First Pitch: Two Things That Will Keep the Pirates Contending in 2014 and Beyond

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.

The Depth

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:

**The Pittsburgh Pirates Walk Off Opening Day Win in Photos

**Andrew McCutchen’s “This is SportsCenter” Commercial (Video)

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Opening Day Payroll

**Bradenton Marauders Announce Opening Day Roster

First Pitch

  • “the only position that wouldn’t be filled by the farm system would be first base”

    Unless (we can dream, can’t we?) Josh Bell has a tremendous breakout year this year! (Well, that and he actually gets moved to 1st base.) I know, even in a greatest case scenario, he ends the year in AA, but he would be close enough to be knocking on the Pirates’ door.

  • IMO, the Pirates have the best organization in their division, the Cards are top heavy with the major league team, their minor league system does have a couple of very good players in it, they don’t go nearly as deep with major league talent in their system as the Pirates system does and I believe that the key to getting into the playoffs is depth above everything else. Last year the Pirates went through 12 or 13 starting pitchers, can the Cards do that? The Next system to compare with the Pirates is the Cubs system, suddenly loaded with talent.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      April 1, 2014 1:25 pm

      As much as I love the Pirates – and have since 1970 – I could not say that their organization is superior to the Cardinals – not with a straight face. Not until the Pirates win a World Series and experience sustained success over 5-10 years like the Cards have, I do think we have a better organization than the Brewers or even the Reds possibly. Now that Epstein is in Chicago and given all of their financial resources, the Cubs may be our top rival – other than St Louis obviously – over the next 3-5 years. They even have some very impressive and high-end prospects now.

    • The Cubs have very few pitching prospects any where near the MLB level. CJ Edwards is their best prospect,and he was acquired from the Rangers in the Garza deal,and is probably at least 2 years away.

  • Good article. I think the main thing the pessimists are missing is that the Pirates have more players at AAA who could perform at the ML level right now than almost any team in baseball. That is why they should still be a contender this season. All things remaining equal, the Cardinals should be the favorite in the Central. However, I think the Pirates could challenge, and I would have them as the #1 contender for one of the 2 wild card slots. No one can predict injuries. The Pirates had a lot of SP injuries last year and still had one of the best staffs in the majors. That should be true this year, with possibly two #1 starters in the rotation.

  • Quality and quantity of prospects will keep the Pirates relevant for the long-term says Tim. Well that goes for all but the richest few franchises. The better question is of the two, which is the priority?

    I believe a strong case could be made for either one, but if I’m NH I would make every effort to keep the pipeline stocked w high ceiling talent before just keeping it stocked full. And if that means trading away core players a year or year and a half before they leave for more money, than so be it.

    What says you?

    • Agree. The value of players is high prior to that last season of control, but if we have a player/pitcher we know we will not be able to afford in the FA Market (such as Liriano), then you get the best deal you can before all you get is a compensation pick in the next draft. A team needing one more arm, and able to compete in the FA Market, could be willing to give more. If the Pirates traded Liriano to the Yankees before the trading deadline, say at the AS Break, could we have the possibility of getting Greg Bird and Ian Clarkin? That would be a tough decision to make – possibly sacrificing the present for the future, but as deep as we are at the present time with SP’s, it could work and get us a much needed player/pitcher at positions we need desperately.

      • Unless Pirates are out of race, Liriano isn’t going anywhere this summer. I’m referencing guys like Alvarez and Cutch and maybe Cole.

  • That is a luxury only consistently good teams have and the Pirates already do it but they had better position drafting before last year. Sadly for the kid in me baseball is a business and right now they have a very good “business” team. If they were to trade these prospects for that “first baseman” they eventually wouldn’t have that “replacement” for Cutch, Martin, Walker, Cole and on and on. I never had a problem getting a real first baseman and spending a pick and the money but getting Davis,Carp and the likes is like buying a lottery ticket when you already have one. And I thought everyone got the memo on rightfield. Why would you buy a player for rightfield when you have your future warming up in AAA. The Pirates are actually in a position now where you have an excess of good players at a position you can trade draft positions and go after a player for your future needs like a shortstop, 3rd baseman. There is nothing wrong with drafting the best athlete but you have to hope he can maybe someday be the best shortstop offensively as well as defensively.

  • Trading quality players for prospects at the appropriate time is a must as a part of the formula. Tim pointed out the success of the club in drafting quality prospects in later rounds. However, that will be potentially more difficult since the Pirates could be drafting late in every round as opposed to drafting early.

    • True enough. That’s why the emphasis needs to be placed on developing their world wide International system where those restrictions aren’t present.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    April 1, 2014 8:15 am

    I would add a third thing….good luck and good fortune. Because, in all sports, you need a good bit of good luck and good fortune. Whether its low round draft picks who surprisingly become great prospects, minimizing career ending/changing injuries, and having surprisingly high production from unexpected places. Some of this is scouting, player development, making good trades/acquisitions, etc., but you also need some good luck along the way.
    These are exciting times to be a Pirates fan, after such a long and painful two decades!

  • FancyPantsHess
    April 1, 2014 1:42 am

    I laugh when I think of that major league quote. Especially when they cut and roger dorn is nodding as if he was genuinely wrapping his head around a new concept.

    I think if the pirates continue to be successful they’re going to have to trade player when their value is highest before losing them to free agency. That’s going to come with a lot of spite as a contending team sells off precious assets.

    • FPH: If you watched the game yesterday, you were watching a Top of the Rotation SP who will go down that path this year. I do not think he will bring as much as James Shields when he and Wade Davis were traded to KC for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and 2 other young players. Does KC have anything left in the minors? Yankees?

      • If Liriano has a successful season, we might have to QO him?

        It was debatable if QO’ing AJ was a good idea, but it will DEFINITELY be a bad idea if we don’t QO Frankie (assuming of course, he has a good year).

        We spent lots of time talking about this over at the PBC Asylum.

        That AND the trading off of assets before losing them (I’m in agreement with Fancy on this). Seeing Barry Bonds reminded me of that. If only we had the QO option back then?

        • Actually they did. It was called offering arbitration. They failed to offer arbitration to their free agents so they didn’t get comp picks. I bitched about it then and it’s the same now. A team like the Pirates must pick up draft picks when the opportunity presents itself.

    • Ron Loreski
      April 1, 2014 7:22 am

      Only problem with that is, those trades need to take place in the off season. If the Pirates are in contention, they can’t exactly trade players like Liriano and Martin. The fan base would righteously abandon the Pirates for good.

      • Ron- so true. Its amazing how many fans are in permanent “rebuilding” mind frame. You don’t trade top players when you are contending, you ADD MORE. There is zero chance that either player is traded unless we are under. 500 in mid july. And noone wants to see that happening. You don’t trade Liriano, you give him the QO, and if he takes it great, if not you get that extra high draft pick that we NEED since we are picking lower.

        • Y2, the Pirates will always need to be in a permanent rebuilding mode, replacing those players who they can’t or don’t want to extend at the expiration of their six years of control. That is an unavoidable fact. They don’t have the money to buy high priced free agents at the end of their six years of control. NH has is right when he says that he wants a franchise that can compete every year, not just building a periodic peak, and to do that the Pirates will need to sell high on those free agents that they don’t extend, prior to the expiration of the six years of control. This will require great discipline and fortitude. But it’s the only way the Pirates can establish a “Cardinals-like” franchise.

          • I agree that the Pirates have to stay in the status of always adding more young prospects. I targeted Liriano because he is our best right now. As the season progresses, if NH is made one of those offers you cannot refuse, I hope he pulls the trigger, because I think we have the talent right now to offset the loss of one of our SP’s. Cole, Morton, and Wandy is a darn good place to start, and then add in Volquez, Cumpton, Locke, Gomez, Pimental, Taillon, and then Kingham and Wilson also as possibles. We are the Rays of the NL and they did not even blink giving up James Shields who was the best SP they had to pick up one of the pieces they were missing in Myers, and just one more Top Prospect SP in Odorizzi. Liriano is not Shields, but the scenario is the same. FL is pitching for a FA contract upwards of $15 mil a year and he is still only 31.

            • “…they did not even blink giving up James Shields who was the best SP they had…”

              David Price would like to have a word with you.

        • FancyPantsHess
          April 1, 2014 5:52 pm

          At the time of this article my answer would’ve been yes. I would’ve included Russell Martin too, but this was when we assumed aj would be back and I wasn’t as giddy as I am now about the new season.