The refrain is a common one—sign Free Agent X to a cheap one-year deal, with hopes that if nothing else they can be traded at the deadline for something. This is viewed as a cheap, easy way to build up some prospect capital, especially during the accumulation phase of a rebuild. I myself have even opined as much in this space before, urging the Pittsburgh Pirates to “think outside the box” when it comes to talent acquisition. Not that it’s a radical idea by any means, but upon further examination, maybe it actually is—at least for the Pirates.
With absolutely nothing else to consider at this point in the offseason, I thought I’d examine the history of these deals for the Pirates and see how they’ve turned out. Memory can be notoriously fallible, and that seems to be the case here. I was imagining a plethora of such trades over the recent history, but starting with the Neal Huntington era—the 2007 offseason—there have been a mere six trades involving seven players that fit the desired criteria—players signed to a Major League, one-year free agent deal traded during the following season. If you expand this to even include players whose contracts were purchased from initial minor league deals the count only expands to eight players; however, the six trades stay the same. I was so skeptical of this count that I reached out to a Pirates trade specialist, site subscriber, and someone who I hear from frequently on Twitter—David (@battling_bucs). I would like to recognize him for confirming my research, as we both came up with the same group. If anyone can think of an example we missed, please say so in the comments.
The following is a ranking of these six trades based on Baseball Reference WAR. I came up with the totals by adding the bWAR of the players acquired over their career with the Pirates, as well as including any bWAR accumulated by the free agent signing prior to the trade. Prepare to be blown away:
- Acquire James McDonald (3.0) and Andrew Lambo (-0.7) from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Octavio Dotel (0.2) – 2.5 bWAR Total
If you would have asked me which trade would lead this list, this is probably the one I would have guessed without looking anything up. Of these six trades, half actually came during the same 2010 season, with Dotel proving to be the team’s best trade-chip during this particular deadline.
Dotel was actually signed to a one-year deal that included an option, so while he may not totally fit the spirit of this analysis, I will still include him here. While serving as the team’s primary closer, Dotel racked up 21 saves in 41 games. The Pirates were able to capitalize, acquiring a promising starting pitcher in McDonald and a former Top-50 prospect (per Baseball America) in Lambo. Despite the lofty prospect status and a 32-homerun season in the minors in 2013, Lambo was never able to catch on in the majors.
McDonald, however, was a mainstay in the rotation during the 2011-12 seasons, starting 60 games. In 2013, McDonald fell prey to shoulder discomfort that landed him on the disabled list, before ultimately being designated for assignment before the end of the season. Discomfort in the same right shoulder put him on the disabled list again with the Chicago Cubs in 2014, after which he was out of professional baseball.
- Acquire Joe Martinez (0.0) and John Bowker (0.2) from the San Francisco Giants for Javier Lopez (0.9) – 1.1 bWAR Total
This trade was second not because of the return, but due to Lopez’s success before the trade. Lopez had an additional year of arbitration eligibility when he signed with the Pirates, and he actually stayed with the Giants for six more seasons after the trade, or the remainder of his career.
The return was obviously nothing to write home about, as neither player had any kind of prospect history or major league success. Bowker had been in the majors for three seasons already and appeared in 45 games over two seasons with the Pirates, while Martinez pitched just five games with the team in 2010, after which he was designated for assignment in the offseason.
- Acquire Eric Fryer (0.2) and Casey Erickson (n/a) from the New York Yankees for Eric Hinske (0.4) – 0.6 bWAR Total
Not much to say here. Fryer played 16 games for the Pirates over two seasons, while Erickson never advanced past High-A.
- Acquire Cody Ponce (0.3) from the Milwaukee Brewers for Jordan Lyles (0.0) – 0.3 bWAR Total
Lyles started the 2019 season in fantastic fashion, with an ERA under 2.00 through his first eight starts. He fell off slightly after that, before really struggling in several of his final starts with the team before being traded. He found renewed success in Milwaukee after the trade, turning that into a solid two-year deal with the Texas Rangers after the season.
Ponce made his debut in 2020, largely serving as the literal 29th-man and double-header specialist. He pitched to solid results and should serve as rotation depth for the team this season, with a chance to propel this deal up the rankings.
- Acquire Chris Snyder (0.4) and Pedro Ciriaco (0.4) from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Ryan Church (-0.6), Bobby Crosby (-1.2), and D.J. Carrasco (0.8) – -0.2 bWAR Total
While this felt exciting at the time, it’s kind of a weird trade looking back on it now. Snyder was a full-time backstop for several seasons before the deal, but the Diamondbacks were reportedly trying to allocate payroll elsewhere, which is evident by the pu-pu platter deluxe return . In the end, they sent $3 million to the Pirates to cover a portion of Snyder’s approximately $8.2 million remaining commitment. So yes, this was the Pirates actually acquiring a player with a track record, significant cash remaining on his deal, and at a position of need—Ryan Doumit was out at the time. After splitting time with Doumit down the stretch in 2010, Snyder was on the disabled list for a significant portion of 2011, after which the team declined his $6,750,000 option for 2012.
As for Ciriaco, he made his debut with the Pirates that same season, but only appeared in 31 games between 2010 and 2011, before bouncing around the league for several more seasons.
- Acquire International Signing Bonus Pool Space from the Chicago White Sox for Jarrod Dyson (-0.6) – -0.6 bWAR Total
Seems I was prescient in the aforementioned article when I wrote “Would a team want to acquire Jarrod Dyson as a pinch runner at the deadline?” (this was before they even signed Dyson). It seems the White Sox fit the bill, as Dyson pinch-ran four times in eleven games.
As for the Pirates, Dyson was of no real value to them, and it was surprising they were able to pry what they did away from the White Sox. Maybe Eduardo Zapata will turn out to be savior that will rocket this trade to the top of the charts.
There you have it. With one player producing even over a 1.0 bWAR and one Top-100 prospect among six trades, the Pirates have not been very successful with these types of deals in the past. Maybe they are just doing it wrong, either by not signing the correct players to trade, trading the wrong signings, or eyeing the wrong players in return. Obviously, with only one example to go off of with the current front office, it’s hard to judge them too harshly right now. While I’m not suggesting forgoing the strategy entirely, maybe many shouldn’t be as quick to mention these kinds of deals as some kind of full proof plan in the future.