The Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in an unfamiliar place in mid-June: they're still within sniffing distance of a winning record, and even contention. That means that their annual decision to deal veterans for prospects at the trading deadline is a little less automatic than it typically is.
Better still, there are obvious holes that need to be filled, and the Pirates could get a nice boost if they even had halfway-reasonable performers to fill them. Catcher, where they've lost one player after another to injury. First base, where Lyle Overbay has been a giant dud so far. Shortstop. Third base.
The question of how the Pirates should approach possible midseason trades is a very complicated one. First, we need to ask what, exactly, the Bucs' goals even are. Are they merely shooting for a .500 season, or are they planning for something better down the road?
Dejan Kovacevic recently suggested the Pirates should aim for .500:
The 18-year losing streak is this franchise's albatross, and it affects everyone from instructors to evaluators to major leaguers to prospects to the newest of draft picks, who immediately field questions about being selected by the laughingstock of baseball.
There's no doubt that the 18-year streak is extremely annoying, and there isn't a Pirates fan alive who doesn't want it to end.
The problem, though, is that in the grand scheme of things, ending the losing streak doesn't mean anything if it impedes real progress. Sure, if you break it, you get to stop answering questions from the press about it. But that doesn't mean much if you immediately start a new streak in its place.
For example, the Kansas City Royals got off to a great start in 2003 and ended up winning 83 games, posting their first winning season since 1993. They loaded up on veterans like Juan Gonzalez, Tony Graffanino, and Benito Santiago in preparation for the 2004 season ... in which they lost 104 games and finished 13th out 14 AL teams in attendance. In 2005, they lost 106 games and again finished 13th in attendance. In 2006, 100 games and 13th yet again.
It was as if 2003 never happened. The Royals haven't had a winning season since then. They're currently 31-40. Any guesses about their ranking among AL clubs in attendance this year? That's right, 13th.
The Pirates' front office has repeatedly said that a .500 season is not, in itself, a priority. For the most part, it shouldn't be. Organizational progress is the main priority, and a .500 season does not, in itself, constitute progress.
But hang on a second. Just because the .500 season does not guarantee future success doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing. If it doesn't get in the way of the Pirates' broader organizational goals of building a core of young talent, it's certainly worth thinking about, because obviously, a winning season would feel amazing in the short term, even if it didn't help much in the long term.
This is where things get really complicated. The Pirates' traditional pattern is to trade veterans for youngsters each summer. Occasionally, that approach has produced very good results, as in the trade that brought back Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf and Dan McCutchen for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. Or the trade that brought Charlie Morton and two prospects for Nate McLouth, a deal that seems to look better with each passing day. Or the deal in which the Pirates received James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel. If the Pirates get offered a great trade for a player like Paul Maholm or Joel Hanrahan, they should certainly consider it.
There is, of course, a certain amount of Monday-morning quarterbacking involved in saying that if the Bucs get offered a trade like the one they got for Nady, it's an easy call. Of course it would be, if we knew at the time how well that trade was going to turn out. The trade that brought back Tim Alderson for Freddy Sanchez might have turned out well, too, but so far it hasn't. Ultimately, the Pirates will just have to trust their ability to get value.
But there is no pressing reason for the Pirates to trade any veteran. Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder are hurt. Maholm has an option for 2012. Hanrahan and Jose Veras and be taken to arbitration and kept next year.
And so there is no reason for the Pirates to make the kind of trade that they made in which they dealt Adam LaRoche for Argenis Diaz and Hunter Strickland in 2009 - a trade made mainly to get some value for an impending free agent, and to provide some depth for the minor-league system. This is especially true because, in contrast with when Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly began working for the Pirates a few years ago, there is considerable depth in the farm system now. There isn't a ton of star power, but the system is full of potential major-league talent, and there isn't much reason for the Pirates to continue to gather Class A pitchers, unless they're great ones.
So the Pirates should listen to offers for their veterans, but by no means should they feel they have to make a deal, unless they love it.
But what about the flip side - trading prospects for veterans?
The Pirates should not make any trade that involves a top prospect like Jameson Taillon, and I don't think anyone is suggesting they should. It might not be unreasonable, however, for the Bucs to deal lower-level prospects. There will be a serious logjam of young talent that needs to be protected on the 40-man roster this offseason, and the Pirates risk losing a player or two in the Rule 5 draft no matter what they do. So while I wouldn't trade someone as interesting as, for example, Starling Marte, it might make sense to trade borderline prospects like Aaron Pribanic, Ramon Cabrera, Brett Lorin or Jordy Mercer if the right deal came along.
Then there's also the fact that it doesn't even always require prospects to trade for immediate help, particularly if you're willing to take on salary. The Pirates had a problem last season as Doumit was struggling with his fielding, so they upgraded the team's catching defense by acquiring the veteran Snyder (and Pedro Ciriaco) for the ridiculously low price of D.J. Carrasco, Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby. The Arizona Diamondbacks didn't want to pay Snyder's salary, so the Pirates stepped in.
The Pirates need to be open to a variety of possible strategies in the next couple of months. They may need to balance several sets of priorities at the same time. It wouldn't be all that surprising if, for example, they traded a veteran like Maholm for a couple of youngsters because they got an offer they loved, then traded a couple of prospects for an established hitter.
Some of what happens will be dictated by their play, and if there are more series like the one the Bucs just had against the Cleveland Indians, any talk of a .500 season will diminuendo to a whisper.
But if .500 remains in their grasp, and especially if no other team from the NL Central runs away with the division, it might make sense for the Pirates to make a trade or two to upgrade their offense. They just have to make sure they don't mortgage the future of the franchise in order to do so.
Then again, they might decide the trading market is favorable to sellers, and look to trade veterans for players they feel could turn into legitimate building blocks.
Or maybe not. Who knows?