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Monday Morning Mop-Up Duty: Can the Pirates shift to sustainability?

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SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Perhaps the biggest misconception about the 2013 Pirates was the idea they were a young team.

 

The Pirates entered September as the 7th oldest team in baseball, and after rosters expanded were still the 12th oldest team with an average age of 28.4.

 

Sustaining success for the Pirates will be in large part about getting younger: a number of key veterans – AJ Burnett, Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Marlon Byrd, Charlie Morton and Jason Grilli – are not under contract after 2014. Their combined production in 2013 – 18.1 wins above replacement player – is valued at $90 million on the free agent market. The Pirates compensated them well below that value and the challenge will be replicating much of those wins above replacement player internally, because, the Pirates are not going to pay for 18.1 WAR on the open market.

 

The offseason is about looking ahead and we began with this Sunday piece  asking this key question: The Pirates built it but can they sustain it?

 

If you work  in the Pirates’ front office, or, if you’re a passionate fan there’s much reason to be encouraged the Pirates can sustain winning until the later part of the decade. They have a talented young core to build around that will be  augmented by one of the best farm systems in the game.

 

But there are challenges, namely economic ones, that eventually threaten to break apart this group the same way the 1992 team was torn a part after Sid slid. To sustain it, the Pirates will need a low prospect attrition rate, they must lock up core pieces to cost-controlled deals, and continue to find good value in the free agent and trade markets.

 

“We’ve talked about from Day 1 about the core of our team needs to be homegrown,” GM Neal Huntington said. “They need to be drafted players or guys we traded for at a young age. At the same time we always talk about supplementing: whether it’s a free agent at the right spot — we can’t build through free agency — or trades.”

 

STARTING NINE

 

9. What I think you have to like is this: 15 Pirates on the NLDS roster are 28-years-old or younger and are under club control through 2016.

 

And this is what I think you should get really excited about: The Yankees had the Core Four. The Pirates at least have the Core Three – Gerrit Cole, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. That group contains a likely MVP, perhaps the NL’s best pitcher after Sept. 1 and one left fielder who posted a 4.6 WAR as a 24-year-old battling a wrist injury.

 

They are all 27 or younger.  They are all under control through 2018. Cole is under control through 2019. That’s an elite young nucleus.

 

Cole on the Pirates’ core: “We have some guys here that are going to stick for a long time. There’s a core group that have the mentality that we created that we’re not going to get pushed around anymore.”

 

8. The core is important, it’s critical, but the key to sustaining 2013 is about gradually replacing an older supporting cast with a younger, cost-controlled one.

 

The trickiest part will be maintaining the 2013 level of starting pitching.

 

Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham must produce results similar to Burnett, Liriano and Morton because none of those three may be around after 2014. Pitching is at a premium on the open market, it’s in part why the Pirates have invested so heavily over the last five years in amateur pitching.

 

Cole and Taillon have the potential to be the best 1-2, Under 25 arm combo in baseball. Think about that. Think about Cole and Taillon leading a staff through 2019 as a pair of potential aces. ….

 

7. Key word: potential. As good as the farm system is, and most readers of this espace know how good the farm system is, it’s important to remember that prospects, particularly pitching prospects, have a high attrition rate. Remember, the Cubs were once excited about Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The Mets were once stoked about Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson.

 

Huntington noted no team fills every void internally. The Pirates  have to continue to fill voids with value like Martin and Liriano. And via trade.

 

“We do like what we have coming through the system whether it’s to take the place of a departed free agent OR a player that gets at dollar figure that does not fit for us in our big picture anymore,” Huntington said. “We’re going to continue to have to make some good free agent signings we are going to have to make some good small, medium and maybe large trades. As much as we’d like to fill every hole from within the reality is we are going to have to stay with our model: a core that needs to be Pirates but we going to have to make some good free agent signings some good trades moving forward.”

 

6. Cole and Taillon might be great until the end of the decade. Still, it’s unrealistic to expect the bullpen to repeat its 2013 level. Bullpens are the most volatile areas of a roster. And it’s probably unrealistic to expect the starting staff to be as good as it was in 2013.

 

Where the Pirates need and can expect to improve is offensively. From the internal group of Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Austin Meadows, Josh Bell and Reese McGuire if three develop into above-average hitters that will be a major coup for run production.

 

5. To assist in the search for free agent value, I think the Pirates did establish themselves as a place to come and rebound if you’re a starting pitcher coming off a down year or injury. PNC Park’s dimensions and the Priates’ defensive plan should be quite attractive to a player like Josh Johnson.

 

4. The greatest threat to keeping an impressive collection of the young talent together in the mid-to-near term is where arbitration prices are headed. Eight-figure, later-year arbitration figures might soon be the norm with the television money that’s following into the game. The more cost-controlled, long-term deals the Pirates can sign young players to the better.

 

3. The other external concern is this: the Cardinals have the 4th youngest roster in baseball and the Cubs are building the right way and have an impact farm system. NL Central is going to be a tough neighborhood for a while.

 

2. Outfield defense will continue to give the Pirates an edge. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told me the Pirates have the most athletic outfield in the game and that’s only going to strengthen once  Polanco arrives, perhaps 2014. Polanco will give the Pirates three players capable of playing center field in their outfield. I’m not sure any other team has anything close to that.

 

1. The biggest challenge every team faces in regard to sustainability – though some teams have more revenue to overcome voids – is injury.

 

Said Mozeliak:

 

“I think the hardest thing is health because no matter how you much play the odds of who you think is going to be on your club…. for example if you had sat with me last January and asked how confident are you Carp is going to pitch?I might have been at 50/50 and then you might have said Jamie Garcia, and I might have been 90/10. Furcal I might have said 75/25,” Mozeliak said. “All of those ended up being slam-dunk DLs. You only have so many resources. Protecting yourself in every area is almost impossible. If you are trying to be competitive, that is the hardest thing about managing a roster, is healthy.

 

“You’ll see it the next year (with the Pirates) and the following year. Keep an eye on it. When you’re not expected to win it’s not quite as important. But when you’re expected to win and you start expecting performance and it’s not there who is going to answer.”

 

HE SAID IT 

Gerrit Cole on the Pirates’ young pitching depth: “We’re going to pitch the (expletive) out of it.”

 

STAT OF THE WEEK:

Josh Hamilton’s salary in the final two years of his deal: $32.4 million. (That’s were AAV free agent prices are headed, folks)

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK:

There are many fine Italian restaurants in Pittsburgh but I really enjoyed Picollo Forno this weekend in Lawrenceville.

 

– TS

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