The Pirates are 49-44, and currently stand 0.5 games out of first place in the NL Central. While many of us believe this level of play is unsustainable, here we are. For the first time since 1997, the Bucs are looking to boost their current major league roster for a playoff push. GM Neal Huntington has stated that he's not willing to give up any top tier prospects for short term help. Let's take a look at positions of need, and what options may be available to the Pirates:
The Pirates signed Lyle Overbay in the off-season hoping he would bring solid defense and a competent bat to the position. Neither has happened. He's hitting .241/.312/.365, giving him the worst on-base and slugging of his career. His walk rate is the 2nd lowest of his career. His defense has been uncharacteristically bad; his UZR is -6.0. Overbay's WAR is -0.5 according to Fangraphs and -0.3 according to Baseball-Reference. Simply put, first base has been a disaster. Overbay has played worse than a typical AAA call-up. Even though he has hit better lately, the Bucs need to look for upgrades. Two players I've heard mentioned most are Carlos Pena and Derrek Lee.
Pena is hitting .217/.330/.441. He would be an offensive upgrade (especially in terms of power) and a slight downgrade defensively. He's signed with the Cubs with a 1 yr, $10 million contract. The Pirates could probably acquire him for a mid or low level prospect assuming they're willing to take on the rest of the contract.
Lee is hitting .235/.292/.372 with Baltimore. He's still pretty good defensively, but he's in the twilight of his career and offers no offensive upgrade. His past offensive numbers look good, but I wouldn't expect him to suddenly start hitting again. The Pirates should not even think about trading for Lee.
The Bucs may be best served by looking internally. With Jose Tabata and Steve Pearce on the mend, the Pirates should look at a Garrett Jones/Steve Pearce platoon-type situation at 1st base. Jones struggles against lefties, but has hit righties (.255/.350/.444 this season and .276/.357/.483 for his career). Pearce hits lefties at a .303/.370./531 clip in his career (though only 165 plate appearances). Pearce has been mashing the ball during his AAA rehab, and these guys, together, could give the Bucs an offensive upgrade while not hurting team defense. The problem here is health: whenever Pearce puts together a few good weeks, he gets injured. If he can stay healthy, this is the best option going forward. Another option could be adding Pena and moving Pearce to 3rd. Speaking of which....
Third base has also been a huge hole for the Bucs this year. Pedro Alvarez started slowly then got injured. Ever since, the Pirates have mainly used guys like Brandon Wood, Josh Harrison, and Chase d'Arnaud. d'Arnaud might end up being the shortstop long term, but these guys are, at best, replacement level bats right now. Pirate 3rd basemen are hitting .228/.285/.338 this year. Ouch. The most talked about players on the market are Aramis Ramirez and Mark Reynolds.
Ramirez is the best player available for this position. He's hitting .300/.346/.504 for the year and is an adequate fielder. He's signed by the Cubs for $15 million through this year, with a $1 bonus if he's traded, and a club option for next year with a $2 million buyout. Oh yeah, he'd also have to waive a no-trade clause. If the Bucs could pick him up, they'd likely have to pay the rest of his salary this year, the bonus, and the buyout. The guess here is that 1) Ramirez won't waive the no-trade clause 2) The Cubs would demand too much in return 3) The Bucs aren't willing to pick up that much salary.
Mark Reynolds, currently with the Orioles, is basically the third base equivalent of Carlos Pena. He's hitting .223/.339/.478. Like Pena, he would provide some much needed power at a corner infield position, has a good walk rate, but strikes out a lot. Reynolds, however, is horrific in the field. His career UZR at 3rd base is -36.9. The Bucs need a hitter, but they cannot overlook defense. Their pitching staff is too defense dependent. His contract is $5 million this season, $7.5 million next, and a club option for 2013. Reynolds has a limited no-trade clause. The guess here is that some combination of the contract length, salary, and no-trade clause will foil any potential deal.
One guy I don't hear mentioned much is Casey Blake. Blake's hitting .243/.346/.386. His power numbers are down from his career norms, but he would be a significant upgrade over the current situation. Blake is signed for $5.25 million this year, with a team option for next year with a $1.25 million buyout. He's decent defensively at 3rd and can play first or outfield in a pinch. The Dodgers are in a financial mess and are looking to shed salary, so it should take nothing to get him. Plus, it's always fun to trade with Ned Colletti. Blake's not a world beater, but he could be an option at 3rd. Even if you play Pedro, he could be a good backup. Blake is currently on the 15 day DL (neck) but is expected to return this season. If his health checks out, the Bucs should at least make an inquiry. I think the Pirates should throw Pedro into the fray and let him play, but it would help to have a guy like Blake as insurance. Pearce could also see time at 3rd.
The emergence of Alex Presley makes outfield lesser of a priority. The Pirates are reportedly interested in adding Josh Willingham from the A's. I think the outfield should be set with Tabata, McCutchen, and Presley, but if the Pirates can add Willingham without giving up much, sure, it'd be nice to have another outfield option in case Tabata gets hurt again or Presley comes back down to Earth. He's signed for $6 million this year.
The bottom line here is that the Pirates can improve the team, but they're not going to land a top quality player (Carlos Beltran, etc.) without giving up the farm. The best options are picking up competent players and picking up their short-term contracts. Guys like Pena, Blake, and Willingham can help, but if the Pirates want to contend, or even finish above .500, most of the heavy lifting will be done by the guys already on the team.