First Pitch: The Pirates Are Built For Short and Long Term Success

This is the third straight deadline where the Pittsburgh Pirates have been buyers instead of sellers. It’s the third straight deadline where we’ve seen a ton of rumors about players they could get, and debated over which prospects to give up. It’s the third straight deadline where the question has been asked: should they give up a top prospect? And it’s the third straight deadline where people have said the Pirates may never be in this position again, thus they need to go for it now.

The idea in 2011 was that the Pirates were playing over their heads, and that they probably wouldn’t be competitive for a few years. They needed to wait for Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and all of the other top prospects to arrive and play a few years before the team could ever be competitive again. There was no possible way the team could compete in the next few years.

Then they were competitive in 2012. This time it was a little more legit, although it was still a streaky team. It was also a team being carried by Andrew McCutchen putting up unreal numbers. The idea was that McCutchen wouldn’t repeat those numbers going forward, which would prevent the team from competing in 2013 and for the few years after that.

This year we’re seeing what happens when Andrew McCutchen has a normal year. The Pirates are still competitive, and they have a more rounded team than they did in 2012.

Three straight years the Pirates have been competitive. Three straight years they’ve improved over the previous year. Every year the thought around the deadline is that they need to go all-in when they have the chance, as if the Pirates may never get back to this point and may never be competitive again.

McCutchen and Marte

The Pirates are built for short-term and long-term success. (Photo by: David Hague)

My question is: at what point are we going to realize that the Pirates are built for both short-term and long-term success?

This is a team that keeps trending upwards. They keep adding key pieces each year. In 2011 it was Starling Marte. This year it is Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke. Next year it could very well be Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and Tony Sanchez joining the group in the second half. The Pirates also have one of the top farm systems in the game, so that wave of prospects should only continue. Alen Hanson and Tyler Glasnow in 2015. Maybe Dilson Herrera and Josh Bell in 2016. Plus all of the guys we’re not thinking about right now, just like how we weren’t talking about Kingham or Polanco a few years ago.

This is also a team that is mostly together for several years. Pedro Alvarez (under control through 2016), Neil Walker (2016), Andrew McCutchen (2018), Starling Marte (2018), Jordy Mercer (2018), Jeff Locke (2018), and Gerrit Cole (2019) are all under control for at least three more seasons after this year.

In fact, it’s probably easier to go through the list of guys who aren’t under control for a long period. A.J. Burnett is a free agent after the season. Wandy Rodriguez has a player option for 2014. Charlie Morton is under control through the 2014 season. Russell Martin is under control through 2014. Jason Grilli is under control through 2014. Francisco Liriano has a vesting option for 2014. And let’s not forget Brandon Inge, who is only under control through the end of the season.

The Pirates might need to bring back a starter this off-season if Burnett and Rodriguez leave, but that shouldn’t hurt them in the short-term. They’ve played without pretty much every starter in the rotation at some point this year and still remained competitive. They have good pitching depth, and don’t need both guys to return in 2014 to have success. They will also have Cole, Taillon, and Kingham leading the rotation from 2015 on, and Glasnow joining that group potentially a year later.

When Russell Martin leaves, the team could turn to Tony Sanchez as the starting catcher. Sanchez has the 2014 season to learn under Martin, and if he continues the hitting we’ve seen this year, there would be no question about his ability to start and fill in at catcher.

You don’t need to worry about Grilli leaving as the closer. The Pirates haven’t had an issue finding low-cost closers. Plus they’ll have plenty of options to choose from, such as Mark Melancon, Vic Black, Bryan Morris, Duke Welker, and even Justin Wilson.

It’s the same story for every other spot on the roster. The Pirates have a replacement in line for each player when they’re gone. In some cases the Pirates have multiple replacement options. The only exception is third base, although the Pirates have until the end of the 2016 season to find a replacement for Alvarez before the Scott Boras client inevitably leaves for free agency.

Now let’s talk about 2013. This isn’t a team that has been lucky. This is a team that has been unlucky. They’ve gone through 11 different starting pitchers in the first half. They’ve seen everyone on the offense struggle for at least one full month out of the year. And yet they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball. The offense could use an upgrade. It wouldn’t hurt to have extra pitching depth, since we’ve seen already how important that is. But this is no fluke. This is a team that has been tested to the extreme. Everyone focuses on wanting to have an All-Star starting lineup, and thinking that’s what you need to win. I think if this year is teaching us anything, it’s that you need depth to win. That’s something the Pirates didn’t have the previous two years, and it’s something they’ve proven to have this year.

The Pirates need to upgrade at the deadline. However, this is a good team that doesn’t need to make a major upgrade. They don’t need to trade Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, or even Nick Kingham to go all-in this year. They’re not at any risk of fading into oblivion or turning into a pumpkin when the calendar turns to 2014. This is a team that is competitive now. They might not be the best team in the majors, but they’re definite contenders. They’re also a team that has been trending upwards, and is built to continue trending upwards thanks to their top farm system. They’re a team built on young players who will be together for several years at the least, and who will be joined by more young players during those years.

The Pirates don’t need to go all-in this year. This isn’t the only year they will be competitive. They’re built for long-term success. This year’s team is a legitimate contender, and the farm system will have the Pirates trending upwards for at least a few more years. They don’t need to make a huge splash and trade away the future to capitalize on what might be their only chance to be competitive in the near future. They just need to make a few key moves, fill a few holes on the team (1B/RF and the bench), and make sure they’re not sacrificing their future in the process. There are plenty of players out there who could be had for much less than any of the top prospects in the system, and who could upgrade an already good team.

The Pirates got here because they didn’t take shortcuts to try and drastically improve their chances for just one year. They got here because they built through prospects, and now those prospects (McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, Mercer, Marte, Locke, Cole, Morris, Wilson) are playing key roles with the team. And if they keep that next wave of top prospects who could be key contributors, then they’re going to remain a contending team beyond the 2013 season. The best news is that keeping those top prospects won’t prevent them from upgrading and improving their chances this year.

Links and Notes

**Download the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 13: What Are the Needs For the Pirates as the Deadline Nears?

**Episode 3 of the Pirates Roundtable can be viewed here. This week’s episode features James Santelli as the host, along with Ed Giles of In Clemente WeatherMichael Waterloo of Pittsburgh Sporting NewsSteve Petrella of MLB.comCory of Three Rivers Burgh Blog, and Brian McElhinney of Raise The Jolly Roger.

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates International Signing Tracker.

**I was on The Lumber Hour with David Todd today on ESPN 970, which is a weekly segment every Wednesday around 6:30. If you missed it, you can listen to the segment here: Part 1 and Part 2.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Mid-Season Prospect Recap.

**Trade Values: Justin Morneau.

**Pirates Land a Competitive Balance Pick in the 2014 Draft.

**Minor Moves: Urena Promoted to West Virginia, Beckman to Altoona.

**Prospect Watch: Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, and Jon Sandfort Have Strong Starts.

**Minor League Schedule: Taillon Looks For A Bounce Back.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Dominican League All-Stars Named.

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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  • PiratesFan1981

    Tim, I like your stuff but this one wasn’t your finest work. But I agree with not selling prospects much like brews did a few years ago. I think brewers would be a bit more competive if they did not trade thier system to go ” all in”. I hope pirates acknowledge this, because brews really set themselves backwards.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    Tim….I respectfully disagree with PFan81. I think that this WAS one of your better articles. We have copied the Rays’ formula for success. Pitching, a coupla offensive stars and defense.
    .
    It works.
    .
    Foo

    • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

      Agree with Young Foo. It’s just weird to read a piece of pure optimism (realism!?) in relation to the Buccos that isn’t some nationwide campy-cutesy pandering piece like ESPN has cranked out.

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

      Thanks.

      Also, you don’t need to use the periods between lines anymore. I fixed the line spacing issue.

      • buster09

        Make me a + 3 Tim. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • pirateradio

    I agree. I’ve been reading mid-season pieces from the national outlets about how the loveable Buccos are finally putting it together and need to go all in and trade for key pieces. I agree with the loveable Buccos part, but that’s all. I’m OK with a trade that takes on salary or loses higher-level B- or C-grade prospects (e.g., Rudy Owens last year), but not much more. I’d rather see the Pirates give Andrew Lambo a shot platooning that trade away the farm on a new RF. For that matter, for the few places that list a reliever as a need, I’d rather have Vic Black up than the guys they listed, period. And for most of the starters mentioned, Brandon Cumpton did just as well…and I would imagine Kris Johnson filling in well, too, if necessary.

    If this year is like last, NH will be aggressive and make some trades. Hopefully, they’re similar to trades from the past two years (in theory, not how they actually worked out).

  • csnumber23

    Great Article!! I agree completely Tim. Here is my projected lineup for 2015

    S. Marte LF
    A. Hanson SS
    A. McCutchen CF
    P. Alvarez 3B
    G. Polanco RF
    J. Bell or A. Dickerson 1B – I think Bell gets moved to 1B or traded.
    N. Walker 2B
    T. Sanchez C – until R. Mcguire is ready

    SP – 1 J. Taillon
    SP – 2 G. Cole
    SP – 3 J. Locke
    SP – 4 T. Glasnow
    SP – 5 N. Kingham

    RP – Closer – M. Melancon
    RP – Setup 8th – J. Wilson
    RP – setup – B. Morris
    RP – setup – V. Black
    RP – setup – D. Welker
    RP – setup – T. Watson

    Look at what the 2015 realistically could look like. That team could be a power house. 2013 is just the beginning!!

    • https://profiles.google.com/116724154958936941519 Brett

      2015 is an agressive timeline for Bell. Given his injury last year, one would assume he’d finish out 2013 in A ball and begin 2014 in A+. Even with a mid-season Polanco-like promotion to AA, the earliest he’d arrive in the majors would be June 2015 and that’s assuming there’s no setbacks with his progression, he’s destroying the ball in AAA as a 22-year old. Not all of these prospects will work out but it is fun to imagine what we’d look like if they did.

      • csnumber23

        Brett, I didn’t necessarily mean opening day 2015. I figure Hanson, Glasnow and Bell could all be June or later arrivals for 2015. Mercer or someone else may be holding down SS still until Hanson arrives. 1B could be Dickerson or a FA until Bell arrives, although I would not be surprised if Bell is dealt this year or next. These are obviously just projections but you get an idea of what the possibilities are for this team/organization moving forward.

      • buster09

        The only prospect on here that I am not sold on is Bell. He is definitely going to have to get that hitch straightened out to be any kind of a productive hitter in MLB.

    • Joe9195

      Very inexpensive too, which is important when looking for the complementary pieces to fill in any holes.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

    Tim, did you see this scout comment on BP today -

    Pirates RHP prospect Erik Cordier (Triple-A Indianapolis – Royals 2nd round pick of the 2004 draft): “First time my radar gun has read 101. Of the 28 [fastballs Cordier] threw, 15 were 100 or 101 mph. Exciting to watch, even if the [pitch] lacks life and command.”

    Can you confirm that velocity from him? If so, he sure seems like a legit MLB prospect, even at 27.

  • stickyweb

    Tim, nice job pointing out yet another difference between this year’s team and the teams from the last couple oif years (i.e. we know the Bucs are going to be good for the foreseeable future and there’s no desperation to strike while the iron is hot). I hadn’t seen that in print before, but I think it was subconsciously in the back of our minds, at least those of us that only want to trade lower level prospects for rental upgrades this year.

    We all need to keep in mind that the Bucs could become a better offensive team just by having the current players hit at their career OPS averages. I don’t think anyone is there except Pedro. But Walker, Jones, Martin, Snider and Barmes all have potential to be much better, just by improving to their career norms (and Cutch to a lesser extent). And only Jones and Barmes are old enough where you might think a decline is inevitable. Throw in a veteren rental or 2 and drop the true dead weight (Inge) and it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

  • leadoff

    IMO, the 2013 Pirates are a work in progress, I don’t think they are any where near a finished product. I don’t think a trade or two is going to make them a finished product, certainly dumping dead weight and adding a better player here or there will help them a lot, but the core of this team is where the progress comes into affect, their core is not developed yet, far to inconsistent, maturation is no where near where it will be in a couple of years
    As are a as all the young guys coming up, at lot of the present players will be here in 2016, guys like Morton, the Pirates will sign some of them and remember after these kids get here you still have the maturation periods for them, Polanco will have to go through what Marte is going through right now and Pirates are not going with five pitchers just up from AAA, Sanchez needs a couple years up from AAA to learn the ropes, he won’t be a Martin in 5 minutes, if ever.
    As far as moving prospects, my take on this is to move anyone if the situation calls for it, I don’t believe in untouchables.

    • stickyweb

      I think everybody agrees they’re a work in progress, thus we think they could be improved with trades. It’s nice to be a work in progress 1 game off the best record in MLB instead of a work in progress 5 games under .500 wondering if you’re a buyer or seller at the deadline.

      But the point is they don’t NEED to make a trade just to be a playoff contender, let alone that they need to trade away top prospects for instant gratification. Even if they stand pat, they have help just a phone call away. Black / Welker / Reid for the bullpen, Cumpton / Pimentel for the rotation (with Jeanmar and Wandy as options too), Lambo for 1B/RF, Sands / Canzler / Hague if they just want to add a platoon guy against LHP.

      True Marte and Mercer are still developing, but that means they could be better the 2nd half than they have been so far too. Also true other prospects will need development time once they reach MLB, but if Polanco in his 1st season is what Marte is right now, the Bucs will be in great shape. For all his “inconsistency” he’s still OPS the same as Cutch and had fringe All Star talk. Show me a hitter that doesn’t have down time not named Cabrera (or Pujols in his prime). Even Cutch has slumps.

      • leadoff

        The big problem is maturation, Marte and Mercer may not do better in the 2nd half, will they tighten up as the season progresses? The problem is still with the Core, they have not proven they can hit under pressure and the pressure this year will just get even bigger as we go down the road. McCutchen in the all-star game was a microcosm of what I am talking about, put him on the big stage and he won’t perform, where are you going without a 3 hitter?

        • Cato the Elder

          Your 1 at bat in an All-Star game is what the statistically inclined would call a small-sample-size, and what damn near everyone else might call a single at bat in a worthless exhibition game.

    • Cato the Elder

      “Polanco will have to go through what Marte is going through right now…”

      Hahaha, a 125 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR is what Marte is “going through right now” which places him squarely as a top 5 LF in the majors right now (#3 in WAR behind Mike Trout and Carlos Gomez). I can’t wait to have to go through that some day with Polanco!

  • Henduck

    I just want to give a tip of the cap to the much maligned Bob Nutting and Neil Huntington, who have made all of this possible. They have turned a garbage pile of a franchise into a competitive team with a bright future. Kudos, gentlemen!

    Fans in this town are, for the most part, too jaded by 1993-2006 to objectively look at 2007-Present.

    • stickyweb

      Henduck, keep this crap off a great site like this. Obviously Neal Huntington has not had anything to do with how well the Pirates are positioned as a franchise, both at the MLB level and in the minors. Clearly he should have been fired years ago because the Bay trade didn’t work out. :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

    Sorry, but I have to at least temporarily disagree. I can completely agree when the pitching proves it can do it for a whole season. Maybe this will be the year but maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t hold up then there will be absolutely 0 difference from the teams the last 2 seasons as far as their success goes. Amazing pitching with a very subpar offense has been the story and is still the story, even with Cutch’s amazing 2 month stretch last season they were near the bottom of about every offensive category but the big problem wasn’t Cutch not tearing it up at the end of the season, it was the pitching took a nosedive. Lets just hope there are no “This team won’t collapse because……..” articles next year and they prove their legitimacy this season when it’s all said and done.

  • michaelbro8

    Thanks Tim; I think a lot of us have been thinking the same thing. Looking at the farm system makes the Bucs future look bright for quite a while. But you’re right, there’s a big group of fans that want the Bucs to trade the future for a chance to win this season. The flaw in this thinking is that “all star” teams rarely win the World Series . I’d say player for player the Bucs match up pretty well with the Giants team that won it all last year . And the “big star” lineup: how’s that working out for the Angels and Dodgers this year ?