Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Crystal Ball: Future Trade Targets v. 1.0

This is the beginning of a series that identifies potential trade targets for the Pirates in the future. Explained is the reasoning behind why the Pirates should look to make a big splash in the trade market in the next few years. This version of the series includes Dylan Bundy, Manny Machado, and Chris Sale.  Immediately after the jump is the primer I will use for the entire series.

Below are listed a series of facts.  After them are a series of theories about the baseball, the Pirates, and their future.  The facts listed both contribute to the theories and provide a context for how the theories can be applied.

Fact: Andrew McCutchen is signed to a contract that ensures he will be in a Pirates uniform through the conclusion of the 2018 season.

Fact: Prior to the 2011 season, the Milwaukee Brewers traded for Zack Greinke, largely considered one of the best young pitchers in the game.

Fact: In the 2011 season, Zack Greinke provided the Brewers 4.0 fWAR.

Fact: In 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers won 96 games and the National League Central.

Fact: After the 2011 season, the Milwaukee Brewers lost one of their best players, first baseman Prince Fielder, to free agency.

Fact: Prior to the 2012 season, the Cincinnati Reds traded for Mat Latos, largely considered one of the best young pitching in the game. 

Fact: In the 2012 season, Mat Latos provided the Brewers 3.1 fWAR

Fact: In 2011, the Cincinnati Reds won 97 games and the National League Central.

Fact: Prior to the 2012 season, the Washington Nationals traded for Gio Gonzalez, largely considered one of the best young pitching in the game.

Fact: In the 2012 season, Gio Gonzalez provided the Nationals 5.4 fWAR.

The point is these three organizations made big offseason acquisitions for young, cost-controlled talent in recent years.  All three organizations made the playoffs the next year.  The Pirates would be wise to make a similar trade, but timing and position are key.  All three trades mentioned above required substantial prospect packages and for a small-market team, those are valuable chips that need to be used with deference.

This offseason, young slugger Justin Upton was traded from the Diamondback to the Braves.  Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins is also rumored to be on the market, for an expensive price.  From all accounts, the Pirates haven't been in the mix on either player.  That may be the case for two reason.  The first reason is the timing isn't right; the Pirates aren't one player away from contender.  Cashing in valuable prospects as trade chips too early lessens their effectiveness.  In a few years, the Pirates should add more via their farm system than they will lose via free agency, especially in the form of top pitching prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.  That should also allow time for Starling Marte to go through potential growing pains. The timing does need to be soon though. The Pirates were fortunate that the first fact listed above is a fact.  McCutchen did sign an extension, but only through 2018.  The Pirates need to have several years of being a contender before he leaves Pittsburgh to consider the most recent rebuild a success.

The second reason is the position wasn't right.  One of the genuine areas of strength in the Pirates organization in terms of positional depth is the outfield.  Stanton and Upton are both good enough that they would start for the Pirates at any time during the course of their current contracts, but because of the Pirates potential to place good players in those spots over the same time span, the increase in value from Upton and Stanton wouldn't equal the value produced by a similarly talented player at another position at which the Pirates are thin, such as catcher, shortstop, or pitcher. 

It's up for debate when the best time will be for the Pirates to strike, but looking at contracts and prospects, after the 2014 season seems logical.  Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte should be fully established as major leaguers.  Jameson Taillon and Tony Sanchez should be on the verge of being fully established and Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco knocking on the doors of the majors.  Of course they will have to replace A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Clint Barmes, and Russell Martin, but guys like Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke will help with that.  The net difference should be a strong positive and put the Pirates in position to truly benefit from adding a big-time player by cashing in a few prospects as trade chips.  In addition, they will see which prospects, if any, fail and as a result know what positions to target for trades.

This a primer for a series that will look at a long list of players that could be potential trade targets for the Pirates in a few years.  The players all meet certain criteria.  None are outfielders due to the Pirates depth and the fact that players playing other positions will be more valuable in virtually every future scenario.  The players are all elite or near-elite with high ceilings; no fringe major leaguers.  They are all young and have plenty of team control left.  Each player also plays for a team that has a legitimate chance to be in a position a couple of years from now where trading their young talent makes sense to reload for the future.

The first edition of this series looks at Chris Sale, a young pitcher for the Chicago White Sox.  In addition, it features two players the Pirates had a chance to draft recently but wound up in the Baltimore Orioles organization, shortstop Manny Machado and pitcher Dylan Bundy.

Dylan Bundy

Three college pitches heard their names called ahead of Dylan Bundy back in June, 2011 at the MLB Draft.  Thus far, Bundy has out shined each of them, sky rocketing up Baltimore's minor league ladder, pitching in the major leagues his first full professional season straight out of high school.  He only recorded 5 outs at the major league level, a sample size too small to determine anything meaningful, but Bundy was downright dominant in the minors, particularly Low-A.  Pitching for Delmarva in the South Atlantic League, Bundy pitched 30 innings.  He gave up 5 hits, 2 walks, and 0 earned runs while recording 40 strikeouts.  Read that again.

As of right now, Dylan Bundy is the best pitching prospect in baseball, without much debate.  The Orioles will most likely send him back to Triple-A until mid-season to delay his service time clock.  If that happens, Bundy won't be a free agent until after the 2019 season.  He would be a prime candidate for the Pirates to target after the 2014 season. That might be a year early for Baltimore to want to move him, especially because last year they made the playoffs, but considering how competitive the American League East is, Baltimore might be in a position where they are forced to rebuild soon.  That's especially true if Baltimore sells off what they have left in their farm system over the next few years trying to compete.  Bundy might have to be brought in later than the 2014, but either way, the Pirates would get one of the best pitchers in baseball for several years.

Manny Machado

The Pirates selected pitching prospect Jameson Taillon with the number two overall pick in 2010.  It's hard to complain about the selection; Taillon is one of the best prospects in baseball today.  That said, Manny Machado, who went third overall to Baltimore when the Pirates passed on him, also has a great future and would have been an excellent pick.  It's possible the Pirates could have both players as part of their organization in the near future.

As noted above, Baltimore might be in a position where they are forced to rebuild soon.  Machado made his major league debut ahead of Bundy last year and as a result should reach free agency earlier as well.  Machado is slated to become a free agent after the 2018 season.  That means he'd have four years left of team control after the 2014 season, giving the Pirates an elite shortstop or third baseman to fit into their lineup. 

Chris Sale

As noted above, the Pirates selected pitching prospect Jameson Taillon with the number two overall pick in 2010.  Again, it's hard to complain about the selection; Taillon is one of the best prospects in baseball today.  However, if a complaint is lodged against the selection, it's often about the fact that the Pirates took Taillon over the next player on previous player on this list, Manny Machado.  Curiously, complaints are few and far between, if they exist at all, about the fact that the Pirates didn't take college pitcher Chris Sale, who reached the major league level for the White Sox the summer he was drafted.

During the 2010 season, Sale pitched out of the bullpen.  He did the same in 2011.  However, heading into the 2012 season, the White Sox decided to move Sale into the rotation.  The results were stunning.  This past season, Sale started 29 games, pitching 192 innings.  In those innings, he posted a 3.05 ERA, giving up 167 hits (7.83 BB/9) and 51 walks (2.39 BB/9).  Sale also recorded 192 strikeouts (9.00 K/9).  By doing all this before his 24th birthday, it's safe to say Chris Sale is one of the elite young pitchers in baseball.  Sale won't become a free agent until after the 2016 season. Acquiring Sale after the 2014 season would give him two full seasons in Pittsburgh.  Because of that, Sale might be a better target next offseason, giving him three years in a Pirates uniform.  Either way, Sale is a big-time trade target for the Pirates to eye in the future, especially if the White Sox need to shop him.