I’m pretty sure it’s fair to say that a very small percentage of the world actually thought the Pirates would be where they are, 47-43 and one game out of the NL Central lead at the All-Star break. Sure, plenty of fans thought it could happen when the season kicked off in April, but very few of them likely actually believed the thought. Not to rub it in all your faces, but I like to think I was one fan who did believe it all. In April, they were called hot staters, and “experts” said they would cool off and return to where the Pirates usually are — the bottom of the standings. But this far into the season, I think it’s fair to say that this team is legit, and the pesky Pirates aren’t going away any time soon.
Now, the team faces a daunting task — how do the Pirates add talent to try to make a run without sacrificing the future of the team? The NL Central is a wide open division. The Reds are arguably the most talented team, Albert Pujols‘ early return from injury should fuel the Cardinals, and the Brewers showed late Tuesday that they’re in win-now mode after acquiring Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets. Add the potential of the Pirates into the mix and we’re looking to have a fun pennant race through the dog days of August baseball. For first time in a loooooooooooonngggg time, the Pirates are buyers instead of sellers. Team owner Bob Nutting said earlier this week he’s willing to spend money for the right player in the right deal, and that’s exactly what the team needs to find — the right deal.
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The biggest thing that casual baseball fans in Pittsburgh need to understand is you don’t need to get a superstar player to make the team better. There are only a handful of players in the league who have that kind of ability — Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder to name a few — and any player on that list will be out of the Pirates’ price range. Fans also need to understand that this isn’t hockey — you don’t just give up top prospects to rent a superstar player for two or three months in baseball, unless you know that player you’re getting will make you what you want to be. And I’m sorry, but no player the Pirates acquire is going to be that kind of player. Instead, the team needs to deal smart.
Take a look at Chicago for the best example. The Cubs have players at both corner infield positions — Carlos Pena at first and Aramis Ramirez at third — who are at the end of high-salary contracts and carry a high cap number for the rest of the season. Those are the types of players the team should be looking at. Neither player will cost the team a lot in prospects, especially if the Pirates are willing to eat much of what is owed to them for the remainder of the year (roughly $5 million to Ramirez on July 31, and roughly $6.5 million to Pena when you include his deferred salary into 2012). It’s even more fitting that the Pirates have holes at both corner infield positions, too. Lyle Overbay hasn’t lived up to expectations, and the team recently optioned Pedro Alarez to triple-A to “figure things out.” Both Ramirez and Pena offer power as well, something the Pirates need more than the state of California. Don’t be surprised to see the team acquire either of these players, eat their remaining salary and give up little more than a couple PTBNL’s in the deal.
If team GM Neal Huntington is as savvy as I think he is, you know he’s checked with the Dodgers to see who is up for grabs. The team is in a similar situation to the 2003 Pirates — they need to give up salary and need to do it fast. The Pirates famously gave up Ramirez to the Cubs for a bag of sand, some tic-tacs and a door bell … OK, it wasn’t that bad, but in terms on what they got back, it might as well have been. Anyhow, the Dodgers need to dump salary, and the Pirates could be a beneficiary of that. If the Dodgers really are in that mode, the asking price for Andre Ethier can’t be that high; maybe you have to give up a middling prospect such as Jeff Locke, but it’s certainly worth doing to plug someone of Ethier’s caliber into right field.
Maybe acquiring a starting pitcher wouldn’t be a bad move for the team, either. It’s the move no one is talking about, but it’s a move that might make the most sense going down the stretch.