The Pirates have been one of the hottest teams in baseball over the last six weeks. Since June 1st the Bucs are 20-11, a .645 winning percentage. Improved starting pitching has played a large part in the Pirates resurgence. What is unusual is where the team has gotten this bump in performance. Much of it has come from a trio of AAA call ups. Jeff Locke, Vance Worley, and Brandon Cumpton have combined to go 6-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 14 starts since the start of June. As happy as I am about how well this patchwork rotation has performed, I can not envision this group carrying the team to the playoffs. Without an ace the chances of the Pirates to get to the postseason are a long shot. If they were to make the playoffs the chances of actually winning a playoff series seem even longer. There are just too many ace pitchers on opposing contenders that they would have to overcome. If GM Neal Huntington wants to truly give the Pirates a shot at the World Series this year he will have to acquire a legitimate ace pitcher. The A’s acquired Jeff Samardzija yesterday. That takes one ace off the market. Here are the aces that are reportedly still available:
Yu Darvish – The Rangers have had a rough season and the reports are they are willing to listen on offers for Yu Darvish. Darvish is a true ace. He is one of the top 5 starting pitchers in baseball. He could make a big impact on the race. Darvish also has a very palatable contract that runs through the 2017 season. He also appears to be healthy. He has not had any arm issues to speak of, though he has missed time due to back and neck injuries. The problem with Darvish is the prospect cost to acquire him would be enormous. With the way the Pirates value prospects and young talent there is virtually no chance they would make an offer that could land Yu Darvish.
David Price – Price is the most likely ace to be dealt. The Rays have been listening to offers for Price since last season. The Rays are in last place in AL East so the motivation to move Price is at an all time high. Price is under team control for one more season. He will get one more crack at arbitration in 2015 in which his salary will escalate to the neighborhood of $20 million. The payroll concerns alone are enough to likely make Neal Huntington balk at the idea of acquiring Price. But the trade demands from the Rays would be an even bigger killer. The Rays are going to want a package similar to what the A’s paid for Samardzija. To get Samardzija the A’s gave up Addinson Russell, one of top SS prospects in all of baseball, as well as their 2013 1st Round draft pick Billy McKinney. For the Pirates to land Price they will have to surrender two of their top 5 prospects at a minimum. It just isn’t GM Neal Huntington’s M.O. to trade top prospects. He has yet trade a single prospect that ranked among the top 50 in baseball. The highest ranking prospect that Huntington has dealt was Robbie Grossman who was never even considered a consensus top 100 prospect.
Cliff Lee – I think Cliff Lee is the most plausible ace the Pirates could acquire. There are some big ifs though, starting with if Cliff Lee is healthy enough to still pitch like an ace. He has been on the Disabled List since late May with an elbow strain. He is expected to make a rehab start this weekend. If things go smoothly he would be on track to return at the All-Star break. Will he be the same pitcher when he returns? The other issue with Cliff Lee is his contract. He is scheduled to make $25 million next season and he has an achievable performance incentive that could also guarantee his 2016 season for $27.5 million. The Phillies have indicated they are open to eating some salary in order to move players. They would probably need to eat half of Cliff Lee‘s contract to make it palatable to the Pirates’ payroll. But at 35 years old with some injury concerns and a sizable contract I would expect the asking price for Cliff Lee to be less than it will be for Yu Darvish or David Price. I believe the Pirates would be willing to make a competitive trade offer to the Phillies, but again it would hinge on whether Lee proves he is healthy and the Phillies assume a significant portion of his contract.