In the United States, there are currently people who are able to consume alcohol legally, and yet haven’t been alive to see the Pittsburgh Pirates in the playoffs, let alone finish a season above .500, but that’s about to change.
One of the biggest stories of the Major League Baseball season has been the Pirates. The Pirates recently sent five players to the All-Star game, the most since 1972, Currently at 65-43, they have had one of the best records in baseball for the majority of the season. For recent observers, this hasn’t been anything new. The last two years, this same team has hit the All-Star break in contention for a playoff berth, subsequently fell out of it, and the seemingly elusive .500 mark, by mid-September.
A few reasons can be attributed to their collapse. Both collapses began after an 18-inning game they played in August that stretched the pitching thin to the point that it couldn’t be salvaged. Their biggest weakness has been hitting, so when the pitching staff couldn’t hold teams to 3-5 runs like it could in the earlier part of the season, batters couldn’t make up for it.
However, unlike 2011 and 2012, I’m here to say that this team will finish above .500 this year (not going to say playoffs…yet), and for years to come. Looking at just stats, they’re only one of three teams in the National League who have a winning record on the road, they’ve held teams to the fewest runs scored of anyone in all of baseball (second place is 20 away), 21 of their remaining 54 games are against teams above .500 with 9 against the division rival St. Louis Cardinals, and they only need to go 17-37 to make it above .500. Yes, the Buccos have scored the third fewest runs in the NL, but their pitching depth is much better this year and their top hitters (Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez) are starting to be more consistent at the plate.
Comparing this team to another that went through a similar transformation from worst-to-first in the past, it’s amazing how similar their roster foundation (how their roster came together) is to the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2008, the same year those Rays had their first winning season in franchise history (only ten years old at the time) that took them all the way to the World Series and have continued to be successful since then.
As with any small market club that’s struggled for many years, the most efficient, but sometimes uncertain, way, is through the draft. Unlike the NBA and NFL drafts, where the players are immediately put on the active roster in almost all cases, draftees in baseball typically take a few years to make it to “The Show”. As with NBA and NFL, there are plenty of busts as well, but we’re not here to talk about them.
Both the Pirates of now and the Rays of old built their teams through the draft. For the Pirates, their top young players, Andrew McCutchen (All-Star and one of the best outfielders in the game), Pedro Alvarez (All-Star third baseman and Adamn Dunn 2.0), and Gerrit Cole (a young pitcher who debuted earlier this year), were all first round draft picks who have, for the moment, panned out into current or future All-Stars. For the Rays, it was Evan Longoria (third base), Carl Crawford (outfield), and David Price (a young pitcher who debuted late in ’08) who keyed their run to the postseason. Notice anything? No? Okay, I’ll keep going.
The other way these clubs built their rosters was through trading their veterans who were playing on earlier, terrible teams, to bigger market clubs that were vying for a playoff spot in exchange for prospects that had promise, but who weren’t ready to contribute at the big league level yet.
With Pittsburgh, that meant dealing away veteran outfielders Nate McClouth (currently in Baltimore after royally sucking in Atlanta) and Xavier Nady (barely playing for Kansas City) along with then-closer Joel Hanrahan (out for the year due to injury in Boston) in a series of deals over the last five years, to Atlanta, New York, and Boston respectively. In exchange, the Pirates got back current starting pitchers Jeff Locke (All-Star), Charlie Morton (recently back from injury), reliever Mark Melancon (All-Star who was actually a veteran when acquired), and outfielder Jose Tabata (currently starting). I’d put those deals in the win-column for the long-term considering all are under 30 years old.
In Tampa, they sent pitchers Victor Zambrano (not the crazy one who used to play for the Cubs), Danys Baez (who?), catcher Toby Hall (retired), and outfielder Delmon Young (a once-prized prospect who’s never lived up to the expectations) in unrelated deals to New York, Los Angeles, and Minnesota respectively. In exchange, they got back starting pitchers Matt Garza (the same one who just got traded, but who was one of their top three starters in ’08 for the Rays), Scott Kazmir (their best pitcher for a few years), Edwin Jackson (effectively wild that season and wasn’t in Tampa for very long), shortstop Jason Bartlett (solid defensively), and catcher Dioner Navarro (had easily his best year in ’08, hitting close to .300).
The final point I’ll make in comparing the two franchises (even though if you can’t see the similarities yet, then…wow) is that both teams lucked out in terms of free agents. Both signed a couple key players to minor league deals (All-Star closer Jason Grilli, outfielder Starling Marte, and outfielder Garrett Jones for Pittsburgh, first baseman Carlos Pena and third baseman Eric Hinske for Tampa) and signed some veterans to low-cost deals (starting pitchers A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and catcher Russell Martin for Pittsburgh, closer Troy Percival for Tampa). In each signing, the player outperformed his contract, something the big market teams can rarely say (Hey LA Angels, how are those Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton signings working out? Not so good? Sorry to hear that).
So, both teams built their rosters through some smart picks in the MLB draft and used long-term thinking to deal veterans for promising younger players while picking up veterans in free agency who outperformed their contracts. Was luck involved? Absolutely, but with so many good moves in a few years for both clubs, each front office clearly knew what they were doing.
Now, the Steel City finally has a baseball team that those 21-year olds may feel like going to see. The Pirates have a young, talented roster that’s only going to get better, with more help coming in the way of future prospects, along with some veteran free agents who are helping the young kids develop a winning attitude. Could it all fall apart? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet against the Pirates contending for the playoffs in the immediate future.
That last sentence is something no one would’ve said five years ago.