New captain, new crew

It’s far too early to tell whether the rebuilding effort under the new regime in Pittsburgh will be a success. The Pirates are unlikely to contend in 2010, and given the ages of the most promising players under team control, it will be a few years before the current core group reaches its potential.

Regardless of long-term success, what amazes me is the thoroughness with which the front office has recycled the old for the new. I happened to glance at the batting order for the Pirates’ Opening Day game against the Braves on March 31, 2008, and you might be as amazed as I was:

  1. Nate McLouth – CF
    Traded June 3, 2009 for Gorkys Hernandez and Charlie Morton

  2. Freddy Sanchez – 2B
    Traded July 30, 2009 for Tim Alderson
  3. Jason Bay – LF
    Traded July 31, 2008 in a three-way deal that returned Craig Hansen, Brandon Moss, Bryan Morris and Andy LaRoche
  4. Adam LaRoche – 1B
    Traded July 22, 2009 for Argenis Diaz and Hunter Strickland
  5. Xavier Nady – RF
    Traded July 26, 2008 for Daniel McCutchen, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf and Jose Tabata
  6. Ryan Doumit – C
    Still a Pirate (at press time, anyway)
  7. Jose Bautista – 3B
    Traded Aug. 21, 2008 for Robinzon Diaz
  8. Jack Wilson – SS
    Traded July 29, 2009 (with Ian Snell) for Ronny Cedeno, Jeff Clement and three minor leaguers.
  9. Ian Snell – P
    Traded July 29, 2009 with Wilson.

Also appearing for the Bucs that day:

All told, 17 players entered the game for Pittsburgh that day. Eleven of them were traded away before Aug. 1, 2009. If Doumit had come out of the game, it would’ve been 12 for 18—backup catcher Ronny Paulino was sent to the Phillies on Dec. 10, 2008 for Jason Jaramillo. As it is, Doumit is the only Pirate who appeared in the game—less than two years ago!—who is still on the 40-man roster.

Pirate booty

When Pirates fans look back five years from now, a lot of these deals will already be forgotten. Some of the new Buccos have appeared at the top of the prospect lists of their former teams, but every single one of them has lost some luster since then. After all, Pittsburgh wasn’t exactly trading away Johan Santana to get them.

But GM Neal Huntington and his crew recognized what they had to work with. The 2008 Pirates won 67 games, and maybe, if they had kept Bay and Nady around, they would’ve made a run for the low 70s. We’re looking at good, not great, players, many of whom were nearing the end of their arbitration years.

Essentially, the Bucs bought in bulk. A-minus and A prospects are rarely available except through the draft, but if you pick up enough B prospects, you’re bound to strike gold occasionally. Pittsburgh replenished a minor league system that desperately needed some potential—particularly potential that wouldn’t flame out at Triple-A after a series of shoulder surgeries. And now, with a few bona fide homegrown prospects on the way (hello, Pedro Alvarez!), they can enter the next phase of the project: Figuring out what the booty is worth.

If you weren’t already amazed by the dispatch with which the front office parted with the 2008 Opening Day roster, how about this: The players received in those trades make up 16 of the players currently on the 40-man roster. This year’s Opening Day 25 could easily feature 10 or 11 of those players.

Some of these trade acquisitions will fizzle out. Prospects like Alderson and Tabata are loaded with raw talent but are ultimately gambles for any club that targets them. But one thing is certain: This is a completely new approach to running the Pittsburgh Pirates, and whether or not you’re a Bucs fan, it’s one heck of an exciting young team to watch.

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  1. Bob Rittner said...

    I think your view is exactly right. Unfortunately many fans will obsess over the many “prospects” who will fail. But that is not the point. In any rebuilding, few of those acquired in trades will pan out, but the system has to be replenished in the hope that some will contribute.

    To take an analogous example, consider the Rays circa 2005-6. Friedman and company are rightfully considered very intelligent for the rebuilding (really building) job they did, but look at the players they received in trades for more established ones like Huff, Lugo, Baez, Hendrickson and others: Pedroza, Joel Guzman, Talbot, Seo, Ruggiano, Tiffany, Meek, Thayer, Sean Burroughs. None of them have contributed much to TB (although Talbot got them Shoppach). The only players who did much at all have been Zobrist, really more a throw-in of the Huff deal, Navarro, a very questionable talent at this point and Edwin Jackson, who was very disappointing for most of his stay and was dealt for another prospect (Joyce).

    If fans were simply to count successes and failures of trades involving the Rays’ better players, the accounting would look terrible for Friedman.

    In fact, it was lesser trades like Gathright for Howell and McClung for Balfour that seem to have worked out better for the Rays. I think Huntington is on the right track. My guess is most of his pickups will flop, but perhaps one or two will contribute to a winning club, and he is following an intelligent plan for building a contending team.

  2. Bob Rittner said...

    No, this is nothing like the previous administrations. In the past, the front office signed mediocre players to appear to be trying to win and showed little patience with their young players who struggled on first exposure to the big leagues. It was a futile effort without a plan.

    Huntington is dealing mediocre players to replenish the farm system. Not one player he has dealt was likely to be a part of the next winning Pirates team. Their only value was what they could bring back to the Pirates in terms of young talent.

    I can’t say whether he could have gotten something for Capps; I don’t know the entire situation. But there is no point bewailing the loss of a reliever at this point. It just does not matter.

  3. Brian said...

    Finally someone who knows what they are talking abut!  This is a good article and people need to realize that what the Bucs are doing is good and they have a decent chance at being competitive in ‘11 or ‘12.

  4. bothstillplaying said...

    Contrary to the comments that “as soon as guys start costing some money, out the door they go”, most of the players highlighted by Jeff were dealt in their walk years (Sanchez, LaRoche, Wilson, Marte, Grabow) or with a season-plus left (Bay and Nady)…..and you cannot overstate how really bad the Pirates’ organization was when the current group took over, this coming from someone who was too close to what was happening….and I’m not talking about the level of on-field talent, but elements that reasonable people would expect to be there—like competent medical and training staff! Neal Huntington has had his hands full just trying to upgrade the Pirates infrastructure to get them to the position to start building a competitive team……

  5. Warren said...

    Neil is on the right track!

    As a concrete example of the immediate impact; last year’s starting pitching ranked #7 in Quality Starts with 87.  By mid-season we had three rookies in the starting rotation: Ollendrof and Karstens (traded by the Yanks in Nady deal) and Morton (from Braves in McLouth deal).

    It’s early; but both Ohlie and Morton appear to be studs.  Along with Duke and Maholm, I can see more than 100 Quality Starts this year.  IF they progress as expected, with Joe Kerrigan as the pitching coach.

  6. Greg said...

    Absolutely great article. As much as I tend to feel bad for some of the guys like Douhmit and Maholm to see their buddies and mentors get traded; it’s not like this team was going to contend by resigning Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and keeping Nate McClouth as your starting CF. Furthermore, Capps doesn’t really seems very irreplacable especially with Hannaran and other cheaper alternatives out there (McDougal). I doubt the difference will in closers will really be seen in 10 and 11. I’d rather see them model themselves after the Marlins, Twins, Rays, etc and role the dice. I think Huntington gets unfairly nailed by I would imagine the fan base has little patience. The thing that cracks me up this offseason the amount of credit much credit Mike Rizzo is getting this offseason for pulling an incredible Dave Littlefield imitation in DC. Jason Marquis for two years at $15M! Hasn’t anyone scene this movie in a non walk year??? Ever notice how he’s not on a playoff roster?
    Pudge for more than year?
    That are Pittsburgh 2003 esq signings.

  7. Ed Cummings said...

    Pirate fans seem to fall into 3 schools of thought

    School 1 is the anti Huntington/Nuttings camp.  The basic argument is that we need to win immediately to stop the 17 year streak.  These folks don’t don’t see how trading the best players (and Jack Wilson) make the team better and they believe that the ownership is putting profitability ahead of competitiveness.  John Lease is from this school. 

    School 2 sees that the Front Office (FO) is making the organization better from roots up.  Better drafting, flipping major leaguers for minor leaguers, and increasing the presence in international scouting.  It’ll take longer and the 17 will be 19 before the streak breaks, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

    School 3 sees that MLB is the only sport without some sort of salary cap and says that as long as the Yankees are free to have a payroll that is 5 times higher than the Pirates it won’t matter what the FO does.

    To me School 2 is the obvious choice.  School 3 is depressing (you can’t be a fan and think this way) and school 1 doesn’t make any sense to me (the Pirates were more than a player or two away).

    I know that School 2 works.  The Rays won a pennant last year, the Marlins won two World Series, and the Twins are consistently competitive.  I’d like the team to be more agressive (Sheetz, Bedard) and I don’t agree with all their moves, but things are looking up.

    This year the rotation and lineup should be improved over last year and the team should win 70+ games with the lowest payroll in baseball.  That might not be good enough for the casual fan or the bandwagon jumpers, but it’s a sign that there might be light at the end of a long dark tunnel.

  8. Bob Plumskey said...

    Sorry, folks, but the answer is simple.

    Nutting bought into the Pirates to make $$$.

    He is making it. He is NOT spending it.


    “Plum, da Bum”

  9. Ed Cummings said...


    The movie theater I saw Avatar in last week made a profit on me, but that didn’t make the movie less entertaining.

    George Steinbrenner makes a profit every year, but that fact is irrelevant.  Only thing that matters is if the team is entertaining, and in most peoples minds entertaining is the same as competitive.  The 2010 team should be more competitive than the 09 team, and the 09 team was more competitive than the 08 team.

    That seems like a trend in the right direction.  So once again light… tunnel…

  10. DonCoburleone said...

    The Pirates I think are headed in the right direction.  The one thing I think they need is that stud pitching prospect in the upper minors. Alderson was there in the low minors but his “star” has fallen a little since then. 

    I do enjoy what the Pirates are trying to do here, I love the “small market” aspect of baseball.  It creates much more exciting/interesting offseasons and trade deadlines.  I mean, put a salary cap in baseball and all trading would come to a stop in a hurry.  It would turn into the NBA, where there is a big trade once every 3-4 years and even when they do happen, its mainly because 1 team is trying to “free up cap space”. That shiz is lame.  For me, outside of the fantasy aspect of baseball (the best fantasy sport by a billion miles), my favorite thing is the “hot stove” and the trade deadline (3rd would be September/October games).

    So I say let the Yankees be the “team of the decade” every single decade, I will just keep ignoring them in favor of the Pittsburgh’s, Tampa’s, Minnesota’s, Oakland’s and Florida’s of the baseball world.

  11. John Lease said...

    Jeff, I guess I can tell you aren’t a Pirate fan.  Watching another 100 loss team isn’t exciting to me.  Nor is this a new way of running the Pirates.  As soon as guys start costing some money, out the door they go.  This was a little different in that just about everyone has gone at the same time, but the core concept is the same.

    The release of Matt Capps for nothing is an ominous sign to this Pirate fan that nothing has changed fundamentally.

  12. Steve said...

    It really is amazing to see the “purge” facts presented by the author.  Obviously acquiring quantity/quality is the goal when trading established MLB players, but I think there is another aspect, one which was somewhat alluded to in the comments.

    The Pirates were a lousy organization from top to bottom—competitiveness at the major league level & and issues with attitude/moral in the clubhouse (according to those with access), scouting & development, and according to some, with the basic infrastructure needed to run an organization (eg, bothstillplaying mentions medical & training).

    The half-hearted “rebuilding efforts” featuring washed up vets or reclamation projects playing everyday for a paycheck or in hopes of increasing their appeal to a “real team” no doubt created quite a toxic environment for any kind of success.  Burning the whole thing to the ground may be the only way to get rid of the disease.  If Doumit (or anyone else) wants to sulk about their buddies being traded and being stuck playing with a bunch of kids, get rid of him—not necessarily right now with his value low coming off a down year—but in will do nothing but harm to keep the guys who won’t accept responsibility.  I don’t want to dump on him as I really do like him as a ballplayer and I’ve heard he’s a good guy, but he was touted by insiders as being the future clubhouse leader.  Naturally the younger guys will look to the vets and if their attitude is poor, what do you expect?  [Bleep] flows downhill.

    Anyways, to close my long-winded post on a positive note, here’s an encouraging quote from Charlie Morton somewhat related to my ramblings about stepping up and realizing that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem:

    “The best thing about having such a young team was watching the group take on a responsibility that you find in a group of guys who’ve come to realize that they are the ones that make the difference. I started to see us as players who weren’t just there to contribute, but were there to create a foundation.”

  13. bothstillplaying said...

    The following article details how the Pirates are reinvesting long-term their recent-years’ operating profits, plus increasing their debt levels somewhat:

    Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Rob Biertempfel is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Pirates beat writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7811 or via e-mail.

    At a time when some major-league clubs are trimming budgets, the Pirates have increased their spending in several key areas.

    The Pirates have not ramped up their player payroll, the most obvious expenditure in the eyes of most fans. Instead, they spent more for facilities, scouting and player development the past two years.

    According to data provided by the team, the Pirates since 2007 have spent more than $11 million on long-term capital improvements. The club also boosted scouting, the draft and international player signings by more than $10 million.

    According to Coonelly, the Pirates have poured their operating profits back into the club and also “had to borrow very modestly,” which added to the team’s $100 million debt.

    “Our investments have been strategically made to build a foundation that will allow the club to compete over the long-term,” Coonelly said. “While we have made painful cuts in our business-operations expenses, we have continued to increase our spending on our baseball foundation.”

    Coonelly provided limited data about what has been spent the past two years on player acquisition (via the draft and internationally) and development. The $11 million influx for baseball capital improvements included:

    • Construction of an academy in the Dominican Republic for $5.4 million;

    • Renovations to Pirate City, some of which were paid for by the city of Bradenton, Fla.;

    • Equipment and facilities upgrades at PNC Park and Pirate City, such as the installation of ProBatter video pitch simulators;

    • Purchasing a low Class A team and relocating it to Bradenton. The cost of that franchise was around $3 million.

    Since 2007, when Coonelly was hired as part of a front-office overhaul, the Pirates have increased their budget for the draft by $8.3 million and upped their budget for international free-agent signings by $1.87 million. In that same span, the team has nearly doubled its domestic scouting staff (14 to 25) and increased its international scouting staff (19 to 33).

    Because of revenue sharing, the Pirates have turned a profit the past six seasons.

  14. bothstillplaying said...

    One final comment from Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus——-

    Saturday, August 25, 2007 12:10 AM
    Indianapolis Indians <>
    “It’s almost too easy to pick on the Pirates, but this amazing story from BP’s John Perrotto is devastating. I can’t tell you anything about Clayton Hamilton or his injury, but I can tell you that this situation is a strong indication of just how broken the systems are within the Pirates organization. Any medical staff can miss things, but the good ones have systems that minimize those misses through checks, balances, and most importantly communication. The Pirates’ new CEO is going to have to not just try and rebuild an organization, its morale and competitive instincts, but he’s going to have to build things that should be assumed to exist in any functional organization. The problem for the Pirates is that they clearly don’t have even these minimum standards.”

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