PITTSBURGH -- This season is by no means typical, but with the Trade Deadline only 10 days away, the talks between baseball executives are apparently the same as ever.
Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said on Friday afternoon that there are “lots of phone calls happening” as the Aug. 31 Deadline draws near, and he expects Pittsburgh to be “real active in conversations.” But will those talks turn into transactions? That remains to be seen, as nobody appears quite sure how the unusual circumstances of this season will affect player movement.
“I still don't know what this year will mean as far as volume of activity. I would expect there are deals to be made,” Cherington said. “It's possible teams will factor or weigh things differently, but I think the level of dialogue and information-sharing will be just as robust as ever, and that's already started."
After getting off to a 4-17 start in the first year under a new regime, the Pirates are sure to be sellers in the coming days. Cherington said they won’t make any player off-limits, nor will they feel obligated to deal anybody. But the Bucs are certain to field offers for pending free agents, in particular, a group that includes closer Keone Kela and veteran left-hander Derek Holland.
The problem the Pirates will face as they evaluate the market for their players is the same one that’s led to their last-place record: They only have a handful of healthy players performing up to their ability. That’s debilitated Pittsburgh’s offensive production and created questions about some players’ true value.
“I think we need to work as hard as we can to see if there’s opportunities between now and the Deadline to get better and help ourselves, put ourselves in a stronger position going forward. But we can’t force it,” Cherington said. “If you start thinking that you have to do something, it almost always leads to mistakes. 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.”
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a fire sale, of course. For one, Cherington has said since being hired this past November that he believes there are players in Pittsburgh’s system -- and on the current roster -- who will be a part of the organization's next contending team. And one-third of a shortened season isn’t enough for the Pirates to give up on players they view as their future core, as manager Derek Shelton has said throughout the team’s brutal start.
“I have outlined certain people that we would like to have moving forward. I think our group has done that. We also have to be very smart and willing to listen,” Shelton said on Friday. “It takes two people to make a deal, if there is a deal to be made at the Deadline. I think when we get to that point, if we get to that point, then we will sit down and discuss it.”
“There are players on this team right now who are going to be part of this team when we’re good. I really do believe that. It doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee, but that’s what I believe,” Cherington added. “And then, more globally, there’s good players in the Minor League system, good players in [the alternate training site in] Altoona right now. We certainly need to add to that. We need to be, every day, thinking about, 'How do we acquire more impact [talent]?'"
This is a tricky time to acquire young players, however, with no Minor League season and only a set number of prospects training at each alternate training site. (Only players included on each club's 60-man player pool can be traded during this season.) Scouts aren’t able to attend workouts at those camps, so teams are dependent upon the mutual exchange of information and video. Cherington compared it to the challenges they faced when preparing for the Draft.
“It's different. The Draft was different, but teams still drafted players,” Cherington said. “I would expect we will still see trades the next few days."
As the Pirates continue to look toward the future, expect to see them call up a handful of young players from their camp in Altoona, Pa. Other clubs have promoted top prospects over the last few weeks, with the Orioles calling up No. 5 prospect Ryan Mountcastle and the Giants adding catcher Joey Bart, their top prospect. For Pittsburgh, that could mean the debuts of third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes and reliever Blake Cederlind are coming soon.
There are valid reasons for both to still be at the alternate training site. They missed all of Summer Camp after testing positive for COVID-19, and both would have spent more than a month in the Minors in a normal season -- Hayes to work on his swing, Cederlind to face upper-level competition after pitching only 34 games above Class A ball.
Cherington said both are “doing everything on the field in Altoona,” and he finished his answer to a question about the two prospects by indicating that they may not be far away from Pittsburgh.
“Very clear that we need to be investing in young players and young player development, and that includes playing time at the Major League level,” he said. “I would expect that to continue to happen, likely increasingly over the remaining time of this season and the next several weeks.”
Reliever Kyle Crick (right shoulder/lat muscle strain) threw his second round of live batting practice on Friday afternoon. Kela pitched two rounds of live BP before being activated from the 10-day injured list on Aug. 13, so it’s possible Crick could be close to returning as well. Shelton said pitching coach Oscar Marin will map out Crick’s next step.