By John Perrotto
The Pirates and Baltimore hold spring training just 12 miles apart on the Gulf Coast of Florida, the Pirates having called Bradenton their home away from home since 1969 and the Orioles setting up camp in Sarasota.
Both franchises have had vastly different seasons than expected. The Orioles hoped to end a streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons and contend in the American League East and the Pirates hoped to just be mildly respectable following last year’s 57-105 disaster. Instead, the Orioles are 18 1/2 games out of the first place in their division while the surprising Pirates trail the St. Louis Cardinals by only one game in the National League Central.
Because of their divergent paths, the Pirates and Orioles are shaping up as potential trade partners. Pirates’ scouts have been following the Orioles closely in recent weeks while zeroing in on potential infield and bullpen help. The Pirates have interest in a number of Orioles’ players, including first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Mark Reynolds, shortstop J.J. Hardy and relievers Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara.
Hardy is the most appealing player to the Pirates as they tried to trade with Minnesota for him at the winter meetings last December before the Twins instead dealt him to the Orioles. Hardy, 28, is having a fine season as he is hitting .277 with 13 home runs and 33 RBIs in 62 games with a .336 on-base percentage and a .496 slugging percentage.
The Orioles are trying to sign Hardy to a long-term contract as he is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. If a deal doesn’t get done in the next week, the Orioles will seriously consider moving him to another club before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.
The Pirates also have some interest in Lee, believing he might be able to bounce back from a sub-par first half with a shift back to the NL. The 35-year-old is hitting just .235 with nine homers and 30 RBIs in 71 games with a .293 OBP and a .374 SLG. Lee would be a short-term fix as he is on a one-year contract.
Reynolds would provide some much-needed power at third base but his drawbacks are his penchant for striking out. He has 20 home runs in 88 games but has also struck out 99 times to go with a .224 batting average, 49 RBIs, a .342 OBP and a .486 SLG.
Reynolds is signed for next year at $7.5 million and has an $11 million club option for 2013 with a $500,000 buyout. While Reynolds plays the same position as third baseman Pedro Alvarez, currently at Class AAA Indianapolis, the Pirates believe either player could move to first base.
Uehara and Johnson are both having fine seasons while setting up closer Kevin Gregg. Uehara, 36, is 1-1 with a 2.03 ERA in 37 games with a 0.675 WHIP and 52 strikeouts in 40 innings while Johnson, 28, is 5-2 with a 2.75 ERA in 40 games with a 1.185 WHIP and 35 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings.
Uehara has a vesting option that will guarantee him $4 million next season is he pitches in 55 games or finishes 25 games this year. Otherwise, he can become a free agent in November.
Johnson is making $975,000 this season, will be eligible for arbitration for a second time at the end of the season and won’t reach free agency until after the 2014 season.
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball for 24 years and is the national writer for Baseball Prospectus.