NL Central leaders let it ride at deadline

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington and his St. Louis counterpart, John Mozeliak, spent the requisite long hours at the trade deadline making calls, kicking tires and putting out feelers in an effort to improve their rosters. But when the sellers are dictating the terms, it’s hard for two baseball executives in buyer mode not to feel like the main characters in a show about nothing.

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Huntington popped into the media conference room at PNC Park and spent 15 minutes explaining the team’s decision to refrain from an impact move at the deadline. Shortly thereafter, Mozeliak sat in the visitors dugout and shared a similar tale.

The Pirates acquired infielder Robert Andino from Seattle later in the evening and St. Louis traded lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Cleveland for a minor league shortstop at the deadline. Throw in a similar lack of activity by third-place Cincinnati, and July 31 was Stand Patrick’s Day in the National League Central.

“There’s no question we forced the issue,” Huntington said. “I made offers that made me incredibly uncomfortable, but we did so with the idea that we wanted to help this club. When the holder group became larger than expected, it made it even more of a seller’s market. And even when those clubs were willing to sell, it was either a difficult match or they didn’t have the players that matched what we were looking for.”

Of the two clubs, the Pirates were operating under greater scrutiny to get something done. How crazy are things in Pittsburgh now that the Buccos enter August in first place for the first time since 1992? When manager Clint Hurdle visited Starbucks Wednesday on one of his daily Man-About-the-Steel City rituals, the other patrons gave him a venti-sized standing ovation.

Recent history has shown that a flurry of midseason moves doesn’t necessarily produce the desired result. Last year, the Pirates acquired Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider, Wandy Rodriguez and Chad Qualls in July, and those reinforcements couldn’t prevent them from going into a 20-39 free fall in August and September.

Huntington said the team’s primary focus this year was on upgrading the offense, which ranks in the bottom half of the NL in batting average, runs, hits and total bases and near the top in strikeouts. The Pirates checked out an assortment of hitters that included Giancarlo Stanton, Mark Trumbo, Alex Rios, Justin Morneau and Nate Schierholtz, only to discover that the objects of their affection were either unavailable, cost-prohibitive or not a heck of a lot better than the talent already on the Pittsburgh roster. And any deal that mentioned top prospects Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco and Tyler Glasnow was guaranteed to make Huntington swallow hard.

“We were willing to do something stupid,” Huntington said. “We weren’t willing to do something insane.”

In the absence of a new bat, Hurdle said several Pittsburgh hitters are capable of contributing more than they have to this point. Neil Walker entered Wednesday’s game hitting .242 before launching his seventh homer of the season off Adam Wainwright, and Garrett Jones has 10 homers and a .433 slugging percentage compared to totals of 27 and .516 in 2012. Huntington also seems intrigued by minor league outfielder Andrew Lambo, who has hit 27 homers in a Darin Ruf-like power breakout with Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis this season.

The Pirates also felt comfortable not adding a relief pitcher even though their bullpen has logged a heavy workload and the team’s closer, Jason Grilli, is on the shelf with a strained forearm. They have faith in Mark Melancon in the ninth inning and think they have enough young, hard-throwing arms in the organization to overcome Grilli’s absence.

In contrast to the Pirates, who are on an emotional high right now, the Cardinals have to take solace in the knowledge that they’re just going through a temporary funk. They were the best team in the National League for the better part of three months, and they have the second-best run differential in baseball behind the Tigers. Mozeliak wasn’t about to panic and include Oscar Taveras, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong or another top prospect in a trade for a marginal upgrade.

“We didn’t want to make a decision in a six-game vacuum,” Mozeliak said. “In the end, we think we’re going to be a better team and play to what we’re capable of doing. When we looked at how we could have improved our club, we just didn’t have a lot of access to those pieces that could have made a difference.”

At least Mozeliak received some positive news on Wednesday when he learned that All-Star catcher Yadier Molina suffered no structural damage to his knee and will probably be fine with two weeks of rest. The Cardinals are talking to the agent for veteran Kelly Shoppach, who became a free agent after opting out of his minor league deal with Washington. But barring a change, the Cards will stick with Rob Johnson and Tony Cruz behind the plate until Molina returns.

Conventional wisdom says that a significant July deadline trade can boost spirits in a clubhouse, but Huntington and Mozeliak put an alternative spin on the status quo.

“I feel like this is a vote of confidence to the talent we have in there, because we weren’t scrambling to add to it.” Mozeliak said. “For us, those 25 guys in that room right now have to know that we believe in them. And we do.”

A general manager can help boost a player's spirits with a back slap or a kind word. In this case, Huntington and Mozeliak showed their faith in their 25-man rosters by doing next to nothing.