(Opening image Jose Reyes, image credit cbc. Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug)
As the July 31st MLB trade deadline approaches, the significant buyers and sellers begin to sort themselves out: some gearing up for a hopeful run at October, others attempting to salvage a disappointing campaign with an infusion of promising prospects.
At 56-37 and 1 game back in the NL Central, it’s highly likely that the Pittsburgh Pirates will be buyers come late July, and just as likely that the Toronto Blue Jays (45-49, 11 games back) are sellers. So could the franchises hook up for a player exchange? And what do the Jays have that could benefit the Buccos?
Small brush fire, or full firesale inferno?
After being the belles of the MLB offseason ball, Toronto’s contention clock struck midnight far earlier than expected. The Blue Jays went “all in” for a run at the 2013 AL East pennant, signing OF Melky Cabrera, INF Maicer Izturus, and RP Darren Oliver as free agents, and dealing away high-end prospects like C Travis D’Arnaud in a series of trades that netted them SP Josh Johnson, SP Mark Buehrle, SS Jose Reyes, INF Emilio Bonifacio, and 2012 NL Cy Young winner SP R.A. Dickey. And yet…
1. The Blue Jays got older and more expensive, yet sit 2 games off of their 45-45 record at this time last season.
2. The 2013 version of the AL East happens to be the best division in baseball, with each of the 4 other teams being 7 to 19 games above .500 at the All-Star break. Toronto is 5.5 games out of fourth place, let alone first.
3. Ironically, Toronto’s offseason benefitted from another franchise- the Miami Marlins- quickly dismantling their star-laden team after similar underperformance. It seems likely the Blue Jays could opt for such a route in the upcoming weeks.
Why the Pirates as trade partners?
1. GMs Neal Huntington and Alex Anthopoulos have some history, hooking up last July in a trade that sent former 1st round pick SP/RP Brad Lincoln north of the border in exchange for OF Travis Snider, a trade high on potential that hasn’t done much for either team to this point, with a slight edge to Toronto.
2. Despite their lackluster performance, Toronto is heavy with veteran bats at positions of relative to extreme weakness for the Pirates.
3. Pittsburgh has a surplus of quality prospects, which the Blue Jays could seek to replenish their farm system after an offseason trading frenzy that left the cupboard thin on goods.
What Blue Jays could be available?
The list is potentially vast, depending upon how far GM Anthopoulos decides to tear the team back to its foundation. We’ll list the candidates from most-likely-to-be-traded to least.
In a previous trade article, I stated that there were no significant upgrades to the SS position available. I was wrong, but the literal cost in acquiring the former Marlin would be massive. Reyes signed a prodigious 6-year, $102,000,000 deal (with a 7th year, $22,000,000 option) with the then-Florida Marlins in 2011. But ironically, as is Marlins’ policy, a no-trade clause was not offered, allowing the Fish to deal him north of the border only 1 year into his commitment.
On the season, the 30-year old switch hitter has a spectacular .322 BA / .829 OPS / 124 OPS+ slash line, and would be an epic upgrade over both Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer at SS. But given the Pirates’ spendthrift ways, it’s highly unlikely they’d take on the contract risk.
The 29-year old native of Indiana has followed a somewhat similar- but more successful- career path than current Pirate Travis Snider: much hyped prospect that has shown flashes of potential (witness Lind’s 35 HR, .932 OPS “out of nowhere” campaign in 2009), surrounded by frustrating inconsistency (finishing with sub-.740 OPSs the following 3 seasons). This year, the 6’2″ former 3rd round pick is surging to a .302 BA / .871 OPS / 134 OPS+ line, with 11 HR.
Given Lind’s past inconsistency, it seems likely that Toronto would look to deal him while his value is high, and Lind’s 3 team option years (through 2016) could offer buyers the extra appeal of being able to avoid a one-and-done rental- if they can handle the rollercoaster production.
It’s far more unlikely that the Jays would part with Rasmus- especially with top OF prospect Anthony Gose having a down season at AAA (albeit a promising MLB cup of coffee). But at the same time, the now 26-year old Rasmus is far from the uber-prospect he was when the Blue Jays acquired him from the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. Rasmus has rebounded from a disappointing .689 OPS campaign in 2012, and currently sits at a .263 BA / .816 OPS / 119 OPS+ slashline, popping 11 HR to date.
Rasmus’s situation would certainly appeal to the Pirates: 2nd year arbitration-eligible player ($4.68MM), left-handed, some power, and an OF of Starling Marte-Andrew McCutchen-Colby Rasmus would be the most defensively excellent in all of baseball. But given his age and contract status, the cost to acquire the 2005 1st round pick could be substantial.
To what degree are the Blue Jays willing to tear it down? I personally think it’s unlikely Toronto goes so far as to deal Bautista and fellow powerhouse Edwin Encarnacion- but it’s possible. Signed through 2015 at $14,000,000 per year (2016 team option), returning the former Pirate to Pittsburgh would allow GM Huntington to atone for his worst trade ever, which sent Bautista to Toronto in 2008 for utterly fungible backstop Robinzon Diaz.
But being a “10/5″ player (10 years in Majors, 5 with the same team), Bautista would have to approve the trade, and given his outstanding production (he was the best hitter in baseball as recently as 2011), the asking price would probably be SP Jameson Taillon, to which the Pirates would assumedly recoil. Being 32 years old, the Dominican Republic native is unlikely to fit into the Pirates’ cost-conscious philosophy, but the last time they acquired a big name in his mid-30′s, it worked out exceptionally well (see Burnett, A.J.). If the asking price is anything outside of Taillon, the Pirates should strongly consider it.
Two years younger than Bautista, and signed through 2016 far more reasonably ($9MM, $10MM, $10MM team option), Encarnacion is probably the Blue Jays’ ultimate power foundation around which they attempt to build their next contending team. But he would provide the Pirates the big bat their lineup so desperately needs (42 HR in 2012, 25 already this season), and so again, if the asking price is something other than Jameson Taillon, the Pirates should explore it.
Given Taillon’s somewhat disappointing 3-7, 3.75 ERA campaign at AA this season, I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the Pirates to trade him for an elite power bat, although I would be floored if Pittsburgh actually did so. Overall, I think Toronto, along with the Seattle Mariners, lines up as an ideal trade partner for the Buccos, and would love to see Huntington import one of these bats in the upcoming weeks.
Thanks for reading.