Buy or sell? Pirates, Rockies and Twins have decisions to make
Shakespeare would have loved the trade deadline. If you think Hamlet could dither, consider the fate of a GM whose team is out of a playoff spot, with a roster he knows can't get it done without help, with a farm system that's supposed to make the team great one day, but all too possibly for his successor. Throw in expectant fans, media partners, local sportswriters and owners who never seem to look past the next day's headlines, and the choice between buying and selling as July 31 approaches can make one yearn for the simpler choices facing a Danish prince.
While the week before the All-Star break helped sort a number of teams into groups -- the Mariners and A's are now sellers, and the Mets have begun their own process by dealing away Francisco Rodriguez, while the Angels' 8-2 stretch clearly puts them on the buying side -- some remain right on the line.
The most difficult decision in the industry is faced by Neal Huntington, the Pirates' GM. His team sits smack in the middle of a four-team hunt for the NL Central despite getting very little from its offense (11th in the NL in runs) beyond what Andrew McCutchen has brought to the table. The Pirates are getting it done with defense, backing a low-strikeout staff by making lots of outs on balls in play with a team that was poor defensively last year and returned many of the same players. Their bullpen, long a nightmare, has been bolstered by the development of All-Star Joel Hanrahan and big years by journeymen Jose Veras and Chris Resop. Their pitchers have an unusual, and likely not repeatable, split in which they've been very effective with runners in scoring position. The team has also been very healthy: just three starts by pitchers outside the five-man rotation, while only their catching duo and Jose Tabata, among regulars, have been forced to the DL. A lot of things have simply gone very well for the Pirates.
Complicating Huntington's life is that the Pirates haven't finished over .500 since 1992, and dealing away the players who have performed well this year will reduce their chance to snap that losing streak. Pirates fans have turned out for this year's squad -- four straight sellouts in early July -- and it would be a PR nightmare for Huntington to clearly signal that he doesn't believe in the team's chances by dealing away Paul Maholm, Joel Hanrahan, Ryan Doumit, Garret Jones and other middling veterans having their best years.
The question is whether those good feelings and clicking turnstiles will last if the team fades down the stretch, because if they won't, you may as well keep to the original plan and try to build a mid-decade dynasty. The Pirates are roughly where the Royals were two years ago, and while they may not have quite that same upside, they have shown commitments to spending in the draft and in the international market that should pay off down the road. A quixotic run for a division title -- analyst Clay Davenport gives them an 8-1 shot -- gets in the way of the long-term planning by wasting valuable assets such as trade chips in a seller's market. The Pirates are finally doing the right thing in their rebuilding. As the fourth-best team in a four-team race, they should stay on that path and sell off what they can to make sure that they're the best team in four-team races to come.
One of the more disappointing teams in MLB is the Rockies, who seem to have a championship-caliber core right at its peak, but haven't been able to turn that into wins. On the other hand, Colorado isn't that much worse than the Pirates, with a -12 run differential as we come out of the All-Star break. The Rockies aren't chasing any team as good as the Cardinals, as both the Giants and Diamondbacks have outplayed their middling run differentials to date, giving them records that aren't quite as good as their performance.
Unlike the Pirates, who are surprising in a season in which they were supposed to be bad, this is the Rockies' window. Built around Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez, they're supposed to be winning now and for the next few seasons. To waste a season of that group, to not take advantage of a resurgent Todd Helton and a breakthrough Jhoulys Chacin and Chris Iannetta, would be a poor use of resources. This is a team that can make a second-half run, and a franchise that is very familiar with the concept. The Rockies can look to acquire a mid-tier starter (Wandy Rodriguez, Jeremy Guthrie) to replace Jorge De La Rosa -- in-house options have been disappointing -- and perhaps a leftfielder with power (Josh Willingham, Ryan Ludwick) if they continue to doubt Dexter Fowler's ability to play every day. They have depth in B prospects to make moves for that kind of talent. One word of caution: Those same playoff odds that don't like the Pirates' chances like those of the Rockies even less: just an 11-1 shot at reaching October.
The Braves and Phillies in the NL and the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL, have combined to pretty much end the wild card chases in both leagues. For teams outside of those four, they pretty much have to expect to win their division to make the postseason. For the Twins, that means catching three teams, but none better than the Tigers at 49-43. The Twins, who seemed like certain sellers at the start of June, when they fell 16 1/2 games out of first, pulled together in the six weeks before the break, going 24-11 as the Indians fell to earth, and are now the fourth team in a four-team race in the AL Central.
The Twins haven't had their projected Opening Day lineup together since the season's second week, when Joe Mauer went on the disabled list. Justin Morneau was lost at the start of June (for the second year in a row, his departure coincided with the the Twins' big run), and at various times every regular other than Danny Valencia, Alexi Casilla and Michael Cuddyer has been on the DL. That alone is an argument for buying -- the Twins have stayed in the race without ever being healthy; what might they be at full strength?
How about if they were healthy and had an additional hitter or three? The Twins start sub-.300 OBPs most days at shortstop, third base and in leftfield. And what if they had some relief help in a season in which just one reliever has 10 relief appearances and an ERA below the league average? The Twins have obvious needs that can be filled with the kind of middling-impact, short-term, low-investment talent available in this year's market, and the only barrier to their acquiring it -- whether it's Carlos Beltran or Heath Bell or J.J. Hardy -- is their tolerance for an even higher payroll above their current team record. This is a weak, winnable division, and the Twins should do what they can to steal it by buying talent.