First Pitch: Do the Pirates Now Have a Defined Window to Contend?

Today the Pittsburgh Pirates announced the extensions of General Manager Neal Huntington and Manager Clint Hurdle. Both were extended through the 2017 season, with options for the 2018 season. Coincidentally, that puts both guys in the same boat as Andrew McCutchen, who is also under contract through the 2017 season, with an option for 2018. If you believe in “windows” for small market teams, then that certainly would mark the end of the window for the Pirates to compete, or at least a big point where the window could possibly end.

Huntington has been with the Pirates since late 2007. When he took over, the Pirates had one of the worst teams in baseball, and one of the worst farm systems. Last year the Pirates won 94 games, made it to the NLDS, and this year they’re ranked as having one of the top three farm systems in baseball. Despite complaints over the off-season that the Pirates didn’t do enough as contenders, they’re still considered a contender, and a lot of prediction systems have them competing for and winning one of the Wild Card spots.

Starting this year, the Pirates are expected to graduate at least one top 100 prospect to the majors each summer. This year it will be Gregory Polanco, along with Jameson Taillon if he ends up healthy. Next year projects to be Alen Hanson, Nick Kingham, and possibly Tyler Glasnow. After the 2015 season the Pirates could see Josh Bell, Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, Luis Heredia, and more in future years. So not only do they have a talented young team now, but they have a lot of highly talented young players on the way.

That means that the Pirates should be competitive for as long as McCutchen is under team control, which is now as long as Huntington and Hurdle are under team control. They could even remain contenders after McCutchen leaves, and disprove the idea of a “window” for small market teams to compete. The biggest part of that will be on Huntington, as I think the General Manager has a much bigger hand in the success and failure of a team than the Manager.

That said, I don’t think there’s much Huntington can do at this point to focus on 2015-2018. I think he’s already laid the pieces in place to try and contend during those years. The biggest challenge for him now will be continuing to build the team, expanding beyond those years. McCutchen is likely gone after 2018. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez are free agents after the 2016 season. Charlie Morton is under team control through the 2017 season. Gerrit Cole is under control through the 2019 season. Aside from Cole, the only person who is under control beyond the 2018 season is Starling Marte.

To contend beyond 2018, Huntington is going to need a lot of the current top prospects to work out, but he’s also going to need to keep adding to that group by giving the farm system a boost. That will be harder with the Pirates picking lower in the draft and getting less money to spend internationally. However, they have had success with middle round picks, and their best international signings cost very little money.

Worrying about 2019 and beyond is hardly something to be concerned about. What happens leading up to 2018 is a priority, and even before that, the main priority is 2014. Huntington doesn’t have to really do anything different to try and build beyond 2018. What he has been doing has been working, and he shouldn’t change that approach. The approach he has is what took the Pirates from one of the worst teams in baseball with one of the worst farm systems, to a contender with one of the best farm systems. That’s why he deserved the extension through the 2018 season, to allow him the chance to see the team and organization that he’s built play out.

The 2018 season might mark the window. But I think it’s more likely that the Pirates will continue to operate in a way under Huntington that will stretch the window beyond any player and any contract in the system.

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.

**How To Use and Navigate Pirates Prospects

**Pirates Prospects Shirts Are Now Available

**Prospect Watch: Six Shutout Innings For Brandon Cumpton, Josh Bell Homers

**Pirates Announce Three-Year Extensions For Huntington and Hurdle

**The Pirates Destroy the Cardinals 12-2, as Told Through Photos

**Minor League Schedule: Heredia and Kingham Make Debuts

**Draft Prospect Watch: Carlos Rodon Has Trouble With Clemson

  • Travis Persinger
    April 6, 2014 3:55 pm

    I think the one thing we haven’t talked about much is the other options that will show themselves moving forward…WHEN do we trade and WHEN do we let a man walk into FA. We all know Pedro isn’t a Pirate when team control is up. I’ll be anxious to see for the first time what Neal does trade wise w/ legit ML talent on an already talented ML roster…ala Tampa Bay Rays.

    We had some decent pieces when Neal first arrived on the ML roster and one great piece in Jason Bay. But it was obvious all those trades were to boost a farm system at the bottom. This will really be his first go around w/ this situation moving forward.

    • Paul Krzywicki
      April 6, 2014 7:05 pm

      The one thing that has not been mentioned here is Nutting’s inability or interest in investing in the MLB payroll. We continue to rank near the cellar in terms of payroll, while increases in attendance, national TV contracts and ancillary revenues have failed to yield a bigger investment in payroll. This team still has holes to fill, but ownership’s tight purse strings limited NH this offseason.

      That’s why we Pirates fans know that Cole and Alvarez are gonners before their pacts are up.

      • Yes Paul, you are correct that the story doesn’t mention how cheap ownership is, but I think that’s because it focused on relevent issues, not trite, meaningless jabs.

        The reason we know Cole and pedro are gone at the first chance is because of their agent, not because of ownerships philosophy. Did you notice you excluded Cutch, Marte, Morton, Taillon, Walker, Polanco and every other decent player or prospect from the list of players that will be gone asap? It’s Boras, not the Bucs.

        • Paul Krzywicki
          April 7, 2014 7:25 am

          No, I did not forget about the recent extensions. The reason those extensions came to fruition is because each of those players took deals well below market value. We Pirates fans are fortunate those deals came to be.

          It is not trite or irrelevant to point out that this ownership group will have to support this solid group of players with market-driven extensions and/or smart free-agent signings. To this point, they have only talked the talked. If the Reds and Brewers can afford deals for the Brauns and Vottos, we can afford a deal for an ace like Cole that keeps him in Black and Gold past his arb years.

          Nutting’s budget this past offseason apparently limited the moves NH could make, thus the loss of Burnett and the inability to fill the gaping hole at 1B.

  • Tim: I do not see that the Bucs are a team where there is a “window to contend” unless the Pirates themselves create that window. They have the wherewithal to extend Andrew McCutchen – I cannot recall the exact numbers I threw out months ago, but it was definitely over $100 mil and would have extended him into his mid-30’s. That is a key to this team’s future. I do not expect Pedro to extend, and I think the Pirates are missing a good opportunity by not signing Walker thru the first 2 years of FA.

    The best example of why there is no window is the consistency of our drafts and international signings. We had a lot going into 2013, but, IMO, last year’s amateur draft was probably our best overall draft of the NH/Kyle Stark regime. It added a lot to making our minor league system the best in baseball, and will serve to keep the Pirates in the Top 5 for the near future. What we do from here will depend a lot on how we handle the “fringe” players/pitchers we have collected and developed the past few years, and would be more important to others than to the Pirates. Because our draft position will change drastically, and we are not able to play the FA Market, we have to trade present talent for future talent, thereby making sure that the system is fueled with strong prospects. This is nothing our management team does not already know – just a look at the results yesterday in our minors is proof of that – Brandon Cumpton, AAA, 6 inning shutout, 11/3 GO/FO; John Kuchno, Hi A, 5 inning shutout, 9/1 GO/FO; BTW, homeboy (Mt Lebo) Jordan Steranko is 8 for 11 and hitting .727 and is a LH hitting 1B; and, Cody Dickson Lo A, LHSP, our 4th Round pick last year had a 5 inning shutout with 7 K’s/0 W and he was relieved by Justin Topa our 17th Round pick last year who pitched the final 4 innings giving up only one hit with an 8/3 GO/FO.

  • As long as NH continues to draft the way he has, plus the Latin American signings with good trades sprinkled in, the Bucs will always be competitive under NH.

    • marty: I agree, but those are 3 big “if’s” – the draft, international signings, and good trades.

      • I don’t think they’re big “ifs”, John. I feel very confident in NH. Will he screw up along the way? Probably. But he’ll make more good decisions than bad ones. He has proven that so far.

        I feel VERY good about where we are positioned right now and for the footure.