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The Pittsburgh Pirates are in a position to write one of the greatest chapters in their history in the next three months — do you realize that no major league team ever lost 100-plus game in one season then advanced to the playoffs in the next? — but it probably won't happen if the front office stands pat before the trade deadline.
If you haven't noticed, this team needs a legitimate run-producer in the middle of the order—badly. The smart money says that if they don't add one in the next few days, the pitchers will eventually buckle and the surprise team in Major League Baseball won't be a surprise any longer.
Not to discount the others, but on the basis of sheer talent, it's difficult to argue that the Milwaukee Brewers are the team to beat in the Central Division right now. But if the Pirates close the gap in the next few days, then I like their chances to stay in the chase for a while.
The Brewers are under enormous pressure to get it done and get it done now. The Pirates? They pitch better than any team in the division. They also have chips on their shoulders, wads of house money in their pockets and a whole lot of confidence. That can be a dangerous combination itself.
For now, the Brewers seem to be more concerned about the St. Louis Cardinals in the division race. As one member of their entourage told me the other day, "We believe the Pirates are for real, but recently, we've handled them. We always have trouble against the Cardinals. They have the starting pitching to shut down our bats."
So the debate rages—which difference-maker should the Pirates pursue and who should they give up to get him?
Outfielder Carlos Beltran is the pick here, provided that he agrees to waive his no-trade rights, which doesn't appear to be a problem.
Word out of New York has several parties “kicking the tires” on a Beltran trade, as one Mets official put it, and sources outside the organization tell me that the Pirates are among them. The Mets insist that they pick up most if not all of his salary for the rest of the season in return for a high-end prospect. The organization that acquires Beltran will not receive a supplemental draft pick if he walks after the season, however, which reduces his value. If the Mets hold out for young guns Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie or Luis Heredia, then all bets are off. I would be reluctant to part with catcher Tony Sanchez as well. Anyone else should be in play. If the minor league system is as deep as general manager Neal Huntington and farm director Kyle Stark say it is, then one upper-level prospect isn't an unreasonable price to pay for a ticket to the pennant race.
Combine Beltran with Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, and the three-four-five spots have two switch-hitters and a whole different feel to it.
Beltran just turned 34 years old, but his numbers say something else. His .917 OPS is the highest that it has been since the 2004 season, a sign that his knees are healthy again. On Wednesday night, he hit a monstrous homer into the upper deck in right field. Yeah, I think he can still turn on a pitch. His postseason numbers are just plain silly—22 games, .366 batting average, 11 homers. He has lost a step in the field, but by most accounts his arm and range remain on the plus side.
Here's what else I like: The Clemente factor.
Beltran hails from Puerto Rico, so I don't have to tell you who his main inspiration has been all these years. Think the guy would be a teeny-tiny bit motivated to uphold the standard that the great Roberto set decades ago? Right there in front of the Clemente Wall, no less?
Okay, let's take it one step further. If Beltran were to come here in the next few months and like what he saw, is it possible that he would he want to stay awhile?
Hunter Pence is another reasonable option, but as I reported last week, the Houston Astros remain adamant that it will take multiple high-level prospects to get him. General manager Ed Wade needs to make a huge impression on new team management to keep his job, and Pence represents his one and only chance. He can't settle for a stand-up double here. He has to swing for a tape-measure homer.
Beltran seems to be the better choice at PNC Park, where he averages one home run per 17.8 at-bats in his career. Pence checks in at one per 28.0 at-bats. No doubt Pence has a lot to offer, namely, a much higher batting average (.330-.252), but a long-ball threat is needed more than a gap hitter in this instance. This season, Pence has four homers at Minute Maid Park, where the Crawford Boxes are made for right-handed power hitters.
Pence could become pricey in another way soon. He is eligible for arbitration after the season, when his salary will approach eight figures. If he doesn't meet expectations, team management will have a considerable problem on its hands. If Beltran comes up short, they could pat him on the back on the way out the door with no financial obligation.
At the very least, the front office has to make a play for a lesser alternative, whether he be Marlon Byrd, Jeff Francoeur or someone else along those lines.
Some critics argue that the Pirates should be sellers right now, that the trade of a top prospect would deviate from the master plan. For sure, this is not the time to chuck it entirely and head in a different direction. But the trade of one top prospect wouldn't represent an abrupt u-turn.
Think of it as a brief detour.
As manager Clint Hurdle likes to say, sometimes you have to think outside the box, and this is one of those highly unique situations that calls for it. On the heels of a 105-loss nightmare, nobody in his drug-free mind thought this team would be in this position at this time, and I mean nobody. Fans, media, players, team management—nobody predicted this team would win 85-something games and draw close to two million fans. Yet here it is, almost August, and they're on pace to do both.
Really, can you imagine what it would do for the franchise, what the buzz would be like in the 'Burgh if the home team was somehow in the pennant race late in September, let alone if they won the thing?
Yeah, this could be a great story, all right.
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Paul Ladewski covers the Pirates for Piratesreport.com and the Ogden Newspapers. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes were obtained first-hand, from industry sources or official Pirates media materials.