Losers of eight of 10 since the All-Star break, the Pirates’ already slim playoff hopes have taken a beating over the past week-plus. At 46-53, they’re six games out of a wild-card spot and 7 1/2 behind the National Central-leading Cubs. Only three NL teams have worse records than the Pirates, who will have to jump seven clubs in order to earn a playoff position. It’s probably safe to say they’re going to extend their postseason drought to four years in 2019.
This happens to be the fourth season in Pittsburgh for reliever Felipe Vazquez, though he’s obviously not to blame for the team’s ongoing struggles. In fact, since the Pirates acquired the flamethrowing left-hander from the Nationals in a deal for veteran reliever Mark Melancon in July 2016, Vazquez has evolved into one of the majors’ premier late-game options. Vazquez was downright exceptional over the previous two seasons, but this may go down as his best campaign to date. The 28-year-old has pitched to a dominant 1.91 ERA/2.02 FIP with 14.03 K/9 against 2.34 BB/9 in 42 1/3 innings, adding 21 saves on 22 tries for good measure.
Considering Vazquez’s brilliance, not to mention the Pirates’ woes, there is a case they should consider parting with him before the July 31 deadline. The fact that Vazquez is controllable over the next few seasons for team-friendly salaries would help enable the Pirates to land an enormous return for him. The club shrewdly signed the strikeout artist formerly known as Felipe Rivero to a four-year, $22MM extension months before the 2018 season. He’s under wraps through at least 2021 as a result, though the way his career’s going, it looks like a sure thing right now that his employer will exercise $10MM club options in 2022 and ’23. Granted, those decisions are a long distance off, and considering the volatility of relievers, Vazquez could turn into a pumpkin by then. Perhaps that’s another reason to sell high on Vazquez now. But general manager Neal Huntington doesn’t seem to agree. Huntington has shot down the possibility of a Vazquez trade twice this month, noting both times that he expects the two-time All-Star to be indispensable to the Pirates’ next playoff team.
“Our expectation and anticipation is that Felipe will be closing out playoff games, be it this year or in the future with us,” Huntington said on July 1.
Unlike back then, the Pirates’ season now looks as if it’s close to flatlining. Nevertheless, Huntington remains steadfast in his desire to keep Vazquez, having said this past weekend that “we always have to entertain ways to make this organization — and ideally this current club — better. Sometimes you make the future clubs better, but we fully anticipate Felipe will be closing the next playoff games that we’re a part of.”
It certainly wouldn’t be indefensible on Pittsburgh’s part to retain Vazquez, who’s magnificent and affordable (all the more important for a low-spending franchise). On the other hand, Vazquez would probably be the best relief trade chip in the game if the Pirates were to shop him over the next week. What should they do?
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