SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Neal Huntington entered the year, the offseason, viewed as an embattled GM.
The Pirates had posted five losing seasons under his watch, and while he inherited a mess in 2008, patience is at a minimum in the Steel City after two decades of losing.
But I think you can make the case that his last two seasons and offseasons have been among the best in baseball when it comes to finding bargain talent and reclamation projects, those acquisitions on the cheap are the main reason the Pirates are playing .614 baseball as of today.
*The Pirates sold high on Joel Hanrahan, oftens smart to do with a closer, and got back Mark Melancon in return, who is arguably the best setup man in baseball to date. Hanrahan is hurt.
*The Pirates signed Francisco Liriano to an incentive-laden deal, expecting him to see a bump in production in coming over to the NL. Liriano has been very good, adding needed depth, and will be a bargain even if he hits all of his incentives.
*Huntington added added Jeff Locke, A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, with the Yankees and Astros taking on nearly half of the financial commitment to Burnett and Rodriguez.
Huntington has created a cheap but effective starting staff and back-end bullpen. That’s why the Pirates are where they are. The Pirates entered Saturday fourth in baseball in team ERA (3.45), but with its most common five starters paid a combined $20.5 million by the club, the lowest among the top four staffs in baseball, and third lowest among the staffs with the top 10 ERAs in baseball. Heck, Cole Hamels is making $20.5 million alone this season. The collective strikeout rate suggests it’s somewhat sustainable. The Pirate rank 6th in the NL in Ks.
Finding cheap, effective starting pitching has allowed the Bucs to be competitive this season.
“(An average) major league producer costs you between $7 million to $11 million,” Huntington said. “Elite production costs you $20-25 (million). … We have to be fairly efficient with our dollars.”
The Pirates have been efficient with MLB dollars. That’s the good.
How about efficiency with draft dollars?
More important to long-term success is the team’s ability to acquire and develop amateur talent and here is where the results are more mixed as we studied on Sunday. (Hat tip to Melanie Wass for outstanding design on the graphic). The Pirates invested more money than any team in baseball over that span – $51 million. That’s a smart approach, because, the draft is the most likely place for a small-market to find impact talent. But I think it’s fair to suggest returns look uneven.
Teams cannot afford to miss on top 10 overall picks. Pedro Alvarez does not look like he’s a worthy No. 2 overall. The book isn’t written on Tony Sanchez, but if MLB redrafted, I assume the Pirates would rather have Zack Wheeler, Shelby Miller, Mike Minor or Mike Trout there.
The depth of the system is vastly improved, some of that is the draft, some of it is the quality work in Latin America.
Huntington believes the Pirates are in a better position to draft in 2013 than 2008. He thinks the process and infrastructure has been improved. The Pirates have the 9th and 14th overall picks on Thursday and they need it to be a banner day.
STARTING NINE (ON THE DRAFT)
9. Baseball America has the Pirates drafting Colin Moran at No. 9 (UNC third baseman) and No. 14 Sean Manaea (college pitcher). That would be a dream scenario for the Pirates. Moran is one of the better college bats available and could eventually move Alvarez to first. Of course he could also go No. 1 to Houston in what is a fairly wide-open draft, without a Harper or Strasburg.
8. Manaea was once in the running to be the No. 1 overall pick. He’s stuff has been a tick off and he’s a Boras client.
7. This is a critical draft for the Pirates. They have five consensus top 100 picks. But to compete with the Cardinals and Reds long term, the Pirates need another elite draft. If the Pirates hit on both picks, they could have 7 top 100 prospects entering 2014, which would be rare. Analysts say this is a “weak” draft. I’ve been told it’s an “awful” draft by one executive. Still, I think it’s too easy to say it’s a terrible draft. There’s always steals and values and useful parts to be found.
6. I’m all about upside in the draft.
If you’re a small market club that’s your best bet at finding impact talent. That’s why I labeled Mike Leake as a “miss” Sunday in our draft study, even though he’s a member of the Reds’ rotation. A bust? No. He is what he is. A No. 5 starter on a good team. But with the eighth overall pick you should be shooting for top-of-the rotation arms, and if you miss, it’s still the right thing to do in practice.
5. That brings me to Austin Meadows, Clint Frazier and Jonathan Crawford. If either of the top high school bats (Frazier/Meadows) or the top prep shortsop (Crawford) are available at 9 and/or 14. I think you have to consider them if you’re the Pirates if Moran and the top college arms are off the board. (And they probably will be)
Hopefully the Pirates don’t have a bias against redheads if Clint Frazier is on the board
4. The Pirates are apparently high on Trey Ball, the top prep left-handed arm in the draft. He’s another high-upside guy worthy of consideration.
3. What the Pirates really need are impact bats, particularly in the infield. Moran would be a great fit at 9 (but I doubt he falls). Still, you don’t pass on a BPA like Ball if he’s there to reach. Teams can always trade pitching. The draft isn’t a great fit for the Pirates needs, but they still can find useful future big leagues to use or trade at 9 and 14. Again, I’d lean toward upside.
2. Numbers that jumped out at in the draft-study where these: St. Louis has produced 15 players to reach the Major leagues from the the 2008-13. Tampa Bay has produced 1. Tampa made a living on hitting on a lot of early first round picks prior to 2008: David Price, Evan Longoria, and developing some later round pitchers like Shields and Matt Moore. But the pipeline is starting to dry up a big in Tampa.
1. I wonder if there is a healthy college vs. high school debate going on in the Pirates scouting department.
Ideally, the Pirates would want to coincide these picks with their window of opportunity which has already begun and extends through the first six years of Cole and Taillon’s careers. That would mean college players would take a preference. But if Moran and the top college arms are off the board, I don’t think you can pass on Ball/Frazier/Meadows if they are there. And I take a strong look at Crawford who could be a rare two-way impact shortstop.
HE SAID IT
Brandon Phillips to me, after I asked him if he thought he was intentionally hit Saturday night.
“I had two strikes on me and he tried to bust me in. It was a good pitch, probably. But he just missed his spot. I don’t know … You can keep it coming though, Mr. Pittsburgh”
Mr. Pittsburgh, new title?
STAT THAT MIGHT ONLY INTEREST ME
25% – Andrew McCutchen’s line-drive rate, a career best. Is McCutchen a better player than a year ago? His line-drive rate is up. His strikeout rate is down. But his BABIP (.375 – last year, .305 this year) and HR/FB (19% – 10 %) rates are down from where they were. Still, the underlying numbers suggest McCutchen’s skills aren’t worse – they’re improving. And with some better luck he should start stringing together some monster weeks.
The new season of The Killing began yesterday and it looks like it’s going to be faster-paced than the last, which I thought was excellent.