The trade deadline is coming up in one week, and things are getting down to the wire. There’s a dearth of players available and many contending teams that want them, so the Pirates seem to be priced out of the market for a lot of the guys they would find useful. Furthermore, other teams are getting wise to the strategy of trading for players with years of control (see: Cole Hamels last year, the interest in Matt Moore and Chris Archer this year, and the high price for Andrew Miller). With that as the stategy for other legitimate, large-market contenders, it’s going to be difficult for the Pirates to pull off a trade, as they certainly aren’t going to give up Tyler Glasnow AND Austin Meadows for Chris Archer after he’s struggled this year compared with his past performance (not to mention that that's a huge give no matter how Archer is pitching this year).
So what are the Pirates going to do? The likely answer seems to be “not much.” I really think that this might simply go down as a lost year in the recent (and likely future) wave of success for baseball on the North Shore. The pieces are all in place for the next couple seasons to be extremely successful for the Pirates who really believe in their process for the development of their prospects, which is coming to fruition with their pitching depth in AAA and position players that will be arriving in the second half of 2017 and 2018.
Given this potential for future success, it seems that the Pirates would be loath to move any of these prospects for current Major League talent, given the asking prices. The Dodgers apparently put Julio Urias on the block as a chip to attempt to get Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, or Chris Archer. If the top pitching prospect in all of Major League baseball (and likely more) is the asking price for these guys, I don’t think a small market team like the Pirates can afford to give up significant years of control of their prospects in exchange for a few years of control of Major League ready pitchers. They need to trust their process and that it will turn Jameson Taillon into a dominant force and that it will make Tyler Glasnow throw strikes and that it will turn Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl into fifth starters that show up with the good versions of themselves at least slightly more often than Jeff Locke does.
So with the future laid out before us in the Steel City, what does the 2016 iteration of the Pirates hold for the next 2+ months? The Pirates achieved four wins in six games against the bad teams they played over the past six days. That’s good, but not quite good enough, as they’re still 2.0 games back from the second Wild Card spot. That’s still a completely closable gap on July 25, but given the trade market, it seems like one of those situation in which the front office simply hopes that the team gets hot at the right time and pushes their way into the playoffs without needing the splashy deals that teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, and Giants are going to make (or already made, in the case of Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs).
The division is out of reach. There was a brief moment in which the Pirates seemed like they could make a run at it, but then they shit a brick in June and completely wasted their momentum and opportunity for such a victorious comeback over the soon-to-be 132 win Chicago Cubs. With only the Wild Card in play, you have to ask the question about how much effort you put into improving a team that will get a single game against Clayton Kershaw or Jose Fernandez or Noah Syndergaard. As the guys over on Effectively Wild, the (nearly) daily podcast from Baseball Prospectus, said in a recent episode, it’s perhaps worth teams hiring philosophers in an attempt to determine the value that should be placed on a Wild Card spot. If you’re the Cubs and haven’t won a World Series since 1908, you need to push all your chips in when given the chance. If you’re the Pirates, looking toward 2017 and 2018 and the arrival of all your prospects and facing a fourth straight single elimination game, I think you don’t give it too much weight. It’s obviously better than not making the playoffs, but don’t sell the farm (is this a literal or figurative statement in this context? now that’s a question for the philosophers) to achieve that one game playoff, especially when you have a team that could make that game as-assembled.
So forgetting about the buying that isn’t likely to significantly alter the names on your daily lineup card in 2016, selling is a possibility. Now that Aroldis Chapman has been moved, the market for elite closers is…closing. Andrew Miller is really the only other option if you’re looking for a stellar bullpen arm, and once he’s gone, I’m sure that the Pirates will be entertaining offers on the soon-to-be free agent Mark Melancon. It would be a pretty unpopular move for Huntington to trade Melancon (I’m looking at you, Mr. “I’m still angry that they traded Neil Walker”), but let’s be realistic. The 20-25 innings Melancon pitches aren’t going to be significantly different from if Tony Watson or Neftali Feliz pitched them. The return on Melancon if they hold on to him is…nothing. Like Charlie at Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, you get nothing, you lose! The difference between Melancon and his replacement for the rest of the season will be, at most, 0.7 wins or something, and it’s likely to be even smaller than that, especially given the advanced metrics surrounding Melancon and his recent struggles. The return could be spectacular, given what the Cubs just parted with to land Aroldis Chapman for two months plus playoffs. I’m not claiming the Pirates return would be as significant, but whatever they get would be more useful than having Melancon for the next two months.
All of that being said, I’m fully expecting Neal Huntington to ride the wave this trade deadline and be even less active than he has been in the past. Maybe they’ll sell Melancon, and maybe they won’t, but don’t expect much in the way of big splashy deals outside of that, or even deals that land them a J.A. Happ down the stretch. Click refresh on MLB Trade Rumors until your finger falls off, but the Pirates' ride this year is more likely to be like the tiny swinging Pirate ship in the kiddie zone of the amusement park than that big, make-you-puke-at-the-top-and-swing-through-it-on-the-way-down kind that you only go on once. The team they already have might be the make-or-break crew that either lands them in the Wild Card Game dice roll or on the couch in early October.