This is GM Neal Huntington’s 10th trade deadline with the Pittsburgh Pirates. From the good, the bad and the ugly, let’s recap the previous nine as this year’s deadline looms closer.
Today, we’ll take a look at the deals the Pittsburgh Pirates GM made in 2015.
The 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates went into the deadline with one of the best records in baseball, but still chasing the hated St. Louis Cardinals. They were going to be buyers regardless, but injuries to Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison and A.J. Burnett forced them to be more aggressive at the end of July than they have been in years past. The 2013 trades completed a good team. The 2015 team needed a boost or they would fall behind in the playoff chase.
What resulted was the best haul of midseason pickups in Huntington’s career.
July 23: Traded RHP Yhonathan Barrios to the Milwaukee Brewers for 3B Aramis Ramirez and cash
The greatest sin the Pittsburgh Pirates committed in the team’s history of deadline deals was shipping Aramis Ramirez to the Cubs in 2003. Bringing him back exorcised a lot of those demons. He also filled an immediate need for an infielder.
Ramirez hit .245/.299/.413 with six home runs down the stretch. It was around league average production according to wRC+ and OPS+, but he was worth -0.2 fWAR. That was mostly due to him trying to play first base once Mercer and Harrison returned. Without that, he was a nearly league average player, not sub-replacement level.
Barrios reached AAA with the Pirates and featured a good fastball, but he was viewed as a lottery ticket and at best a major league reliever. He cracked the majors in 2015 but has not pitched since then due to a shoulder injury.
Ramirez was what the Pirates needed: a veteran infielder who had been in pennant chases before. His willingness to go to first base was admirable. Anyone who watched him that year knows he was worth much, much more than his -0.2 fWAR. It was a good pickup.
July 29: Purchased RHP Joe Blanton from the Kansas City Royals
Sometimes the best trades are the ones nobody paid attention to. Blanton had done a good job as an inning eater for the eventual champion Royals, but he was designated for assignment once they acquired Johnny Cueto. The Pirates swooped in and took the revitalized pitcher off their hands, and he excelled. Serving as the long man, Blanton went 5-0 with a 1.57 in 34.1 innings with the Pirates.
Blanton has struggled in 2017, but he owes most of the success in his second major league stint to the Bucs. He went from failed starter to quality reliever in just two months.
July 30: Traded SS/OF Jacoby Jones to the Detroit Tigers for RHP Joakim Soria
That search concluded in them landing Soria, who recorded 201 saves in his career to that point. He was in the middle of another fine campaign with the Tigers before coming to the Pirates, and he continued to excel. He recorded a 2.03 ERA over 29 appearances, striking out 28 batters in 26.2 innings. With him, Watson and Melancon, the Pirates had a three-headed monster in the bullpen.
Jones was a well-ranked prospect in the Pirates’ organization, but he had a run-in with drugs while in the minors. He was suspended 50 games in 2015 and 2016 for what was called his second violation. There’s no word when the first one was, but timing wise, it probably happened when he was a Pittsburgh farmhand.
Still, he was good player between the chalk, ranked just outside of the team’s top 10 prospects by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline. He’s reached the majors the last two seasons, but has struggled mightily at the plate. He was hit in the mouth by a pitch this April, and while he is playing now, it seems the injury may have made him take a step back in his development. He’s still young, so there’s plenty of time for him to prove his major league worth.
This was probably an overpay, but shortening games to six innings was a goal of the front office. They got their guy, and he performed to their expectations.
July 31: Traded RHP Adrian Sampson to the Seattle Mariners for LHP J.A. Happ
Happ is quite possibly the Pirates’ greatest reclamation success story. He was just getting by as a number four or five starter for years before the Pirates picked him up in a last second panic once Burnett hit the DL. They lowered his arm slot and he became a frontline starter, going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA: good for 2.1 fWAR. Since 2013, only five players traded at the deadline were worth at least 2 bWAR. He is one.
Sampson was likely going to be taking Burnett’s spot had the trade not gone through. He earned a couple mentions as one of the Pirates’ top 30 prospects and was having a decent season in AAA. He made a spot start for the Mariners in 2016, but was claimed by the Rangers this offseason. Elbow injuries have been the norm for him lately, and he was outrighted off the 40-man this offseason. He has not pitched in 2017.
Happ was an amazing upgrade over Sampson. There is nothing new that can be said about this trade. With a lack of reliable major league arms available the last two deadlines, every GM is looking for the next Happ. The only other one who has been comparable is wearing black and gold now: Ivan Nova.
July 31: Traded OF Jose Tabata to the Los Angeles Dodgers for 1B Michael Morse and cash
And to wrap up the busy trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Dodgers swapped albatross contracts in the final minutes.
You may remember from my 2008 recap that Tabata was once considered the Yankees’ right fielder of the future and a top 100 prospect. He signed a modest six year, $15 million deal that started in 2011, but he turned out to be a major disappointment. While the $4.5 million he was owed in 2016 is not a lot to most teams, it was too much to just be considered dead money for the Pirates.
Morse signed a two year, $16 million contract with the Marlins in 2015, but was shipped to LA as dead money in a three team deal after recording -0.8 fWAR in his first 53 games. He had already been designated for assignment by the Dodgers, so they chose to get something rather than nothing and offset a little bit of cash.
Morse only had 82 plate appearances as a Pirate, but he slashed .275/.390/.391. He strengthened the bench, giving it a power threat it desperately needed. He was brought back in 2016, but was cut in April. Tabata has not reached the majors since.
The 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates fell short of lofty expectations, but it was no fault of Huntington. The Happ trade may be the best deadline rental buy of the past decade. Blanton and Soria made a good bullpen elite. Ramirez gave the Pirates production at a position they desperately needed, and Morse even chipped in. And let’s give credit where credit is due: ownership expanded payroll when they felt they had a legitimate chance to win.
2015 had a very bitter, unsatisfying ending, but the front office did everything they could do. The 3.7 fWAR they acquired is the most by 1.7 wins. The next closest? 2016.