Six years ago, on September 25th, 2007, the Pittsburgh Pirates hired Neal Huntington to be their new General Manager. Six years later, that looks like one of the most important moves the team has made.
When Huntington took over, the Pirates had almost nothing to work with. Their farm system had Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. There were guys who would later be developed into major league players, like Starling Marte and Tony Watson, but that development came under the new group. The major league team had a group of players who were losing 94-95 games per year, with Jason Bay and a lot of average veteran players close to free agency and starting their career declines. It was not a good situation.
Six years later the Pirates have one of the top farm systems in the game. They also have a team that is going to the playoffs, and already has 91 wins on the season. Everyone hates the traditional “five-year plans”, but when you think about the state of the organization in late 2007, it’s amazing how Huntington and his staff have turned everything around in just six years. It would be one thing to break the losing streak and have a good farm system. But to be legit contenders with a top farm system that will sustain this success? That’s everything you could have hoped for six years ago. In fact, it was a dream that seemed to be unobtainable.
It’s no secret that I’ve been a Neal Huntington supporter all this time. I’ve criticized moves he has made, but for the most part I’ve felt that he had the organization heading in the right direction. I’ve taken a lot of criticism about that over the years, as recently as six months ago. I’ve been called an apologist, shill, and much worse. That’s all because I thought that the Pirates — it’s clear now they were heading in the right direction — were heading in the right direction.
For so long, people were focused on the losing streak, and they weren’t looking at the important things that were going on in the minors. The Pirates weren’t just collecting high draft picks. They were spending in the middle rounds, which is something the previous groups didn’t do often enough, if at all. They built a Dominican Academy, and upped the international budget from “we don’t care about international free agents” to about $3 M per year. They were willing to go over that amount if special talent came around, and they did so in 2010 when they signed Luis Heredia. Simply put, they were building from within.
The focus was only on the won/loss record, and the idea that more money would equal a better team. But you can’t build a winner by just throwing money at the 25-man roster. You have to build from the ground up. You have to build a good team without money, before you get a team that is worth the money. One thing I’ve said repeatedly on this site is that there’s a specific method that every small market team takes to increase payroll.
1. The team puts together a group that is close to contending, building from within.
2. The attendance increases.
3. The payroll increases as the team adds to that group, or pays to keep that group together.
We saw the first step play out in 2011. The team fell apart at the end, but they were contenders that summer, and saw their attendance jump 300,000 fans. That off-season they brought in a few free agents. Rod Barajas and Erik Bedard were busts. Clint Barmes has provided good defense, no offense, and while he hasn’t provided his full contract value, he hasn’t been worthless. But the biggest move was when they traded for A.J. Burnett in a clear salary dump by the Yankees.
The 2012 team might have been the team that completed the actual five-year plan. Instead, they collapsed over the final two months, and finished below .500. The attendance went up slightly, and the team moved closer to contention. Once again, the Pirates added to the team over the off-season. This time it worked wonders. Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin were the top free agent additions, and both have been amazing. If you’re looking at the best free agent additions this past off-season, they might be the top two on the list. Jason Grilli was also brought back as the closer on a hometown discount, but still a high price for a reliever considering what the Pirates usually paid. But it wasn’t just about spending money. One of the best moves actually shed over $6 M in payroll. Joel Hanrahan was traded for four players, with one of those players being Mark Melancon. That swap alone has made the trade a clear win.
The Pirates have completed a successful rebuild under Huntington. They did what teams like Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Oakland, and other small market teams have done in the past. Build a contender from within, then use the increased attendance to add key pieces to that contender. Now it’s time for step two of the plan.
If you look at a lot of small market teams, you will see a key difference between the teams who are limited by the “small market window” and teams who remain successful for years. I like to call this game “What Would the Rays Do?”.
The Rays haven’t been the best at drafting over the last few years, but they have managed to remain successful. The reason for that is because they stuck with the plan that got them there. They didn’t fall into a trap like the Brewers, where they abandoned the “build from within” approach and traded their farm system to sell out to “the window”. They made tough choices. They started young, inexperienced players, hoping to get cost controlled production, rather than free agent priced production. They made the difficult trades. They shipped out a ton of players with 1-2 years on their contracts. They let popular players walk a year or two early, rather than trying to bring them back at high prices only to watch those players become dead money on the payroll. There were some exceptions (Evan Longoria was extended), but for the most part the Rays didn’t get attached to anyone.
The best example of this is Carl Crawford. He was a star. The Rays let him walk, and he signed with the Red Sox. It’s doubtful that Tampa could have beat out Boston for Crawford, but it didn’t matter. They replaced him with Desmond Jennings, while Crawford quickly went downhill and was salary dumped to the Dodgers, where he continued to be dead weight. Meanwhile, Jennings has been a 3+ WAR player in each of the last two seasons, compared to 2.7 WAR total from Crawford.
There’s another team in Pittsburgh that takes this same approach, and used to do it well: the Steelers. For years they let their top players walk as free agents, replacing them with young players through the draft. They were one of the best teams when it came to the draft, and used that to make sure they never missed a step when a free agent walked. Sure enough, the departing player had 1-2 more good years, while the rookie went on to seamlessly replace the lost production and keep the team competitive. Not so much this year though.
That’s what the Pirates are going to have to do. The
five six-year plan is over. The team is competitive. They’ve got a top farm system. And when you have that combo, there is no such thing as a “window”. You just have to be willing to make the right moves. So far, Huntington has made the right moves. In order for the Pirates to remain competitive, the future is going to have to include some unpopular decisions. Huntington hasn’t been afraid to make those decisions (SEE: Nate McLouth trade, Joel Hanrahan trade…actually, pretty much any trade or transaction from 2008-2012).
So here’s to the next six years. Hopefully when we look back in 2019, we’ll be talking about how the Pirates don’t miss Neil Walker because of Alen Hanson, they don’t miss Pedro Alvarez because of “future draft pick since they don’t have an internal replacement right now”, and they don’t miss Andrew McCutchen because of your pick between Austin Meadows, Josh Bell, Barrett Barnes, Harold Ramirez, or someone from one of the drafts in between now and then. None of that sounds exciting right now, but the payoff is that if the plan is successful, then the Pirates will still be competing on a regular basis in 2019, and will still be set up to compete in future years.
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