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Even at 19 games over .500, the Pittsburgh Pirates need offense. Badly. Heading into the 1st half finale series against the New York Mets, the Buccos are 25th in team batting average, 21st in OBP, and 26th in runs scored- making their +46 run differential that much more of a testament to their superb pitching staff. And excluding CF Andrew McCutchen’s ridiculous 31 HR, .953 OPS MVP campaign of 2012, the Pirates really boast only one legit middle-of-the-order bat in 3B Pedro Alvarez, and he’s a slightly flawed one at that: despite a production tear since his wisdom teeth removal, the former 1st round pick still only checks in at a rally-killing .315 OBP, 4 points above his .311 career rate.
If Pittsburgh truly hopes to hold serve against the offensively-loaded St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds down the stretch, GM Neal Huntington needs to acquire at least one respectable bat- if not two. Scanning the production gaps in the lineup, 3 positional targets emerge: SS, 1B, RF.
Hindered by Clint Barmes’s .520 OPS most of the season, the Pirates have seen an offensive boost after upgrading to Jordy Mercer. But even Mercer has seen his OPS drop 100 points over the past few weeks, and now sits at a .714 OPS (101 OPS+). Still, the 6’3″ 26-year old looks composed at the plate- as evidenced by his recent extra-inning, game-winning RBI against the Mets- and it’s unlikely that any available SS on the trade market would be a significant middle-of-the-order upgrade.
What should’ve been a Moneyball-esque platoon of Garrett Jones (L) and Gaby Sanchez has been slightly underwhelming in 2013. Combined, the pair has a respectable 15 HR and 59 RBI. But neither Jones (.729 OPS, 105 OPS+) nor Sanchez (.753 OPS, 113 OPS+) has come close to the .800 OPS watermark teams like to see from a first baseman. This pairing is passable for the remainder of the season, though 1B is one of the easiest positions on the diamond to upgrade power-wise.
After seeing 2012 Deadline addition Travis Snider sink to a .626 OPS (78 OPS+), Pittsburgh’s been treated to the return of 24-year old Jose Tabata from injury. In 44 games, the #2 hitter is producing at an .828 OPS (134 OPS+) clip. Maintaining this pace down the stretch would be an incredible boost to the Pirates’ malnourished offense, but there are concerns. Tabata has nursed a long injury history, has a .721 career OPS, and has only hit a combined 13 HR during his 4 seasons in the Major Leagues.
Ideal Trade Partner
After scanning the current MLB standings and potential availability of bats, I believe the Seattle Mariners are an ideal trade partner for the Pirates. (The Mariners currently sit 41-52 in the standings, 13 games behind the AL West-leading Oakland A’s.) I’d love to see a package deal netting the Buccos 1B Kendrys Morales (S) and OF Raul Ibanez (L), with a fallback option of 1B/OF Mike Morse.
1B Kendrys Morales
The 30-year old switch-hitter is in his last year of contract with the Mariners, and has a .278/.337/.459 slash line, good for a .796 OPS (125 OPS+). Not only would Morales’s switch hitting add to the lineup’s diversity, but the 6’1″ native of Cuba is a consistent producer.
2009- .924 OPS (139 OPS+)
2010- .833 OPS (129 OPS+)
2011- (lost to injury)
2012- .787 OPS (119 OPS+)
2013- .796 OPS (125 OPS+)
An additional fringe benefit of adding Morales would be the strengthening of the Pirates’ weak bench, moving both the lefty Jones and righty Sanchez to it.
OF Raul Ibanez
At 41 years old, the elder statesman of the Mariners has 5 seasons’ worth of playoff experience, and a current production level to help a team get there again. The ageless Ibanez has already smashed 22 HR, to go along with an .854 OPS (138 OPS+). While defensive range is a concern for Ibanez, the Mariners have still played him in the field 52 games this year…and Travis Snider wasn’t exactly fleet-of-foot either.
1B/OF Mike Morse
A potential fallback option if the asking price on either Morales or Ibanez is too high for the Pirates’ liking, 31-year old Mike Morse is one of the more quietly productive hitters in the American League, and is signed to a team-friendly contract through 2014. A career .290 hitter, in his first year with Seattle, Morse has cracked 11 HR, good for a .767 OPS (116 OPS+)- which is actually below his 125 OPS+ career average.
CF Starling Marte
2B Neil Walker (S)
CF Andrew McCutchen
RF Raul Ibanez (L)
1B Kendrys Morales (S)
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
C Russell Martin
SS Jordy Mercer
Such a lineup could be among the top 10 production-wise in all of baseball down the stretch, and would create L/R matchup nightmares for opposing managers in late-game situations.
So what would be the cost?
With neither Morales or Ibanez necessitating a top prospect like SP Jameson Taillon, a combination of solid farmhands may do the trick. A quality prospect like OF Gregory Polanco or SP Luis Heredia may headline such a return, but a variety of youngsters could complete the remainder of the deal. My friend Mike Kudis follows the Pirates’ minor league system closely, and suggested all of the following candidates as part of a return package to Seattle:
1B/OF Alex Dickerson, 23, AA, thought to be a 1B, but has been playing everyday in RF and has been hitting really well over the past month and a half, after a poor start.
CF Mel Rojas, 23, AA, toolsy CF who has improved quite a bit as far as getting on base. Good fielder, strong arm, having by far his best year so far.
2B Jarek Cunningham, 23, AA, 2B with a lot of power but doesn’t get on base. Had a really good year in A+ in 2011 as 21-year old, but struggled in his first shot at AA last year; rebounded a bit this year. Had a really nice May and June, but not off to a good start in July.
OF Willy Garcia, 20, A+, was a much-hyped signing, doesn’t walk, but has shown power, and has been hitting well over the past month or two. Hit 18 HR in SAL last year (5th in league, more than Polanco and Hanson), and is on pace for more than that this year. Corner OF who could still develop.
SP Casey Sadler, 22, AA, don’t think he has much ‘stuff’ as evidenced by a 5.1 K/9 (career 6.4), but he gets guys out and has moved through the system well. Career 1.19 WHIP and 3.29 ERA.
SP Joely Rodriguez, 21, A+, interesting LHP that has come on this year in his first full season action. Has a 2.65 ERA and 1.33 WHIP across 2 levels this year, with better numbers in his 4 A+ starts.
Trade predictions rarely come true, but I believe the Seattle Mariners offer 2-3 lineup upgrades to the Pirates, which the M’s would be willing to move, and the cost to acquire them may not be nearly as much as some of the other deadline bats available. Either way, the Buccos’ lineup needs a significant power infusion if they wish to prevent the 2nd half swoons seen in both 2011 and 2012. Thanks for reading!