The Pirates record currently sits at 35-37, 8 games out of first place and 3.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. So while the 2014 season has been a disappointing one for the Pirates, as I wrote a few weeks ago they are still in the playoff hunt. But the Pirates are not in a unique spot as 8 teams are currently within 5 games of a wild card spot including the current wild card leading Dodgers and Cardinals. Including the division leaders at least 11 of the 15 NL teams are reasonable playoff contenders, and not one team is over 9.5 games out of a post-season spot. In the next several weeks leading up to the trade deadline, each of these teams will have to identify themselves as buyers or sellers. Teams such as the Pirates will have to decide whether or not adding a piece or two will differentiate them from the pack and catapult them into the playoffs, or that they are simply not good enough in 2014.
The Pirates recently added an impact talent when top prospect Gregory Polanco was summoned from AAA Indianapolis. He provided an instant upgrade to the Pirates RF position and paid immediate dividends to the top of the Pirates lineup. Even as a rookie, Polanco is a undoubtedly a difference maker in the playoff race but is he enough? I opine that there is a least one other area on the team that requires an impact talent, namely the starting rotation.
With Wandy Rodriguez ineffective and long gone and Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano on the DL, the Pirates have called on depth options Vance Woley, Jeff Locke, and Brandon Cumpton to make 12 starts so far in 2014. While these pitchers have filled in admirably, and are all better depth options than most organizations have at their disposal, they all profile as back of the rotation type pitchers. In short none of them are impact talents, and none of them are guys you want starting a playoff game.
Does an available impact talent exist that could help this rotation? Not from the farm, Jameson Taillon could have been that guy, but is out for the season. Fireballing Tyler Glasnow has not pitched above high A ball yet, and Nick Kingham has only pitched 14 innings in AAA. Kingham could get called up later this summer, and could be an impact pitcher in the future, but it’s unlikely that 2014 is that time for Kingham. To find that difference maker for the rotation, the Pirates would have to look outside of the organization.
How would adding a 28 year old former Cy Young Award winner who is pitching to the tune of 10.11 K/9 and 0.84 BB/9 sound? The Tampa Bay Rays currently have one of those available in David Price, as injuries have put a damper on their 2014 season. Price is a pretty good option to have. While Price’s 3.93 ERA doesn’t sound very inviting, his 2.60 xFIP does. Price has been plagued by every bit of bad luck possible in 2014, BABIP problems? Check (.323, MLB average .295). Strand rate problems? Check (68%, MLB average 73.1%) HR/FB problems? Check (13.3%, MLB average 9.9%). All of these should normalize, and when they do the ERA will plummet.
Since 2010 David Price has been the 6th most valuable pitcher in baseball, posting a 19.6 fWAR over that time. Because he is a rare available Ace in his prime , his asking price will be high. But the Pirates have one of the top 3 farm systems in all of baseball, and would seem to have the prospects that the Rays would desire to unload Price. It is more than notable that nearly $8 million is still owed to Price this season and the projected Super 2 arbitration raise that would make Price’s cost at least $20 million in 2015. The Pirates currently project to finish the season with around a $78 million payroll (per Tim Williams of piratesprospects.com). That’s $12 million under our projected $90 million budget for 2014, allowing the Pirates to not only acquire Price, but perhaps acquire another $3-4 million piece if needed elsewhere this summer. Also, the Pirates have $25.5 million coming off the books for 2015 by way of the impending departures of Clint Barmes ($2 million), Francisco Liriano ($6 million), Russell Martin ($8.5 million, although I’d like to seem him back), Edinson Volquez ($5 million), and Jason Grilli ($4 million). So paying for Price in 2015 shouldn’t be an issue. Yes there will be other arbitration raises, but the replacements for Liriano and Volquez will likely be league minimum type players (Kingham, Taillon, Cumpton etc.), and the same could be said for Martin (Tony Sanchez), and Grlli (XYZ reliever). Money should not be an obstacle to acquiring Price.
Top 10 SP’s ranked by fWAR since 2010:
So the Pirates have the prospects and capital to make a trade for Price. So let’s make a deal. While looking at the Rays top prospect list it is apparent that they lack any potential impact bats, and starting pitching depth. Could the Pirates move those type of prospects without crippling their farm system, and truly creating a small window for winning? I say unequivocally yes! With the Pirates outfield boasting Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, it is set for nearly the next half decade. Blocking openings for top MLB.com OF prospects Austin Meadows (#37) and Josh Bell (#61). Each of which overall, according to MLB.com, outrank the Rays top prospects SS Hak-Ju Lee (#70) and injured (Tommy John surgery) RHP Taylor Guerrieri (#80) and would easily become the top two bats in the Rays system. Meadows has yet to play in 2014, but at just 18 years old having a high upside, that hasn’t hurt his value. Bell has shown the bat that many projected when he was drafted by the Pirates, hitting .328/.380/.516 at high A Bradenton.
Josh Bell’s career Minor League stats:
Although Bell and Meadows are both highly regarded, and are better than anyone that the Rays currently have in their system, I’m not certain that those two alone would get Price. So sweeten the pot, I would also add Luis Heredia to the trade. I won’t list Heredia’s statistics because they don’t tell the entire story on the young pitcher, as he is just 19 years old, but he has good stuff, a strong frame, and is still seen as a fringe top 100 prospect in the game. He would likely become the Rays top healthy pitching prospect. Many teams could likely give up an overall better individual prospect than the Pirates, but not many if any could afford to give up two potential impact hitters and a top pitching prospect that the package value of Meadows, Bell, and Heredia provides.
So how would the Pirates rotation take shape with Price? Price would obviously be #1, Gerrit Cole has shown flashes of Ace potential and would fit in well at #2. That brings us to Liriano…he pitched like an Ace in 2013, but has been a disappointment in 2014, sporting an unsightly 4.60 ERA. His high 4.48 BB/9 is some of the reason for the ballooned ERA, but bad luck also come into play, Liriano has an unsustainably high 15.1% HR/FB while his .309 BABIP and 69.9% strand rate have also both been worse than the league norms. If Liriano returns from the DL and continues to issue a large number of walks I’d expect his current 3.48 xFIP to translate into good success out of the #3 spot in the rotation, if he comes back and reduces his walks to his 2013 level of 3.42 BB/9 I’d expect his performance to match last years’s 3.12 xFIP, wouldn’t that be a welcomed sight? Charlie Morton would take the #4 spot, and Edinson Volquez will likely stay in the #5 spot.
Imagine going into a weekend series with Price, Cole, and Liriano starting, would you like your chances? What if it was a playoff series? I know I would.
That leaves us with the remainder of the Pirates top 5 prospects per piratesprospects.com: 1. Jameson Taillon, 2. Tyler Glasnow, 3. Reese McGuire, 4. Nick Kingham, and 5. Alen Hanson. With that group, we still have potential impact players in our system. Depleting our system should not be an obstacle to acquiring Price.
I conclude by stating that the Pirates should trade Austin Meadows, Josh Bell, and Luis Heredia to the Rays for David Price. The Pirates can afford Price this year, the Pirates can afford Price next year, the Pirates will fix their rotation woes and be a definite playoff contender with him, and the Pirates will not deplete their talent pool and will not create a small “window” for winning by trading for Price.