean the Pirates can’t make any major league decisions based on his presence in the organization. But even prospects like the three currently in (Double-A) Altoona can’t help the Pirates fill any of the holes in their current major league roster.
The Pirates are good. They have exceptional pitching depth and a great defense which have helped them overcome a general lack of run production. If nothing else, they could use another bat for the stretch run, preferably right-handed, and preferably a first baseman or outfielder. There’s not a lot of that out there this summer, with the general lack of teams selling thanks to the increased number of teams still in contention, but there are still plenty of options for the Pirates to consider.
Including doing nothing.
This is the heart of the Pirates’ dilemma. The Pirates are very good this season, but they may feel that they are one key piece away from really going for it. They have more than enough minor league talent to acquire a significant player, one who might put them over the hump and shift them from regular season contender to legitimate World Series threat. But should they sacrifice that talent to go for it this season?
I get questions all the time about whether the Pirates should trade for Giancarlo Stanton. This question, of course, assumes that Stanton is available. At this point, it appears he’s not, but for the sake of philosophical discussion, let’s assume that he is. Should the Pirates mortgage their future to trade for him?
There are no simple answers.
Would the Pirates be incredibly more formidable with Stanton? Yes. Is he worth Taillon, Polanco and Hanson? No. Not all of them. A package for Stanton would certainly require one, if not two of them, and the Marlins’ requirements to even begin a discussion about their only good hitter is one of the reasons there aren’t more rumors surrounding him right now. Stanton has the potential to be the difference between the Pirates and the Cardinals this season, but he is not worth six years of multiple franchise players.
All would be upgrades over the Jose Tabata/Travis Snider/Alex Pressly pu-pu-platter the Pirates have trotted out in right field this season, and all could be had at much less cost than Stanton. If any trading teams ask for one of the Pirates’ main prospects for one of these players, they’ll find themselves on the other end of a dial tone (or whatever the cellphone equivalent is), but these are the kinds of moves the Pirates can make for mid-level prospects, of which they have many, that will help them this year without mortgaging their future.
The Pirates tried to walk this fine line last season, trading moderate prospects for Wandy Rodriguez, who was a nice addition and was good earlier this season before hitting the DL. They also added Snider for reliever Brad Lincoln in a deal that offered some upside but wasn’t much in the way of help for the stretch run. They avoided the temptation of moving a prospect like Cole, who is a big part of this year’s team, for a player like Stanton or Quentin, and that persistence has paid off. This season, they need to find a happy medium.
Last year’s minor moves didn’t help much. Last year’s lack of major moves, however, left them in position to compete this season and continue to build for the future. The Pirates need to do more this year than they did last year, but not at the cost of the core of the next decade. Luckily, the Pirates have enough depth in their farm system to make a move without trading one of their major pieces.
Whether any of the sellers on this market go for that strategy remains to be seen. Because of the lack of supply on the sellers’ market, teams with solid trade pieces are asking for a king’s ransom in return for their players. Every team calling the Pirates will be asking about Taillon, Polanco and Hanson. Most of them will be rebuffed.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington is notorious for over-valuing his own assets and for asking for the world in trades, to the point that one NL general manager once told me that he hated dealing with him because the trade negotiations always started so far apart. Essentially, he’s that guy in your fantasy league who’s trying to trade you Brandon Belt and Raul Ibanez for Mike Trout.
But in this case, Huntington’s stubbornness has paid off for the Pirates and continues to do so. It remains to be seen if the Pirates will be able to make a big move in the next day, and more than likely they won’t. That’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world. Unlike the Nationals’ dilemma last season, the Pirates won’t have to stop any of their best players from competing in order to keep their future intact, making it much easier to plan for the future. The Pirates need to add a piece, but the market doesn’t have anything to offer the Pirates that will be worth any of their key prospects.