The Rays Demonstrate What the Pirates Need to Achieve

The Rays traded Garza to the Cubs in an eight player deal.

The Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t share a lot of similarities these days.  The Rays broke out in 2008, and have been contending in the tough American League East ever since.  The Pirates, on the other hand, just completed their 18th losing season in a row in 2010.  However, both small market teams share a few similarities heading in to the 2011 season.

The Rays came in to the day with a projected payroll just over $38 M, according to Rays Index.  They were also shopping their highest paid player, Matt Garza, who is making $5.25 M in 2011.  The Pirates came in to the day with a projected $40.5 M payroll, and have been reported to be shopping Paul Maholm this off-season, who makes $5.75 M.  But again, the Rays and Pirates share very few similarities.

The Pirates aren’t going to compete in 2011, even if they keep Maholm.  The Rays traded Garza today to the Chicago Cubs, cut their payroll to $33 M, and even after the trade, they could still be competitors, despite heavy competition from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.  The main reason for the difference is that the Rays do exactly what a small market team should do: buy low and sell high.

There were two things I noticed today about the eight player deal between the Rays and the Cubs.  The first was that the Rays really didn’t need the prospects they received.  The top two prospects were Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee.  Archer, a starting pitcher, was the number one prospect for the Cubs, according to Baseball America, and should start the 2011 season in AAA.  Despite trading Garza, the Rays are loaded with starting options, with David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson still in the rotation.  Lee, a shortstop in low-A and the number four prospect for the Cubs, is excess. The Rays have a young major league shortstop in Reid Brignac, and 2008 first round pick Tim Beckman also in the lower levels.

The other thing I thought about was that the Rays are never really on the other side of this equation.  As we saw during the Jason Bay negotiations, the Rays are very stingy when it comes to giving up prospects.  In fact, the most recent trade that could be considered a “buy” move for the Rays also included Garza.  In 2007 the Rays traded top prospect Delmon Young, along with Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie to the Minnesota Twins, in exchange for Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett.  Three years later the Rays replaced Bartlett with Brignac, replaced Garza with Hellickson, and traded both players in separate deals, landing a combined total of nine prospects.

As mentioned above, the Rays don’t need the prospects right now.  That could be different down the line.  If you told me right now that in December 2013 the Rays would trade Reid Brignac and Jeff Niemann, and replace them with Hak-Ju Lee and Chris Archer, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.  That’s why the Rays are successful.  They have a loaded farm system, and talent in the majors, and when that talent gets too expensive for their market size, they can afford to bring up someone from the minors, trade the veteran player, and in the process re-stock the system.

The immediate need for the Pirates is to actually build a talented team in the majors.  There is hope on the horizon, with the 2010 Altoona rotation, the potential for Jameson Taillon to move quickly through the farm system, the chance that the Pirates draft Anthony Rendon, and the close proximity to the majors of top prospects like Tony Sanchez, Starling Marte, Andrew Lambo, and Chase D’Arnaud, who will all be in AA or higher to start the 2011 season.  There’s no guarantee that this group will lead the Pirates to success, but when paired with the talent already in the majors, specifically Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and James McDonald, the group looks very promising.

Even if you concede that this group could turn things around for the Pirates, two arguments are always brought up.  First is the “they will only have a small window of opportunity to compete before they will have to rebuild”.  Second is the “they will end up trading (Insert Player Here) once he reaches free agency”.

If the Rays have shown anything, it’s that the window of opportunity doesn’t have to be 2-3 years if you do things right.  The Rays are technically re-building, yet they have one of the strongest young rotations in the game, and they’re competitors in the strongest division in baseball.  The Rays also trade their players before they reach free agency.  In the last two years the Rays have lost Garza, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, and Scott Kazmir, to name a few.  Yet they’re still contenders, thanks to their strong farm system, which will remain strong after the Garza and Bartlett trades, as well as the compensation picks for Pena and Crawford.

Part of the problem with the Rays is attendance.  No matter how good the team is, they’re in a bad situation.  They’re located away from the heart of Tampa, unlike the other sports franchises in the area, and they play in Florida, where sports teams shouldn’t exist due to all of the transplanted fans in the area who have no affiliation with the local teams.  If the Pirates turn things around they do have the hope of pulling a smaller scale Minnesota Twins where their attendance would increase, allowing them to keep a player or two well beyond their free agent years.

Overall the most important thing is a strong farm system.  The system was almost bare three years ago.  Of the current young talent, only Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Brad Lincoln were considered prospects.  Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf, and James McDonald were added via trades.  Pedro Alvarez was drafted.  Of the Altoona rotation, Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke were added through trades, Justin Wilson was drafted, and Rudy Owens only turned in to a top prospect due to the adjustments made over the last two seasons.  The system is starting to show some promise, although it was an uphill battle from the start, and the work is far from over.

The lower levels are starting to see a boost in talent with all of the high-upside prep players that have been drafted over the last few years.  Those players should start to reach high-A by the end of the 2011 season.  The biggest jump in the minors is the jump to AA.  A lot of scouts and players I talk to say that if you have the talent to be successful in AA, you have the talent to be successful in the majors.  The Pirates are starting to look loaded at the lower levels, mostly in the pitching department, but the farm system won’t be in top shape until they become loaded at the AA level and above.

If that happens, and if the Pirates turn things around, then we won’t have to worry about potential Jose Tabata trades closing the window of opportunity for the team to compete.  We can just turn to guys who are ready to step in to the majors, like Mel Rojas Jr. or Exicardo Cayonez as two possible examples. Then we can watch the Pirates trade Tabata to reload the farm system, all while keeping the same pace at the major league level.  It’s all easier said than done, as you’ll notice the Rays are one of few teams who seem to have mastered this.  That said, if there’s any question as to what the goal should be for the team, this is it.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Anonymous

    Great article Tim! I was bummed when I found out that Garza was going to the Cubs. I’ve been pitching (pun intended :) the idea of the Pirates acquiring Garza since November and that would have been the best time for them to deal for him. I believe Garza’s value, though high, only skyrocketed after Cliff Lee signed and Zach Greinke was traded to the Brewers. Cubs GM Jim Hendry is trying to keep up with one of their divisional rivals and probably overpaid for Garza’s services. It’s great for the Rays because they got the maximum value for Garza to the tune of 5 prospects. I’m glad the Pirates didn’t deal 5 prospects for Garza. I would have been willing to part with one of the Altoona starters, Meek or Hanrahan, and one or two lower minor leaguers for Garza, but not 5 prospects!

    Changing topics now, do you intend to write a story on how the Carlos Gonzalez signing may influence the Pirates’ ability to keep Andrew McCutchen long-term?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I don’t think the Gonzalez signing impacts McCutchen. Gonzalez had a huge season in 2010, to the point where he was a serious MVP candidate. Cutch has been good, but not to that level where he would receive around $10 M a year in an extension.

      Also, I’ve mentioned this a lot, but signing players this early is rare. The Rockies signed Troy Tulowitzki once he reached arbitration. They signed CarGo after two full seasons. We’ve only seen one full season from McCutchen. You don’t find many instances where players sign extensions this early.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Tim, agree with you on he importance of building the minor league system, I have long advocated how the minor league talent has handicapped Huntington, especially in the pitching dept. When they needed a pitcher, they had no where to turn, 2011 might be the first year since Huntington has been here that he will be able to turn to the minor leagues and call up a credible pitcher when he needs one.

  • Anonymous

    I agree totally on the Attendance…the Pirates might be able to keep a extra guy or two the Rays couldn’t…because we all know soon as the Pirates start winning Pittsburgh is a unbelievable sports town and PNC Park will be filled almost every night.

    • Anonymous

      There are flaws in using Attendance figure to project future payroll number. For example, last year Toronto only averaged ~100 people more than the Pirates per home game, yet their payroll was $62.2 M vs. the Pirates $35 M. Also, one of the few teams the Pirates had better attendance, the A’s, had a payroll of $51.6 M.

      Personally, I’m a big follower of the Bucs, and I’m definitely not yelling to “sell the team!”, but it gets frustrating that it just doesn’t seem like our FO is willing to spend more in a market that is definitely a bigger market area than a Toronto or Oakland, yet our locals that don’t go to the games are blamed for the Piratess spending.

      One note to tim, I personally ordered your book, but while reading your last post about how you’d like to afford to do more this upcoming year. I’ve seen web sites that offer viewers the ability to donate to the website at the click of a couple buttons and paid through Pay pal (the late watchtvsitcoms.com comes to mind) as an option to get alternative means of funds. I know I personally would be willing to donate $20-40 per year, as that was my plan with the PBC Bog for this year until the announcement that DK wasn’t covering the Bucs exclusively any more. I definitely prefer your coverage than to any of the local coverage.

  • Anonymous

    It would be like farmers eating their seeds instead of planting them……… It has taken 3 long losing years to get to the point of having a respectful minor league system and to start trading away those prospects for a few more wins is crazy. It will take another 3 years of good drafting to get this farm system really fluid and running like a well oiled machine. I just wish the whole Pirate Nation would get behind what they are trying to do.

  • http://twitter.com/rssgvegas Ryan Suchy

    We’ll have to agree to disagree here. First I disagree that you have to continue to build a team with the same philosophy as you started with. I like the Bucs plan to get where they are now and for the future. That does mean they can’t take a gamble here and there.

    There’s also a difference in being competitive and being a champion. I honestly think the Rays missed a great opportunity for a World Series a couple years ago and right now I question if they can get back to that point anytime soon. I think the Bucs have a window right now they had to take advantage of.

    I also disagree with the thought they are either legit or a fluke. I think they are a legit playoff team, but not a legit world series contender. I think there were a couple players available who could’ve put us there, Pence being one of them. It’s just that we have issues in our lineup that I think can be exposed come playoff time. I think our lineup is too similar. Lots of power across the board, but too many K’s, mediocre avgs, and not enough guys just getting on. Snider is no different. Pence has actually been playing much better than his numbers have indicated. Aside from a poor past couple weeks he’s had a OPS % of .912 since May 1st. He’s also dealt with most of his key offensive mates on the DL and he hasn’t been pitched to kindly. Same thing happens to Cutch in close games and we still don’t have anyone behind him that scares pitchers enough to not pitch around him. I think that’s a big issue come playoff time. Pence’s OPS is almost .900 when he’s batting 4th or 5th this season, which is where we would’ve used him. I like Garrett Jones but he’s nowhere close to a comparison as a guy like Pence. Plus I wanted Jones with Pence. For those that say there’d be a hole still if Marte was traded for Pence, who’s to say we still also couldn’t get a guy like Snider still or Snider himself?

    Bottom line to me is that I thought we could make the playoffs this year with this team and still do. I thought with a couple additions we could start dreaming even bigger. I do agree we at least are better than we were last week so it’s not totally bad and I know if you do make the playoffs all bets are off. It’s just a little disappointing we didn’t do more, especially after seeing so many guys get traded and contending teams not really having to give up that much for them. Playoffs are never a given, heck look how quickly the Phillies became sellers. Prospects are just that, prospects! They’re unproven commodities, so why not roll the dice once and get a proven player or two? I don’t think that would kill the franchise or our progress!

    That being said, it is what it is and now we move on. Let’s go Bucs!

  • http://twitter.com/Spazaru Murray Passarieu

    I mostly agree with this. Teams like the Pirates can’t mortgage their future for a guy like Pence unless it guarantees them a shot at the World Series and of course nothing guarantees that so it’s futile to put all your eggs in one basket. I think the Pirates are legit as far as the wild card or MAYBE to contend for the division title. To say they’re legit if they had to play the Rangers or Angels I think is dreaming, but that’s just baseball the way it’s set up. Neal did the best he could here. I’m not sure why we gave up the draft pick to get Qualls but other than that, I like the moves.

    • Lee Young

      I agree that we can’t mortgage the future.

    • indybucfan

      The draft pick was for Sanchez. I loved the moves. Would Lincoln have gotten this return a year ago? He’s done well in the role he was put in, but arguably, we may have the same type of pitcher waiting in AAA in Bryan Morris who I would like to see. I’m not crazy about Qualls. I would’ve rather seen Morris brought up, but bullpen guys seem to come here and turn it around, so I’ll trust Neal on this.

  • John DiVito

    Great job Tim! I agree with you on all accounts. I think the trade deadline is a great place to build for the future, even if you are contending, because teams get so desperate to make a move. If you are willing to put up with a little bit of anger from your fan base, you can make some really shrewd moves, like Neal did yesterday.

    Seriously, the upgrades are great:
    RF before trade: Presley, Harrison, Sutton, Jones… eek
    RF after trade: Snider, who should provide good power and defense

    1B before trade: Caey McGehee… every night… eek
    1B after trade: Jones (at his most valuable position) and Sanchez, who is a big upgrade over McGehee

    Bench before trade: Sutton and Harrison usually playing out of position, Mercer
    Bench after trade: Presley (where he has value as a 4th OF), Harrison (back in his proper role), Mercer, Sanchez, who is better against RH than McGehee so he is a legit bench bat!

    Bullpen is the only place we downgraded, and that was our strongest position!

  • RandyLinville

    “A fluke team doesn’t include MVP favorites and Cy Young candidates.” I disagree with this. I think that sometimes what makes a fluke team a contender are players playing at an unexpectedly high level.

    Take two teams of the 1980s as an example. The 1984 Cubs and the 1988 Dodgers. Both teams finished under .500 the year before and the year following their playoff year. Both teams had both the Cy Young and MVP winners on the roster. Often times success is driven by players playing above expectations. That isn’t to say that those award winners weren’t legitimate ballplayers – Sutcliffe, Sandberg, Gibson and Hershiser certainly were. But their individual success helped carry an otherwise flawed team to the post-season.

    I love Cutch. Everybody loves Cutch and with good reason. But do we think he is going to be Rod Carew with power every year? Excluding the Colorado air (Larry Walker) and steroids, only Gwynn, Boggs and Carew have hit better than .360 more than once since the divisional era began in 1969. This very well could be the best year he ever has (hopefully not, but it could be). Burnett’s success has been nothing short of a wonderful surprise. I’d count another year of him pitching like this as an even greater surprise. In other words, I think this team is more flukey than you think it is. I don’t think this team is as good as it has played.

    All that being said, I think the FO did a fine job at the deadline.

  • Chauncey Jordan

    Huntington is doing an incredible job. People lose sight of where this team was just 2 and a half years ago
    Our lineup then/now
    Doumit/Barajas
    Laroche/jones-G. Sanchez
    F Sanchez/n. walker
    J. Wilson/Barmes
    Andy Laroche/Pedro
    Nyjer/Marte
    cutch/cutch
    Brandon Moss/Snider

    Duke/AJ
    Maholm/McDonald
    Ohlendorf/Wandy
    Morton/Karstens
    Snell/Bedard

  • Lee Young

    Trading the #33 pick AND the $$$ for Gaby is NOT buying low, imho.

    And Wandy’s 5.48 ERA since May has me not liking THAT deal either.

    The only deal I liked was the Snider deal…and if he busts, then we got screwed bigtime yesterday, because our bullpen is decidedly worse without Morris.

    And Chad Qualls? Here’s hoping he gets lost going to Cincy….lol

  • duckwoes

    I am actually quite excited with the moves. They will miss Lincoln short term, but I do believe this could be a real good trade going forward. Also, it’s quite puzzling to me why the Marlins would sell low on Sanchez, and I think it is selling low when you look at his previous two years. The potential is certainly there, although no guarantee it returns of course. Milwaukee team MVP of 2010 Casey Mcgehee can attest to that

  • Kevin_Creagh

    Tampa Bay has done a lot of things very well — great scouting and development, great job of signing key players to extremely team friendly deals.
    However, I disagree with following their “hoard all the prospects” mentality because they have had legitimate WS-capable teams and missed the chance to add 1 or 2 key pieces to give themselves a better chance. For all of their great seasons, they have zero WS titles to show for it. And in the end, “Flags Fly Forever” is all that counts. Now the Rays window is going to start to close after 2012. Their farm is not very fallow, thanks to all the keys guys already promoted and their lower draft positions affecting the talent level.
    The Pirates had a pretty good trade deadline (a lot of callers/posters seem to overlook Wandy was the big acquistion a week earlier). Their window is just opening now and could stay open for 3-4 years in my estimate. But if they’re as close as the Rays were in 2008 and 2010 and are reluctant to part with a prospect for a key player, that’s when I’ll be upset.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I don’t buy the “they could have won the World Series with an addition”. They were after Jason Bay in 2008. But Bay wouldn’t have made a difference in that series against the Phillies.

      When it comes to the World Series, I don’t expect much. That’s not how I grade small market teams. The World Series is won year after year by teams in the top half of the league in payroll. Small market teams stand very little chance there. Considering the economics of baseball, and the tough AL East situation, it’s incredible what the Rays have done. The lack of a World Series just speaks toward the game, and not the team.

      • buccotime57

        All it takes is to get hot at the right time of the year..look at the phillies last year…once your in anything can happen..string together a couple great starts from aj/jmac/wandy and you have a banner

      • szielinski

        MLB is an effed up economy. The Yankees draft and trade poorly, Cashman gets the OK to sign a future HOFer. The Rays, Reds, Pirates….

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Well, this is all opinion. It might work out that this was the way to go, and it might not, too. This genius front office took Robinzon Diaz over Jose Bautista, so not all moves are golden. The price for Shane Victorino was the same price for Snider, except that he makes a LOT more money. I’d rather have Victorino. 19 straight losing seasons doesn’t equate to great management. No one thought THIS team would contend like this. Best case I saw them hanging around in a weak Central, maybe 5-6 games over .500 tops. That doesn’t mean trading Taillon for a rental, but something better than other teams AAAA guys they’ve given up on. Had that already with Milledge.

  • szielinski

    A soundly argued, sensible, realistic and well-written article. I’m sure the Smizikastanis coughed up fur balls the moment they began to read it.