Last night I wrote about how the Tampa Bay Rays were the model franchise in baseball. In the comments, a few people talked about how the Pirates should strive to be the model franchise. This is definitely true. I mention the Rays so often because they’ve been the most successful small market team. They’ve done this by using small market strategies, such as valuing young players and prospects, trading players at the right time for a big return, and avoiding the temptation to spend too much on big names.
When it comes to small markets contending, there is often talk about a “window of opportunity”. The idea is that a team can only contend for a 3-4 year “window” until they have to blow everything up and rebuild for a few years.
I talk about the Rays so much because they have accomplished what every small market team should strive for. I don’t agree with every single one of their moves. I would never pay relievers the way they have paid some relievers. I would be fine trading some prospects, although still not any elite prospects. I’d go for a big free agent if it made sense (and the difference here is that the Rays probably can’t afford to do so, while the Pirates could). But those are just methods to the end result. The end result is what every team should strive for. That end result is being a competitive team with no windows.
The Rays are competitive. They have been competitive for the last six years, winning the second most regular season games in that span. They will remain competitive in the future. They have shown that you don’t need to limit yourself to “windows”. You can remain a contender by continuing the methods that got you there in the first place, rather than abandoning those methods until it’s time to rebuild again.
That’s the key for the Pirates. There are some methods I’d take from the Rays, and some methods I wouldn’t. The big thing I’d take is the Rays ability to stick to their core philosophies, thus extending their ability to be competitive. The Pirates can do this, and all it takes is sticking to the methods that got them here. So what are some of those methods? Or, another way of asking…
What Would the Pirates Do?
The Pirates are going to be picking lower in the draft if they intend on remaining contenders. They won’t have the ability to pick guys like Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, or even Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to land top talent.
Some of the top prospects in the system came after the first round. Tyler Glasnow was a fifth round pick, and a relative unknown. Nick Kingham was a fourth round pick. The Pirates had middle round guys in the majors this year, such as 2008 third round pick Jordy Mercer, 2008 5th round pick Justin Wilson, and they got a rotation boost from 2010 9th round pick Brandon Cumpton.
The Pirates can still land talent through the draft, even with a low first round pick. They just need to focus on drafting for upside, which is something they’ve been doing every year. They’ve already got a loaded farm system, so they can go without the high first round picks and still maintain a strong system. They just need to keep landing talent in the middle rounds.
The spending at the international level will also be limited in the future. The spending is currently tied to your standings, with a better record equaling fewer dollars to spend. The Pirates have never been big spenders when it comes to individual players. They signed Luis Heredia and Harold Ramirez to seven-figure deals, but for the most part they have had a lot of success with smaller bonuses. Gregory Polanco cost $150,000. Alen Hanson was only $90,000. Emerging left-handed pitcher Joely Rodriguez was $55,000. Even some of the bigger bonuses, like the recently traded Dilson Herrera ($220,000), or the emerging Michael de la Cruz ($750,000) can still be had with a smaller budget.
Playing the Prospects
The Pirates will always have to rely on prospects. This year they have the money to get good short-term options at first base and right field. But the smart move would be using one of those two spots to give Andrew Lambo a shot. Lambo revived his career with 33 home runs this year between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors. He was only 24-years-old. The Pirates could go with a 1-2 year option at first base and another short-term option in right field. Those options might both bring more comfort than Lambo. But the smart move would be giving Lambo a shot. If he works out, then the Pirates potentially have a player who would be better than the free agent options, and they’d have him for six years.
It’s the same for other positions. When Gregory Polanco is ready, he needs to be starting in the outfield. When Jameson Taillon is ready, he needs to be in the rotation. The Pirates have done a good job of this when it comes to their impact prospects. For other guys, like Jordy Mercer, it has taken a bit longer to make the switch, but they have made the switch. This was all easy when the Pirates were losing, since they could afford the uncertainty surrounding prospects. There might be more pressure to go for established players now that they’re contenders. To stay contenders, they need to keep relying on the young players.
Protecting the Prospects
On that same note, there will be pressure to go for established players, and part of that will be the pressure to trade prospects for established players. I point to the Rays with this, and they are the extreme. They don’t trade any prospects. What they do is trade guys with 1-2 years left until free agency, and get new prospects. The Pirates don’t necessarily have to go to those extremes. They can make moves like trading Dilson Herrera and Vic Black for Marlon Byrd. They just can’t make those moves too often, and they can’t trade players who might be important to their future. Herrera wasn’t one of the top two middle infield options. Black was projected to be the future closer, but the Pirates have a strong track record of landing talented relievers for nothing. The trade of Herrera and Black sent away a lot of talent for a two month rental, but it didn’t change the long-term outlook at second base or the bullpen.
Avoiding the temptation to deal prospects is harder in the middle of the season. When you’re a contender at the deadline, there’s a misconception that you need to make a move in order to remain a contender. You just need to look at this year’s trade deadline to know that’s false. The Texas Rangers traded for Matt Garza and Alex Rios. That’s the top pitcher and the top hitter on the market. Yet, Texas missed the playoffs. The idea that adding the biggest names on the market can make a significant impact over a two month period is false. It’s fine taking the chance for an improvement when you’re not sacrificing the future. But if you’ve got to give up prospects like Gregory Polanco or Jameson Taillon, that’s not worth it.
And yes, this means that the Pirates can’t make moves like trading multiple top prospects for a few high priced years of Giancarlo Stanton or David Price. That’s how teams get themselves into “window” situations, and it’s why the Milwaukee Brewers are going to be at the bottom of the NL Central for the next few years.
Value Relievers Properly
As I wrote earlier today, the Pirates should become a relief pitching factory. They have done a good job trading relievers and replacing them in the bullpen with low-cost, talented relievers. The end result is that they’re basically getting prospects for free by not losing any production at the major league level. So many teams over-value relievers. Teams pay a lot for closers, they trade a lot for pitchers with a good track record, and yet every year a new wave of talented pitchers will emerge as strong bullpen options. The Pirates have done a good job of avoiding the “proven closer” mentality. As long as there are teams who place too much value on relievers, the Pirates can capitalize and find a great way to add talent, with no final loss to the major league team.
Don’t Go By the Book
One of the big reasons the Pirates were successful this year was due to their usage of defensive shifts in the infield. That wasn’t unique to the Pirates, but it was very unconventional, and allowed them to win using pitching and defense. The Pirates also got a huge boost from Russell Martin behind the plate, as they valued his defense and his skill at framing pitches. Defensive shifts and pitch framing was something that was laughed at prior to the season, but we saw this year that they both provided an edge. The edge isn’t massive, but the Pirates need every advantage they can get.
They need to continue this line of thinking. Once again, it’s easy to do these things when you’re losing and trying to propel yourself to a winner. It’s different when you’re a winner and you’re not playing the same game as all of the other winners.
Make Moves For the Team, Not the Fans
One of the most common rebuttals I get to any post involving trading a name player for prospects is “they can’t do this because of fan loyalty”. A team can focus on fan reactions, but that usually prevents them from making good decisions, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to the fans being happy. The fans didn’t like the Nate McLouth trade for Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez. The fans didn’t like the Joel Hanrahan trade for Mark Melancon. The fans didn’t like trading Brad Lincoln for Travis Snider (.652 OPS after the deadline), rather than sending Starling Marte for Shane Victorino (.667 OPS) or Hunter Pence (.671 OPS).
The Pirates can eventually trade hometown player Neil Walker. They can trade popular relievers like Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli. They could even trade Francisco Liriano for a huge return, then replace him with the next Liriano. The fans wouldn’t like any of those moves. But if the team eventually wins, the fans won’t even care.
Just look at what the Steelers did for years. They constantly traded or cut ties with players at the right times. They went from fan favorites to unknowns. The moves weren’t popular when they were announced, but no one cared when the Steelers were winning.
What the fans think about a move is irrelevant. I know I’m not supposed to take that stance, and I’m supposed to say that what the fans think is important, and it’s all about the fans, and so on. But it’s not true. The only way teams should be trying to appease the fans is by building a winner. If that takes a few moves that the fans don’t like, then that’s fine. They’ll hate it in the short-term, then forget they hated it when the team wins, then hate the next move while forgetting that the last similar move led to a winner.
Fortunately the Pirates haven’t been afraid to make unpopular moves. It will be harder going forward since there will be more pressure to win, but they still need to make unpopular moves if they’re the right moves.
Winning Shouldn’t Change Anything
As I’ve mentioned many times throughout this article, there will be pressure on the Pirates to change their ways now that they’re winners. The Pirates followed a certain method to become winners. Once a team becomes a winner, there’s a misconception that the team has to operate in a different manner as a contender. That’s just not true. The Pirates can stay a winner in the same manner that they became a winner. If they focus on moves that will make the team better in the short-term and the long-term, then they can continue putting a winner on the field, with no worries about any “windows”.
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