Pirates Push For Postseason, Acquire Wandy

Prior to the trade deadline, many expected the Pittsburgh Pirates to leverage their talented farm system to acquire an impact bat. After all, their offense has a combined .302 wOBA, and they penciled in a batting order on Tuesday evening that featured five players (not including the pitcher) with an on-base percentage below .300.

That big bat may still be in the cards this week, but the Pirates temporarily shifted their focus to the starting rotation and acquired southpaw Wandy Rodriguez from the Houston Astros in return for three minor league players — outfielder Robbie Grossman and lefties Colton Cain and Rudy Owens.

The starting rotation for the Pirates was not necessarily a pain-point for the organization, as the group had compiled a 3.95 ERA and 3.92 FIP on the season thus far. Room for improvement existed, however, as right-hander Kevin Correia still took the mound every fifth day with a 4.31 ERA and 4.95 FIP. His ZiPS projection throughout the remainder of the season only forecasts pain, too, as it predicts him to post a 5.40 ERA and 4.83 FIP from here on out.

Trading for Wandy Rodriguez allows the Pirates to remove Correia from the starting rotation and replace him with a more consistent, more effective pitcher.

Rodriguez has seen his swinging-strike rate drop in each of the past three seasons and his strikeout rate is the lowest since his rookie year in 2005, but the 33-year-old continues to find success on the mound by throwing strikes and keeping the baseball on the ground. His 2.20 BB/9 walk rate and 50.7% ground ball rate are both the best marks of his career. Those two factors have helped Rodriguez post a better-than-average 3.79 ERA (97 ERA-) and 3.77 FIP (98 FIP-) this year.

Look for him to continue his success in Pittsburgh. He now moves to PNC Park, which has suppressed home runs in 2012 at the fourth-highest rate across the league. This will benefit Wandy Rodriguez because he can continue to flip up his nasty curveball, yet not get beaten by his pedestrian fastball as often as he did in Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Of the home runs surrendered this season, ten of the eleven he has surrendered came off his fastball. Opposing hitters have a .226 ISO against his fastball and only swing-and-miss against it 4.1% of the time. All of that speaks to his fastball being a fringe-average pitch, especially when considering it only averages 89 MPH at this point in his career. PNC Park will help mitigate the damage against his fastball.

Rodriguez will be owed $13M next season and now has a player option worth $13M in 2014. The Pirates will only pay $8.5M of his contract next season, and if the left-hander exercises his option for 2014, the Pirates only pay $7.5M of the contract. That leaves Pittsburgh with a maximum $16M commitment in 2013 and 2014 for an unspectacular, but effective mid-rotation pitcher, who has not compiled an ERA over 4.00 since the 2007 season. He is a two-to-three win pitcher annually and will certainly improve the Pirates’ starting rotation down the stretch in the battle for the NL Central pennant.

To acquire Wandy Rodriguez, the Pirates surrendered a trio of prospects that will provide even more depth to the Astros’ burgeoning farm system. Our own Marc Hulet has in-depth scouting reports available on the Grossman, Cain, and Owens. The consensus seems to be, though, that Houston acquired more depth than high-end talent in terms of prospects in this deal.

New Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow understood the mess he inherited in Houston and has engaged in a full-scale rebuilding project. Take a look at the prospects acquired this month, including their Baseball America team ranking prior to the season:

Player ’12 BA Ranking
3B Matt Dominguez 4-Miami
LHP Rob Rasmussen 7-Miami
RHP Joe Musgrove 20-Toronto
RHP Asher Wojciechowski 10-Toronto
LHP David Rollins UR-Toronto
C Carlos Perez 14-Toronto
RHP Matthew Heidenreich UR-Chicago (AL)
LHP Blair Walters 26-Chicago (AL)
OF Robbie Grossman 8-Pittsburgh
LHP Colton Cain 13-Pittsburgh
LHP Rudy Owens 16-Pittsburgh

One could argue that Houston has failed to acquire a true top-tier prospect this season, which is valid, but the Astros have not traded away any elite talent, either. Luhnow has moved his assets to accumulate talent and depth in a system that ranked amongst the worst in all of baseball just a couple of seasons ago. The rebuilding project in Houston will not become successful with an elite prospect or two. Instead, it will take a completely new wave of talent. The organization has begun working toward that gameplan this summer with a flurry of trades, which effectively transform their minor league system for the upcoming seasons.

For the Pirates, they acquired a mid-rotation pitcher in Wandy Rodriguez, which will allow them to jettison Kevin Correia from the starting staff. It will be interesting to see if this deal is just a precursor to a move for an impact bat, or if the organization believes themselves to be in a good position for a postseason berth, given the inclusion of the second Wild Card.

The Pirates are not going “all-in” for the 2012 season with a rental. Instead, they acquired an upgrade in the starting rotation for through at least 2013 without sacrificing their future core in the farm system. This is not a one-time grab at baseball relevancy. The Pittsburgh Pirates want to build a perennial contender. Unlike many mid-season trades, Wandy Rodriguez helps them accomplish that goal.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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