By John Perrotto
The Pirates are in position to do a couple of things they haven’t accomplished in two decades — have a winner season and make the postseason.
They’ve done neither since 1992 but are willing to pull out all the stops to end both slides this season.
“I would say the Pirates are the most active team on the trade market right now,” said an assistant general manager from a major-league team out of contention and willing to trade. “They’re calling everybody. They’re asking about everybody.”
Pirates owner Bob Nutting has given general manager Neal Huntington the OK to add to the payroll in an attempt to improve a team that is 48-37 and leads the National League Central by one game over Cincinnati and 2 1/2 over St. Louis. The Pirates have the second-best record in the NL behind Washington and fourth-best mark in the major leagues.
While the Pirates have been looking to upgrade their offense since the early portion of the season, they are hopeful Class AAA Indianapolis Starling Marte can soon step in as the everyday right fielder. Marte could be recalled to make his major-league debut as early as Friday night at Milwaukee when the Pirates resume play after the All-Star break.
Thus, the Pirates have shifted focus and are attempting to trade for a proven starting pitching, according to multiple sources. They are going after big names, having inquired about Philadelphia left-hander Cole Hamels, Milwaukee right-hander Zack Greinke, Boston left-hander Jon Lester and Chicago Cubs right-handers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza.
The Pirates are telling teams they will not part with their top three pitching prospects in right-handers Gerrit Cole, Jamison Taillon and Luis Heredia. However, they would rethink that position if they are to sign Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, their first-round draft pick, before the 5 p.m. Friday deadline.
Garza cannot be a free agent until after the 2014 season and Lester is signed through next year with a club option for 2014. The contracts of Hamels, Greinke and Dempster expire at the end of the season.
The Pirates feel they need another frontline starter to join right-handers James McDonald and A.J. Burnett at the top of the rotation not only to give themselves a better chance of reaching the postseason but winning if they get there.
Among the hitters the Pirates are pursuing via trade is Arizona right fielder Justin Upton. However, sources on both sides cast doubt on whether that deal can be accomplished because the Diamondbacks are looking for a shortstop to replace Stephen Drew next season and the Pirates could also use help at that position.
The Pirates’ top hitting target at the moment is San Diego right fielder Carlos Quentin, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. However, the Padres are on hold with Quentin for now because the franchise on the verge of being sold and it is believed the next ownership group may try to entice the San Diego-area native to stay with a multi-year contract offer.
While catcher has become a position of strength thanks to the combination of Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry, the Pirates have asked about Oakland’s Kurt Suzuki, who is signed through 2014 and is losing playing time to rookie Derek Norris. While Suzuki isn’t a great fit now, he would give the Pirates a solid starting catcher next season as they do not feel Indianapolis’ Tony Sanchez will be ready for that role.
The Pirates are also open to adding depth to their bench and bullpen.
They have inquired about Boston outfielder Ryan Sweeney and are interested in signing left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes as a free agent. Fuentes served as the closer during part of current Pirates manger Clint Hurdle’s tenure as Colorado’s manager.