In the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates have had the platoon advantage in a smaller percentage of their plate appearances than all but three teams, a mere 49 percent of the time. Their lineup is heavily right-handed, at least in its value concentration. It has featured far too much Travis Snider (.233/.304/.350 in 227 plate appearances through Wednesday), but only because there really is no other option. Garrett Jones provides some lineup balance, but is not a good defensive outfielder, and like Snider, is inordinately vulnerable to left-handed pitching. As a team, the Pirates have had 125 PA by left-handed batters facing southpaw hurlers, and in those, they have hit a composite .147/.208/.224.
The Chicago Cubs can solve their division rivals’ problem for them, if the price is right.
Through Wednesday, Nate Schierholtz was hitting .293/.342/.563 for the season. Schierholtz has mostly seen right-handed pitching this year, and actually, throughout his career, but in 317 career trips against southpaws, he’s hit .277/.314/.377. Which isn’t even really important. What matters is that Schierholtz bats left-handed; offers defense at least the equal of Snider’s in right field; and can hit. He offers the Pirates’ lineup balance. He opens up the chance to get Snider out of heavy rotation, and to get either Starling Marte or Gaby Sanchez off the field against right-handed starters.
There’s an intradivisional trade stigma that would need to be surmounted to clear the way for that deal. It might also be a tough thing for the two sides to work out. Travis Snider is exactly the kind of player contending teams sometimes wait too long to give up on. He has potential, but has never met it, yet is young enough to tantalize the Bucs just a little bit, at least right now. Schierholtz is a very difficult player to value, too. He’s having a career year. He’s cheap, and under control for next season, but lacks pedigree or profile. The Cubs are within their rights, based on what he’s recently done and where he stands contractually, to ask for much more than he is actually worth, and much more than the Pirates would ever be willing to pay.
If the trade does happen, though, and I hope it does, it might be because there simply isn’t a good alternative to doing it. Only the Cubs, White Sox, Astros, Marlins, Brewers, Twins, Mets and Mariners are sellers at this moment. The Rockies, Angels, Dodgers and Phillies are the only teams likely to even consider selling before the deadline. Of that group of teams, only the Dodgers and Brewers can offer a left-hitting outfielder with offensive value. The Dodgers would want to offload Andre Ethier, but it’s not clear to me that there’s a fit there. The Brewers have Norichika Aoki, but are already more right-heavy than the Pirates–insanely right-heavy, in fact. Aoki is their only left-hitting regular, and is under affordable team control for 2014.
Though much-maligned, the Pirates’ starting rotation really isn’t bad. Even once the inevitable regression of Jeff Locke is accounted for, the triad of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Gerrit Cole is quite solid, and Francisco Liriano is free money. If the Cubs and Pirates can’t find common ground on a Schierholtz-only framework, they might add Carlos Villanueva to the mix and really go for it. Right now, Pittsburgh has the best record in baseball. If this holds for even a fortnight more, Neal Huntington will have no public-relations defense for standing pat with the roster. No Pirates team in 20 years has been in this position, and they can’t afford not to directly and aggressively address the biggest deficiency they have. Schierholtz would fill a critical hole.
I want to reinforce one point I touched on above, one that you should keep in mind if your team is in contention at the break: Teams screw up more often by waiting out unproductive young players while in pennant races than by making a move to improve in the near term. Occasionally, you have to deprioritize player development and just get wins now.
The 2008 Cubs grabbed Jim Edmonds off the scrap heap and (permanently, as it turned out) set Felix Pie aside, because that was what needed to happen. Brandon Belt got jerked around in San Francisco for three years, because he wasn’t hitting enough to keep a regular slot in the lineup. Ditto Domonic Brown in Philadelphia. The guys who are good enough, mentally and physically, will bounce back from that. In the meantime, there is a certain threshold, a certain point in each season, when the needs of the team need to overwhelm any individual or developmental considerations. If Travis Snider’s presence stops the Pirates from improving at the position where they can most easily do so, the front office should be razed and rebuilt with new material.
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