The Pittsburgh Pirates are in rarefied waters in 2011. Having sunk into Davey Jones’ locker for the nearly two decades—18 consecutive seasons with a losing record—the Pirates are actually thinking about the playoffs heading into the trading deadline.
Not watching them. Playing in them. Yes, the Pirates.
Sitting just a game-and-a-half back in the NL Central, behind both St. Louis and Milwaukee, the Pirates can sniff the treasure of a division crown for the first time since they possessed a skinny Barry Bonds on their roster. After their lengthy streak of losing seasons, Pittsburgh fans hope the Pirates can bring the level of success that their Steelers and Penguins counterparts have achieved in recent years.
Stranger things have happened in sports. Why couldn’t the Pirates miraculously outlast their NL Central opponents for the division crown?
Recent trades by St. Louis and Milwaukee suggest that Pittsburgh needs to make a move in order to keep up with the division leaders. Otherwise, it could be likely that their dream season won’t be fulfilled.
Milwaukee got the trade wars brewing by acquiring closer Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets on July 14. K-Rod, who had 23 saves while with New York, strengthens a bullpen that is currently ranked 10th in the NL in ERA and 13th in batting average against. And given that Milwaukee’s starters aren’t performing much better, a solid relief corps would help eat up important innings during the playoff push in August and September. Rodriguez’s wealth of playoff experience helps stock the Brewers’ bullpen, something that most playoff-aspiring teams look to do down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals initiated an eight-player trade that saw the shipping of disgruntled Colby Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays. St. Louis received outfielder Corey Patterson, relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski and starting pitcher Edwin Jackson in return, for Rasmus and relievers P.J. Walters, Brian Tallet and Trever Miller.
Jackson will have an immediate impact on a rotation that has struggled with consistency issues all season. Patterson gives St. Louis some versatility in the outfield while providing some speed on the basepaths that has been lacked all season. Meanwhile, Dotel and Rzepczynski help a bullpen ranked 11th in the league in ERA and the second-most blown saves with 19. Again: good bullpens get teams to the playoffs.
That said, the Pirates, in order to keep pace with the Cardinals and Brewers, need to keep pace in the trade market. Currently the Pirates’ bullpen is fairly adequate, ranked fourth in the NL in ERA; the entire staff is fifth in ERA. That said, the focus would have to be on offense, where the Pirates are scuffling along ranked 12th in runs per game, and next to last in slugging percentage at .358.
With the Pirates sitting a game and a half out of first place, behind two teams, it behooves them to upgrade their lineup to add some offensive spark. The needed areas to address are first base and the outfield.
For the season, Bucs' first basemen, led by Lyle Overbay, have a putrid .299 on-base percentage and .346 slugging percentage. It is clear that the 34-year-old has very little left in the tank. A trade for a player with some pop, say, Carlos Pena of the Cubs, could help boost the run production in the tight NL Central race.
Though Pena sports an unhealthy .220 batting average, his 20 home runs would generate some easy runs in the middle of the lineup. A move to a contending team would be a great change of pace for Pena, and would give Pittsburgh a legitimate cleanup hitter, allowing Andrew McCutchen to be moved to the 3-hole where he is better suited.
It’s not likely that the Cubs will deal to an intra-division team, so the Bucs should look to bolster other areas of their lineup.
The corner outfielders are another concern, as they have not had a consistent presence with the moving around of players. No player aside from McCutchen has started more than 70 games at an outfield position. Xavier Paul has played all three outfield positions; Jose Tabata was the regular left fielder for some time; and Garrett Jones has played a lot in left field. Paul and Tabata are almost the same, each with speed and little power. Meanwhile, Jones is currently second on the Pirates with 10 home runs, but his .233 batting average is a bit worrisome.
Pittsburgh needs to fill a corner outfield position with a veteran who can drive in runs, get on base and add a little power. The Pirates have been linked to inquiries regarding Oakland’s David DeJesus, who has had a rather disappointing season so far for the Athletics. DeJesus’ numbers are well below his career averages, but he is a solid professional who has experience on the field and in the clubhouse.
His veteran presence would add some stability to the Pirates’ lineup that has been mixed and matched throughout the entire season. He’d be a great No. 2 hitter, taking pitches and able to handle the bat during hit-and-run situations.
The problem is that McCutchen, Jones and Paul each make less than $500,000 for the year. So the acquisition of a veteran like Pena or DeJesus would add a large chunk to the Pirates’ rather tiny payroll. After all, the Pirates’ recent history of losing suggests that they may not have the financial capabilities to make a blockbuster deal. Not having been in the race for a while, it’s hard to dust off those wallets when the time finally comes for a big purchase.
However, it is clear that the Bucs do need to make some sort of move to shake things up a bit and legitimize their playoff aspirations. With the top of the division so close, wouldn’t it be great if they made a trade to show how serious they are about winning?
After all, having 18 consecutive losing seasons, who knows if a chance like this will happen again for them?