PITTSBURGH -- When the Pirates reported to PNC Park in early July for Summer Camp, they spoke optimistically about the opportunity afforded to them by a shortened schedule. Anything could happen in 60 games, they said, as long as they stayed healthy and didn’t get off to a slow start.
“Well, we checked off the ‘slow start’ part of that, for sure,” general manager Ben Cherington said last week, when his team had lost 17 of its first 21 games.
With a new regime and an unproven roster, this year was always going to be about building for the future. The Pirates’ early struggles and long list of injured players only cemented that. With days to go before Monday’s Trade Deadline, they have the worst record in the Majors, the league’s least productive lineup and the notoriety of being the first team to get no-hit in 2020.
But where do they go from here? The goal remains the same as it’s been since Cherington’s first day on the job: Get better.
“We need to find ways to improve on an individual player basis, from the way we coach, the way we prepare for games, the way we react from games and learn from games, all those things,” Cherington said. “Doesn't change anything about what we need to do to get better.”
One of the ways they can set themselves up to improve in the future? Adding talent to their farm system. That makes them a particularly interesting team as they approach Cherington’s first Trade Deadline in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates probably won’t have any of the trade market’s most coveted players, especially now that closer Keone Kela is on the injured list due to right forearm inflammation, but they need to add impact talent however possible. That means making anyone and everyone available and aggressively trying to get deals done. That’s apparently the approach they’re taking, as a National League executive recently told MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand that Cherington is “trying to sell everything.”
But even doing that presents unusual challenges this season. An important wrinkle to this year’s Trade Deadline is that teams can only trade players who are part of their 60-man player pool (assigned either to the big-league team or the alternate site). Clubs are permitted to include players to be named later in trades, however. Additionally, scouts have not been allowed to attend games in person, so all assessments of prospects have been done based on provided video and data and past knowledge.
Here's what to expect from Pittsburgh as the Trade Deadline draws near.
This isn’t totally an everything-must-go situation, despite the NL executive’s quote, which is one reason Cherington has frequently referred to the Pirates’ situation as a “build” rather than a “rebuild.” He has repeatedly expressed his belief that there are players on this roster -- presumably young, high-ceiling pieces of their core like Bryan Reynolds -- who will be part of their next contending team. That likely applies to pitcher Mitch Keller, shortstop Kevin Newman and shortstop/outfielder Cole Tucker as well.
And the Pirates have the benefit of club control with most players, so they likely won’t sell low on an underperforming All-Star like Josh Bell. But they are clearly in a position to sell, and Cherington said they will listen on anybody. Given the state of their team, the Pirates shouldn’t be sentimental about anybody. The key is not forcing anything -- making a trade just for the sake of making a trade -- and Cherington recognizes that as well.
“If you start thinking that you have to do something, it almost always leads to mistakes,” Cherington said. “We need to work as hard as we can to see if we can find opportunities to help us get stronger and put us in a better position, but I don’t feel like there’s anything we have to do.”
What they want
They need young talent, plain and simple, at just about every position. They are relatively well-stocked for years to come in the middle of the infield, but their system isn’t particularly deep anywhere else. They have no long-term, high-upside catching prospects. You can never have enough pitching.
“If we look at how we get to a winning team, you’ve got to add up a lot of wins,” Cherington said in January. “To do that, generally, you need a group of 25-26 or 35 players, whatever, contributing to that. Then there’s going to be some smaller group of that performing at a much higher level. We just have to give ourselves some chances to get that kind of player.
“If we’re doing our jobs well enough, some of that will happen internally; some of that will happen because we can help players who are already here get to that higher level. That’s going to be a critical part of what we’re doing. But we’ve got to be willing to take some chances on that kind of player externally also.”
What they have to offer
Their best realistic trade chips are probably pitchers: setup man Richard Rodríguez and right-hander Chad Kuhl. It probably would have been Kela, an impending free agent; he still can be traded while on the injured list, but it’s hard to imagine teams will part with impact prospects for a reliever with injury concerns.
Rodríguez might be viewed as more valuable anyway considering his durability, his late-inning experience and his years of club control. And Kuhl, who has pitched well in his return from Tommy John surgery, offers intriguing upside and multiple years of control.
Otherwise, expect the Pirates to look for deals involving veterans Derek Holland and Jarrod Dyson, who will be free agents at the end of the season. Teams are more likely to have interest in Holland, a versatile left-hander who’s pitched well so far aside from one start. It’s unlikely anyone will take a shot on right fielder Gregory Polanco given his injury history, slow start at the plate and $11.6 million salary for next season, but surely the Pirates would consider moving him.
The Pirates might find a taker for second baseman Adam Frazier, a solid defensive player and streaky hitter who attracted interest at the Winter Meetings. They also have a handful of controllable starters who are arbitration-eligible or nearly so, including Trevor Williams and Steven Brault. Right-hander Joe Musgrove also fits the bill; though he’s currently on the 10-day injured list due to right triceps inflammation, he still could be dealt with MLB’s approval.
Chance of a deal: 90 percent
Look, it’s impossible -- or, at the very least, foolish -- to guarantee anything in 2020. Nobody truly knows how this unusual Trade Deadline will play out. It might have been 99 percent if Kela was healthy, given the demand they’d surely find for a high-leverage reliever like him. The 10 percent has less to do with the Pirates and everything to do with all the circumstances that make dealing more difficult than usual this year.
But the Pirates have reason to look toward the future, and they can offer at least a handful of players who could bolster a huge pack of contending teams. Cherington won’t force anything, but it might not be a bad time to be selling in a league full of potential buyers.