On Wednesday 3rd July, the Pittsburgh Pirates came to bat at the bottom of the ninth inning trailing the Chicago Cubs 5-4. Elite closer, Craig Kimbrel was on the mound. He walked catcher Elias Diaz and then gave up a double to third baseman Jung Ho Kang. Adam Frazier drove in one run to tie the game and then right fielder Corey Dickerson secured the walk-off win with a sacrifice fly.
The victory moved the Pirates to just three games behind the NL Central division leaders and a mere two games back of a Wild Card spot. Life was good in the Steel City.
There was speculation that Pittsburgh would be active on the trade market, especially in the direction of Mets’ starter Zack Wheeler and Royals’ second baseman Whit Merrifield. The Pirates are nothing, if not ambitious.
Although the Chris Archer trade is now much-maligned, the aggressive attitude of the Pirates’ front office should not be forgotten. Even though they missed the playoffs, and regardless that Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows are thriving with the Rays, the Pirates were trying to win with that move. It was admirable, and that desire to win is lacking from too many MLB franchises.
Fast-forward from their walk-off against Kimbrel and the Pirates have lost eight of their last 11 games, completely changing their pre-deadline outlook. Now seven and a half games out of first place and five games back of the second Wild Card spot, their chances of reaching the playoffs are 3.8% according to Fangraphs. Only the Marlins in the NL are projected lower.
In the space of these 11 games, the Pirates have transitioned from buyers to sellers. And they only have until the end of the month to conclude any trades.
Their main trade chip is elite closer Felipe Vazquez. The 28-year-old has 240 strikeouts over the last three years at a rate of 11.6 SO/9 with 196 ERA+. The left-hander has locked down 79 of his 87 save opportunities to become established as one of the most reliable ninth-inning guys.
If the mainstream media had their way, Vazquez would already be out of the door headed for the Dodgers, Braves, Nationals or Phillies. But Pittsburgh isn’t in a rush to trade their closer, who is tied to one of the most team-friendly deals in the majors, a four-year/$22.5 million contract. He won’t be a free agent until 2024.
With the Dodgers in pole position, Jon Morosi speculated that the Pirates were demanding multiple pieces. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations, has always shown reticence in trading prospects, so it looks like Vazquez will be staying in Pittsburgh.
How high is #Pirates price on Felipe Vázquez? Sources say Pittsburgh likely would ask #Dodgers for *at least* two of the Keibert Ruiz/Gavin Lux/Dustin May/Will Smith group if talks ever advanced. (And one source said Pirates remain unsure if they sell at all.) @MLB @MLBNetwork
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) July 10, 2019
The Pirates, however, have plenty of other moves to make. No team has more players on contracts due to expire at the end of the season. And they have less than two weeks to make any deals.
Top-3 catcher last year (min 400 PA) and probably the Pirates’ main trade chip coming into the season. Cervelli is still awaiting clearance to resume playing following his sixth concussion. It would not be surprising if he gave up his catcher’s mitt for good (Ed – It was reported recently that Cervelli was done with catching after one too many concussions. Expect him to be a 1B or DH going forward). It would be surprising if another team gave up something significant to take on his $11.5 million contract.
Usually, a 102 wRC+ outfielder who missed 58 games of the season through injury and is earning $8.5 million, is not highly-prized on the trade market, but teams know Dickerson is better than his stats. He has just turned 30 and could offer a contender a reliable left-handed bat in return for very little.
In 2012, Cabrera hit .346 with .906 OPS on the Giants, before committing one of the costliest mistakes in sporting history. He looked on course for a $75 million contract, but his positive test for testosterone resulted in a 50-game suspension and kept him out of the Giants’ World Series success. He eventually signed a two-year contract worth $16 million with the Blue Jays. Now 34 years old, the switch-hitter is batting over .300 and he, and his $1.15 million contract, will likely get flipped to a contender in the next few days.
According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, the Pirates have put their starter on the trade block. Lyles is a free agent at the end of the season, so this is hardly breaking news, but hey man. He is on a modest $2 million deal, so appeals to many suitors.
Pirates SP Jordan Lyles is believed to be available, and the thinking is, with emergence of Bryan Reynolds in OF, Melky Cabrera and Corey Dickerson will be, too. No evidence that stars — including closer Felipe Vazquez — are on block yet, though #pirates
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) July 17, 2019
Lyles was an important bullpen arm down the stretch for the Brewers last year. He finished the season throwing 15⅓ innings over nine outings without allowing a run and striking out 17.
The Pirates transitioned the 28-year-old back to starting, which looked inspired when he posted a 1.89 ERA with a strikeout rate of nearly 10 SO/9 over his first eight starts. The wheels came off in big style, culminating in 14 earned runs over just 4⅔ innings. He steadied the ship in his latest start against the Phillies on Friday night, which repairs his trade value slightly.
Currently on the 60-day injured list. Impossible to move him.
Currently in the minors but only hit .213 in the majors this season. It is doubtful any team will want to take Shuck, even with his $700K contract.
Working from the bullpen, the veteran has tossed 46 innings with a flattering 3.33 ERA (4.63 FIP) and 1.37 WHIP. He is on a $1.8 million contract and has attracted interest from the Dodgers and Twins.
Jung Ho Kang
The troubled Korean is an interesting trade candidate and is owed $3 million for this year. Although he is batting .183 for the season, his production since returning from the IL at the start of June has been far better. He is currently on one of the hottest stretches of his MLB career, hitting .306 with 1.047 OPS and four homers in his last 13 games. It is more likely that the Pirates will attempt to resign the 32-year-old for another year than flip him to a contender.
The two highest-profile Pirates are potentially free agents at the end of the season, both having club options for the next two years.Embed from Getty Images
The 30-year old may only have 103 OPS+, but he is quietly having a season likely to set career-highs in runs, home runs and RBI, while simultaneously swiping 20-plus bags. He is a consistently productive player.
The Phillies are rumoured to be interested in the centre fielder, and his two club options ($11.5 million for 2020 and $12.5 million for 2021) make him a high-reward/low-risk trade candidate.
There is chatter among Pirates fans that the team option of $8.25 million should not be exercised. There is also a suggestion that his future is in the bullpen rather than in starting rotation. Both seem unlikely.
ERA isn’t everything, but the right-hander’s is 5.36 on the year, including a horrendous May with 7.40 ERA over four starts. Fingers-crossed that the revamping of his repertoire will bring better results for the remainder of the season. It certainly seems unlikely that Archer will get moved before the end of the month.
Although they are playing in the most competitive division, the future looks good for Pittsburgh, especially if they can convert a few of their expiring contracts into something useful.
It has taken longer than expected, but Josh Bell has matured into a stud this season. Bryan Reynolds emerged from nowhere and looks like an integral member of the Pirates outfield for the foreseeable future. Kevin Newman, Adam Frazier and Colin Moran have all taken steps forward; Mitch Keller is set for an imminent recall, and Ke’Bryan Hayes and Travis Swaggerty look good at the top of the Pirates’ prospects list. Go Bucs.
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