With center fielder Starling Marte out for 80 games after being popped for steroids, the Pittsburgh Pirates are understandably on the lookout for outfield help.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Pirates GM Neal Huntington admitted that the team is looking outside the organization to bring in an extra outfielder. Although the Pirates are technically in last place in the NL Central right now, it’s so very early (they are just 2.0 games behind the Cubs), and objective analysis indicates they’re still among the better teams in the NL Central, even accounting for the time they’ll be without Marte. Each of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project the Pirates to be right around .500 the rest of the way, and which good bounces here and there, a .500 team becomes a playoff contender.
And the Pirates could further improve that situation if they could find an additional, meaningful outfielder, sooner rather than later.
This time of year, however, the pickings are relatively slim. There are some free agents who haven’t yet signed, though they rarely even qualify as quality depth in April. There probably won’t be a significant trade piece available until the summer months, as sellers have not yet sorted themselves out from buyers (and even rebuilding clubs with pieces to sell tend to want to wait until the market fully develops mid-year, and they can market their assets to multiple teams). There is the waiver wire, but it’s tough to get a meaningful player there.
So, where does a team like the Pirates go for a useful addition this time of year in the outfield? Well, they’d have to find a team with an extra outfielder who is pretty darn good, but is also superfluous, and is also being squeezed out by roster concerns.
You are correct if – even before I tortuously wound through those paragraphs – you speculated that Matt Szczur was a perfect fit in this situation. It sure seems like he would be.
Szczur is not getting much playing time with the Cubs, and could see a lot more on a team like the Pirates. His presence (without options) has already pushed an arguably better fit for the bench to AAA Iowa (Tommy La Stella), and there have been rumors since the spring that the Cubs would be open to moving him.
But there’s a big but.
Even if Szczur is a perfect fit for the Pirates in their time of need, and even if the Cubs are hoping to get a decent prospect in return for Szczur as soon as possible, the question is whether either club – let alone both – would be looking to help a division rival right now. Imagine a scenario where Szczur’s addition to the Pirates helps them pull out a couple more wins than they would have if they stuck to mixing and matching with their current roster. How valuable would a prospect return have to be for the Cubs to be willing to risk the Pirates closing the gap in the NL Central if it was otherwise going to be just a few games when it’s all said and done? I would think the answer is “extremely”.
Further, Szczur has starter-caliber upside – I still believe that – and with more regular playing time in Pittsburgh, perhaps he realizes that, and then gives the Cubs fits for the next few years. Again, that doesn’t mean you don’t do a trade with a division rival, it’s just that the price in return has to really be worth it.
And if you’re the Pirates, then, are you really going to give up a significant prospect for a possibly fringe contributor because you lost an outfielder for half of a season? Doing so knowing that the prospect could blossom for the Cubs and help continue their window of contention in the very division in which you’re scratching and clawing to stay up near the top?
To be clear, the stakes here are relatively low. Although a nice role player for the Cubs last year and into this year, Szczur is probably not going to be the difference between a Pirates playoff appearance ahead of the Cubs, and the Pirates languishing near .500. But he probably is among the best outfield options available right now who has starter upside and who can play all three outfield positions. His addition would help the Pirates, at least somewhat.
As for the Cubs, it remains possible that Szczur sticks with the team all season, just as he did last year. It will depend on injuries, and the contours of the rest of the roster, but, if it happens, it’s not as if Szczur cannot meaningfully contribute to a good Cubs team, too.
It’s more likely, though, that the Cubs will continue to listen to interested teams, and may eventually move Szczur by midseason. Trading him sooner than that to the Pirates, though, strikes me as much less likely.
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