Here we are, one week away from the All-Star break, and the Pirates have the best record in baseball. Well, they're tied with the Cardinals at 53-34, but that counts as first place in my book. They held the top spot outright for more than a week before falling into the tie on Sunday.
Barring a total collapse, the Pirates will end their 20-year stretch of consecutive losing seasons this year. All they need to do to ensure a winning record is go 29-46 the rest of the way. That's a .387 winning percentage, which they've eclipsed in nine of the last 10 years. Piece of cake.
Given their sudden rise to contention -- these breakouts tend to happen fast, like the 2008 Rays or 2012 Orioles and Athletics -- and commitment to building from within, it's fair to wonder what kind of moves GM Neal Huntington & Co. will make leading up to the trade deadline. Will they stay the course and tinker or go for break and make a splash?
I'm a big proponent of going for it when there's a clear window of opportunity, which the Pirates have right now. They're in prime playoff position with a deep starting rotation that is good enough to cause headaches in a short playoff series. The team might feel differently and that's fine, but there's a strong case to be made for seizing this opportunity and going for it, especially after 20 years of losing.
The Pirates have flaws like every other team, specifically on offense -- they rank 24th in runs per game (3.92) and 21st in OPS (.702). The pitching staff is fine, however. Pittsburgh's starters and relievers both have the second-best ERA in baseball at 3.33 and 2.91, respectively. This club doesn't need an overhaul, just a few complementary pieces. Here are some ideas.
With Garrett Jones (104 OPS+ vs. RHP) and Gaby Sanchez (169 OPS+ vs. LHP) forming a strong first base platoon, the attention can shift to right field. Travis Snider's audition didn't go well (78 OPS+), so now Joe Tabata is getting a shot. He's been strong (133 OPS+) in limited time (110 PA) but doesn't have the kind of power typically expected of a corner outfielder.
If the Pirates decide to go out on the trade market for right field help, the Mariners could be a potential trade partner. Michael Morse (118 OPS+ with 11 HR) provides power from the right side and can also fill in at first base while Raul Ibanez (140 OPS+ with 21 HR) can slug from the left side. Both guys are affordable -- Morse is owed approximately $3 million the rest of the way, Ibanez half that -- and will be free agents after the year, plus they won't require sending a top prospect(s) to Seattle. As an added bonus, both guys have playoff and pennant-race experience.
Clint Barmes (42 OPS+) played his way out of the lineup and was replaced by Jordy Mercer (106 OPS+), who's been solid overall but has cooled off with everyday play. Both guys can pick it at short, but a rental like the currently injured Stephen Drew (93 OPS+) could contribute on both sides of the ball. Jose Iglesias (157 OPS+) has made him expendable.
The problem with someone like Drew is that the Red Sox are contenders as well, so they won't look to move a big leaguer for prospects. The Pirates have bullpen depth and Boston is reportedly seeking a reliever, so maybe there could be a rare trade in which contenders match up to deal from depth to shore up a weakness. Obviously a swap for Drew is much more unlikely than say, a deal for Morse or Ibanez.
Mark Melancon (426 ERA+) and Jason Grilli (169 ERA+) might be the best setup man-closer combination in baseball, but there is a problem with that. Manager Clint Hurdle has used them plenty this year -- 43 appearances for Melancon and 40 for Grilli. That workload only figures to increase as the race intensifies in the second half.
The Pirates don't have to replace Melancon or Grilli, they need to add someone to their late-inning mix to lighten the load. There is never a shortage of relievers at the deadline, with guys like Jesse Crain (599 ERA+), Kevin Gregg (226 ERA+) and former Pirate Jose Veras (127 ERA+) representing the best of this year's crop of available bullpeners. The bullpen isn't a problem for Pittsburgh, but there's nothing wrong with making a strength even stronger.