And it felt amazing. It felt absolutely incredible. I know they could tank in the second half. I know Jeff Karstens, Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia could all experience serious regression. Other players can and will probably get hurt. The bunting will catch up with the overall lack of offense, and the team will go a stretch of ten straight games in which it scores one run. This can all happen. In fact, the number suggest it's more likely to happen with this team than it is not to.
Franco contends that because of this -- because of Paul Maholm's contract status, the outrageous difference in Jeff Karstens' 2.55 ERA to 4.66 FIP, Kevin Correia's actual talent ceiling, Pedro Alvarez's complete disappearance -- that Neal Huntington should sell while the selling is good.
I don't disagree. But at the same time, I don't think this team should be afraid to add pieces, either.
Suppose the Pirates decide Paul Maholm isn't worth the $9.75 million club option for next year, and would like to try and spin him off to a contender looking for pitching in what looks to be a very shallow pool of available talent come the end of July. That's fine. If they can convince someone that Jeff Karstens is Greg Maddux, even better. Maholm, Karstens and Correia are all below-average, eminently replaceable arms, and they have all benefited from pretty stellar team defense (the Pirates rank seventh in the Majors in UZR).
If Huntington can get appropriate value in return for any piece he has, including Joel Hanrahan, he should make a deal. The organization has pitching good enough to get by, and defense good enough to make it more effective. What they need to do is hit. With a farm system full of mid-level prospects and some overvalued pitching at the big league level, the Pirates probably have enough in the bank that they could part with a minor-league player or two, and maybe even spend some money to add a first or third baseman to the club.
Pedro Alvarez is in Triple-A. He's going to be there probably until September, maybe even longer. Huntington would do well to pursue trade options like Baltimore's Mark Reynolds -- a slugging corner infielder with a knack for not making outs (.227/.346/493, 20 freaking home runs). Aramis Ramirez (.298/.346/.497, 15 freaking homers) is another viable option, and a far superior defender. If the Pirates are willing to add to their payroll, they could be a serious mover come the deadline.
Huntington can both sell high on big league players and add a bat, but only if ownership allows him to add to the payroll via trade.
I don't really want to see this team broken up. It's been incredible fun watching them the past three months, and I really want to see them hold this together down the stretch. It's been so long since I've seen anything resembling meaningful baseball this late in the season that I'm sure my love for Neil Walker, Josh Harrison and Alex Presley is totally overblown and irrational. But their run differential is still +8, and they're only one game better than their Pythagorean W/L. I'm jaded to the point that I can't rationally expect this to continue, but I'm simultaneously struggling for reasons to justify why it can't.
What's even crazier than my optimism is that there exists a very real chance for Neal Huntington to sell high on one or two of his big league players and still improve the team. On one hand, it's preposterous to think that the Pirates are going to pay Paul Maholm close to $10 million in 2012 to throw 83 mile-per-hour fastballs, and they really should trade him while his stock is so high. On the other hand, how can anyone justify trading away pitching -- which has been the team's most surprising and impressive strength so far -- when it's clear the club is in the midst of making a powerful statement with its play?
Huntington, who has always said he won't allow popularity or lack thereof to influence his personnel moves, is damned if he trades any of these guys away. The fans will stop flocking to the park, and talk radio will fill up with chants of "same old Pirates." Columnists will call for his head. But he's also damned if he doesn't. As great as it seems now, the Pirates face a back-loaded schedule in the second half, including multiple series against St. Louis and Milwaukee, and there isn't much in the way of empirical evidence suggesting the chances of this team winning more games than it loses is likely.
Huntington has but one road to salvation:
*The "whole fucking thing," in this case, refers to 36 more games.1
1That's a footnote! I learned it from Grantland. Isn't that cool?!