Of all possible outcomes involving the Pittsburgh Pirates' middle infield, this had to be the least expected. According to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, both 2B Freddy Sanchez and SS Jack Wilson have been offered contract extensions by the Pirates.
This move has fans and bloggers everywhere asking one simple question:
Fans of the Pirates who think they can be competitive this year or next are thrilled about this move, but they're still left questioning why. This runs so counter-actively to the firesale the Pirates have been conducting. This move has those types of fans very suspicious.
Meanwhile, fans who want to see the Pirates continue to make moves with the goal of building for the future are obviously left scratching their heads. Why would a rebuilding team offer multi-year deals to two 31 year old players? They need to be getting younger!
So, let's take a look at a few possible reasons.
1. The Pirates are just manipulating the market.
Right now, the front office of the Pirates is reportedly underwhelmed with the trade offers they're receiving in regards to both Sanchez and Wilson. This could simply be a move in attempt to say to the market "you can up your offers or not have these players."
That would certainly help give a boost to any trades involving the Pirates middle infield. A team that sees that the Pirates don't feel like the "have" to trade anyone will feel more compelled to put together a good package. If that's the case, this may be an offer that the Pirates don't plan to complete.
Which leaves us to...
2. This is just a PR move.
This move is just something to appease the fans. The Pirates are lowballing these players in order to soften the blow when they are inevitably traded. At that point, they can say "we offered extensions to Freddy and Jack, but they wouldn't meet us in the middle financially."
This seems to be the most popular theory in the blogosphere, and beat writer John Perrotto of Pirates Report says that the contracts are "of the lowball variety."
UPDATE: Kovacevic now says in the Post-Gazette that the offer is "not in the stratosphere of what it will take to keep [Sanchez], and there we no indications last night that it would be upgraded."
If that were the case, it seems out of character for this front office. I doubt they had a popularity contract in mind when they traded players like Nate McLouth and Jason Bay, so it would be a bit weird for them to start considering it now. Not to mention that it's a fairly easy PR ploy to see through.
Maybe there's something else going on here. Something like...
3. The Pirates are looking for a better deal next year.
The rumored returns thus far for Sanchez and Wilson have been...underwhelming, to say the least. Sanchez has garnered talk about some interesting players, but has never had a truly attractive package put together for him. Wilson's name has rarely even come up in rumors.
These extensions may be less about the desire to keep Wilson or Sanchez and more about packing up and trying again next year. The goal is likely to see if the players would take a pay cut, thus making their contracts both cheaper and longer-term and artificially inflating their value.
Or perhaps the Pirates aren't actually looking to trade the middle infield at all...
4. Sanchez and Wilson are stopgaps.
The Pirates realize that they have absolutely no depth at the middle infield positions. As a result, they'd likely have to push for every trade to involve a Major League ready middle infield replacement. While that's a nice idea, it takes away from the grander scheme of getting the best talent available.
Pittsburgh has some middle infield prospects in the lower levels of their minor league system, but they're all likely two or more years away. If the contracts are accepted and are structured as two year deals with a third-year team option or something similar, we'll know what the Pirates priority is.
The Post-Gazette article makes special mention of the fact that Jack Wilson is open to the idea of taking a pay cut. The contract he has in place would be awfully expensive for a stopgap SS that is likely to decline, but a cheaper deal may make sense.
Then again, maybe there's another dimension...
5. This is a move for the pitchers.
The Pirates have a fairly inexperienced pitching staff. Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf are both getting their first real shots at a big-league rotation, and Brad Lincoln will most likely be making his Major League debut either in September or next year.
That leaves the Pirates at a place where only Paul Maholm and Zach Duke—two pitch-to-contact lefties—have any kind of significant experience as starters in the big leagues.
Considering this, it may be beneficial for the long-term development of the rotation to have them start out with solid defense up the middle. It would help build the confidence of a young staff moving forward.
And finally, one more possibility...
6. Sanchez and Wilson are part of Pittsburgh's long-term plan.
Perhaps the Pirates actually plan on contending relatively soon, and they think that Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez will be valuable pieces to that puzzle.
If this is the case, it's terrifying to me as a fan. If this is the case, it would illustrate that this front office—which I have defended in the past—has no clue what they're doing.
Sanchez and Wilson are two players that are on the down-slope of their careers. They're players that have so-called "young player skills" and show no signs of developing the "old player skills" that would allow them to remain valuable.
Odds are the pair has another good year or two left in them, but not much more.
Wilson is a great defender, but he can't hit to save his life. He's having an above-average offensive season compared to his career marks, but it's still a pretty bad line.
As players get older—especially players at taxing positions like SS—their defense tends to degrade. It's doubtful that Jack Wilson will be the exception to that rule.
Sanchez has a better shot at remaining productive. It's not terribly likely, but it could happen.
Sanchez's value lies almost entirely in his batting average. He's a player who rarely walks and almost never hits home runs. Instead he relies on a line-drive swing for base hits and doubles. It's possible that he could sustain that and become the National League's version of Placido Polanco, but it's rare that a hitter is able to do that. Even Polanco himself is hitting just .256 this year at age 33.
Whatever the Pirates plan to do, this was certainly an unexpected development in light of the moves made so far. We'll have to wait and see how it plays out, but the Pirates have most certainly found ways to stay relevant in Pittsburgh this season at a time when people are usually more worried about Steelers camp.
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