Bob Smizik: A deal Pirates could have made

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Anyone who has followed the way they've done business over the past six years had a pretty strong feeling that neither David Price nor Jon Lester were going to end up with the Pirates. The team is conservative, perhaps ultra-conservative, in its approach to almost all matters and certainly those of a fiscal nature.

The notion the Pirates were “interested” in those players was entirely plausible. The idea that they would actually consummate such a deal was fairly out of the question.

But there were trades to be made. One of them leaps out so much as just the kind of deal the Pirates should have made and have made that it’s puzzling they do not do it and seemingly were not even involved.

Right at the 4 p.m. deadline yesterday, the Chicago Cubs agreed to send versatile utility player Emilio Bonifacio, a switch-hitter, and left-handed reliever James Russell to the Atlanta Braves.

There you have it! Two of the exact type of pieces the Pirates needed.

The Pirates know Bonifacio, 29 and a free agent at the end of the season, well. Since 2011, he is 32-for-86 (.372) against the them. He is the ultimate in versatility. In his MLB career, he has started 166 games at second base, 128 in center field, 124 at third base, 81 at shortstop, 46 in left field and 20 in right field.

Russell, 28 and under one more year of control, has been a solid reliever since debuting in 2010. He has spent his entire career with the Cubs. He has a 3.51 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP this season.

The Cubs also sent $1 million to the Braves to help offset the $1.5 million the two players have remaining on their 2014 contracts.

And in return?

That, of course, is the key. The Braves sent catcher Victor Caratini, 20 later this month, to the Cubs. Caratini was the Braves second-round draft choice, 65th overall, in 2013. He was ranked anywhere from the Braves sixth to 13th-best prospect. MLB.com has him now as the Cubs No. 13 prospect.

Caratini was batting .279 with a .757 OPS in low Class A. He has five home runs in 323 at bats.

FanGraphs, which ranked him as the Braves No. 7 prospect, said this about Caratini:

“The key to Caratini’s value as a prospect is tied to his ability to continue developing at his new defensive home behind the plate. Converted to full-time catcher after his first pro season, the young prospect has picked up the basic skills quite quickly. He also has experience at third base but is considered below-average defensively and lacks the power profile to become an elite prospect there. Caratini shows a good swing at the plate as a switch-hitter and isn’t afraid the go the other way from either side of the plate. He also has a solid eye and some patience.”

Sounds good, but not exactly the second coming of Yadier Molina. And he is years away from MLB. Could the Pirates have equaled that return from their prospect-rich system?

If it were a catcher the Cubs were seeking, probably not. The Pirates would not trade Reese McGuire, their top catching prospect, for that short-term package. But somewhere in the Pirates system could there have been a match? You’d like to think there should have been some grounds for discussion and plenty of interest from the Pirates.

According to Braves general manager Frank Wren, the trade almost fell into their laps.

“Quite frankly this deal, it came to us late,” Wren told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We explored separate pieces – Bonifacio separately, Russell separately – and it really came together probably in the last 35, 40 minutes before the deadline. I really didn’t anticipate that.”

What you have there is evidence that both pieces, either a Pirates need, could have been acquired separately. Again: Why not the Pirates?

This is not to suggest Bonifacio is as good as he has played against the Pirates. He’s not. But he’s a lesser version of Josh Harrison. If Pedro Alvarez continues to falter at the plate and in the field and manager Clint Hurdle goes full-time with Harrison at third base, Bonifacio assumes Harrison’s role. He could platoon with Gregory Polanco in right field. He could give Neal Walker a day off a second base. He could play anywhere. If Harrison remains a super-utility player, Bonifacio still has much value and considerably strengthens the team's bench.

In rating the winners and losers of the deadline period, Jeff Passan of Yahoo, calling the Pirates a loser, wrote, ''Pittsburgh’s player-development system is a machine. At some point, it comes time to cash that in for a run, and considering the NL Central remains up for grabs, the Pirates were the anti-A’s and anti-Tigers, missing an opportunity that was theirs.’’


First Published August 1, 2014 12:00 AM

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