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MLB trade deadline 2024: Here's what Pirates, Ben Cherington must keep in mind

Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington in 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH — Ben Cherington spent 15 minutes discussing the development of Nick Gonzales, the challenge of players transitioning from Triple-A to the major leagues and the mercurial nature of Oneil Cruz's season on Saturday afternoon at PNC Park before the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager fielded the money question.

Or, more appropriately, the one that involves the Pirates spending — dollars and trade capital — to improve their roster prior to the July 30 MLB trade deadline.

There's obviously ample time between now and then. You also don't need me to explain the significance of the Pirates buying versus selling.

Cherington's answer described an MLB ecosystem with a crowded middle and only a few clear cellar dwellers, but he did offer something Pirates fans are eager to see happen: trading prospects for big-league help.

"We should be willing, prepared and ready to give up a minor league player for a major league player if it helps our team," Cherington said.

The GM balanced his answer by adding that the Pirates should also be mindful of "continuing to build up our young talent base," which is fair. However, there's only one logical direction for the Pirates at the deadline.

They can't sell.

The tricky part will be navigating the next seven weeks and figuring out where to add.

Rowdy Tellez's June resurgence matters, in a good way. My initial shopping list would've included a left-handed hitting upgrade at first base, though if Tellez becomes that, great.

As far as selling, it's also hard to see how that would happen.

Aroldis Chapman has been better of late, allowing an earned run over his last five appearances, but he still has a 4.43 ERA and has been averaging 9.7 walks per nine innings. It will be tough to mortgage that when you remember he makes $10.5 million.

Michael A. Taylor has been disappointing, his solid defense in center overshadowed by a paltry .500 OPS. What could that net? It's similar for Yasmani Grandal, who has handled pitchers well but also has a .484 OPS.

Any return would be unlikely to impact the major league club.

They're not trading Andrew McCutchen. Ryan Borucki and Martin Perez are hurt, though the latter is expected back soon. Tellez is the only other player on an expiring contract, which limits Cherington's fire sale options.

That also shouldn't happen. Not five years into a rebuild.

"Sixty-plus games in the season is enough time to know what parts of the team are working and what parts aren't working as well, what parts are steady and what parts are inconsistent," Cherington said. "Every team has that information, so now the next phase of the season will be, 'What do you do about it? How much can you fix internally? How much can you not?'

"If you're in a position to win, what's it going to take to go try to do something about that externally?"

Continuing to work through Cherington's comments, the Pirates are very much in a position to win, a luxury afforded to them by how well their starting rotation has fared. It's hard to see that changing with Mitch Keller, Paul Skenes, Jared Jones and Bailey Falter.

Which, of course, takes us to the what-do-they-do-about-it part of Cherington's answer.

Even though he has been inconsistent, Cruz needs to play. Ke'Bryan Hayes isn't going anywhere. Gonzales has to be in the lineup, too. The same for Bryan Reynolds and Connor Joe. Beyond that? That's where we should focus.

The popular trouble spot has been first base, but I'd actually rather see them get an outfield bat. These next seven weeks should tell us whether Edward Olivares deserves regular playing time, while it will take a lot for Jack Suwinski to reclaim a regular role.

Joe could function as a part-timer in the outfield, especially against left-handers, but they're more than likely at least one bat short. Pirates outfielders have a collective OPS of .630 a wRC+ of 79. Only three MLB clubs have fared worse.

Compare this to their OPS and wRC+ from first basemen (.703 and 100, 16th), and it makes outfield the priority, in my mind.

Pitching-wise, David Bednar has rediscovered his form. Colin Holderman has been terrific. But what happens if someone is unavailable? Luis Ortiz has been excellent as a multi-inning guy, and Carmen Mlodzinski has looked better of late.

Yet they need someone who can pitch at the back end of games and supplement their big three.

"We can't ever be satisfied with pitching, including the bullpen," Cherington said. "We'll keep looking for more options and for how we help guys in the minor leagues move into that picture, too."

That sounds good, but there's really not a ton available to them. The two most frequently used relievers in Indianapolis have ERAs well north of 5.00. I also don't feel great about Connor Sadzeck (3.82 ERA) as a big-league answer.

A bullpen arm runs concurrent with an outfield bat for me — and I'm not worried about the cost.

The Pirates have prospects they can package for major league help, while I would also like to see Braxton Ashcraft (on the 40-man roster) get a shot before too long. As frustrating as the Pirates might be with some things, they do a decent job finding matchups, and I believe Ashcraft has the stuff to succeed in that type of role.

I asked Cherington what the communicated goal from ownership has been for this season, prefacing it with many Pirates fans wanting to know whether they'll push some chips toward the middle of the table.

His answer, unfortunately, didn't reveal much, with Cherington referencing wanting to win now and in the future.

"We want to do everything we can to put our team in a position to stay in it, get better and keep winning more games," Cherington said. "I believe we have the resources — and when I say resources, I'm including the players and people who are already here — to give us a chance to do that. We just have to go execute."

In that sense, Cherington isn't wrong. The Pirates must continue playing solid baseball. But at this point, given what they have and what they could need, I don't see how they can do anything other than buy at the trade deadline.

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