The Pirates have the opportunity to be buyers approaching the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, one of the many perks of their first-half success.
They have a 47-43 record entering a game tonight against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park and are just a game out of first place in the National League Central Division coming out of the All-Star break. Their record, along with a bevy of injuries, has them in position, should they choose, to acquire players rather than give them away.
Game: Pirates vs. Astros, 8:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park, Houston.
TV, radio: Root Sports, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Jeff Karstens (7-4, 2.55) vs. RHP Brett Myers (3-9, 4.88).
Key matchup: Karstens vs. Hunter Pence, who is 7 for 16 with a home run against him in his career.
Of note: Karstens has walked one batter in his past two starts.
"In theory we would absolutely like to add to this club," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We work every day to try to see if there is the right piece to add to the club."
Though their offense needs a transfusion, Huntington stressed the club would only pursue a calculated, rational deal. He also said the team weighed more than a player's performance when deciding to trade or replace him.
"Some of our veteran players have done so much work that will never get recognized in batting average, it will never get recognized in RBIs," he said.
Trading for a strong hitter would make the most sense for the Pirates, who rank in the bottom third of the league in most offensive categories, and they have the most need at catcher, third base and possibly first. They could attempt to acquire players from teams that are no longer in contention, such as the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, or from teams who face financial difficulties, such as the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Astros All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence would make sense, though he probably would require a deal heavy with prospects in return. The Pirates could rent a player such as first baseman James Loney from the Dodgers for the rest of the season, or acquire Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, and his $6 million club option for 2012, if Pedro Alvarez takes longer to come back from injury than expected. Cubs catcher Geovany Soto also would make sense.
Financial issues surrounding the ownership for the Mets and Dodgers created uncertainty in their payroll flexibility, and both could dump salary and acquire prospects, something the Pirates have in excess.
"[One of the reasons] you have a deep and talented farm system is to make trades to add to your major league club when you don't have the right piece," Huntington said. "We are to a point where we've got some prospects in the system that we're willing to talk about."
The Mets began a salary dump process Tuesday, trading closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Milwaukee Brewers for two players to be named later and cash. Rodriguez has a $17.5 million option that vests if he finished 55 games, which he is on pace to do.
The Pirates might also choose to deal some prospects to avoid losing them in the Rule 5 draft. After a player spends four or five years -- depending on his age when he signed his first contract -- as a pro, teams must add the player to their 40-man roster or risk losing him to another team. The Pirates have a full 40-man roster and several prospects they need to protect.
"It's certainly something that we've got to take into consideration, but the bottom line is you can't force another organization to like one of your players," Huntington said.
At the beginning of the season, Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm seemed the most likely major league candidates to be traded. Doumit has a $7.25 million club option in 2012 and Snyder a $6.75 million option. Maholm has a $9.75 million club option, and as it is, the three 2011 contracts comprise more than a third of a $42 million payroll.
Since then, injuries to Snyder and Doumit have tabled the idea.
Recently, Maholm has pitched well enough to make that option, or at least re-negotiating his contract to keep him, seem reasonable. Maholm has said he would like to remain in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates outfield faces a bottleneck, making it possible they could trade someone from that position of depth. Outfielder and first baseman Garrett Jones' multi-position versatility and power potential make him a candidate to be traded. Fox Sports reported the Pirates discussed sending Jones to the Los Angeles Angels for catcher Jeff Mathis, though the Pirates decided they didn't want to part with Jones' power.
"The conversations are ongoing," Huntington said. "The market is beginning to clarify a little bit but there's still more buyers than there are sellers."
NOTES -- The Pirates optioned Daniel Moskos to Class AAA Indianapolis Thursday. They are expected to activate Joe Beimel soon. ... Ross Ohlendorf, who was on the disabled list because of a shoulder strain, began a rehabilitation assignment with Class A Bradenton, and Steve Pearce, out because a strained calf, had his rehab assignment moved to Indianapolis. ... The Pirates also agreed to terms with third-round pick Alex Dickerson, a first baseman from Indiana.
Bill Brink: email@example.com .