The Pirates’ GM search seems to be moving along quickly. We’ve had reports from at least two sources that they’re down to finalists, specifically Matt Arnold, Ben Cherington and one or more others. We don’t know who else might be involved, and Cherington . . . well, apart from the lack of experience in a small market, one of Jason Mackey’s sources described him as “Neal 2.0.” That may be unfair, but it’s just too alarming to contemplate. So let’s focus on Arnold.
Before I say anything else, I’ll just point out the obvious: We don’t know much about any candidates beyond basic biographical info. It’s impossible to know how any particular person will perform in the job. All we really know is that Arnold was in the room when a lot of good decisions were made in Milwaukee and St. Petersburg. But we can hope he played a big role in them.
To start with, if you check his bio at MLB.com, Arnold’s background really isn’t in amateur scouting and development. That might be just as well, as the Brewers’ farm system hasn’t been all that strong over the last few years. That might be bothersome to a lot of people here (that may have something to do with the name of the site). I’m not too troubled by that, for a couple reasons. One I’ll get to later. The other is that the GM isn’t exactly going to be driving from one high school field to another in Florida, Texas and Southern California. Most of the GM’s job doesn’t involve the farm system. He just needs to hire the right people to oversee the team’s development and amateur scouting operations.
According to his bio, Arnold’s work in his early years in MLB — with the Dodgers, Rangers and Reds, and at first in his time with the Rays — was mainly in pro scouting. With Tampa Bay, he also worked on player acquisition and evaluation, strategic planning and scientific integration (like biomechanics). With the Brewers, his areas of focus have included roster construction, financial planning and player personnel decisions.
The “roster construction” part caught my attention. That’s an area where I think the Pirates have never been particularly good under Neal Huntington. Their focus always seemed to be on filling roles — like getting players who “play a lot of positions,” or “veteran presences” for the bench — rather than simply on finding ways to add runs scored or subtract runs allowed. The Brewers, on the other hand, have gotten a lot of mileage the last couple years out of a roster that’s essentially been Christian Yelich, Josh Hader and some guys. They’ve done a good job of finding players who’ve been productive, without having a star-laden team like the Dodgers or Astros.
In particular, the Brewers seem to focus a lot on power, which has definitely not been a focus for the Pirates at all. They’ve gotten a lot of production out of power-only players — which have been anathema to the Pirates under Huntington — like Jesus Aguilar and Eric Thames, guys they’ve picked up from under-the-radar sources. They’ve also been willing to think outside the box to add offense, like trying Mike Moustakas and Travis Shaw at second base. The Pirates have gone the other way, frequently using utility infielders in the outfield corners.
The Brewers also managed to build a passable rotation this year out of largely nondescript parts (one of them some guy named Lyles). I mean, who on earth is Adrian Houser? I don’t follow the Brewers closely enough to know how they did it, but Houser had a better year than any Pirates starter.
If you go back to Arnold’s time with the Rays, you’ll also find teams that got a lot of production out of veterans who were hardly household names. That included some familiar (to Pirate fans) names like John Jaso, Matt Joyce, and Jeff Keppinger, as well as Casey Kotchman, Ben Zobrist, James Loney, Luke Scott and David DeJesus.
The Pirates absolutely need a much stronger farm system than they’ve had under Huntington, but they’re not going to be able to win just with prospects. They need a front office less concerned with table pounding than with improving run scoring and run prevention, and that’s going to mean making good roster choices at the major league level. Whether Matt Arnold can do that is impossible to say, but there’s enough in his background to think maybe he can.