It's been 20 years since the Pirates last had a winning season, or even played a postseason game. Given a chance at breaking that dismal streak and returning to October, the Bucs are attempting to take their best shot without completely compromising their rebuilding effort by trading blue-chip prospects. On Tuesday, they struck a deal with the Astros, acquiring lefty starter Wandy Rodriguez and cash in exchange for three prospects, lefty pitchers Rudy Owens and Colton Cain, and outfielder Robbie Grossman. For 2012, the move provides a modest upgrade to Pittsburgh's rotation at the expense of some minor league depth, leaving their top prospects in place for a deal that could upgrade their offense. Beyond this season, the Pirates appear to have obtained a mid-rotation staple at a significant discount.
After losing to the Cubs on Tuesday night, the Pirates are 54-42, second in the NL Central by two games, but first in the Wild Card race; both their record and run differential (+36) rank fourth in the league. With James McDonald (2.93 ERA) and a resurgent A.J. Burnett (3.59 ERA) at the front of the rotation, the Pirates have their best one-two punch in years. Nonetheless, the unit's 3.91 ERA ranks just seventh in the league, while their 52 percent quality start rate ranks 13th, and their 5.8 innings per start ranks 14th — a workload that runs the risk of taxing the bullpen. Jeff Karstens (3.52 ERA) has done a reasonable job since taking over for Charlie Morton, who was lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in June, and neither Kevin Correia (4.31 ERA) nor Erik Bedard (4.32 ERA) have been awful, but all have been averaging well under six innings per start, with the latter's 5.3 bringing up the rear. While that would appear to make the latter the likely pitcher to be replaced by Rodriguez — no official announcement has been made — Bedard, the unit's only other southpaw, is striking out 8.4 per nine to Correia's 4.0, and his 0.8 homers per nine are well below Correia's unsightly 1.3.
As for Rodriguez, the 33-year-old lefty has been a mainstay in the Astros' rotation since 2005; he was the last player on their roster from that year's NL pennant winners. Though he made 46 starts in 2005-2006, it wasn't until 2007 that he got his ERA below 5.50. From that season through 2011, he was a consistent commodity, turning in a 3.63 ERA (13 percent better than league average) while striking out 8.2 per nine. Among lefties with at least 600 innings in that span, only seven ranked higher in strikeout rate, and only 19 other pitchers outranked his 13.9 WARP.
Perhaps owing to the shoulder and elbow troubles he battled early last year, Rodriguez has adjusted his approach, pitching more to contact by throwing more two-seam fastballs and fewer four-seamers, at least according to the PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net. His strikeout rate has dropped, but so have his walk and homer rates, as well as his pitches per plate appearance, while his groundball rate has risen significantly:
FF is four-seam fastballs, FT is two-seam fastballs, P/PA is pitches per plate appearance. FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, is an estimate of a pitchers' ERA based upon his strikeout, walk, hit-by-pitch and home run rates; going off of Rodriguez's peripherals, he has actually taken a step forward despite the falling K rate and the rising ERA. His 3.83 FIP is almost exactly the same as Bedard's 3.84, but it's well ahead of Correia's 5.01, and at 6.2 innings per start, he's pitching deeper into games as well.
Over the course of the rest of the season, Rodriguez is only about a one-win upgrade over Correia — and a wash with Bedard, not taking the two pitchers' risk of injury into account — based upon the FIP-driven estimate calculation that I demonstrated last week, but he'll be around longer than that. He's signed for 2013 at $13 million, and because of the trade, his $13 million option for 2014 becomes a player option instead of a club option. The Pirates won't be paying the full cost, either. They'll pay $1.7 million of about $4 million remaining on his 2012 salary, plus $8.5 million of next year's salary, and $7.5 million in 2014 if the option is picked up. That leaves the Astros paying around $12 million in all, almost enough to cover one of the two remaining seasons. For a third or even fourth starter, that's not a bad deal, and it could make Rodriguez easier to trade if the Bucs need to deal him again.
As for the Astros, they'll receive players who ranked between numbers eight and 16 on the team's prospect list according to Baseball America, and between numbers six and 15 according to Baseball Prospectus. Grossman (eighth and sixth, respectively) is the highest ranked of the three, a five-tool prospect without one plus tool; he's hitting .262/.374/.403 while playing centerfield in Double-A, but he's unlikely to stick in center. Cain (13th and ninth, respectively) is a 21-year-old lefty power pitcher in High-A who profiles as a future mid-rotation innings eater. Owens (16th and 15th, respectively) is a 24-year-old lefty who lacks above-average velocity and profiles as a number four starter at best. What they do provide is some organizational depth for a rebuilding team that has some lean years ahead of it. With the trade, general manager Jeff Luhnow has now dealt Carlos Lee, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers and now Rodriguez, the four players who were making above $5 million this year for a rebuilding club, and the general consensus around the game is that he's done well both to save the Astros some money and to fortify their system.
The Pirates still have more work to do to fortify themselves for the stretch run, with their most glaring needs in the outfield corners and at shortstop. They can't afford to trade three top 20 prospects to fill each of those needs, particularly for a rental player, but in doing so here, they've gotten a pitcher who's apparently going to stick around as part of a reinvigorated ballclub. That's a welcome change in Pittsburgh. Thanks to Rob McQuown and Dan Turkenkopf of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance with this piece.