The Pirates’ rotation in 2019 has been unexpectedly weak. Injuries to Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams and some alarming regression for Chris Archer have overshadowed solid performances by Joe Musgrove and offseason signee Jordan Lyles. Longtime prospect Nick Kingham entered the year out of minor league options and struggled so greatly that the team begrudgingly designated him for assignment last week and now seems likely to lose the righty.
Pittsburgh isn’t currently certain who’ll start for the organization on Wednesday this week, but general manager Neal Huntington told reporters that the Pirates will “look externally” to see if there are any palatable options available (links via Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Adam Berry of MLB.com). Top prospect Mitch Keller is a candidate to make that start, but the Bucs have already recalled and optioned Keller once this season. The next time Keller is called up to the Majors, Huntington noted, the team would like it to be a permanent promotion. Adding an external option would allow the team to give Keller a bit more time in Triple-A, where he has 100 1/3 total innings since last season, but the Bucs won’t find a more talented option than Keller to plug in for that Wednesday outing.
In the meantime, the Pirates will explore the trade market to see what kind of interest there is in Kingham. Huntington noted that players with that type of prospect pedigree “tend to get traded” if they’re designated for assignment and expressed optimism that he will “be able to get something for him” even in spite of his considerable 2019 struggles. Kingham allowed an incredible 38 runs on 54 hits and 17 walks in 34 2/3 innings to begin the 2019 season, but he has a solid Triple-A track record and was long viewed as a potential big league starter. A rebuilding club like the Orioles, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals or Giants could be intrigued by seeing how he fares in a change of scenery. An injury-plagued team like the Angels or Athletics could make some sense, too.
Perhaps a more intriguing source of trade speculation surrounding the Pirates, however, resides in the outfield. Corey Dickerson returned from the IL to join a mix that already had Bryan Reynolds, Starling Marte and Melky Cabrera playing well. Gregory Polanco has posted roughly average numbers at the plate since returning from shoulder surgery and has a solid track record prior to this season. With all five healthy, it’ll be tough to sort out playing time Huntington unsurprisingly declined to go into specifics but did at least acknowledge the possibility of a trade, stating that while the Pirates like all five outfielder, they’re “always open to opportunities to make this club better.”
That said, with the team slipping in the National League Central, it’s only natural that there’ll be increased speculation about the possibility of trades in the coming weeks — particularly when dealing from a position of strength like the outfield. Moving an outfielder, even to another contender (probably not within the division) could potentially net some help for a pitching staff that hasn’t performed up to expectations so far. If the Pirates surge back into contention — they’re seven back in the NL Central and five and a half back of a Wild Card spot — moving a short-term piece like Dickerson for another veteran could boost the staff. If their slide in the standings worsens, the Bucs could even entertain offers on Marte, who is controlled through 2021 by way of a pair of club options ($11.5MM in 2020, $12.5MM in 2021). Doing so could reap prospect value while opening a long-term spot for the cost-controlled Reynolds.
Also of interest in a selling scenario would be whether the Pirates make standout closer Felipe Vazquez available, but the fact that he is cheaply controlled through the 2023 season would make it extremely difficult to bite the bullet on a deal. “The ask will be big, and they won’t move from it,” one rival executive told ESPN’s Buster Olney when asked about a potential Vazquez deal (subscription required).
That’s probably an understatement. Vazquez has a 2.30 ERA with 14.2 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 0.99 HR/9 and a 34.4 percent ground-ball rate in 27 1/3 innings so far in 2019. He’s being paid $4MM this year, $5.25MM in 2020 and $7.25MM in 2021 before the team will be able to decide on a pair of club options in 2022 and 2023 — both valued at $10MM. That’s four and a half seasons of control over Vazquez, who’ll turn 28 in July, for a shade under $35MM.
For the time being, it’s likely that the Bucs will find some kind of deal for Kingham (or that he’ll be claimed on waivers) and monitor the market for at least a potential spot-start option Wednesday. There’s sure to be more afoot over the next several weeks, as the Pirates will soon have to give a long-term audition to one of the game’s best overall prospects (Keller) and perhaps resolve an outfield logjam on the trade market. Whether that move is made with an eye toward 2019 or an eye toward 2020 and beyond will probably be dictated by the team’s performance in the near term.