The Reality of How the Pirates and Cardinals Build Their Teams

The St. Louis Cardinals were busy this week. On Friday they traded David Freese for Peter Bourjos, which should set off a chain of roster shuffling that will result in St. Louis upgrading their defense at three different spots. Last night, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN reported that the Cardinals were closing in on a deal with shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Jon Morosi reported that it is expected to be a four-year deal.

Peralta fills the shortstop hole for the Cardinals, while also further upgrading the infield defense. St. Louis had one of the worst UZR numbers in 2013, and in the last few days they have upgraded four spots on the field defensively, with three of those spots coming in the infield.  If the deal with Peralta gets finalized, then it will be hard to see where they have a weakness.

The Cardinals got a lot of praise during their playoff run over doing things the right way — specifically how successful they were in drafts. More specifically, how successful the 2009 draft has been. That’s definitely deserved. However, what gets lost here is that the Cardinals aren’t built on the draft. It’s true that guys like Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Adams were great finds, but that’s not what fueled St. Louis. The Cardinals are competitors in large part because of Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Adam Wainwright.

All four of those guys are high salary players who the Cardinals can afford to keep around. Beltran isn’t going to be returning next year, but his high salary looks like it is being replaced by Peralta. The playoff run was filled with this idea that the Cardinals were some small market team winning because of their drafting. I made the comment then that this was the equivalent to “Moneyball”, and the high salaried players were Tim Hudson/Mark Mulder/Barry Zito — guys who played huge roles and barely got mentioned in the storyline.

The truth is that the Cardinals can afford to do things that teams like the Pirates can’t. The Pirates can’t afford $17 M per year over seven years on a guy like Matt Holliday. They can’t afford to keep a star catcher around like Yadier Molina once he’s eligible for free agency. They can’t afford Adam Wainwright for almost $20 M per year. You might be able to argue that they could afford one of those salaries, but certainly not all three of them plus a guy like Beltran or Peralta.

What the Cardinals have is a dangerous combination. They’re a team that drafts well. They’re not afraid to give young players a chance. And on top of that, they have the money to consistently have one of the top ten payrolls, allowing them to keep their players once they reach free agency.

The Pirates can draft well. They can give young players a chance. But the reality is that they’ll never be able to spend what the Cardinals spend. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have no chance against the Cardinals. They won the season series against St. Louis last year, and took them to game five in the NLDS. The Cardinals had the good drafting and a lot of high paid players, but the Pirates were evenly matched. The spending by the Cardinals does mean that they have one advantage over the Pirates: they have more room for error. The ability to spend money means the Cardinals can hide their weaknesses, and it also means they don’t need to rely on the drafted players to carry the team. It’s the opposite with the Pirates. They need to build through their farm system and support those players with free agents.

One thing that’s interesting with the Cardinals is their approach outside of the big spending. They’re adding Jhonny Peralta this off-season, but look at their approach with other positions. They look to be going with prospect Kolten Wong at second base. They’re moving on from Carlos Beltran, and going with internal options who cost less. They added Peter Bourjos for center field. That’s not a flashy move, but it upgrades a big team weakness in an under-rated way.

The Pirates should take this same approach for their off-season needs, and probably will take this approach. For all of the emerging panic over the Pirates being quiet this off-season, the reality is that they will add players and they will spend money. They can’t make a big splash like St. Louis, but they can make lower key upgrades by going with internal options, bounce back candidates, and not-so-flashy guys like James Loney who get the job done. The Cardinals get their impact through free agency, or they re-sign the impact players they develop. The Pirates have to rely on developing impact players, as well as taking risks on bounce back candidates.

The Cardinals have a great situation with their ability to spend and their ability to find talent in the draft. The Pirates also have a great situation with their drafting and development skills, plus their ability to find bargains on the free agent market, and their acceptance of unconventional strategies like defensive shifts. What we can learn from this is that there’s no one way to build a contender. The two teams were evenly matched in 2013, and they’ll both be contenders again in 2014. If both teams continue the approaches that make them successful, then we could see them battling at the top of a very competitive NL Central division for the next several years.

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To continue from above. I suppose that the question is: do the Pirates spend another $5M to $8M this year on a Bounce back pitching candidate to replace either Wandy or Locke? My answer is no, for several reasons.

First I don’t think 2014 is nearly as important as 2015 or 2016. People sometimes act as if they believe that baseball operating budgets are like January stock options, that if you don’t exercise them by the option date that the money expires and disappears. Not true. If you save the money this year it is available next year when it can be amplified in the quality of player that can be purchased by adding it to next years excess. In other words why buy two mediocre players in successive years when you could do nothing the first year and buy an excellent player the second?

But let’s suppose reason number one doesn’t matter. The next most important influence on the decision should be whether you believe the internal candidates have room to grow in their abilities. Baseball performance isn’t static, players improve and they regress. In Wandy’s case he isn’t going to get any better, he may get a lot worse. He is my candidate to be replaced by Tallion in mid season. And if he breaks down earlier go with Cumpton (who was the Pirates best starter statistically) or Pimental until you want to bring Tallion (or Kingham for that matter) up.

Locke is another conundrum. 1HLocke was arguably the Pirates best 1H pitcher. 2HLocke was below the line. What made the difference? In a word: walks. The league figured out that Locke was trying to be too fine in painting the corners and waited him out, moving the counts in their favor. Locke was just off the corners because he didn’t believe enough in his stuff to throw early strikes and get ahead. There is some reason to that as his stuff doesn’t compare to the Cole’s of the world. But Locke needs to realize that that doesn’t matter if he will vary his pitch selection, pitch speed and pitch location enough to keep the batters off balance. The best recent Pirates example of that was Karstens. 2010 Karstens was a pedestrian pitcher. 2011 to 2012 Karstens was very effective. What lead to Karstens improvement. One, he pitched fast. Two, he varied pitch selection. Three, he varied pitch speed. The best thing the Pirates could do for Locke is sit him in front of a video tape of 2012 Karstens and say: learn how to pitch. Last year when Locke got behind he slowed down dramatically, he was over thinking. Years ago there was a Pirates pitching coach named Ray Miller (I think) whose mantra was “pitch fast, throw strikes and change speeds”. I would only add “change locations” to that mix. Look at the quantum improvement in Cole’s performance when he learned to spread out his pitch speeds. The same type of improvement in performance can happen with Locke. He just needs to learn to pitch like the example of 2012 Karstens.

So my answer is that spending money in pursuit of a 2014 Burnett/Liriano is a waste of money. The year end rotation will be: Cole, Liriano, Morton, LOcke and Taillion. With Cumpton, Kinham, Pimental in reserve. Save the money this year for 2015 when you can buy the best available FA for the position of greatest need.


All true! There is something that small market fans could do. Form a small market fans union, whose first step would be to declare a new Holiday: National Baseball Irrelevance Day (NBID). NBID is the first day after the elimination of the last small market team from the MLB Playoffs, whereafter we all stop watching the Playoff games in protest until the system is changed and the playing field leveled. Announce the boycott to the national media. If enough baseball fans in cities across America turn the channel ad revenues will be hurt. Businesses respond to commercial pressure. It’s the only way we can take action to effect change.


on an aside to pirradict and Tim’s conversation regarding the chances of making the playoffs in a strong division:

A few years ago there was discussion of total Realignment based on payroll. I liked the idea very much for a few reasons.

1) You don’t punish players who have earned big contracts by implementing a hard contract.
2) you allow owners to run the team the way they want and not penalize them for spending as much as they want
3) You don’t punish teams like TB or Baltimore by placing them in a division with Boston and NY. That is absurd the way it is now
4) You allow small market teams to enjoy watching their teams compete on an even playing field. Sure, small market teams will still play large market teams but playoff spots will be earned in large part to which division your in.
5) once you get to the playoffs, these short series allow for ANYTHING to happen thus slightly negating the payroll of the large market teams. Call it short term variance.

It would simply make the sport more palatable and enjoyable. Let the big spenders try to outspend each other. Let the small market teams compete on even grounds.

AL X: NYY, Boston, Tex, Angels, Det
AL Y: Chisox, Toronto, Seattle, Cleveland, Bal
AL Z: Houston, KC, Min, TB, Oak

NL X: Philly, NYM, Dodgers, SF, Cubs
NLY: ATL, Wash, STL, AZ, Col
NLZ: Bucs, MLW, Reds, Miami, SD


I love the basic idea, but I would scramble the eggs a little more to promote regional and local rivalries. This would involve Cleveland and Baltimore changing leagues with Miami and San Diego. My mix:

AL X: NYY, Boston, CHX, DET, Toronto

AL Y: TEX, Houston, LAA, TB, Miami

AL Z: KC, MIN, OAK, SD, Seattle

NL X: Philly, NYM, Cubs, ATL, Wash

NL Y: StL, Dodgers, SF, AZ, COL

NL Z: Bucs, MLW, Reds, BAL, CLE

Lino Donoso

I was one of those floating such an idea over on BD. I think it still has merit, based on the reasons you outlined. Let the players make as much as they can; let the owners run their teams the way they want to, but level the playing field to allow smaller market/lower revenue teams a better chance at making the playoffs where, as you say, anything can happen. I’d just add: throw out the draft spending caps, and introduce a system of compensation for the teams for players they lose to free agency like the fee that goes to Japanese teams when one of their players elects to move to MLB (the exact term for this is escaping me just now). Maybe add a year of control for players originally drafted and developed by a team. Unfortunately,MLB under our friend Bud has developed a system the big market teams, their fans, broadcasters, star players and their agents like the way it is. It will be tough to change. They like the unfairness.


The unfairness of MLB is a great topic actually. It is comical actually. Im surprised that there aren’t more issues with small market teams folding. Small market teams are nothing more than farm clubs for the Large market clubs. This is obvious, I realize but It is an exercise in futility.
Look at TB. They have been near perfect in their decisions! The Yankees and Redsox and Rangers and Tigers and Angels just throw money around like candy at a parade. They make HUGE mistakes in their signings and trades….. and it doesn’t really have an effect on them. They just go get the next best player and throw a garbage bag of money at him. Need a SP? Sign CC to a huge contract… need a Catcher? McCann here is as much money as Pittsburghs annual payroll…. Need a big time 3b? Sign A Rod to 100mil… what? he is ineffective and hurt? Ok, well go sign Youkilis and pay his overblown contract then. LOL! its absolutely absurd.
IF TB makes a big mistake or even a series of small mistakes… or have some bad luck… or a few rough drafts or injuries then they are DONE. They wont be able to compete and will have to do a rebuild that will take a few seasons at the very least.
MLB should be embarrassed but nothing will change unless some of these small market teams simply cant make it in their current locations thus FORCING the large markets to allow more competition for the betterment of the sport to keep their cash cow alive.


Not sure Pittsburgh can compete with the mega markets in baseball or any business endeavor long term easily.

1 championship for now will work. Live and let live!


For the record, I’d like to say that I don’t like to hear people whine about how increased competition means that the Pirates will have a diminished chance of making the playoffs, as if we are entitled to that outcome. Making the playoffs and eventually winning the Series is supposed to mean something. It means you have the best team. And if you have the best team odds are that over a 162 game season you’ll make the playoffs. Having a strong division only means that we’ll get to see more fantastic regular season games against division opponents. What’s wrong with that? If we prevail over them we’ll be better prepared to win in the playoffs. Competition toughens a championship team. Championship teams say bring them on! Let’s hear no more whining about how unfair the world of baseball is. It’s undignified.


I was objecting specifically to the complaints against increased divisional competition, not against the fiscal structure of MLB, which is truly unfair. Heh, it’s your site, and you do a fine job running it. Write about whatever you wish. Writing about the unfairness in baseball may qualify as “speaking truth to power” if the Baseball Powers That Be ever listen.

But more likely They never will. Life is basically unfair. Baseball isn’t any better than life. But it sure could be a lot better than it is if They were to take some lessons from the NFL. But the Players Association has no interest in a salary cap. And the small market fans have no seat at the bargaining table, so the situation isn’t likely to change.

Anyway the glory and fun of triumph comes from prevailing in spite of the odds against! After all David garnered a lot of glory for slaying Goliath! Goliath would have garnered a lot of yawns had the outcome of the fight gone the other way.


“They need to build through their farm system and support those players with free agents….The Pirates have to rely on developing impact players, as well as taking risks on bounce back candidates.”

Tim, I agree wholeheartedly with your faith in developing impact players through the draft (and International signings). But I think the Pirates ability to profit from bounce back candidates will diminish as they improve as a team. The thing about bounce back candidates is that they have an inherent variation of potential outcome (risk). Consider last year with Liriano and Sanchez. Liriano works out, Sanchez does not, and both were bounce back candidates. Perhaps if Liriano wasn’t hurt at the start of the season then both Liriano and Sanchez make the team instead of Locke. The point is that there were two positions available at the start of last season that could be used to experiment with bounce back candidates, to sort out which ones bounce back and which ones bounce off the team. You have to deal in volume to pluck the roses from the thorns to have success with the bounceback candidate approach.

This year the staff is better. Of Liriano, Cole, Morton, Wandy, Locke: who do you sit in favor of a bounce back candidate? The last two are questionable, but probably less so than a presumed bounce back candidate. The point is that as the team improves there will be fewer opportunities to experiment with lower cost free agents that may or may not work out. After all a loss in April counts just as much as a loss in September in the final standings. Relying on bounceback candidates is an effective intermediate strategy when a team is improving from awful to good. Once the team becomes a good team seeking to be an excellent team it shouldn’t be a preferred strategy.

I would rather see a more complete dependence on internal resources, then trading from strength (either with 30 year old MLB player soon to be a free agent, or legitimate minor league prospects when we don’t have a place to put them) to shore up areas of weakness at the MLB level. If you do sign a free agent to address an area of weakness then spend top dollar to obtain a quality player, realizing that the Pirates can only do this once every few years.

The trade the Cards made is brilliant. Trading a 31 year old 3B and a relief pitcher to add an improved CF defense and a highly rated minor league OF while improving defense at 3B and 2B by addition through subtraction demonstrates real flexibility in thinking by the Cards FO. Except that it might hurt the Pirates, I’d be willing to grant them GM of the year for 2014.


It’s true that they aren’t the same. But that wasn’t the point I was making. The 2014 Pirates don’t have room for a Sanchez experiment. And the best teams usually don’t. As the team improves there are fewer holes, but also fewer available roster spots available to experiment with. It becomes wiser to target higher value, surer outcome players that will more likely be available vis trade rather than on the free agent market. After all a free agent is someone that his last team didn’t want at the price the player expected. To build a championship team you want as close to elite players you can get at each position. The chance of finding bounce back candidates who fit that bill is exceedingly small.


No doubt that a Burnett/Liriano would improve the team. But so would a Wacha, who was a compensation pick from the Pujols trade wasn’t he? So the right comparison isn’t a Burnett/Liriano versus nothing. It’s a Burnett/Liriano versus a Wacha.


Good point. I will have to think about that!


I will reply below. It’s a little to cramped here over on the RHS of the pafe.


ALL THIS SPENDING should have been done Years ago WHILE Nuttig was accruing A LARGER % OF THIS TEAM


connelly21 : do you pay any attention whatsoever to the facts ? The caps and spellling really give you away.


Just like the JFK conspiracy theorists never go away the Nutting nuts never do either.

Dean Manifest

In fairness, of course the goal posts moved. The complaint was in regard to the Pirates’ spending RELATIVE TO OTHER TEAMS. Personal,y I am satisfied with the way the teamis being run right now. But I don’t think those who disagree are necessarily being disengen The argument that Pirate ownership has beaten the fan base into a position if low expectations isn’t entirely unfair.


Did Bob not send you a Christmas card this year?

You obviously care nothing about something called FACTS!

He accrued more of the team so he COULD run things the right way NOW!

As Bugs Bunny would say “What a Maroon”


The team that could really put a dagger in the heart of the Pirates is Chicago. If they finally get it together with the money they have it will put the Pirates in a similar position as the Rays, competitive and doing things the right way with limited resources but with two giants in Chicago and St. Louis to overcome and the Reds pretty much even with the Bucs it will be impossible to even reach the playoffs.
Pirates fans are going to have to except that unless a fluke season happens there are not going to be any championships in the future.


What I am looking at Tim is ” IF ” Chicago becomes what they are capable of becoming, a team which in my mind is on par with Boston and close to the NYY. I don’t know their finances but they should be able to spend at least 175m on payroll if I am guessing right.
Combine that with committed ownership and a smart FO and you have a perennial top of the division team along with the Cards and then add in the Reds who are closer to the Pirates in terms of payroll and that is three teams that the Pirates have to climb over.
The only way that the Rays can overcome the Yanks and Boston is if they combine for a down year which is a fluke. Once NY gets its financial house in order they will be right back where they always are.
What would have happened to the Pirates in’13 if NY wasn’t going through the mess they have going? The Pirates would never have signed Martin. Would that have kept them from the Playoffs? If that is so than the Pirates got to the Playoffs by a fluke and not just by being good.

Dean Manifest

Personally I’m not worried about the Cubs. Sure, they could spend a lot more on payroll that we can/will. But the current system of controlling a player for six years makes it very possible for teams to compete without spending a ton of money. How much would the Cubs have to spend in free agency to match the contribution we expect to get this coming season for Starling Marte for example? Or McCutchen or Alvarez? And where will that leave them in five years, when the 4-WAR player they signed to “match” Marte is declining but still under contract? The fact is that teams who spend big money in FA typically carry quite a bit of dead money. A win in 2014 might cost 5M on the market, but come 2018 that player might only be delivering one win for every 12M in salary. It’s inevitable in a system in which you can’t go sign a guy to a big deal until he’s in his late twenties. There’s no way around the dead money down the road if you want to sign the top FA now. And it all adds up to a team with a $160M payroll not being even close to having twice the productivity as a team with an $80M payroll. Major diminishing returns.


I hate it when you use facts and common sense!


I love the pitching heavy strategy of the drafts. Always drafting on value instead of on MLB need(s). If they continue to keep drafting pitching early then eventually if they have a huge need at the major league level they can make a big trade rather than getting fleeced by a free agent. I am extremely happy with the way this FO has been drafting and hopefully continue to do.


Also,if you take a good look at the Cardinal’s prospects,you will see why they had to trade for Bourjos and sign Peralta. For all of the acclaim over their drafting prowess,they have not one CF or SS prospect anywhere near ready. So right now,they have about 4 corner OFs in MLB or AAA,and one spot to play them all. Do you think they would have given up anything for Bourjos if they thought Taveras or Piscotty could handle CF ? I don’t think so.No orginization today has a PERFECT draft record,you can look it up.

Scott Skink

The Pirates make less than the Cards. But they make more than the Rays. So they don’t have to follow a strict WWTBD method.

I take some issue with the “Pirates know how to draft” statement. We don’t fully know that yet as the Pirates have benefited greatly from having top draft positions. They appear to be strong at P, C and OF for the foreseeable future. However, there still isn’t much quality depth for IF.

One of the reasons I was high on Bourjos was to take a position of strength and make it even better. With an OF of Cutch, Marte, Bourjos and Polanco coming with Tabby as a 5th, that gives the Bucs an opportunity to flip a solid 4+ WAR CF for a decent asset (even prospects) next year, not dissimilar to Texas having Kinsler/Andrus/Profar.

Despite it sounding counterintuitive to the direct needs at 1b/SS and IF depth, bolstering the OF with another controllable asset before Polanco arrives would’ve been a smart play to ensure the Bucs enhance their roster going forward while remaining competitive.

Right now, the Bucs have no true positions of strength at the MLB level where they can deal anyone without hurting the club short term. Trading a Liriano or Morton this offseason would jeapordize another playoff season. About the only thing Bucs have to work with is the bullpen.


The Pirates have been the poster child for 2 or 3 years now on how to accumulate talent, but it has only been recently that the Pirates have been recognized as having one of the best minor league systems, and the best draft of 2013. Winning does stuff like that. A few others I would have mentioned are Rudy Owens #28 in 2006, Tony Watson #9 and Kyle McPherson #14 in 2007, and Robbie Grossman #6 in 2008. We could also have inserted Quincy Latimore in the 4th Round who was used as a trade to get Jeanmar Gomez who helped us big time in 2013 – the Q I think is now out of baseball. Note that the Royals picked up Gorkys Hernandez recently.

Scott Skink

With all due respect, yes, the Bucs drafts have improved, but they were still doing it from a prime draft position. I’m holding out judgement until I see them repeat this success with a position in the 20s like the Cards have done.

Dean Manifest

I think it’s only fair to judge these drafts a few years from now. It’s easy to say we COULD get an ace, and a 2-3, and a 5, etc. when the class is far from the majors. But Glasnow and Holmes could quite easily turn out like Hughes and Joba, for example. There’s no question that the recent drafting looks good based on what we know today (which is all we have to go on). Forced to render judgment today, you’d have to say the signs are encouraging. But before we can officially say “the Pirates are good at drafting” I think we need to see 5-6 years in a row of homegrown products graduating to the big leagues and enjoying success.


The Cardinals are the organization the Pirates should model their franchise after.

Step 1 is complete. Build a competitive, playoff caliber team through draft, Latin America signings and bounce-back FA signings.

Step 2 begins with increasing revenues through ticket price increases and increased season tix sales. And when possible, increasing revenues from local TV/radio deals.

Step 2 finishes w re-investment in existing player salaries by controlling costs through arbitration years, and if possible, first couple FA years of core players (Cutch, Marte, Alvarez, Morton, Cole in due time).

Step 3 is trade assets to fill in holes in ML roster. Such as OF prospects for 3B to replace Alvarez in due time. Or trade Cutch or Marte for 3B/SP in a few years time.

Step 4 is signing relatively high-priced FA’s if and when necessary to ensure team remains competitive.

The city of Pittsburgh has great sports fans and will support Pirates as long as they put a winner on the field and owner/FO clearly communicate and follow through on plan to keep team relevant. There is no reason Pirates shouldn’t aspire to have a payroll in the neighborhood of Cardinals by the last few years of this decade.

This is exactly what the Cardinals do and have done for the entirety of my 49 year and counting life.


You forgot a step, draft arguably one of the best hitters of all-time in the 13th round.


Even if the pirates could get more for their local TV deal …The day will never come when they will pay over 1 HUNDRED MILLION for this team. Nuttig spent past profits on on buys a larger % of the team…… They will always have to have a lot of luck at the majors to win anything with NUTTIG


You’re an idiot. Go away.


That doesn’t even make sense. So you choose to ignore all the money spent developing players, finding talent in latin America and in the draft? I would take that over throwing money at free agents and to keep aging players any day of the week.


connolly : Did you even read Tim’s column ? You came in with a pre-conceived notion and agenda,paid absolutely no attention to what he stated,then made a pretty stupid remark.

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