In previous years, I always opened the season with an article titled “[Number] Things to Watch For in [Year].” The number would always coincide with the consecutive losing streak. If the Pirates had lost 17 years in a row going into a season, then the number that year would be 18. And of course the year was the upcoming season. In the early years during the rebuild, the point of the article was to highlight things to watch for as the Pirates inevitably headed to another losing season. A lot of these things ended up being the progression of prospects through the system, rather than something to follow on the Major League level.
Now that the losing streak is over, I thought about continuing this trend, only by using the winning streak. Technically, one winning season isn’t a winning streak. In fact, “winning streak” is best defined by Lou Brown in Major League II:
“We won a game yesterday. If we win one today, that’s two in a row. We win one tomorrow, that’s called a winning streak. It has happened before.”
So the earliest the Pirates could have a winning streak in seasons would be heading into the 2016 season, assuming they finish on the right side of .500 the next two seasons.
I wanted to continue the tradition this year, even though the Pirates don’t technically have a streak of any kind. Going off the old article format, the title of this year’s would be “Two Things to Watch For in 2014”, with the subtitle and theme of the article being the focus on the Pirates aiming for their second winning season in a row. The reality is that you can’t just narrow a watch list down to two things. You could, but you’d be leaving a ton of stuff out. So I wrote something last night, titled “21 Reasons Why the Pirates Are Going to Have Another Good Season in 2014.”
I wanted to take a different approach with the usual article. Rather than focus on the 2014 season, I wanted to focus on every season from here forward. I wanted to focus on two things that could help the Pirates win, not only in 2014, but beyond. That should be the focus — not just on one year, but on many years. So here are the two things the Pirates need to continue winning in 2014 and beyond.
A Strong Farm System
Because of the economics of the game, the Pirates are always going to need a strong farm system. They built a contender in large part because of their prospects. By the start of the 2015 season, the farm system could be responsible for seven of eight members in their starting lineup. Once Gregory Polanco and Tony Sanchez arrive, the only position that wouldn’t be filled by the farm system would be first base. The rotation is heading in that direction as well. Gerrit Cole is already in the rotation. Jameson Taillon is expected to join the rotation this season. In the next few years the Pirates are expected to add Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham to that group.
The Pirates have one of the top farm systems in the game right now. They have top prospects lined up to make the jump to the majors in each of the next few years. So building through the farm system isn’t going to be a challenge over the next few years. The Pirates are currently lined up to have a good team in the short-term, just because they’re already contenders, and have a lot of top prospects set to join this group soon.
Where the farm system will play the biggest impact is in the long-term. The Pirates need to try and extend as many players as possible in the same way they extended Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. But eventually, they’re going to lose players to free agency. Every small market team does. For example, unless McCutchen takes some sort of discount to stay in Pittsburgh, he’s likely going to be leaving after the 2018 season. If Robinson Cano can get $240 M in 2014, then McCutchen should get a huge amount after the 2018 season. The Pirates won’t be able to pay that much and field a competitive team. Their only shot of keeping McCutchen would be if he came back under a very reduced rate.
So it’s likely that the Pirates will need a replacement for McCutchen following the 2018 season. And they’ll probably need one for Starling Marte following the 2021 season. And Gerrit Cole after the 2019 season. And Pedro Alvarez after 2016. And so on.
The problem the Pirates have now is that they’re contenders, which means they’re picking at the bottom of the draft. That gives them a lot less money to work with, both in the draft and international markets. That shouldn’t be an issue if they keep doing what has been working so far.
The Pirates have picked at the top of the draft for many years. They’re no longer picking that high, which means they won’t get guys like Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, or even guys like Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. But they have shown the ability to get players in the middle rounds. Nick Kingham was a 4th round pick. Tyler Glasnow was a 5th rounder. Jordy Mercer was a third round pick in 2008. Justin Wilson was a 5th round pick in the same draft. They’ve got depth options who were taken in the middle and late rounds, such as Brandon Cumpton (9th round) and Phil Irwin (21st round). If they can continue getting talent in the middle rounds, that will off-set the loss of the talent from the top of the first round.
As for the international ranks, the loss of money shouldn’t be a huge blow. Rene Gayo and his crew have done an outstanding job of landing top talent for low-budget prices. Marte signed for an $85,000 bonus. Gregory Polanco signed for $150,000. Alen Hanson signed for $90,000. Joely Rodriguez signed for $55,000. That’s four guys who are on the 40-man roster, and who signed for a combined total of less than one league minimum player in the majors.
The Pirates should be fine with their farm system going forward as long as they can keep finding values in the middle rounds of the draft, and in the international market.
I talk about depth a lot on this site. In every season preview, I point out the depth options for each position. There’s a reason for this, and the reason was seen last year in Pittsburgh. Depth is crucial to a contending team.
Last year the Pirates saw 33 starts from Brandon Cumpton, Jeanmar Gomez, Kris Johnson, Phil Irwin, and Gerrit Cole. Going into the season, you expect each rotation spot to make about 32-33 starts. Most people only focus on the number 1-5 starters, but typically the number 6-10 starters will account for 20% of the starts in your rotation each year. The position player depth — whether that’s bench players or Triple-A guys — usually take about 10-50% of the playing time each year at various positions.
The farm system is already in place to help the Pirates in the short-term, especially in the rotation and the lineup. However, the Pirates need to maintain strong depth behind those top prospects, as some of those guys will go down with injuries and will need to be replaced. Fortunately, they have done a great job of adding depth, and realizing the importance of depth, to the point that they’ve got about 15-16 starting pitching options for the 2014 season, between the Major League rotation, the bullpen, the Triple-A rotation, the Triple-A bullpen, and Double-A.
The Two Things
It sounds pretty obvious that if you have a great farm system, and a lot of depth, you’ll be a competitive team for years to come. I’m not trying to offer up ground breaking analysis here. Instead, I’m pointing out that the Pirates are already successful in these two areas. As long as they continue with their success in these areas, they should be competitive in the short-term, and remain competitive for the long-term.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.
**If you missed it over the weekend, here are all of the season preview articles:
- 21 Reasons Why the Pirates Are Going to Have Another Good Season in 2014
- The Pirates Rotation Has Some Red Flags, But Still Projects to Carry the Team
- The Pirates Won’t Have to Wait For Gregory Polanco to Have a Top Outfield
- Pirates Will Once Again Have Strong Infield Defense and Offensive Questions
- The Pirates are Returning a Bullpen That Was One of the Best in Baseball
- The Pirates Have a Bench That Can’t Hit Right-Handers