First Pitch: Do the Pirates Need to Act Differently This Year?

The Pittsburgh Pirates were contenders in 2013. They were contenders because of bounce back pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. They were contenders because they relied on unproven prospects, rather than going for the “guarantee” of an established major leaguer. They were contenders because they went against the norms — placing higher values on defense, pitch framing, ground balls, defensive shifts, and ignoring the myth of “proven relievers”.

I’ve talked in the past about how the Pirates need to stay the course. The approach that got them here is the approach that is going to keep them contenders for years to come. The idea that a team has to act one way to become contenders, and another way once they are contenders is wrong. Teams that act this way and change their approach usually don’t remain contenders for long, and quickly have to go back to a rebuilding process.

There’s one thing that gets lost in this discussion. Any discussion that talks about how the Pirates approach things is usually taking the feelings of fans and applying those feelings to the Pirates. Last year, fans didn’t see the Pirates as potential contenders. The moves that were made were viewed with the idea that the Pirates weren’t contenders, and needed a miracle to contend. So in the view of the fans, the Pirates were making moves last year with a small chance of contending. This year is different for the fans, because the Pirates have established themselves as contenders. The key difference is that the fans believe the Pirates can be contenders in 2014, and that belief didn’t exist heading into the 2013 season. Therefore, fans feel that the approach heading into the 2014 season should be different.

But what if the Pirates weren’t thinking like the fans? What if the Pirates viewed themselves as contenders heading into the 2013 season? That’s not far fetched at all. What if the moves and the approach made by the Pirates in the past were made with the view that they would be contenders? If that’s the case, then there should be no difference for them between last off-season and this off-season. If they thought they had a chance to contend in 2013, and they think they have a chance to contend in 2014, then there shouldn’t be a difference in their approach.

The only difference between last off-season and this off-season is that the fans now believe the Pirates can contend. The fans also apply this change in belief to the Pirates’ thinking, assuming that the Pirates were acting one way last year because they agreed with the fans that they weren’t contenders. Therefore, fans believe that the Pirates should act differently, assuming that the Pirates were only making the moves they made in the past because the Pirates held the same belief as the fans.

The truth about all of this is that there’s no such thing as a contender in the off-season. “Contender” status doesn’t carry over from one season to the next. Teams have to focus every year on building a contender for the following season. Sure, it gets easier when you had a contending team to start with the previous year. But each off-season the goal is the same: build a contender. The Pirates had that goal last year. They traded their established closer, Joel Hanrahan, and replaced him with an “unproven closer” in Jason Grilli. They brought in Mark Melancon as a set-up man, despite his horrible year in 2012. Their big addition to the rotation was Francisco Liriano, who looked just as bad as the bounce back candidates do this off-season. Their big offensive addition was a strong defensive catcher who had advanced skills working with pitchers and framing pitches — two undervalued skills at the time.

Fans didn’t see any of those moves as moves that were made to build a contending team in 2013. But the Pirates made those moves with the goal of contending. The idea that they should now act differently is kind of foolish when you consider that they successfully built a contender using the approach that fans want to discard. I don’t understand why a team should discard the approach that built a contender in the first place, but then again I don’t believe in the idea that a team has to act differently as contenders.

From the looks of things, the Pirates are going to go with the same type of approach they did last year. They’re going to target bounce back pitchers. They’ll target platoons and go with unproven prospects rather than making a big splash. They might even trade from their bullpen to help other areas of the team. Basically, they will take the same approach that they used before. Fans are already starting to say it: “Same old Pirates”. They’re just leaving out the part about how the “Same old Pirates” used this exact approach to contend in 2013. If this is the “Same old Pirates”, I say welcome back.

Links and Notes

**Pre-Order the 2014 Prospect Guide

**Prospect Rewind: Getting to Know Casey Sadler and Joely Rodriguez

**Pirates Checked on Lance Berkman

**Winter Leagues: Lambo Drives In Two Runs In Win

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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  • http://MultiMatchupSports.com Stephen Stasa

    Many of those complaining “same old Pirates” were the same people who wanted to trade Marte in 2011 because “this is their ONE chance to break .500.” Then they wanted to trade Cole in 2012 because “this is their ONE chance to make the playoffs.” And finally Taillon this year because “they’re going to make the playoffs, but they need to win the division and it’s their ONE chance to make a playoff run.”

    But hey, let’s break the bank on the major league team. We’re going to get more revenue but so are all the other teams. If this means we need to gut the scouting and international development programs to free up more cash, then so be it. Go back to drafting for cheap signability too. Why? Because we’re contenders now. Contenders do things differently. They have to; 2014 will be their ONE chance.

    • leadoff

      Anyone that says “Same Old Pirates”, knows nothing about the Pirates IMO, always a tipoff saying for people that don’t know baseball either.

  • Monkshot

    Should be titled “read this mouth breathers”.

    • babeadamsforthehall

      No. It should be titled “Talking points for Kool-Aid drinkers and sycophants just in case the off season continues down the path that it has so far.”

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

        “just in case the off season continues down the path that it has so far”

        At this point in time last year, the Pirates hadn’t even signed Russell Martin. They hadn’t signed Liriano, Grilli. They hadn’t traded for Vin Mazzaro, Jeanmar Gomez. They hadn’t made the Hanrahan trade.

        The off-season technically starts in early November. But getting worried about how the off-season looks in November is like worrying about a team that has a losing record in the first week of the regular season.

        • babeadamsforthehall

          That is partially my point. You should have mentioned it in your article. If you had said that people should not get their undies all up in a bunch just yet. I would have no problem at all with what you wrote. Instead, it reads like political spin, trying to stay ahead of potentially bad news.

          • Mr. Goodkat

            ” Instead, it reads like political spin, trying to stay ahead of potentially bad news.”

            The potentially bad news has been known for a good 8 months now. It’s a bad year for 1B, RF, and SS free agents.

            IMO, the only reason guys at those positions (who aren’t tied to compensation, a la S. Drew) are even available is BECAUSE they are flawed. Injuries, age, off-years, PED’s — that’s why they weren’t resigned.

            There isn’t a Matt Garza at 1B. If there was they would probably be interested.

            Outside of Byrd (phillies), there’s not much on the market in RF.

            I’m mistified by people calling for the FO to spend all this “extra” money on FA’s. Either they want Jay Z on speed dial or they have no idea what the actual market for FA’s is. Spending to spend does not solve problems.

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

            “You should have mentioned it in your article. If you had said that people should not get their undies all up in a bunch just yet. I would have no problem at all with what you wrote.”

            Two things I’ve written already this off-season. The first is that payroll is going to go up. The second was about a week ago, saying that there’s no need to panic, and that moves aren’t usually made until around the Winter Meetings. Do I need to repeat those points in every article? Or can I add a new point in a new article like I did here?

            “Instead, it reads like political spin, trying to stay ahead of potentially bad news.”

            1. This is sports, not politics. It doesn’t matter, so the idea of having to “spin” bad news has always been ridiculous to me.
            2. Last year I was accused of “political spin” for saying the Pirates made a good move with the Hanrahan trade. It was called spin because there were people who didn’t like the move. Rather than accept that others thought it was a good move, they took the hard stance that their opinion was the only one that was correct, and anything opposing that opinion could only be made with the motives of defending the Pirates and their poor moves. The reality was that people just had different opinions, and one side turned out to be right.

            That’s what we have here. I’m saying the approach the Pirates have taken in the past led to a contender, and the idea that they have to behave differently after a contending season is wrong. I’m saying that their approach hasn’t changed, because unlike the fans, they were viewing themselves as contenders. If you disagree, then that doesn’t make what I’m saying “political spin”. It just means you have a different opinion.

            • babeadamsforthehall

              That is fine. You are correct that you need not mention it in every article. I do, however, invite you to look at things from another perspective. You yourself have made mention of your reputation as an apologist for the Pirates current front office. Rightly or wrongly. So if someone feels that, at a minimum, you are “on the same wavelength” with the front office in terms of their decision making on the whole (which you said you are in this very article), then I feel it a justifiable stance to believe that you are hearing bellyaching coming from some corners of the internet and you are trying to get out in front of it.

              It is too early to judge the offseason. No doubt. But with the non tender of Burnett, with some of the potentially good fits in the free agent market going to other teams, with us being linked to a dumpster dive like Lance Berkman…there is some amount of smoke out there. Add in the reticence of Mr. Nutting to open the purse strings in the past, and I feel justified in my stance that this article was written to prepare the masses that the current course of the off season is justified.

              • Cato the Elder

                Who are these good fits that you speak of?

                Byrd? Wanted more years than we wanted to give – but he got them from “that the buffoon of a GM in Philadelphia.” Good for him; good for them.

                Josh Johnson? We were in on Johnson, he wanted to play on the West Coast – kind of the opposite scenario with Burrnett a couple of years back. What are you going to do; you win some you lose some?

                Who else? David DeJesus? Brendan Ryan?

                I liked the idea of Chris Young, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over a 0.5 to 1 year stop gap in RF.

                Seriously, who are you talking about?

            • babeadamsforthehall

              Also, talking about past articles, giving anything that the buffoon of a GM in Philadelphia does as justification for anything does your arguement a great disservice. Martin is earning his contract on his own merits. No need to use an absurd contract coming out of Philly as a (very poor) example of his being a bargain.

              • Cato the Elder

                Can it be pointed out that AJ Pierzynski was signed as a free agent last season to the same $7.5 million by the Texas Rangers last season, or would that be a disservice to the arguement (sic) that Martin is a bargain?

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      I would have said “knuckle-draggers”, but yes.

  • emjayinTN

    Stay the course. They set a course, drafted for that course, traded for that course, and are sitting on a gold mine of talent – some already in the majors, and many just starting the course. Great to see Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole come up and do well, and looking forward to seeing Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco in June of 2014. We do have gaps, and if you listen real closely, you can hear NH’s stomach starting to turn and the gears between the ears starting to whirr.

    Do we trade Francisco Liriano now or wait until the trading deadline? I doubt we keep him to hope for a Supplemental pick in the 2015 draft.
    Do we sign Morneau, Loney or Mitch Moreland? Moreland is in his first year of Arbitration, so he is good for at least 3 more years. Take a look at his splits – his stats for the first half of the season are much, much better than his stats for the second half in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He was having an excellent year in 2013, and then must have been injured in June/July.
    There are some trades that will be made, and will AJ ever make a decision? Hopefully between now and the meetings in the 2nd week of December.
    But, do not expect the Pirates to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • babeadamsforthehall

    Wait.

    Is this article supposed to be some sort of justification for dumpster diving? I certainly hope not. The Pirates had an influx of cash on several different fronts. Is it not appropriate to expect an increase in payroll for 2014? It is early. I have no idea what the off season will look like when all is said and done. What I can say is that I will be very disappointed if what we see is nothing but dumpster dive free agent signings and “bounce back” bargain types.

    This has nothing whatever to do with contending. It has to do with statements having been made regarding an increase in payroll when people show up and support the team. We did our part.

    And let me cut this one off before it happens. No. I am not talking about spending just to spend. If the free agent market does not produce what the Pirates are looking for, they should pursue trades in the same vein as the Burnett acquisition.

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

      It would be pretty hard for them to not increase payroll. They’re starting at $63 M. They usually add about $8-10 M during the season, so that puts them north of $70 M. They finished last year with $74 M in payroll. The only way they’re going to finish lower in payroll this year is if they sign no one at all. So I’m not even focused on the payroll, since I don’t think they’re going to make zero moves this off-season.

      The article’s message is simple. The Pirates were contenders in 2013 by following a certain approach, so why would they try a different approach to contend in 2014?

      • babeadamsforthehall

        An approach that has worked exactly once over the past 21 years (in terms of the major lrague roster). But sure. Let’s have more of that. Our odds must be better because the one time it actually worked was just this past year.

        • Mr. Goodkat

          Who do you want them to throw this money at?

          Remember, it can’t be anyone who had a down year last year…lest they journey into the “dumpster”

          Without giving names, it just comes off as whining.

          • babeadamsforthehall

            Or maybe the very same people that you trust to find the “undervalued nuggets” can also go out there and find such players. Maybe they are ok with taking a risk with Matt Kemp. Maybe they can get a Mitch Moreland type to platoon at 1B. I don’t pretend to have the answer. Players that could help us are out there if we are willing to ante up, and the more $$ we are willing to shell out, the less cost it will be in terms of prospects.

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

          “An approach that has worked exactly once over the past 21 years”

          They haven’t been using the same approach for 21 years. This management group has been around for six years. In that time they went from one of the worst major league teams and no farm system to a contender with one of the best farm systems. That’s the approach that should continue.

          • babeadamsforthehall

            How many years over the past six have the dumpster diving and reclamation projects actually worked?

            And the system has been tried by prior braintrusts, at least in tersm of trying to find “bargains” at the major league level. It is a strategy that, when used exclusive of other options, temds not to work more often than it is affectual.

            Sometimes the right player for the job may not be a terrific “bargain”. As long as the acquisition of that player helps out the team over a certain period of time and the cost does not prevent contention in the future in terms of money or prospects, then whether or not the player happens to be a “bargain” should be moot.

            • babeadamsforthehall

              Wow. My spelling sucks today. Tim, help me out here. Ante up for a spell check on the comments section. Ugh.

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

                Doesn’t your browser have spell check? Mine gives a red underline when I’ve mis-spelled a word.

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

              “How many years over the past six have the dumpster diving and reclamation projects actually worked?”

              What exactly is “dumpster diving”? Would Liriano (originally signed for $7 M per year before his injury) be considered “dumpster diving”? Would the Hanrahan trade qualify? What about the McLouth trade a few years ago for Morton, Locke, and Hernandez?

              Also, there’s more to building a team than “dumpster diving”, which you talk about later. So am I supposed to say that they only won one year in the last six, and use that as evidence against dumpster diving? That understates how horrible this team was the first few years of the rebuild.

              “It is a strategy that, when used exclusive of other options, temds not to work more often than it is affectual.”

              Who says they have to use one strategy exclusively? Who says they are using one strategy? Last year they signed Russell Martin, who I don’t consider a “dumpster dive”. They also went with prospects, which is another area that can’t be classified as “dumpster diving”.

              In my off-season previews, I said that James Loney, a bounce back SP, Lambo/Tabata in RF, and possibly Jhonny Peralta would be a good approach for the Pirates. I don’t think that classifies as going exclusively with one strategy. But there is a part of the fan base that rejects the idea of a bounce back pitcher, or going with Lambo/Tabata, because the Pirates are supposed to act differently after a contending season.

              • babeadamsforthehall

                You are correct with respect to Martin. The Pirates did pay him market rate last year. In that sense, I do hope that the Pirates “stay the course” I suppose. My problem comes in where everything that we have heard so far has been “internal value” garbage regarding non-tendering AJ and looking at reclamation types like Josh Johnson or Lance Berkman. It is early. However, once the offseason has completed, if all we do is get more reclamation types and “potential bargains”, will you still be singing the same tune? Because at that point, the offseason would have been like every other one with the exception of last year.

                Still early. Radar is up though.

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

                  “However, once the offseason has completed, if all we do is get more reclamation types and “potential bargains”, will you still be singing the same tune?”

                  I’m willing to wait and see how the off-season shapes up. But I don’t think they will only go with reclamation types and bargains.

          • leadoff

            Tim, you are absolutely correct. People that have not seen these young players that the Pirates have do not have a clue about how good this team is going to get without spending a ton of money.
            The Pirates should be the model team that everyone including the Yankees follow.

        • http://MultiMatchupSports.com Stephen Stasa

          You can’t just lump all 21 years together as the same approach. They went from “let’s just break .500 with a makeshift roster” to “let’s build a farm system that will be a pipeline for success.”

          Those of us who have followed the team closely for the last 20 years and can see this isn’t the same approach aren’t sycophants. Where the team is now is nothing like 1992-2007 and into 2011. So if anybody needs to put down the Kool-Aid, it’s you and anybody who spouts the blind Pirate bashing based solely on history with no consideration for the current reality.

          Some guy wrote a good article on this change of approach by the way; you should take a look:
          http://www.piratesprospects.com/2013/09/first-pitch-the-six-year-plan-and-the-next-six-years.html

          And why do you assume they’re going to go dumpster diving? First, Tim shouldn’t have to tell you it’s still early. Plus, he actually has mentioned that a few times already anyway. Second, reclamation projects are not dumpster diving. They’re analysis based and a way to get value/$, which is the goal of every team. If their solution to 1st base is somebody for $2M/year who’s in his mid-30s with a career WAR around 2, then you can complain.

          Finally, if they don’t sign any big FAs, don’t just assume “same old Pirates” either. Look at the deals that are made. If you see reasonable ones that would have helped but Huntington says they were too much, then I’ll be with you. However, when a lot of new money is introduced into the market, it creates bubbles. With only 30 teams this is less likely to happen with player salaries than with stocks (but see Byrd getting $8M/year and Hudson at $11.5M/year), but if it does (and you know there are teams that like to throw money around) and you can identify it, then you can do the equivalent of shorting the market. That is, let those other teams give the big contracts to the top guys then acquire them in partial salary dumps for a C or D level prospect. And bubble or not, you know there will be teams looking to dump salary in July, and you can always make a trade before the season begins too if FAs are too expensive. That’s one of the many benefits of what they’ve accomplished with the farm system they’ve built and kept intact over the last few years despite some loud voices calling for them to do whatever they have to to win in 2011, 12, and 13.

    • Mr. Goodkat

      Who would you like them to sign? Please do tell.

      And forget about anyone attached to draft pick compensation — there is no one worth it for them (by far) this year.

      A big name big bat at 1B? Who?

      A big name slick fielding SS who can hit too? Who?

      A big name in RF to be a .5-1 year stopgap to Polanco? Again…who?

      Those are the Pirates needs. Possibly a pitcher as well depending on AJ, but even then I don’t consider that a NEED. Please educate yourself and see who’s available at the above positions.

      Why do you think the Rangers just traded Kinsler for Prince? There are no “attractive” options at 1B or RF. Unless you consider James Lonely “making a big splash”.

      • babeadamsforthehall

        Some here seem to think that NH and his crew can have repeated success with reclamation projects, so there is obviously some amount of ability to find such players. Therefore, I suppose that I can trust them to locate a few AJ type of deals if the free agent market does not present the kind of players that we need.

        • Mr. Goodkat

          Takes two to tango, my friend.

          But I don’t disagree with you — I think that’s actually what most of their efforts should be focused on.

          Unfortunately working a trade in the offseason is a lot harder than throwing money at a FA.

          Teams have to be willing to part with a player (in this case an above average one). Typically that means you’re looking for a blocked player situation (either the blocker or the blockee) or a salary dump (sure sounds like dumpster diving to me…). Just because you want a guy doesn’t mean he’s available. That’s problem #1.

          The FO has not shown a willingness (and should not) over pay in prospects. That’s problem #2.

          I really don’t think this is a money issue. The FO has shown a willingness to acquire salary in trades so long as it comes with talent. If they aren’t able to swing a deal for a bat I think it will be for one (or both) of the two reasons above — not penny pinching.

          Hard to blame them for that.

          • Mr. Goodkat

            Offering extra cash in a deal helps in a salary dump, yes. If a team is interested in prospects, good luck with that.

            • babeadamsforthehall

              AJ deal did = salary dump. This is where the Pirates have the opportunity to get actual talent without giving up much other than money. Much like getting them as if they were just free agents. Heck, the Rangers just took on a massive salary dump. Not that I agree with it, nor do I think it will be any good in the long run, nor would I have wanted the Pirates to have tried to acquire him (Prince may have eaten NH once he got here), but it is an example of the type of talent that you can acquire if you are willing to shell out the money.

              • Mr. Goodkat

                We agree on the practice. We agree that is probably the best route for them to explore. I just disagree that those kinds of deals are low hanging fruit that can be picked whenever desired.

                The contract has to be the right size. Too small (Jose Tababta) and the team has no need to move the player, or will want players/prospects in return. Too big (Prince Fielder) and the Pirates simply can’t absorb the money. Burnett’s contract was the perfect example of a “right size”. More of those players exist, to be sure.

                But there also can’t be much of a market for the player. Otherwise the price climbs. Either no one else was interested in giving up prospects for Burnett or the Yankees were just lazy when it came to shopping him. Money wont always close the deal.

                Is it possible to find more Burnetts? Absolutley. Should they be exploring all possibilities? Absolutely. Should they pull the trigger if they find one available? Absolutely.

                But wanting to and trying to aren’t always enough.

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

                  There weren’t a lot of teams in on Burnett, but one factor was that he wanted to play for an East Coast team. The Angels were interested, but he refused to be traded there. If he would have been willing to go to a West Coast team, that would have driven up the price for the Pirates.

                  That said, his contract didn’t look good at the time, which is why the Yankees basically salary dumped him.

                  • Mr. Goodkat

                    Actually did not know/remember the Angels were in play for him.

                    At the time I viewed it as a lottery ticket (albeit a very expensive one). One with better odds than the Matt Morris one purchased years ago (UGGHHH), but far from a certainty.

                    Anyhow, that only furthers my point that you can’t just draw these up on paper and make them reality.

                    “Player X has fallen out of favor on Team Y. Let’s offer them cash and fill our hole at position Z.”

                    ^^Great strategy, but it’s usually not that simple.

                    And even then, it’s STILL usually a risk, as it was with AJ. There just aren’t any real certainties on the market this year.

    • Cato the Elder

      1) With regards to “dumpster dive free agents,” those are the only guys will to seriously negotiate before the big ticket guys (e.g. Cano, Ellsbury…) sign and set the market – the only exceptions to this general rule are older players for whom years is more important than money per year).

      2) It is nice that the fans showed up for 1/2 of 1 season (over the past 21 as you say below), but if your concern is ownership being cheap consider this: a cheap owner is an owner who only spends money already accumulated (and frankly, I don’t know if this is even possible). Most of the money spent by a team/business is spent through lines of credit, which is really to say that you are spending your future earnings just as much if not more than your past earnings. Like I said above, last year was great but the payroll won’t see a significant bump until 2 things happen 1) season ticket sales spike (guaranteed revenue) and 2) fans sustain the attendance over a significant stretch of time.

      3) I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The increase in revenue from last season can be reinvested in the team in less ostentatious way than free agency. If the value isn’t to be found on the free agent market, why not reinvest that revenue by using it to extend one of our own players (e.g. Marte), or retain our coaching staff (somebody is eventually going to come knocking for Ray Searge, maybe we ought to give him a raise now), or bulk up the analytics department, or hire more/better scouts, or don’t spend it at all this year and bank it for later (e.g. the trading deadline, or a better free agent market in the future). I know fans are skeptical, but just cause you don’t see the money being spent does not mean that Nutting must have spent it on a new boat. The goal for a team like the Pirates is to spend money wisely, not ostentatiously. Plenty of teams have spent load of money in free agency (and or through trades) the last couple of years (Marlins, Blue Jays, Angels, Dodgers) and in no way has it guaranteed them success.

      • babeadamsforthehall

        Add in the tv revenue money, and simply maintaining last year’s payroll number is tantamount to spending less. Salaries are going to be inflated accross the board. Call it inflation. At your job, earning the same salary as goods get more expensive to purchase means that you are actually losing money. You are correct that money needs to be spent wisely. They should not spend simply for the sake of spending. I just hope that they do not turn something down because it was “not a bargain”.

        • Cato the Elder

          Sure the same payroll would be tantamount to spending less, but there is no indication that they will not increase their payroll. Still, did you miss the whole part about reinvesting money ways beyond payroll?

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      A big part–indeed, the lynchpin–of “staying the course” for the Pirates is draft-and-development. For the Pirates to succeed, the core of the team is going to have to be home-grown. They will have to supplement that by trying to find bounce-back types or getting lucky with players like Burnett who other teams will both trade and eat some salary in order to off-load them. In today’s economic climate, the Pirates will always have to treat the free-agent market as something of a spackle-and-duct-tape method to patch holes, not as the primary method to build the team.

  • Brian

    IMO the pirates have been contenders the last three years. This was just the first year they didn’t have that awful collapse. I wasn’t a big fan of the hanrahan trade last off season simply because I did expect the pirates to be competitive again this year. But now I know we can trust NH to keep the team competitive and do what’s best for long term sustainability.

    • emjayinTN

      Brian: Do you remember Hanny at the end of 2013? He lost 3 mph on his fastball and he could not throw the breaking pitch for a strike – I was absolutely thrilled that the Red Sox needed a Closer and gave us back 4 guys that they thought were deadwood. The Pirates were thrilled to unload Hanny’s $7 mil contract (?), and 3 of the guys turned out to be keepers and two turned in their best years – Mark Melancon as the set up and then the Closer when Grilli was injured; and Stolmy Pimental who could not get beyond AA with the Sox, but is right there with a chance to be in the majors in 2014. So the Pirates saved big bucks and got two young prospects for at least the bullpen and possibly more. Hanny appeared in 9 or 10 games without much success and went off for surgery for the rest of 2013. DeJesus had a good year at AAA and, except for Mercer showing well, he might have gotten a chance last year. Sands?

      • Brian

        In the end, I understood why they dealt Hanny mainly because of the contract situation. Obviously now the deal looks like a complete steal. Guess it’s a good thing you werent the Red Sox GM ;)

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

      I would agree somewhat. I didn’t think they were really contenders in 2011. The pitching staff had serious signs of regression that summer, and the Pirates were only close in the standings because every other NL Central team was struggling. The Pirates collapsed, but it wouldn’t have mattered as the Brewers and Cardinals had monster second half records.

      But to your overall point, yes, they were contenders before the 2013 season. They just improved the team heading into 2013, making their case as contenders a stronger case.

  • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

    Here’s what I’ve noted over several years of online posting on various sites and in live game chats: For every fan who wanted to trade away the farm for Stanton there’s another who seems to think the object of the game is to have a smaller payroll than the A’s and who believes every freaking prospect will be a HoFer. There were plenty of people who felt Vic Black was too high a price to pay for Byrd. Really?

    No, you don’t trade the farm system for one superstar. OTOH, if you have the pieces in place to be competitive, you add, not subtract, while you still have those pieces. Injuries happen. Slumps happen. Pitchers get arthritis or suddenly can’t get an out.

    One of the things I believe most hardcore SABRs miss is that this is still an entertainment business. Yes, fans will turn out for a winner in the second half. But a GM/owner also needs to get fans out for the first half, which means having a handful of stars who can move merchandise and build the brand while connecting to fans.

    Even the Yankees fell victim to this – while they were winning in the 1st half last year, fans weren’t showing up because of the lack of star power. Oakland has a hard time topping 2 million. The Pirates should be in the lower top half of attendance, right alongside Cincy and Milwaukee around 2.5 million (about 31,000 average).

    You also don’t just trade a Liriano because you can – unless you have someone to take his place. And that means a LH power pitcher, not a Brandon Cumpton. Liriano didn’t come by his WAR value by accident. He got it because he’s a LH power pitcher who pitches half his games in PNC with a heavy dose of pitching to NL Central teams. It always amazes me that supposed stats geeks miss things like splits, park factors and what division players play in.

    Nutting is entitled a profit. But if he can afford to pay a $90 million payroll while making that profit, then that’s what he should be doing, not paying $75 million. Neal is a good GM. Neal can figure out how to spend the money effectively if he’s at least given that option.

    • Mr. Goodkat

      I agree with this pretty much entirely. Thankfully the FO has stuck more towards the balance you speak of recently when it comes to trading/hoarding prospects.

      Trading Frankie and signing a Josh Johnson (with AJ returning) was/is and interesting idea. I’m glad Tim brought it up (don’t forget things like that are his job), but I think some have run too far with it. Personally, JJ signing with the Padres put an end to that thought for me.

      Your last sentences are, again, echoing my feelings, although you seem to take a slight jab at Nutting in the process. Until he gives us reason to believe he’s trying to keep payroll at 70M (and spending makes sense), doubting him seems like a waste of time and energy. I don’t “blindly put faith” in Nutting or the FO, but I am inclined to believe recent trends will continue until they…well..don’t.

    • Andrew

      Scott I agree with your general point, however where does the idea that stats people discount park factors and splits come from. Also, attendance is driven by winning so I do not see how stats people miss this when they are trying to construct a winning team.

      While I cannot see the Pirates trading Liriano, I would be careful constructing a roster to optimize performance against a division opponent, that is 18 games, with an individual starter pitching 3-4 of them. 2013 Cardinals 93 wRC+ against LHP, 25th in the MLB, almost same lineup in 2012 124 wRC+ , 1st in the league.

    • Cato the Elder

      “It always amazes me that supposed stats geeks miss things like splits, park factors and what division players play in.”

      That is some nice revisionist history. It was “stat geeks” who were pointing to Liriano’s 4.14 xFIP along with his platoon splits and PNC Park’s tendency to suppress RH power; on the other side, you had folks pointing to his 6-12 record and a 5.34 ERA.

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

      “You also don’t just trade a Liriano because you can – unless you have someone to take his place. And that means a LH power pitcher, not a Brandon Cumpton. Liriano didn’t come by his WAR value by accident. He got it because he’s a LH power pitcher who pitches half his games in PNC with a heavy dose of pitching to NL Central teams. It always amazes me that supposed stats geeks miss things like splits, park factors and what division players play in.”

      The PNC factor was included in my original “Should the Pirates trade Liriano?” analysis.

      I’d disagree that you need a LH power pitcher to replace Liriano. That’s saying that only LH power pitchers can have success at PNC. It’s true that a LH power pitcher is more likely to have success, but right-handers can have success for the Pirates as well (SEE: Burnett, Cole, Morton).

      • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

        I wonder if the Cards might have a new trophy if they had a decent LH starter.

        My point wasn’t that RHP can’t pitch at PNC. But why would you want five of them with no good lefties. Please don’t mention Locke. And IMO, Wandy is on the shelf until he proves he’s not.

        To Cato, so why would you want to get rid of Liriano now when he seems to be specifically designed to succeed at PNC?

        To Andrew, I’m not suggesting building an entire roster, I’m talking about one pitcher, not an entire LH starting staff.

  • jaygray007

    Yep. Being a good team does not mean that it’s time to ignore value when it’s presented or ignore risk.

  • jaygray007

    And saying payroll should be higher is one thing. But regardless of how high payroll is, the best values need to be brought in in order to maximize available spending on all other players.

    The goal is to maximize wins under a given payroll constraint, and overpaying for players prevents you from that goal UNLESS that player is the last decent player of his type on the market or you don’t have a decent cheap alternative on your team.

    • babeadamsforthehall

      This assumes that maximizing available spending is even an option. It may be. Too early to tell. At some point though, having a team full of bargains may not be enough to contend on the field.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

        not sure where we have a ‘team full of bargains’. We made a couple of shrewd starting pitcher pickups at low cost. Other than that……who, on our team is a ‘bargain’?

        • babeadamsforthehall

          Let’s make this easier. Who on our team ISN’T a bargain? Name a player or two on our team that are not living up to the money that Nutting and Co are giving them. Guys like GFJ will be gone in 2014, so he isn’t one. Wandy would be if he spends the year on the DL in 2014, but I would say that, for the Pirates portion of what he was paid in 2013, he was a bargain. Go ahead. Try to find 2 players on the Pirates who are not worth what the Pirates will be giving them in 2014. That’s what I mean by “team full of bargains”. Generally speaking, true contenders are not made up EXCLUSIVELY of such players. Sometimes you need to pay market rate for what you need to help you to contend. I am not against bargains by any means. I am against not looking to pay the right player market rate because the Pirates will ONLY take on “bargains”.

          • babeadamsforthehall

            I’ll help you with one. Clint Barmes. Now find another.

            • Cato the Elder

              Clint Barmes isn’t under contract and therefore isn’t on our team. Jose Tabata’s contract doesn’t look great for a 4th outfielder.

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

            When they signed Russell Martin, he didn’t look like a bargain. Neither did Francisco Liriano. A.J. Burnett didn’t look like a bargain when he was acquired. Those players just out-performed expectations and turned into bargains.

            Also, I think you’re using “bargains” as the antonym of “bad contracts”. Jones was a bad contract this past year. Wandy didn’t earn his money, even with the money coming over from Houston factored in. Is it a bad thing that the Pirates didn’t have a bunch of other guys like Jones, who weren’t living up to their salary?

          • stickyweb

            To paraphrase you, “For 20 of the last 21 years, there were a lot of players not living up to their contract.” It seems like the odds are better to have a good team if players are out performing their contract than the opposite. But for some, it just comes down to “Nutting better spend a lot of money”. Your above disclaimer to the contrary, that is basically what you are saying. Since there are not many free agents out there worth paying a lot of money to, if the Pirates don’t end up signing anyone big, it’s not necessarily a failure.

          • Andrew

            Calling the Pirates a team “full of bargains” reeks of post hoc analysis. And as far as the market rate, the price of a win is set large market teams in the free agent market because their rate of return is higher for a win. It is a tautology that the Pirates should pay the free agent market rate for players because this is what contenders pay.

            Additionally, there is so little information to judge the Pirates current off season on, I really do not understand how anyone can form an opinion on it.

          • Cato the Elder

            “Go ahead. Try to find 2 players on the Pirates who are not worth what the Pirates will be giving them in 2014. ”

            You say that like it is a bad thing.

            “Generally speaking, true contenders are not made up EXCLUSIVELY of such players.”

            Generally speaking, true contenders come from markets that can absorb (and thereby risk acquiring) bad contracts. Comparing the Pirates to the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, et al, is comparing apples to oranges.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    In NH I trust. Will he fail in his ‘bargain hunting’? Who knows. Every team hits and misses, even on the high priced ‘can’t miss’ free agents.

    NH gets a bad rap for his early procurements when, in actuality, NOBODY wanted to play in Pgh. Now, we are seen as a viable destination.

    I think we’ll do okay. Will we plug every hole? Probably not, but then, what team does? The Red Sox and Cards had holes.

    It doesn’t mean we can’t contend again. We could also fill all the holes and then lose AMac and Pedro the first couple of months. Frankie could go down with arm trouble. Who knows? Lambo could come up and be another ‘first season’ GI Jones.

    However, overall, I think NH deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt.

  • piraddict

    The Pirates would need to do things differently this year if their situation had fundamentally changed. Different set of facts: different set of acts. However nothing has changed. The Pirates are a small market team with budget constraints that place them at a limit of perhaps 1/3 of what a large market team can spend. It is all based on regional demographics and nothing is going to significantly affect that over the next century.

    Therefore the Pirates will never be able to spend money to obtain large numbers of older, proven high performers. They don’t have the financial resources to compete in that market. They need to have a SYSTEM in place that is different from large market teams. That is the idea behind Moneyball, and there is some core truth to it. However Sabremetrics isn’t the only element of a successful small market strategy. Better scouting, drafting, international signing, player development, and sports psychology are all important too. And those don’t involve paying large amounts of money to free agents. By spending money on their front office SYSTEM which accomplishes all of the above objectives the Pirates can obtain operational leverage (by that I mean that you spend once on the SYSTEM but get multiple returns on each of the elite players you develop through it) as the SYSTEM can develop multiple Martes, Polancos, Hansons and Ramirezes in addition to the Coles, Taillons, Kinhams, Meadows, etc. etc.. Remember only nine players can play at a time. So if the Pirates SYSTEM can become a “baseball player wealth producer” by generating an over abundance of MLB prospects the large market teams will be coming to them to acquire say an Alvarez at the end of 2015, when the Pirates will have the opportunity to sell high to a Texas or a Cubs franchise for example. It will hurt terribly to do it, but that is the way the Pirates can compete with the large market teams.

    This is the way the Nutting/Coonley/Huntington/Hurdle seem to be pointing the franchise, and as it should it seems to be working. No need to change anything! Just keep executing on the right, simple strategy.

    • Cato the Elder

      “By spending money on their front office SYSTEM which accomplishes all of the above objectives the Pirates can obtain operational leverage…”

      Finally, someone who gets it! Free agency might be the most inefficient way to spend money. It provides the quickest fix to immediate issues, but $5 million spent in free agency will buy you a average to below average stop-gap RF, where that same money might be able to fund an entire analytics department, international academy and/or secure your coaching staff for years to come. I am not saying: “Never broach the free agent market.” Just that building a team through free agency is an inefficient (if expedient) use of financial resources and small market teams generally do not have the luxury of inefficient expedients.

  • Buccoguy1979

    The question I have is a simple one: has the FO improved in its abilities to find lower cost players who perform at or above expectations? By lower cost I mean either in terms of minor leaguers sent in a trade (like AJ’s salary dump acquisition) or lower salary based on recent injury/performance issues. If NH and Co believe that the success of AJ, Martin, Gaby & Liriano is indicative of an improvement in talent evaluation compared with the evaluations that were made that led to the acquisition of JSanchez, Bedard, Barajas, Diaz, Overbay (etc), then staying the course makes sense. Even if the FO believes they are more shrewd in their talent evaluation, obviously nothing – not even a big name/big contract FO – is guaranteed. My fear in staying the course is that the 2014 success rate on those low cost options won’t mirror that of 2013.

    • Buccoguy1979

      that should read ‘big name/big contract FA’ not big contract FO

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

      I think one thing that has changed is that they’re not exclusively looking for guys with years of control. In 2009, for example, they traded for Morton and Locke. The benefit there is that they could have those pitchers under control for a longer period. That made sense, as the Pirates weren’t going to be competitive for the first few years. The downside to this approach is that you’re taking on more risk with guys like Morton and Locke. We saw that with a lot of the guys who didn’t work out, such as Milledge, LaRoche, etc.

      Now that the Pirates are contenders, they’re able to go for upside guys who are only going to be around for 2 years. The approach the last few years has been different than the 2008-2010 approach. They traded for two years of Burnett. They signed Liriano for two years. They traded for Wandy Rodriguez for 1.5-2.5 years (ended up being 2.5). They’ve been going after different types of players the last few years, and those players have less risk involved than the upside guys they were going for the first three years. I think that’s why they’ve had better results lately.

      • Mr. Goodkat

        Did they shift their strategy because they were contenders?

        Or did thy become contenders because they shifted their strategy?

        Either way your point is a valid one — I’d just love to know if NH would use the same approach he did to his early trades in hindsight. Obviously he would love to go back and acquire better players from several of the trades (Andy friggin LaRoche), but would he look for the same type of players (young, once promising, with years of control)?

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

          The first few years they were rebuilding. It didn’t make sense in those years to add someone like Burnett or Liriano, since they weren’t going to contend. In the recent years they were done rebuilding and made the transition to building to a contender.

          I think the approach would have been the same if they would have gone back to re-do the deals. They would have just gone for different prospects who could be under control for the long-term.

          • Mr. Goodkat

            Actually, thinking about it some more, they really haven’t changed their philosophy when it comes to trading their own established MLBers.

            The Burnett trade was a different type of trade altogether (buy low/salary dump), and Frankie was a FA. Rental player deals were obviously because we were competing.

            But looking at the Hammer deal (both of them actually), and the Brad Lincoln deal, you see a lot of the similarities to the Bay trade:

            Young, controllable, once promising players.

            Hopefully they’ve just gotten better at talent evaluation. I guess we’ll find out when they make the next wave of “sell high trades”.

            • Cato the Elder

              That is a good point w/r/t the somewhat recent trades. Hopefully they’ve gotten better at talent evaluation because better is better, but it is hard to objectively measure something like “talent evaluation.” Judging the results is one thing, but when wagering on high upside guys, it is known that some will fail. Knowing whether those failures were the fault of talent evaluators, or just the cost of doing business is hard, if not impossible to determine. I know it is a results oriented business, but it is better to judge the process not the results. Think of it like poker hand. According to the laws of probability, their is a proper way to play the hand. Playing a hand properly doesn’t always producing winning hand – sometimes the beginner draws the inside straight – but it is always a winning strategy.

              Judge the process and do your best to ignore the result. Truth is we were probably quite lucky last year moves coming up aces (Martin, Liriano, Melancon, Locke, Gomez). To expect the same outcome next year is probably unrealistic. But what you can say is that the process over the last handful of years has been good and as a result the major league product is competitive and the minor league system the envy of most after years of both being woefully inadequate.

              The Pirates need to keep the course and avoid the temptation of going all in on any one season.

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

              They’re always going to need to take this route to trade for young, controllable players. Look at the Rays and what they’ve done. They constantly are trading guys for prospects, and usually replacing the departed player with the prospects they got in the last trade.

              The difference for the Pirates between the rebuilding years and the last few years is that they don’t have to rely on those guys. They can make deals for Burnett or sign Liriano and go for short-term help, because it makes sense to focus on the short-term as well. Before they were only focused on the long-term.

  • leadoff

    Tim, the answer to your question is No. This team is pretty well built and the farm is now a supply line to the majors. I don’t think I would be far off in saying that Polanco is NO. 1 on the depth chart for right field this year, if not at the beginning, for sure mid way. That means they might find a journeyman RF to help with right field until Polanco gets here. They also might look for a hitter that can handle right handed pitching for 1st base, although I would think that high on their want list would be a full time 1st basemen, because they don’t have one in the pipeline, but if they can’t get one at a price they can afford, a platoon would have to do, might even be Jones or some other journeyman, just because they won’t tender him, he can still be signed. And lastly, a veteran pitcher, somewhere between a 3 and a 5. Total of 2 moves outside the organization and a bunch of minor moves on the surface. This will disappoint the we gotta spend money crowd, but what do they know, I’ll take what Huntington knows any day.
    IMO, the really, really dumb teams are the teams that give ten year contracts to players 31 and older that go from 150mil to 250mil, same old jerks, and I would call those owners jerks to their faces, they are ruining baseball.

  • https://www.facebook.com/marty.leap Marty

    I truly believe the Bucs only need to add a few things this offseason. Either someone to play everyday at 1B, like a Morales, or someone to platoon with Gaby such as Loney. A starting pitcher, and not necessarily a big named one. A #4 type would be fine as the top 3 of Liriano, Cole, and Morton is pretty solid. Then something at SS. Rather it’s a back up as insurance to Mercer, or someone else to play SS and allow Mercer to platoon at 2B with Walker. They do this and they’ll be fine. Cutch, Pedro, Martin, Marte should all be, when you combine D and O, above average at their positions next year. Taillon and Polanco aren’t far away, so that takes care of RF and adds another SP. Plus, I’m very comfortable with Tabby in RF until the Toolshed gets here. It hasn’t always been easy, but Huntington has built it the way small market teams have to. Bucs’ won 94 games last year, bring almost everyone back, and have arguably the top farm system in the game. We’re finally seeing the fruits of Huntington and his staff’s labor.

  • https://www.facebook.com/bruce.humbert Bruce Humbert

    I find these conversations a bit puzzling. I would love to see the Pirates “do something” – but would hate for them to waste either dollars or valuable assets. I would have been fine with tendering AJ and matching the Phillies offer for Byrd. But I am also OK with the Pirates passing on both. It might have been a safe way to get short term solutions – but not sure that other options might actually be better.

    I am not a big fan of Loney – and the Lance Berkman idea was/is silly…

    Rolling the dice on someone like Corey Hart has some appeal if he is close to healthy – but not sure if he would be interested – and Peralta is logical if he is affordable.

    As for pitching I would – unlike others – try and see if some of the “new” revenue might lead to extending Liriano – I really think he is in a great situation – power lefty in this division and in PNC. Adding 2-3 years to his contract could be a good investment.

    • leadoff

      We don’t really know why they called Berkman, they could have an idea of signing him to an incentive laden minor league contract, never hurts to ask, a contract like that is not a gamble for the Pirates.

      • Cato the Elder

        They very well could be in negotiations with another player/players and the leak could have come from the Pirates in order to influence those negotiations by suggesting that we have other options. Like you said, “we really don’t know…”

    • https://www.facebook.com/marty.leap Marty

      Pitcher I want to extend is Morton. Something like 3 years $30-36 million.

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

        I suggested extending Morton early in the off-season. My thought was three years and $25-30 M. After thinking about it, he probably wouldn’t cost more than 3/$21 M.

        • https://www.facebook.com/bruce.humbert Bruce Humbert

          So why not extend them both :-)

        • emjayinTN

          Tim: What is it that inspires folks to want to sign Charlie Morton for 3 years? I see a 30 year old SP who only has one season where he has pitched more than 116 innings. I liked his work in 2013, but in September, half of his starts were excellent and half were poor – that does not inspire me. He does well at PNC, not nearly as well on the road; well against RH batters, not so good against LH batters. His 1.3 WAR is good. I like that he will be with the Pirates in 2014, but signing him for his ages 31, 32, and 33 seasons? I see him as a decent trading chip who could get much more interest in 2014 if he validates. But the Pirate system is jammed with young, talented RHSP’s – for example, Brandon Cumpton, 25, who came up and pitched very well for the Pirates in his 5 starts in 2013, and also guys like Nick Kingham, 22, who will be AA/AAA in 2014, and guys like Gomez, Pimental, McPherson, Irwin, Sadler, and who knows how quickly Tyler Glasnow will be close.

  • elgaupo

    1) What is overvalued right now: prospects, starting pitching, RH power, glove first C/SS’s.

    2) What is undervalued right now: LHH that can’t hit LHP, offense first catchers.

    I think the only thing NH can sell from #1 is prospects. I think there is plenty to buy in #2.

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

      I disagree that prospects are overvalued. I know that has been said a lot because of the increased value that prospects have received. But I think that prospects are now appropriately valued. They might even still be undervalued.

  • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

    I find it amusing that when the suggestion that Nutting spend more money comes up, most posters here only think of FAs.