The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place. Clearly, they intend to stay there.
Major-league sources told FOXSports.com the Pirates have had preliminary trade discussions regarding two power-hitting outfielders, San Diego’s Carlos Quentin and Arizona’s Justin Upton. Talent evaluators from those two clubs have scouted Pittsburgh’s minor-league affiliates in recent days, as the teams prepare preference lists of prospects they want in the potential deals.
It seems unlikely the Pirates would acquire both Quentin and Upton, but they have a strong desire to upgrade their lineup by landing one of them. Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen is putting together an MVP season in the No. 3 spot, but he will see fewer pitches to hit in the second half unless general manager Neal Huntington adds a cleanup hitter. Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee have batted fourth for the Pirates in recent days.
Quentin would come at a lower prospect price, because he’s eligible for free agency after this season. Upton would command a larger package, since he’s under contract through 2015.
Upton, who finished fourth in the MVP balloting last year, would be the bigger splash for an organization seeking to re-establish itself. Upton’s relationship with the Arizona franchise has soured recently amid criticism from owner Ken Kendrick, but he’s highly regarded within the industry. A change of scenery may be the best thing for Upton. If he lands in Pittsburgh, he would combine with McCutchen to give the Pirates their best collection of star talent since the departure of Barry Bonds.
The Pirates, who invested large sums of money in the draft over the past several years, have the prospect depth to consummate a deal for either Upton or Quentin. The question is how willing Huntington will be to part with the necessary pieces.
Two Pirates pitching prospects — right-handers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon — were selected for Sunday’s All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City. The Pirates are said to be more reluctant to trade Cole than Taillon, in part because Cole is closer to the majors.
The Diamondbacks are in the midst of a disappointing season after winning the National League West last year. Officials of the club believe they can compete again next year, so general manager Kevin Towers likely would focus on acquiring prospects who are close to the majors. Pirates outfield prospect Starling Marte, who has an .846 OPS as a 23-year-old at Class AAA, is one potential fit. But it would take more than Marte to get Upton. Upton, after all, is only 24 and has been in the majors for all or part of six seasons.
The Padres, meanwhile, are willing to accept younger players in exchange for Quentin, as long as they possess substantial upside. San Diego is known for its strong pitching, but a rash of injuries this season could force general manager Josh Byrnes to look for young arms in return for Quentin or third baseman Chase Headley.
One way or the other, Huntington is poised to seize upon his team’s fast start during a season in which the defending world champion (and National League Central rival) St. Louis Cardinals have been faced with injuries to pitchers Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia.
The Pirates rank last among the 30 major-league teams in left field production (.594 OPS). They haven’t been much better in the other outfield corner (22nd), and Opening Day right fielder Jose Tabata is now in the minor leagues. Quentin or Upton would amount to a huge upgrade — because of what they would bring, and their impact on McCutchen, who leads the majors with a .359 batting average and ranks third with a 1.017 OPS.
“He’s the man there,” Toronto superstar Jose Bautista, the former Pirate, said of McCutchen in a recent interview. “If you take him out of that lineup, there’s no way they’re where they’re at in the standings. I don’t see him having big-time protection around him, and he’s still doing what he’s doing. He’s not going to get pitched to for that much longer.”