First Pitch: Pirates About to End the Streak the Way it Was Supposed to Be Ended

This is the way it was supposed to happen.

Tomorrow the Pirates have the chance to end their 20 year consecutive losing streak. They won game number 80 today, and can take win number 81 and avoid a losing season tomorrow. After that it’s win number 82 for the first winning season since 1992. And while people are excited for these two things, they take a clear back seat to the current playoff race.

Just like it should be.

If you haven’t been reading Pat Lackey’s series on WHYGAVS after each win, you’re missing out. Here is win number 79. Tomorrow you can look forward to reading his thoughts on win number 80 and how that relates to the last 20 years (Spoiler Alert: no team in the last 20 years has won that many games). I encourage you to go back and read all of them.

Going back through and reading the series can torment you, and make you appreciate what is happening this year, all at the same time. It takes some bad management to get to 20 years of losing in a row, but even bad management lucks into winning one year. There’s almost no difference between the Pirates and the Kansas City Royals, who have had one winning season since the 1994 season. The main difference is that the Royals won 83 games in 2003, which is why they’re not talking about breaking some extraordinarily long losing streak as a consolation prize this season with their 70-66 record.

The past few weeks as I’ve been reading through Pat’s recaps each week, I remember different moves and different feelings. There was the under-rated horrible move to leave Joe Randa unprotected in the expansion draft, leading to Aramis Ramirez coming up too soon, leading to Ramirez being arbitration eligible before he was established in the majors, and leading to Ramirez being salary dumped to get under the debt/equity ratio in 2003 because he was making too much money. There was Jason Kendall looking like a future star, then he snapped his ankle, possibly hurting the chance for a winning season. There were all of the Dave Littlefield years where it seemed like the only focus was just getting one winning season, without a plan for sustained success.

There were so many years where you looked back and said “if only they would have won a few more games, we wouldn’t have to talk about the streak”. There were so many years where you thought that during the season. The idea of playoffs or being actual contenders was a joke that would get you mocked on blogs and message boards. At some point during the streak there had to be a moment where you thought the Pirates might have a chance at one lucky winning season, which would most likely be followed by years of more losing. It was easy to think this, since the Pirates spent so many years with that as their strategy.

It’s hard to remember those days now. Part of that is because you don’t want to remember, but a bigger part is because it’s unbelievable. Out of all of those years, the Pirates never tried to end the streak the way they should. They ignored the farm system. They were non-existent in Latin America, even though they had the biggest selling point of any team: Roberto Clemente. They traded for safe, major league ready players, and signed low risk, low upside guys hoping to capture some magic just once.

It all seems so simple. The current management group came in with the worst situation. They had no farm system to work with. They were coming off a year where the previous group passed on the best player in the draft, then traded for Matt Morris’ dead weight in salary. There was no believe that they would spend on anything. Every single prospect that came through the system previously either had a major arm injury (for pitchers), or had one big season that put him on the map, and then never lived up to that season again (a lot of the prospects, actually). The current group had to come in and say they were going to do the things the previous group said they were doing. Only this time, the current group had to actually do it.

The Pirates are where they are in large part because of draft spending that brought in guys like Pedro Alvarez. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates are where they are in large part because of draft spending that brought in guys like Pedro Alvarez. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

This wasn’t a hard task to accomplish. Spend a ton in the draft, and establish that no one is too difficult to sign. Don’t just stop at the first round, but expand the scouting and look for those middle and later round value picks. Focus a lot more money on the international market, and look for talent in places where people aren’t looking, hoping to find values. Build a Dominican Academy to attract some of those potential breakout players, and to help train some of your own guys for breakout performances. Create a development system where every level is on the same page, where the pitching coach in Double-A knew exactly what the pitching coach in high-A was working on right when the pitcher was promoted, allowing that Double-A coach to take the next step in the very structured development system that had been established. Take caution with these players, move them along at a steady pace, making sure they’re ready when they get to a new level, rather than listening to the criticism from fans wanting the Pirates to be like other teams who ruin plenty of prospects by moving them too quickly.

It’s not just the farm system either. The current management group had to come in prepared to blow the major league team up and start from scratch, despite already being at 15 losing seasons in a row. Those moves didn’t go so well the first year, but they quickly improved, and started showing the long-term value you’d hope for. Trade short-term assets who aren’t going to help you win for long-term assets who are risky but have more upside and could help you win. Sign free agents who have some valuable attribute that everyone else is ignoring. Think outside the box and don’t be afraid to stray from the same old on field approach everyone else takes. This led to bad plans like pitchers hitting eighth and the extreme no doubles defense, but it also led to the use of this year’s defensive shifts, which has been a big factor to the success of the 2013 group. Sign young players to potential team friendly extensions, because even though Jose Tabata looks like a waste of money, Andrew McCutchen brings in more than enough value to make up for that. Then, after you’ve started to rebuild, and when your team is trending up, start to spend, but spend wisely, because you’re not just trying to win for one season.

Charlie Morton was brought in by a trade that was clearly aimed at winning several years down the line. And it was the right move. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Charlie Morton was brought in by a trade that was clearly aimed at winning several years down the line. And it was the right move. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Bob Nutting, Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington, and everyone else involved in rebuilding this system have done everything the right way. The execution hasn’t always been right, but you don’t get to this point without being right more often than you’re wrong. There was a time where you couldn’t say the Pirates were on the right path. You couldn’t say that the Pirates knew what they were doing with a certain move, or that all of their efforts in the farm system were leading to a period of sustained success. That time was from late 2007, when the current group came on, all the way to the start of this season. It wasn’t even a year ago that you were deemed an “apologist” or criticized for supporting everything the management group did, just because you thought Mark Melancon was a huge bounce back candidate, Francisco Liriano was a great risk to take, and the farm system was actually good and was something that could lead to the Pirates winning.

Those questions aren’t around now. Sure, it was only a week ago that the Pirates hadn’t added Marlon Byrd, John Buck and Justin Morneau and people went back to saying the Pirates didn’t know what they were doing. Then they added those three players, and people acted like this was some change in approach, like the same management group didn’t add Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick two years ago, and Wandy Rodriguez last year. But people have pretty widely accepted the truth.

The Pirates are an actual contender. They’ve got one of the best farm systems in the game. Almost every key player from this Pirates team is under control next year, and a bulk of the key players are under control for a few years beyond that. They have waves of top prospects ready to join this already-contending group over the next few seasons. Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, and Nick Kingham in 2014. Tyler Glasnow and Alen Hanson in 2015. Then guys like Austin Meadows, Josh Bell, Reese McGuire, Luis Heredia, and many more after that. They haven’t stopped their approach in the minors, and they’re not in a rush to sell any key pieces to the farm, so they should continue getting a constant flow of prospects, just like the group of Starling Marte, Jeff Locke, Jordy Mercer, Gerrit Cole, and Justin Wilson that joined the team at the end of last year or the start of this year.

The Pirates have a chance to end the losing streak tomorrow, and get their first winning streak later this week. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates have a chance to end the losing streak tomorrow, and get their first winning season later this week. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates have a chance tomorrow to end 20 years of losing with win number 81. If it doesn’t happen tomorrow, we know it will happen soon. It’s a step along the way to something much more important, and something that was once thought to be unachievable. Breaking the losing streak, and following that up with win number 82 and the first winning season is a chance to remember how bad it once was, and celebrate how the Pirates have finally come out of the darkest hole any team in professional sports history has ever been in. But after that, the real celebration begins. That’s when the Pirates resume their playoff race, with a 99% chance of going to the playoffs in one form or another. No matter the outcome this year, the Pirates are then set up to do this again in the future.

They’re not barely getting a winning season. They’re not good one year, then falling right back into obscurity. This is the way it always should have happened. Wins number 81 and 82 are just a pair of stops onto something bigger this season, and bigger in years to come. After years of wins 81 and 82 being the biggest story surrounding the Pirates, it’s just a smaller note in a much bigger season. So credit to Bob Nutting, Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington, and everyone involved in this process. They did this the right way. They didn’t try to take shortcuts. They didn’t aim for one year. They aimed for sustainable success. And now the Pirates are a win away from ending the losing, a near lock to make the playoffs, and set up to be contenders beyond the 2013 season. Just like it was always supposed to be.

Links and Notes

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Luis Heredia Wraps Up a Good Season in West Virginia

**Jarek Cunningham Hits 19th Homer in Altoona’s Final Game

**Alex Dickerson Promoted to Indianapolis

**Minor League Schedule: Dickson and Jamestown Go For Wildcard Spot Tonight

Pirates

**Morton, Tabata, and Watson Are Playing Out of Their Minds Right Now

**Jason Grilli Strikes Out Three in Rehab, Then Signs Autographs For an Hour

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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  • skliesen

    Good summary of where the Pirates were and what they have done to create the current situation, Tim. Nice of you to promote Pat’s site, too.

    I truly hope I don’t see the Pirates popping the corks for win #81 or #82 on ESPN like they just accomplished something of note. As you said, this team was built to make the playoffs and contend this year and year’s to come. Let the fans get excited about ending the losing streak. We’re the one’s who’ve suffered through the two decade debacle of sustained losing, not the players (except Neil Walker).

    Let the players save the champagne celebration for securing a playoff birth.

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

      The Pirates won’t be popping corks, but there are a lot of fans who will be. But, as Tim says, “They’re not barely getting a winning season. They’re not good one year, then falling right back into obscurity. This is the way it always should have happened.”

      Thank you Neal Huntington….the naysayers used to call him Opie and tell us that we needed a very good to excellent GM and not just an average one.

      Well?????

      “NH is God” Foo

      • emjayinTN

        Foo: Probably not going that far, but got an idea for an article. When Frank Coonelly and NH came in they gave a few interviews about where they wanted to go and how they were going to get there. On Jan 30, 2008, DK had an article in the P-G after the firing of Brian Graham and the hiring of Kyle Stark, another guy who came over from the Cleveland Indians. The article was about cohesiveness in the developmental process in the minors/majors.

        Also, would it be best to bring Locke back or let him rest? I say this because he has never pitched at the ML level and pitched in 2013 enduring some major stress. Also, he has pitched more innings in prior years, but he is already almost 20 walks above the highest number in other years – 74 in 2013; highest in the minors was 55 in a season. That means a lot more pitches under stress – is there a number of pitches kept? Sometimes a simple number like Innings Pitched does not tell the whole story. I like him a lot, but we are going to need him more in 2014 and beyond than we need him right now. Cole the same way.

  • emjayinTN

    Well written and thanks for the reference to Pat Lackey. The Pirates have changed completely in the past 5 years and a very strong current team and a well loaded minor league system should keep the Buc’s in competition for the next 10 years at least. Sure, there were some duds along the way, but #1 picks such as Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and just lately, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole have paid great dividends already. Combine that with the Dominican Connection that brought Starling Marte and will soon result in Gregory Polanco, and a front office that never seems to overstep the established guidelines when entering the Free Agent Market for needed strengths. Russell Martin has been a godsend on defense – the last piece of the puzzle needed to play strong D, Francisco Liriano is making a lot of teams upchuck watching what he has provided for the Pirates, and we cannot forget Jason Grilli. IMO, the Pirates have had the best return on FA’s in 2013 of any team in the majors, and the trades that brought Mark Melancon and Jennmar Gomez have really helped this team. The guys they picked up for strength down the stretch, especially Byrd and Morneau will pay off.

    And, the Pirates are about 80,000 fans above last year’s pace and could very well reach 1.2 mil fans in 2013, which would be an increase of about 110,000. Figure about $35 apiece and that amounts to an extra $3.85 mil in revenue in 2013, and guess which team is going to be the darling of the TV Revenue folks? That will have to be large bump in the overall worth of the Pirates and the Nutting Family, who have believed and allowed the spending necessary to get this franchise moving in the right direction.

  • NorCal Buc

    It has been a necessarily long and arduous ordeal for this F/O, because few fans bought into “The Plan” of Neal Huntington and company. As you, and emjay in his comment, have demonstrated, this F/O never wavered in their goal to build a World Series contender.

    Even I, as a faithful supporter of this F/O, laughed in disbelief when Bob Nutting uttered THIS past spring training that his plan was to see THIS team, THIS year, challenge for the World Series. And here we are. With extreme patience and skill, this F/O, including Clint Hurdle, has masterfully steered this young team to a playoff berth.

    Jose Tabata is one example of this masterful patience. He is excelling at lead-off, in replace of the dynamic Starling Marte. Jose now brings to the plate that very same quality most vital in the growth of this entire team, and that is patience.

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

      NorCal…even *I* didn’t believe Bob and I was about as pro-NH as you can get!

      :) :) :)

      We DO have a WS contender, but ANYTHING can happen in a short series. Even the 2010 Bucs swept a series or two.

      Foo

      .

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

    “The idea of playoffs or being actual contenders was a joke that would get you mocked on blogs and message boards. ”

    And BOY were we mocked, esp by a certain Pgh columnist (not Bob S) who now is falling over himself to say good things about the Buccos.

    I’d rather he go root for the Cardinals. Don’t want him on the bandwagon.

    :)

  • https://www.facebook.com/davidjrosenberg David Rosenberg

    Why isn’t Alex Dickerson ever mentioned as one of the prospectts likely to join the Pirates in the next year? Is it realistic to expect him to be the Garrett Jones replacement? His resume is very impressive the last two years: league MVP and league ROY. He has shown the ability to get stronger as the season goes on and he adjusts to the level, and the flexibility to play multiple positions. Do you see him as a true MLb prospect or another Steve Pearce/Matt Hague?

    • emjayinTN

      I know you intended this for Tim, but let me offer a few reasons. First, this is a kid who is 6’3″ 235 and they converted him to the OF – that should tell us that his glove will not play well at 1B. They tried the first two years and fielding averages in the .980’s were not acceptable. If he had the soft hands, they would not have given up, so without ever seeing him, I trust the folks who make it their business to know these things and him being moved to the OF probably means he has stone hands. The other thing is the power bat – can he be a 20-25 HR/yr hitter? To get there, he would have to hit a HR for every 20 to 22.5 AB’s. Over the past two years he has hit 13 HR at Hi A and now 17 HR at AA – probably about a HR for every 35 AB’s. Garrett Jones averaged 21 HR’s/yr in his first 4 years, and this year he is struggling in 2013 and will still hit 15-20 HR.

      BTW, in my input above, I meant that the Pirates have a chance to get to 2.2 mil in attendance, not 1.2 mil.

  • jon6er

    As for defensive shifts sometimes they can be overused and used in the wrong situations. I saw a couple of shifts cost games. Not sure AJ is a big fan of shifts when they are used too often. If you are going to use these shifts it is also a good idea to tell the pitcher or shortstop to cover third if Pedro is playing short and the ball is hit to him. That mistake kept a rally going for the other team in the one game. I’ve seen the defensive shift help and hurt and I think if it is used properly it will help more than hurt. My only issue is that sometimes Hurdle falls in love with some strategies and tries to get overly creative.

  • Nuke Laloosh

    Great article Tim. Love your analysis. No doubt that the establishment of the Dominican Academy was huge!

  • IC Bob

    Great article Tim. I always supported the plan even when management denied the plan to there fans (first two years). I have questioned the execution of the plan until really last year. I think the single most exciting development is the strength that we are now seeing from international prospects. Glad that we took this simple step of build a new academy and took advantage of a fantastic asset in Rene Geyo that we have in the Caribbean. That said I am still not sold that Nutting will do what it takes to keep us on top.

  • Monkshot

    Great read Tim. After reading Lackey’s piece I had forgotten how mad I was about Joe Randa being left unprotected for the expansion draft.

  • leadoff

    I agree with the Pirates, there will be no big celebration for breaking 500 from the Pirates, as Huntington said, “we will not celebrate mediocrity”.
    I have been watching the Pirate longer than most of the people on these blog sites and never once have I ever said I suffered watching the Pirates, disappointed at times, yes, that is about it. I prefer to analyze game by game, not season by season.

    • emjayinTN

      leadoff: I went to Wiktionary and found the following definition of the adjective long-suffering – “Having endured mental or physical discomfort for a protracted period of time patiently or without complaint”. Now, is that not the greatest definition of a Pirate fan? I think you and I could be the only ones on here who attended games at Forbes Field before they became the “miracle” Buc’s of 1960. Our Little League would have the players dressed in full uni’s and March around the field on Saturday afternoon “knothole club days”, and then watch the game from the LF bleachers. When Maz hit his HR I was standing across from the Sarah Heinz house on the Northside, thumbing a ride home after football practice at North Catholic. We had walked down Troy Hill and were standing at a gas station that had the game on speakers. My wife was walking down Liberty Ave in Bloomfield after school at Immaculate Conception and her and her younger brother were standing outside of a car dealership that was blasting the play-by-play to the crowd out in front. Great memories.

  • piratemike

    One of the finest assets the Pirates have although they don’t own or control it is “Pirates Prospects”
    This site has allowed me to take an interest in the Pirates that I never had before.

    .What really got me deeply interested in the Pirates was when BN announced that their main focus was going to be the farm system and then he proved it by building the new academy and this site has allowed me to follow the progress of that system.
    I may have doubts about some of the moves and players in the MLB on a daily basis but I haven’t doubted the commitment that BN and NH to build and maintain the heart of this franchise which is the minor league system and this site has allowed all of us to become better fans because of the access to system that PP provides.

  • reddfoxx39

    I feel like its appropriate to get #81 in Milwaukee, the team that has treated us like a chew toy over the years…..

  • TNBucs

    With people like Smizik and DK suddenly singing the praises of the plan that many of us had seen all along, I’m reminded of Ray Kinsella’s brother-in-law in Field of Dreams when he suddenly realized there was a baseball team in the plowed cornfield:

    “Neal, where did all these baseball players come from?”

    • leadoff

      I don’t think they are singing the praises of “the Plan”, I think they are more along the lines of bandwagon jumpers. If they were singing the praises of the plan, they would not have been Pirate bashers as long as they were.

  • Cato the Elder

    Hey, what do you know, everybody was in favor of “the plan” all along. We are all brilliant. We should all give ourselves a round of applause for tirelessly defending the FO against those naysayers. Where are those naysayers? I can’t find them. I look around and all I see is millions of lifelong, diehard bucs fans whose support of this team, this front office, and this ownership group never wavered. Gosh, Pittsburgh is such a great sports town.

  • goodfield nohit

    I heard Coonelly several years ago say that the (then) new revenue sharing rules made it possible to compete, hinting that previously it had been impossible. I would like to read your thoughts about that.

  • https://profiles.google.com/100080922847032320914 Blaine Huff

    This turnaround is amazing. Twenty years? Heck, it was just two seasons ago that Correia was the staff ace, McDonald was the young fireballer, and Karstens was going to be one of those unheralded guys every winning team “had” to have.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.busch.98 Mark

    Your site change looks completely awful. I was going to share my emotions, and then this new formatting made me snap back to reality.

    Cliff notes of my emotions: I was 6-years-old the last time the Pirates broke .500. There are only three things I cared about back then that I still deeply care about now: the Pirates, the Steelers, and my siblings. The Pirates are the only one of those three who have never loved me back, until now. It feels good.