On Wednesday night, Francisco Liriano and two relievers teamed up to shut out the A's, 5-0, thus giving the Pirates their first win in franchise history over Oakland — the one interleague result that had never occurred among the current 30 teams. More importantly, the victory halted Pittsburgh's four-game losing streak, enabling it to keep breathing down the necks of the first-place Cardinals, whom the Bucs trail by just a game in the NL Central race after the latter's loss on Thursday. As the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline approaches, it's worth a look at what they need to do to continue righting the ship.
Losing streaks are a sensitive topic for the team's fans at this time of year and beyond, because the past two seasons have seen the Pirates take on so much water that not only were their hopes of contending for playoff spot squashed but they also sank under .500 for the year. In doing so, they've run their streak of sub-.500 seasons to 20 in a row, the longest in the history of major North American professional sports. In 2011, the Pirates were 53-47, tied for first place in the Central as late as July 25, but soon embarked upon a 10-game losing streak, and went an NL-worst 19-43 the rest of the way. In 2012, they held a share of first place as late as July 18, and were 63-47 with a hold on the top wild-card position as late as Aug. 8 before going an NL-worst 16-36 the rest of the way.
Particularly when they happen multiple times, such collapses say as much or more about the club leadership than they do about the talent on hand, which is why I've suggested in a few radio spots that the Pirates should consider replacing Clint Hurdle if they show signs of another collapse. That said, he's done a good job this year, and at the moment, it's on general manager Neal Huntington to provide the necessary upgrades to fortify the team's bid for contention and avoid the need for panic. Last year, Huntington was active around the deadline, acquiring Wandy Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider, not only to shore up glaring weaknesses but to bring in players who would be more than short-term rentals, but that ploy was unsuccessful except in the case of Rodriguez. So with an eye toward a more aggressive approach this time around, here's a look at where the team should focus on upgrading.
First base: The Pirates have been shuttling lefty Garrett Jones between first base and rightfield since mid-2009, a strategy that has contributed to their ongoing struggles; beyond his first half-season, he has been worth a total of 1.5 Wins Above Replacement while hitting a combined .254/.312/.448. He's been slightly worse than that this season (.255/.306/.424), making him a drain on an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in scoring (3.87 runs per game), at least as a full-time player at a key position. Hurdle has limited Jones to 17 plate appearances against southpaws this year, but it hasn't been enough. Meanwhile, both the righty-swinging Sanchez (.230/.344/.408) and the lefty-swinging Snider (.224/.294/.332) have been subpar as well. The trio has cumulatively been right at replacement level, with Sanchez's 0.5 WAR canceling out Snider's −0.5, and Hurdle stuck in the middle with Jones' 0.0.
If Pittsburgh wants to continue winning, it's time for a change. As I showed in the context of the Yankees' options for first basemen following the loss of Mark Teixiera, there's not a whole lot to get inspired about among pending free agents. The Twins' Justin Morneau (.270/.329/.406 with seven homers) is a change-of-scenery candidate who's still owed more than $6 million, the Astros' Carlos Pena (.213/.327/.360) has reached the waiver-bait portion of his career and the White Sox' Paul Konerko (.249/.314/.368) and the Mariners' Mike Morse (.251/.313/.454 with 11 homers) are both on the disabled list, though the latter should return from a quad strain soon. The best option at this spot appears to be Seattle's Kendrys Morales, a switch-hitter batting .278/.337/.459 with 13 homers, including four so far in July. He's making just $5.25 million overall.
Harder to acquire, but perhaps more worth it in the long run would be Miami's Logan Morrison, a lefty who's hitting .304/.382/.557 in 89 PA since returning from knee surgery. He'll only be arbitration eligible this winter, but given that Marlins are allergic to paying money to players, they might be willing to move him, but they'd expect a substantial return. Former teammate Sanchez, a career .291/.389/.494 hitter against lefties, could be kept around as a sometime platoon partner for LoMo. Another possible club-controlled solution — one who could use Sanchez as a platoon partner as well — would be Mets lefty Lucas Duda (.235/.353/.438 with 11 homers), but he's on the DL with an intercostal strain, and at best expected back in late July.
Rightfield: Earlier this week, I wrote about the Mets' Marlon Byrd and the White Sox Alex Rios, either of whom could fill Pittsburgh's needs. The former, a pending free agent making just $700,000 this year, is hitting .268/.313 /.506 with 15 homers, his best showing since 2009. The latter, who's owed about $20 million through 2014 ($12.5 million for next year), is hitting .278/.333/.442 with 11 homers. He'd shore up the corner for at least the next year, allowing the Bucs to focus on other needs this winter.
Another option worth considering is the Cubs' Nate Schierholz, a lefty who's hitting .272/.328/.504 with 11 homers while playing almost exclusively against righties. He's making $2.25 million and will be arbitration-eligible for the final time this winter, so the Cubs won't give him away, but he's not exactly the franchise cornerstone. On the other hand, they might let Alfonso Soriano (.261/.288/.470 with 15 homers, including six in July) go for little in exchange for a willingness to absorb a significant chunk of the $8 million he has remaining on this year's contract and the $18 million on next year's deal, though he has a full no-trade clause that he exercised last summer. Given the emergence of Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers would be willing to move a discounted Andre Ethier, but he's got more than $70 million remaining beyond this year, is a liability against lefties, and is hitting just .273/.350/.388 despite a recent hot streak.
Middle infield: Neil Walker is hitting .244/.347/.384, but he just went on the DL with an oblique injury, leaving Brandon Inge (.184/.208/.243) and Jordy Mercer (.261/.316/.398) to man the keystone. The problem is that Mercer has been serving as a much-needed upgrade on the defensively impressive but offensively inept shortstop Clint Barmes (.207/.241/.279). That would remove a similarly glove-first option, the Mariners' Brendan Ryan, from the discussion, though at least the scale is appropriate.
This isn't a situation that requires a Chase Utley-sized solution, and anyway, the Phillies are convinced they're buyers, not sellers. Likewise, unless the Brewers are giving away Rickie Weeks, who's still owed about $16 million through next year, the team should look at shorter-term solutions.
One player who makes sense is the Rays' Ryan Roberts, who's hitting .250/.303/.402 but has been optioned to Triple-A twice in the past month due to a roster crunch. With experience at second, third and leftfield, he's a solid upgrade on Inge who won't be a total loss offensively even if he has to start for a month. The Twins' Jamey Carroll, who's hitting just .218/.272/.252 now but who owns a career .351 on-base percentage, can fill in at second, short and third as well; he's making $3.75 million this year with a $2 million option for next year.
Rotation: The Pirates rank second in the league with a 3.26 ERA, and even with Rodriguez, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens on the DL (the latter is out for the year), the team has five capable starters plus Jeanmar Gomez in the bullpen and Brandon Cumpton at Triple-A. The current starting five of Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole all have ERAs of 3.68 or lower, though some of those marks are well ahead of their peripherals, particularly given low strikeout rates. Rodriguez rates as a concern given that he received a platelet rich plasma injection on June 30 and could be out until August. An upgrade here would be welcome, but it's not clear that a pitcher like the Astros' Bud Norris or Lucas Harrell or the Marlins' Kevin Slowey is better than their internal options, and instead of chasing Matt Garza, the team would do better to focus its resources on offense.
Bullpen: As with the rotation, the bullpen's 2.86 ERA ranks second in the league. Jason Grilli has been a revelation as closer, and righties Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro and lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson have all pitched well. Still, you can't have too much pitching, and the fact that the Bucs bullpen is second in the league in innings (318 1/3) while the starters have just a 44 percent quality start rate and the fewest innings per start (5.6) of any team besides the Brewers means that a fortification is in order, particularly with Grilli, Melancon and Watson all on pace for 68 or more appearances.
The actual identities of whom the Pirates should chase aren't terribly important; this isn't a team that needs to surrender even a modest prospect for a closer or even a regular eighth-inning guy, though they should check in to see what teams like the White Sox (Jesse Crain, Matt Lindstrom, Matt Thornton) and Brewers (John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Mike Gonzalez) want in exchange for peeling off a reliever (Crain, who's on the DL now, would obviously have to be healthy if they went that route). Houston's Jose Veras, who pitched for Pittsburgh in 2011, is a potential late-game option, but one who'd cost more given his newly minted status as a closer.
As to whom the Pirates would offer for these deals, I can't claim to be a prospect guy with his finger on the pulse of each farm system's needs, I just know the sources to turn to when I discuss them here. Baseball Prospectus ranked the Pirates' farm system sixth coming into the year, and Baseball America eighth. Even with Cole graduating to the majors, Pittsburgh has other blue-chips as well as some depth; the team has four other players in the top 100s of BP and BA, and won't have to sacrifice the best of them, righty Jameson Taillon, to fill a short-term need. Furthermore, with a $66.8 million payroll (26th in the majors), the Bucs should be willing to take on bucks to stay in the race and continue building for the future. After two seasons of painful collapses following years and years of abject failure, they could take on almost no bloated contract this side of Alex Rodriguez that would be a worse play than squandering this opportunity.