Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pirates' 2010 Offseason - An Inflection Point

The body is on the slab and it is barely cold, but it is time to put the corpse known as the 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates to rest. This season was one for the history books, but not the good kind of history. Without rehashing all of the ugly statistics and numbers, suffice it to say that this Pirates team was one of the worst of modern baseball history.

But the strange part is that I still have hope. I actually believe in the path that Neal Huntington and the front office staff have laid out for this team. Essentially, the 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates were an expansion team after the much-needed and long-overdue teardown of the team started in 2008 by Neal Huntington.

Boiled down to its barest bones, the strategy implemented by Huntington was:

1. Re-invest in Latin America
2. Re-stock heavily through the amateur draft
3. Trade veterans near the end of their contract for short/medium-term pieces to the major league team, while trying to also acquire fallen prospects

The first two bullet points have been successful to date in their execution. It will still be some time before the Latin American tree bears fruit at the major league level. The Amateur Draft tree is just starting to bud (Pedro Alvarez), with 2012 the true year it could be in full bloom for the first time (Chase d’Arnaud, Justin Wilson, Tony Sanchez, Matt Hague). The key with the draft tree is that it must be constantly watered and not fertilized with rock salt and gasoline as done by Huntington’s predecessors.

The third bullet point is the bone of contention for most fans. The vast majority of Huntington’s trades were good on the surface, especially to clear unneeded payroll and eliminate bad clubhouse presences, but the on-the-field performances of the short/medium term players acquired have been dreadful by and large. The 2010 team was not expected to challenge for the wild-card, but there was a general sentiment that small steps towards the elusive .500 mark were possible for this season. Personally, I thought this team was a 76 win team and hoped that 2011 would see the end to the losing streak.

But for that to happen some of the short/medium term pieces (Major League-ready players that were expected to be here 1-3 years) would have to break through. They broke through all right, but for most of them it was into an elevator shaft. Jeff Clement, Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Akinori Iwamura, Daniel McCutchen, Lastings Milledge, and Charlie Morton all failed miserably in the majors this year. When 6 of these 7 were seeing significant playing time this year (Moss was mired in AAA nearly all year), constituting 25% of your 25-man roster and failing spectacularly, you end up with a season like this one. There is simply no way anyone, especially this front office, anticipated the abject failure of all 7 of these players at the same time.

In terms of what we received from the slew of veterans traded, albeit none were elite level talents (Bay was the closest) but still contributors, we may be left with Jose Tabata (low power for a corner OF), Ross Ohlendorf (injury prone), James McDonald (want to see a full season still), Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris (both appear to be above average regulars, but are still in the minors). Is that enough for what was traded away? It is still too early to tell on that question for sure, but when you trade an asset you would like to get 2 assets in return. Both sides need to give something up and the hope is that the short-term gain by the receiving team is equal to the long-term potential gain by the trading team. I’m not sure at this point if the wait to see the return (2-3 years for most of these trades) is worth it for 1 player from each trade, essentially. The hope by Huntington had to have been to get a solid contribution from the short/medium term piece while waiting for the long term piece to develop. If all broke correctly, the short/medium term piece would be playing with the long term piece in 2011. The problem is that the short/medium term pieces failed and may not be here to see the arrival of the long term pieces in 2011. This leaves a void that the Pirates must now attempt to fill.

If this season was good for anything, it was to embarrass the front office and ownership into accelerating and altering the master plan. There is just no way that things can move into 2011 as status quo in terms of talent level on the Major League roster. The Pirates have been a point of ridicule for the local and national media for years, but the barbs have been sharpened this year during this slow-motion train wreck.

The 2010 offseason for the Pirates is an inflection point, a determination on whether this franchise is trending up or continuing to trend down, and many diehard fans will be watching closely. The time to sort through a menagerie of discarded players at the Major League level needs to stop. The time to saddle the roster with a Rule 5 player who needs to be protected like a Faberge egg needs to end. Hoping that one season can be squeezed out of a re-tread position player or starting pitcher needs to cease.

It is time to become a legitimate Major League baseball team again.

This does not mean that I am advocating increasing the payroll by an additional $40 million this offseason or trying to sign Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth. For the most part in free agency, you are paying a player for his past glories while potentially saddling your team with a bloated salary during that player’s decline years. I don’t think the Pirates need to jump into that pool this offseason. I’m simply saying that real talent needs to be acquired and this, believe it or not, is the perfect off-season to do it. As currently constructed, the Pirates have $16.75 million dollar in committed salaries next season, not factoring in options, the 0-3 minimum scale salaries, or arbitration cases. Without getting into all of the numbers, I estimate that with the arbitration cases and the minimum scale guys, the payroll will be around $31 million dollars if left unimproved. That factors in Doumit returning and Duke being non-tendered. There is ample room, even with the modest payroll restrictions on this team, to add $9 - $15 million dollars this offseason. You can re-build through the farm system and still be respectable at the major league level. These don't need to be mutually exclusive concepts.

There are many teams in MLB that are feeling the effects of this economic downturn. Some teams are at the end of their competitive cycle and are looking to shed salaries and reload their farms systems. Some teams are simply overspending their potential market’s revenues. The Pirates are in a perfect position to utilize their farm system to prey on other teams’ financial miseries.

The Pirates’ farm system is considered middle of the pack by the national prospect sites and I would agree with that. Any good farm system needs to serve two purposes. First, it should supply the Major League team with young, cost-controlled talent. Second, it should be used to provide trade chips to acquire talent for the Major League team in the form of veterans. The Pirates’ farm system in 2010 gave us the rays of hope in the form of Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and to an extent Brad Lincoln. The system still has the types of pieces that every major league team is always seeking. There are young pitchers ready to step into a Major League rotation (Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson), young power arms for the bullpen (Daniel Moskos, Diego Moreno), defensive-minded shortstops (Argenis Diaz, Pedro Ciriaco), and outfielders with potential (Starling Marte, Robbie Grossman, Andrew Lambo). Is every one of these players, and the others not mentioned, equally desirable individually? No. But if packaged together correctly, they could fetch a player that can help the Pirates for multiple years, starting in 2011. The farm system is deep enough to withstand the trading of a few players and can still contribute players in 2011, 2012, and beyond.

With all of the trades and existing players in the system, the Pirates are starting to accumulate a critical mass of players that are very similar to each other and hitting their heads off the glass ceiling (i.e., may be unable to all be starters with the Pirates). There is a plethora of 4th OF types (John Bowker, Lastings Milledge, Gorkys Hernandez, Alex Presley, Brandon Moss), struggling 1B (Jeff Clement, Steve Pearce), and middle IF (Argenis Diaz, Pedro Ciriaco, Brian Friday, Jordy Mercer). Decisions on most of these players as it relates to the 40-man roster are looming. It is time to package some of these players together, with other bigger name prospects, and streamline the 40 man roster. We don’t need this much duplication of function.

The area of trades that I have been focusing on and discussing in different forums has been Starting Pitching. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays are looking to reduce payroll and find spaces for their up and coming pitchers, so James Shields may be available. The Minnesota Twins are looking at the start of the Joe Mauer contract increase and may want some flexibility, so Scott Baker could be available. The Florida Marlins are always watching the bottom line and may be willing to move Ricky Nolasco. Kenny Williams, the GM for the Chicago White Sox, operates like a fantasy baseball manager at times with all of his trades, but he may want to look to shed payroll and reload at the same time, which could free up Gavin Floyd. These are just 4 potential players that would not be seen as stop-gaps. There are many other candidates out there, including position players like Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier from the divorce-ridden LA Dodgers.

A team everyone likes to point to as the model for low-revenue teams, the Tampa Bay Rays, are not made up of 25 Tampa Bay Rays draft picks. Of the top 13 players in terms of at-bats and the top 12 pitchers with innings pitched, 10 are Tampa Bay Rays draftees. An additional group of key players (Sean Rodriguez, Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist, Matt Garza, Matt Joyce, Rafael Soriano and most of the rest of the bullpen) were obtained via trades.

The point is that instead of sitting in the stream sifting through rocks looking for a gold flake, it is time for the Pirates to grab the pick ax and mine their own nugget of gold.

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