We are less than one week away from the most important trade deadline of the Neal Huntington Era for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Since taking over as the team’s general manager in 2007, Huntington has completely gutted and rebuilt the organization from top to bottom. Over his tenure, Huntington has made hundreds of transactions, but none will be as important as the moves he may or may not make in the upcoming days.
Huntington’s 2014 edition of the Pirates had a dreadful start, in which the team went 10-18 out of the gate. Since that point, entering this weekend’s series in Colorado, the Pirates are playing at a .603 clip (44-29), which is among the best in baseball. Once again, Huntington finds himself right in the thick of a playoff race as the trade deadline approaches.
The Pirates are in a good position to make a push in a wide open National League. Add a bat off the bench, some bullpen depth, and maybe an upgrade at first base, along with a healthy starting rotation, and the Pirates could put themselves in a very good spot come October. However, even without those additions, the Pirates have already proven this season that they can hold their own against the rest of the National League.
Although most feel that teams need to make splashy trades before the deadline to get them over the top, that is not necessarily the case with this year’s Pirate team. The trade market this season is not deep, and it is very much a seller’s market. A.J. Burnett is an intriguing player who is rumored to be connected to the Pirates, but he has an absurd contract that still owes him $6.5M in signing bonuses, plus a player option that could cost upwards of $12.5M in 2015. Is that the type of move the Pirates should be making this season?
Is it really worth the risk of giving up the future to get questionable returns? Last season the Pirates went out and acquired Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. In 30 games with the Pirates, Byrd added some much needed offense to the corner outfield position, but Morneau, in 25 games in black and gold, did next to nothing in the team’s attempt to upgrade the first base position. The team did make the playoffs for the first time in 21 seasons, but was eliminated in the divisional series.
The Pirates currently have a deeper and more talented overall team than last season. Therefore, the need for adding before the trade deadline, although tempting, is not as necessary as it was 12 months ago. Plus, does anyone think that the Pirates are just one or two players away from being serious World Series contenders? They are not. That is why the right move for Neal Huntington is to do nothing over the next week and focus on continuing to move the franchise forward, starting with a very busy and productive offseason.
Over the offseason, Huntington will have three major items on his “To-Do” list as he prepares for the 2015 season. A 2015 season which will be Gregory Polanco’s 1st full season in the majors. A season in which the Pirates could see the major league debuts of highly touted pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham. A 2015 season that very well may have been a target date for Huntington as he took over the Pirates organization.
2015 is the season for the Pirates, not 2014.
Going into the 2015 season, the Pirates have just 3 regulars not on their rookie contracts: Andrew McCutchen’s team friendly deal, Charlie Morton’s 3-year deal signed last offseason, and Starling Marte’s 6-year deal, also inked over the past offseason. They also have the rights to all but 4 players on their current roster with Clint Barmes, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Russell Martin all unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season.
Thanks to Huntington’s success at building the farm system - one that is considered one of the best in baseball - Barmes, Liriano, Volquez and Martin could all be replaced by players already within the organization. The question is will Huntington let all four of those players go. Alen Henson has been a top shortstop prospect for a few years now, and he certainly is deserving of a shot at making the roster out of spring training. The same can be said of Brandon Cumpton, Nick Kingham and Vance Worley filling roles in the Pirates’ starting rotation next season. The Pirates have Tony Sanchez, a former first round pick in AAA who they feel can step in as the team’s everyday catcher next season, but can they afford to not bring back Russell Martin? Martin has been arguably the most valuable player on the team the past two seasons, outside of league MVP Andrew McCutchen. With a young pitching staff, can the Pirates afford to let Martin walk away? Or maybe a better question: can they afford to keep him?
Re-signing Russell Martin should be the #1 offseason priority of Huntington’s. Martin will be 32 years old next season and is probably looking for 1 final big contract. A 3 or 4 year deal worth about $9-10M a year should be in the ball park of what Martin is looking for in that contract. There is no reason that the Pirates can’t offer him this type of deal with the financial flexibility Huntington will have with so many other players on the roster still on their rookie deals.
The next item on Huntington’s priority list should be signing second baseman Neil Walker to a long term deal. Walker is making $5.75M this season, his first of three arbitration years. The way he has played this season that number figures to go up dramatically. One could make the argument that on the open market he could make upwards of $15M a year. However, luckily for the Pirates, he is not on the open market and for the time being they have exclusive negotiating rights with Walker. The Pirates cannot afford to pay Walker $15M a year and really probably shouldn’t go much over $10M annually, but they can offer him guaranteed money. A 6 year deal worth between $60-70M seems like something that could work for both parties. It buys out Walker’s final two years of arbitration and keeps him in a Pirates uniform until the age of 35. It also gives him guaranteed money as opposed to playing under 2 more 1-year deals under arbitration and becoming a free agent at the age of 31.
The final item on Huntington’s 2015 offseason “To-Do” list is to trade Pedro Alvarez. Like Walker, Alvarez is into his arbitration years and can become a free agent after the 2016 season. Unlike Walker, Alvarez, who is a Scott Boras client, will likely not sign an extension before becoming a free agent. Due to that and the fact that the he has probably priced himself out of Pittsburgh, this would be the ideal time to trade the former second overall pick. Alvarez is a power-hitting third baseman, who could become a DH in the American League, which could pull in a king’s ransom on the trading block. Trading Alvarez would likely bring in the type of prospects that could both replenish the farm system as others make it to the Majors and that are major league ready and could contribute immediately.
By making these moves in the upcoming offseason and not in the upcoming week, the Pirates become contenders for years to come, not just for one season. So as unpopular as it may be for their fan base, the Pirates should stand pat at the trade deadline next week and trust the plan of their general manager.
As successful as the Pirates have been in their recent resurgence, they are set-up to be even better in the very near future. Starting in 2015.