PITTSBURGH -- Neal Huntington is going to field plenty of phone calls and text messages over the next 10 days. Of course he is -- that’s his job leading up to the Trade Deadline. But even if the Pirates trade away veterans for prospects, the general manager won’t be picking up his phone to offer up closer Felipe Vázquez.
Speaking with reporters before Sunday’s series finale at PNC Park, Huntington made it clear that he will listen to all kinds of offers as the July 31 Trade Deadline approaches -- some in the interest of adding for the present, others for the future. But it would take an offer they simply can’t refuse to pry Vazquez, a two-time All-Star, from the Pirates.
“We certainly understand why his name gets floated. He’s one of the best relievers in baseball,” Huntington said. “We’re sitting behind a handful of teams. There is a history of teams sitting behind a handful of teams being willing to trade players, so it makes sense. We also have four-plus years of potential contribution from one of the best relievers in baseball.
“My job is to listen when someone makes the call, but we’re not the one placing the calls to see what’s out there. If somebody wants to explore anybody on our club, we have to. Back in the day, we had to explore on anybody and it’s no different. It’s our job. The rumor mill takes it where it takes it.
“But we always have to entertain ways to make this organization -- and ideally this current club -- better. Sometimes you make the future clubs better, but we fully anticipate Felipe will be closing the next playoff games that we’re a part of.”
The Pirates have a history of trading their closers, but typically when they’re nearing free agency. They dealt Mark Melancon in 2016, exchanging two months of the veteran right-hander for Vazquez and prospect Taylor Hearn, who wound up being flipped for Keone Kela. They dealt left-hander Tony Watson for shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz in '17.
But Pittsburgh doesn’t have an extensive history of trading players who are signed to team-friendly contracts for the foreseeable future, like Vazquez. The 28-year-old lefty is in the second season of a four-year, $22 million contract that includes a pair of $10 million club options for 2022-23. He is due only $5.25 million next year and $7.25 million in '21, bargain rates for someone as productive he's been.
There is bound to be widespread interest in Vazquez for all the same reasons the Pirates want him on board. He is a dominant left-handed reliever with closing experience. He is in the prime of his career, at 28 years old. And he is eminently affordable. But such players typically net the trading teams huge returns -- look at what the Yankees got (Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford) for only three months of Aroldis Chapman in 2016 -- and interested clubs may not meet the Pirates’ asking price.
Some might argue that the Pirates have no need for a shut-down closer like Vazquez given their place in the standings, but Huntington countered that the Bucs aren’t in a rebuilding situation. In other words, their next playoff team will need a late-inning arm like Vazquez.
“If we were expecting to lose 100 games next year, then it’s a different approach,” Huntington said. “But our expectation is to be right back in this -- if we don’t get there this year -- to be right back in this next year, and to have a guy like that in the back end is really important.”
Around the horn
• The Pirates are planning to activate Opening Day setup man Keone Kela (right shoulder inflammation) before Monday’s series opener against the Cardinals at PNC Park. Kela didn’t feel like his stuff was up to par when he tried to pitch in late May, but Huntington said the reports from Kela’s recent Triple-A rehab assignment indicated that his fastball velocity sat in the mid-90s with late life and his curveball was sharp with late break. That should bode well for their bullpen.
“Very positive,” Huntington said. “When we get to that point to activate him, we’ll see how it plays at the Major League level. A different guy this time than last time.”
• Huntington said Opening Day starter Jameson Taillon (right elbow flexor tendon strain) is still “working through his throwing progression” and “trying to see how that goes.” Taillon has said he is taking his recovery day by day, and Huntington added that the training staff is reacting to how Taillon feels each time he plays catch.
• On Saturday night, Clint Hurdle recorded his 712th win as the Pirates’ manager, passing Chuck Tanner (711) for fourth on the franchise’s all-time wins list. Appropriately enough, the victory occurred on the night the Pirates celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Tanner-led 1979 Bucs’ World Series championship.