First Pitch: Finding the Line Between the Rays and the Brewers

Back in June, on one of the Pirates Prospects podcasts, we discussed the difference in trading strategies between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers. The Rays hoard prospects. They’ve made a few deals where they send away young players, but you can probably count on one hand how many deals they’ve made where they’ve traded prospects for rentals. On the other end of the spectrum is Milwaukee. They’ve made a lot of trades to send out top prospects for established players. As a result of these two strategies, the Rays have managed to remain in contention for many years, while the Brewers had a small window.

A team like the Pirates doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly like the Rays. They don’t have to hoard prospects and build only from within. But they can’t be like the Brewers. That’s what we discussed in that podcast, and that stands true today. If they’re going to fall somewhere on the spectrum, it needs to be closer to the Rays than the Brewers.

The Pirates definitely weren’t like the Rays in the Marlon Byrd/John Buck trade. The Rays would never trade Dilson Herrera and Vic Black for one month each of Byrd and Buck. James Santelli wrote that the price the Pirates paid was high, but that it didn’t matter because they should only be focused on this year. I agreed with that sentiment.

It’s not going to hurt the Pirates long-term to make this move. They gave up a lot to get one month of Byrd and Buck. As James outlined today, the total value those two are projected to bring the rest of the season is 0.2 WAR combined. They’re not going to make a huge impact to the Pirates’ playoff chances the rest of the season. The impact they do make is adding an everyday right fielder and a backup catcher as insurance incase Russell Martin goes down. Byrd’s impact might be bigger in the playoffs, where every out counts, and where you can’t afford to have a dead spot in the lineup.

The Pirates can afford to trade away a Dilson Herrera, but they can't do it too often.

The Pirates can afford to trade away a Dilson Herrera, but they can’t do it too often.

This is why it’s fine to trade a big return in prospects for two short-term rentals. Herrera might be an everyday second baseman starting in 2016-17. Black could join a major league bullpen full time next year. But the Pirates are focused on winning now, and they didn’t exactly give away any key long-term pieces. Even if Herrera projects as a starter down the line, he doesn’t profile as one of the best starting options in the Pirates’ system. Black did profile as one of the better long-term relievers, but the Pirates haven’t had any issues finding quality relievers.

The Pirates gave up a big return in prospects, but they’re probably not going to notice due to the strength of their farm system. That doesn’t mean they can do this every year. That’s what Milwaukee did, and that’s why Milwaukee is rebuilding now with a depleted farm system. The farm system does exist to add talent by trading prospects. But for a small market team like the Pirates, the bigger role the farm system plays is building for the future. We’ve seen that this year. The Pirates have been contending all year with a team built around prospects.

Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke (who was acquired in a trade, but mostly developed with the Pirates), and most of the pitching depth options and bench players came from within. The Pirates wouldn’t be where they are without Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, or Russell Martin, but no team is built solely from within. That said, the impact players from the Pirates are almost always going to come from within.

You’re not going to sacrifice the future making one trade like Herrera/Black for Byrd/Buck. But when you start making too many of them, that’s when you start depleting your prospect depth, and falling into the Dave Littlefield trap. Under Littlefield, the Pirates used to give the long-term job to one young player or prospect, and start focusing on other positions. That led to him turning down Ryan Howard for Kris Benson, because they already had Brad Eldred and why would they need Howard? And that all makes sense if you consider that Eldred looked legit at the time, and that you don’t need two first base only players in the NL. But when you consider that prospects — even the top guys — aren’t guaranteed, that’s where you ignore the fact that you already have a prospects at a position. It’s why adding Reese McGuire said nothing about Tony Sanchez, and why the Pirates drafted Austin Meadows, even though they might have a long-term outfield of McCutchen, Marte, and Gregory Polanco.

The big reason the Pirates don’t need Herrera is because they’ve got Alen Hanson and Jordy Mercer for the long-term middle infield. Herrera would have been a great backup if one of those guys don’t work out. The Pirates still have other backup plans, like JaCoby Jones, Jarek Cunningham, Dan Gamache, and Gift Ngoepe, but none of those guys are close to Herrera. If the Pirates make too many deals like this, then they’ll start to deplete their depth too much at different positions. Inevitably that will lead to a Brad Eldred situation where that can’t-miss prospect does miss, and you’re left with no Plan B.

So how can the Pirates avoid this, while adding the pieces they need to contend in the short-term? In short, they need to continue doing what they’ve been doing and trusting prospects to fill key roles. That means going with Gregory Polanco as the long-term right fielder when he’s ready, which could be by mid-season 2014. It means eventually building a rotation mostly from within with all of the top pitching prospects who are making their way through the system. And it means that, if you need to add a player from the outside, the better thing to do is spend money on free agents, or make an A.J. Burnett style “take on salary” trade, rather than giving up any prospects of value for an established player. I may or may not be talking about first base and spending money to sign Cuban sensation Jose Abreu. Spoiler alert: I am talking about Abreu.

Once the Pirates have a strong team, they need to avoid the annual myth that a contender absolutely has to add players mid-season. If your team is good enough, they won’t have to add anyone mid-season. For example, here’s a full list of the players the Cardinals acquired this year in major league trades:

Juan Herrera

Who is Juan Herrera? He’s a shortstop in short-season A-ball. They got him by trading a major league reliever away. They didn’t make any moves to add players, and they didn’t need to. The Pirates probably didn’t need to make a move to make the playoffs, but as mentioned above, they needed to make a move to improve their chances in the playoffs. That said, they’ve got the farm system that will lead to a situation in the future where they don’t need to upgrade mid-season. They can avoid the “Keeping Up With the Joneses” fear that other teams will make a monster addition and pass them in the standings if they don’t respond with their own huge move.

That’s what the Rays do. They’re not constantly trading prospects for established players. They rarely make a big addition mid-season. They trade established players like James Shields for prospects like Wil Myers. They build their team pre-season to contend, and they make smaller moves mid-season that help support that team, without giving up anything of value. The Pirates don’t have to be exactly like that. But the closer they are to the Rays, the better chance they have of contending over a long period of time, as opposed to the Brewers method where they sell their farm system and shorten their chances of contending to a “window”.

Links and Notes

**The newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is up: P3 Episode 18: Prospect Talk With Pirates Farm Director Larry Broadway.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: West Virginia Clinches Playoff Spot, Paulino Hero on First Day With Indianapolis.

**Glasnow, Bell, and Dickerson Get Post-Season All-Star Honors.

**Minor League Schedule: Kingham and Glasnow Make Last Regular Season Starts.

Pirates

**MLB Playoff Roster: 9 Important Points You Should Know.

**Pirates Notebook: Breaking Bad Locke.

**Vic Black Is Officially the PTBNL in the Mets Deal.

**Injury News: Marte Making Progress.

**Pirates Playoff Odds After Trading for Marlon Byrd, John Buck.

**Pirates Have Been the Most Aggressive Team Claiming Players.

**Kendrys Morales Remains With Seattle.

**Pirate Offense Anemic in 4-0 Shutout Loss.

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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  • mouse

    I am not a fan of trading prospects for the established guy so I suspect that colors my thinking, but there are two points that come to mind — trading for the playoffs because you have enough talent in the minors that you really won’t miss the guy is giving up resources that have long-term value for a super small sample size benefit. The value to a guy like Byrd is seen over months. Sure, he might hit a home run in that one game, but so might Barmes. Small sample size magnified.

    The second point is that once you decide you can in fact live without the prospects in mind, the tradeoff isn’t so much what you get from Byrd this next few weeks but rather what you could have gotten for the same guys by waiting till the winter meetings. A player who is with you the entire season almost has to be worth more to you.

    There is a reason the Cardinals win and the Rays win. On the whole Huntington gets this better than anyone we’ve had over this last twenty years.

  • NorCal Buc

    mouse: Our record throughout our system, with prospects included, certainly bears out your point that NH is the best we’ve had in a generation.

    The Bucs are a work-in-progress. The last major hole in the lineup was RF. Additional help at 1B would be welcomed, but not as necessary as RF. This F/O has built a system where all the other positions are covered.
    However, we lost a key wheel in Starling Marte, and the system is “young enough” that we had no one to replace him.

    Next year, perhaps Polanco is ready. Or Presley becomes the .300 hitter that his speed portends. Or Tabata puts it all together. Not yet, though, were we able to replace Marte with our internal talent.

    This is a part of the development process of the system. Neal was more than prepared to swing a deal……

    Neal HAD to swing a deal this year. The development of Pedro and Cutch dictated that they had to have protection in the order, so that they do not spend THIS September watching un-hittable pitches. We basically ran as far as we could with the combination of dynamic pitching and borderline offense.

    IMO, the Buck ‘n Byrd trade was brilliant. We HAD to give up talent to get talent. No team would accept less than high-end potential for two starting players (or 1.5 starters). Let’s remember Neal’s trades of Nady, McLouth, Dotel and Hanrahan. They all brought in considerable, and young talent. This year, the role is reversed.

    Neal-and-company have built a system where we can now afford to give up considerable, young talent for the necessary complimentary pieces, such as Buck ‘n Byrd.

    Neal-and-Company have built a system where Robbie Grossman and Victor Black, Brock Holt, Rudy Owens and Dilson Herrara, are valuable enough to bring worthy additions to the club. These extra pieces are as valuable to our system as the 25 man roster. They are the next call-ups, or fill-ins for an injury, or the trading chips for Wandy Rodgiguez, Mark Melancon, Marlon Byrd, Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and guys in waiting, such as Stolmy Pimental or Andrew Lambo.

    Per usual, Tim has written “sagely” regarding the Pirates’ future. We can follow the successful model of the TB Rays.

    Neal has been on this path since he took over the helm six years ago. No need to alter course now. The fact that he did not acquire Pense or Victorino last year was another telling sign. The price of trading Starling Marte and one of our top three minor league pitchers was FAR too high.

    In 2015, I expect the industry will be speaking of “rebuilding the Huntington way”. It’s been an absolute joy to watch this way unfold.

  • impliedi

    Great article, Tim! The only issue I have with this discussion is that I think that the term “prospects” casts too wide of a net. It may just be me, but I see such a huge gulf between a highly regarded guy in A ball and an positional heir apparent in AAA, that I have a hard time seeing them in the same terms. And that gulf between them is not about ability or skill, but more the burden/impact that their departure (or arrival) has on the big league club.

    I guess I’d typically rather trade the higher-rated, but lower level prospect (in most cases), because it reduces the burden on the team to fill a spot with a free agent, whereas the low level prospect (in a good organization) can be more readily replaced in the following year’s draft.

    So, I guess my point is that I will rarely have a problem with trading an A ball guy, even if he has a tremendous ceiling, because I feel like he’s often closer to the draft, than he is to reaching the big leagues, so that position can (hopefully) be replenished with the next year’s draft. I’d rather take my chances on replenishing a position in the draft (I know, they don’t draft for need, but eventually, with so many draft picks each year, you’ll hit on every position at some point), than through free agency.

    While the Rays’ strategy is very sound, I’d be more concerned if the Pirates were trading away their heir apparents in AAA (or even AA) for a playoff chase, because then you’re not only making a trade and taking on salary for THIS year, but you’re stuck having to go out in the free agency the next year and spending even more money.

  • CalipariFan506

    The majority of Pirates fans, and even some that post here, probably believe the Brewers model is the absolute best.

    One thing I do think the Brewers model lends itself to is higher season ticket sales because fans always think the team is going for it right at any given moment. That is why we drew 67,000 over this three game set while the Brewers will draw 90,000+ for the series next week when they are almost 20 games behind us.

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

      In fairness, the poor attendance this week was clearly predicated by this being the 1st week of school in Pittsburgh. The Bucs were drawing 30K a game for the weekday games during the last homestand. Very few parents will consider having their kids up to 11pm during the 1st week of school. In addition, Pitt also started classes and that takes a big hit out of the 18-22 demographic that now has something else to do with everyone back on campus.

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

        On a side note, how in the world is Miami outdrawing TB??? The Rays should be moved. If they can’t draw with a proven consistent winner then there is no reason for a team to be there.

        • deacs

          I can’t think of a city off the top of my head but I think both teams should be moved.

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

    Tom…ahh, yes, the Ryan Howard for Kris Benson (or was it Kip Wells….) Urban Myth trade that lives on and on despite both sides saying that it was never an official offer

    :):):)

    However, I sure wish Dave Littleyield had been an Urban Myth….lol.

    Foo

  • deacs

    I will give you a piece of info that is not a myth – when asked if Littlefield would “consider” including Zach Duke in a trade for Ryan Howard Littlefield dropped a 4 letter word and hung up the phone. I’m not saying I would’ve made that deal at the time given everyone thought Howard had a hole in his swing as late as AA but I can tell you this story is true and it’s a piss poor way to handle yourself in any business negotiation.

  • leadoff

    What I like about Huntington is that he does not pattern the Pirates or their system after anyone. Of course there are similarities to a lot of systems. You could say the Rays patterned their system after the early 2000 Twins. The Rays have the same thing those Twins had and that is a ballpark is overly advantages to them as do the Brewers at this point in time.

  • buster09

    When it comes down to a kid at Low A,no matter what his upside is,he is still a lottery ticket. No ifs,ands or buts about it.

  • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

    I couldn’t agree with this article more. The Pirates will always have to be a draft-and-develop organizaiton; they are just not going to be able to go the free agent route the way MLB’s economics work now. That said, there are times where you make deals like the one with the Mets; you’re drafting and developing to win at some point; if you’re constantly developing prospects just for the sake of developing prospects, that ‘s an eternal game of coitus interruptus. At some point, you’ve got to deliver the goods.

  • https://profiles.google.com/106508220943703406151 Kevin Anstrom

    Rays haven’t really had any prospects to trade. Only hitters they drafted in their lineup are Longoria and Jennings. They have done better on the pitching side but much of their success is tied to the farm system of Lamar et al.