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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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Comments

  1. BostonsCommon says:

    “There’s a core group that have the mentality that we created that we’re not going to get pushed around anymore.”…“We’re going to pitch the (expletive) out of it.”
    .
    Love, love reading this.

  2. Nate83 says:

    Agree BostonsCommon. Hearing one of the core say something like this is very encouraging. I just get the feeling that the moment is never too big for Cole. He’s a winner and he knows he’s a winner. He has no problem saying get on my back and I’ll do whatever it takes to win. He expects to win instead of hoping to win and he is angry when he doesn’t win. Very confident without being cocky.

    I heard a story about Wil Myers hitting a ball really hard his first few games up and ending up on third. The Devil Rays third base coach for the Rays said “Wow!!!! You hit that ball really hard”. Myers just simply said “yep, I always do”. Almost as if he was a 10 year veteran talking to a coach he had known for years instead of someone he just meant a week earlier. He just assumes he is going to be better then his oppenent. It’s good to have 2 or 3 guys on the team that have that mindset. It seems to rub off on the others.

  3. Nate83 says:

    Travis another really nice blog entry. Nice to see you mention Josh Johnson instead of Hughes. I like that bounce back option much better. I think Hughes will just never live up to his prospect status. Johnson has already done it and still has decent speed on his fastball.
    .
    Outfield will be so much fun to watch over the next 5-6 years.
    .
    If Taillon and just one of Kingham and Glasnow pan out to go with Cole and the outfield trio that is a really nice nucleaus to start with that I can’t imagine many teams can match. It would really allow them to use money appropriately to fill holes in elsewhere.
    .
    I know that is a lot of if’s but we can dream which is much more then we could have done 5 years ago.

  4. BostonsCommon says:

    “…I can’t imagine many teams can match”.
    .
    I can think of one team off the top of my head. Their staff will include Michael Wacca, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly who are all under under 25. That doesn’t include Lance Lynn (26), Jamie Garcia (26 and under contract through 2017), or some guy named Wainwright (who is locked up through 2018).
    .
    I only bring them up because the Pirates will have to go through them for the division, and likely in the playoffs every year.

  5. Foo says:

    Yep…and there’s just as good a chance that some of their young pitching will fall by the wayside due to arm injuries.
    .
    Whichever team has the healthiest squad, when evenly matched, usually wins it.
    .

    Foo

  6. Foo says:

    Personally, I am happy to be in the ‘sustainability mode rather than the ‘can we get over .500′ mode.

  7. Foo says:

    Liriano gets the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year!!

    I hope next year he wins the Cy Young! (I’m greedy that way)

  8. Jim S. says:

    The Cardinals are loaded, no doubt, Boston. But, I’m not sold on Joe Kelly as being anywhere near elite – his performance vs. the Bucs aside. And I am also not convinced Lance Lynn is getting any better. He has fizzled in the 2nd half of the last 2 years. Shelby Miller seemed to fall off to the point where his coach didn’t trust him to start in the playoffs. So, there are a few question marks. Still, though, they have some great young pitching talent + the beast that is Wainwright. But, we could serve up just as much talent over the next few years. It should be interesting.

  9. Jim S. says:

    Travis:

    We may seem old, but Byrd, Uncle Buck and Morneau were veterans that were all added specifically for this year. They are not centerpieces. In fact, all 3 are likely gone for next year. AJ may very well be gone as well, now that he didn’t get to twirl a Terrible Towel with Clint. Just kidding there.

    The core is in its prime collectively, and more pieces are on the way in the form of position players Polanco, Bell, Hanson – all of whom have a chance to be big contributors. The pitching pipeline appears to be as full as that of any team. Nothing is for certain, but I can’t think of many teams with a brighter future outlook than the Bucs right now.

  10. Nate83 says:

    I agree about the Cards but I was including the three outfielders as well. Beltran will be on the backside of his career by that point and so will Holliday. I’m not that familiar with the Cards system. Maybe they have a Polanco in their system as well. When you include defense the Pirates outfield matches up very well with all other teams.

  11. Foo says:

    Nate…they have a ‘beast’ OFer named Oscar Taveras.

    Foo

  12. NMR says:

    Shelby Miller should be fine. Just ran out of gas with the extended innings, despite still pitching really well.
    .
    But I completely agree with you on Kelly and Lynn. My guess is that Kelly isn’t even in the rotation during next years playoffs.

  13. NMR says:

    Not sure if this is even contrary to popular belief, but I think the key to sustainability is just as much finding the next Russell Martin, Liriano, and AJ Burnett as it is developing the next Cole or McCutchen.
    .
    Even the masters of small market success never get very far without key contributions from unheralded veteran signs/trades.
    .
    And yeah, thats why sustainability is so fleeting for low payroll clubs.

  14. NMR says:

    And FWIW, I don’t believe “sustainability” should be the goal at this point. Taking the next step should be.
    .
    A fine line exists between sending the franchise into a tailspin by draining all resources for one shot at a title and just merely maintaining the status quo of winning baseball. But I think that the latter will feel less and less fulfilling if the Pirates never progress any further than 2013.

  15. Travis Sawchik says:

    Gotta love Cole’s mentality …. imagine when he gets a better feel for his changeup

  16. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, Nate

    It’s a great core, and one many teams envy around the league. Unfortunately for the Pirates, as Boston noted, the Cardinals have an impressive core of their own.

    The Cardinals have the fourth youngest roster. That’s scary

  17. Travis Sawchik says:

    Taveras has the potential to be an absolute beast.

    G.Polanco has the more well-rounded game, but Taveras is right there with Buxton, Baez and Sano as the best offensive force in the minor leagues.

  18. Travis Sawchik says:

    Not a bad find by the front office …

    Now, can they find another?

    This is where sustainability becomes really hard – the Pirates have to find excellent value like Liriano and that’s really hard to repeat

  19. Travis Sawchik says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, Jim.

    The Core and farm system are in excellent shape.

    But as Huntington said, no team fills every void internally and injuries are going to test depth. The challenge is finding trade and free agent value in the supporting cast.

  20. Travis Sawchik says:

    Agreed. That’s the message I hope folks take away from the blog post.

    I’m in no way critical of The Core or the farm, they’re both in really good shape, the challenge is supplementing the supporting cast with free agent and trade values

  21. Travis Sawchik says:

    To an extent the postseason as a random, small-sample, luck-ridden game.

    I think the goal should be to consistently produce 90+ win teams and take your chances that you’ll eventually break through in the postseason

  22. BostonsCommon says:

    I think the next step is going to be taken by the players. Guys like Marte and Cole improving and becoming All Stars. Polanco and Taillon becoming productive big league players and potential All Stars. T. Sanchez should provide more offense than R. Martin when he takes over, without an enormous step back defensively.
    .
    When you combine that with the peak years of Cutch and Pedro, the Pirates could/should have at least six perennial All Stars over the next few years. And that isn’t including guys like Justin Wilson or Tony Watson who could make it if/when they take over the closer role.
    .
    That hole at 1B is the only area I see where you would look for the front office to make a little splash. It’s too bad the Abreau bidding went all the way to $68M. I think the Pirates might have missed an opportunity there.
    .
    Lambo and Dickerson are really the only guys in the system that might have be considered possibilities in the next couple of seasons. And It’s even more disappointing when you look at the list of potential 2014 FA 1B.
    .
    Jeff Baker (33)
    Yuniesky Betancourt (32)
    Corey Hart (32)
    Paul Konerko (38)
    Casey Kotchman (31)
    Brandon Laird (26)
    Adam Lind (30) – $7MM club option with a $2MM buyout
    James Loney (30)
    Casey McGehee (31)
    Kendrys Morales (30)
    Justin Morneau (33)
    Mike Napoli (32)
    Lyle Overbay (37)
    Carlos Pena (36)
    Mark Reynolds (30)
    Kevin Youkilis (35)
    .
    Can you trust Lambo with 450 ABs as part of a platoon with Gaby? Doesn’t look like they’re going to have much of a choice…

  23. BostonsCommon says:

    Agree. His slider was always touted as the No. 2 pitch, and a strong one at that. But IMO the change and curve were both better this year, with potential to be devastating.

  24. NMR says:

    Love your angle, Travis. Well done.

  25. NMR says:

    I’m torn on this one, Travis. The logical part of me agrees with you completely. But the fan in me believes their is something inherantly different and better about a team like the Cardinals who have time and time again shown themselves to be playoff winners compared to a team like the Reds, A’s, or Braves.

  26. NMR says:

    You very well may be right, Boston. One Division Series defeat to the eventual league champion certainly doesn’t mean that the players don’t have more in them.
    .
    As for 1B next season, I don’t necessarilly think the team should make moves predicated upon the threat of being married to Lambo for a full season. As we saw last season, the Pirates can win without a productive first baseman, and they can also upgrade mid season. In reality, breaking camp with a Lambo/Sanchez platoon should really mean a three month trial, after which all bets are off and the trade market perks up.

  27. david galbraith says:

    It is a big mistake not to include Alvarez in the core. He is still getting better.

  28. BostonsCommon says:

    Not to speak for Travis. But when discussing his core 3, the qualifiers were that “they are all 27 or younger. They are all under control through 2018.”
    .
    Alvarez is eligible for free agency following the 2016 season.

  29. NMR says:

    I’m sure you’ll see the article, but MLBTrade Rumors just said the Royals could trade Billy Butler. When was the last time anybody saw him play defense?

  30. BostonsCommon says:

    You could do worse. I don’t put the same premium on defense from a 1B as I would on the defensive ability of OFs.
    .
    You look at his power numbers this past season and see it as the outlier… Each of the four years before that he was over .820 OPS… But I just wonder how PNC Park will impact him, and how much of the power we can reasonably expect to return.
    .
    He doesn’t need to be platooned and his contract isn’t an issue (1 year @ $9M including the 2015 buyout, or 2 years @ $20.5M). Hurdle would probably want to hang onto Gaby as a late inning defensive replacement, which is fine.
    .
    Just because the Royals are selling low on him, doesn’t mean the asking price would be low. Obviously I’d want to know what the Pirates were giving up, but like I said, you could do much worse than Billy Butler as an everyday 1B.

  31. NMR says:

    Ha, I like you, man. Could do worse was exactly what I was thinking.
    .
    Doesn’t thrill me since I don’t think he’d top 20 HR playing half his games at PNC, but I do think he could knock 40 doubles and hit .290/.350/.460 with good contact. Also have to figure losing a good player/prospect along with taking on salary, which makes free agents much more palatable. But they could do worse.
    .
    Think Jordy Mercer/Jose Tabata + Grade C+ prospect would be dreaming?

  32. BostonsCommon says:

    You’re probably going to need a lot more than that to get a deal done. I think Dayton Moore hangs up the phone before Neil can get Tabata out of his mouth.
    .
    I’m not sure I would be willing to part with Mercer. Not that he’s the second coming of Ozzie Smith, but using him to fill the hole at 1B just makes the small one at SS MUCH bigger.
    .
    I think they’re obviously going to ask for Taillon or Polanco… which gets shot down immediately.
    .
    I bet you could build it around Hanson though. Maybe a back end MLB ready starter and Hanson. I don’t think Irwin or Cumpton get it done, but maybe Locke…
    .
    I know the trade values would be way out of wack, and the Royals would obviously win. But I think that’s kind of how these things have been going recently.

  33. Foo says:

    Yep…finds like that don’t come along too often.

    I’m just glad WE were the ‘founders’. Lol

  34. Foo says:

    Our pitching injuries tested that depth this year. Perhaps we’ll be a little more healthy this year and move some of our depth for some offense?

    Every year brings its own challenges, that’s for sure. Looking forward to sustaining.

  35. Foo says:

    I wonder if Hurdle/NH would rather have a defensive 1bman like Loney who can provide .750+ OPS over a defensively challenged 1bman like Butler.

    However, to be fair, he might still be playing first if not for Hosmer, but at best, he is equivalent to GI jones, imho.

    As for what it’d take to get him? At least a top 5-10 prospect (think Kingham) imho. Too rich for my blood. I REALLY like Kingham.

    We can get Loney, for just cash.

  36. Foo says:

    Alvarez was up in HRs and RBIs, two ‘traditional’ measures, but in all Sabr measures, he was worse last year than in 2012.

    He is a two trick pony…HR or K that needs a platoon partner, imho.

  37. Brendan says:

    I certainly agree that there’s an enormous amount of luck and small sample size at play in the post-season.

    As a team in smaller or mid-sized market you have two general models available to you when constructing a team to contend for World Series, etc.

    There’s the recent Brewers model, allocate all of your resources to make the strongest possible push during a one to two year window. Then there’s the Rays model construct a team wins approximately 90 or so games every season, which most years is enough to get you into the playoffs. Over the course of the past six years the Rays have won 97, 84, 96, 91, 90, and 92 games. They’ve made the playoffs four of those six season. Advanced to the World Series once and ALDS three times.

    The Brewers model has obvious pitfalls. After those few years during which you allocated all of your resources you’re very likely faced with an extended rebuilding period.

    This is something the Rays have been able to avoid. At the same time, since their 2008 WS appearance the Rays have been unable to make it past the LDS. Now this may simply be a matter of luck, match-ups, a small sample, etc.

    That said I have noticed in recent years that smaller market teams seem able to make the playoffs but generally tend fall in the LDS to larger market teams (the Rays, A’s, Pirates, and O’s have done so recently).

    Again this might not be indicative of anything meaningful. But one thought, posited I believe by Sam Miller of BP (although I could be misidentifying the source), was that the tactics smaller market teams use to construct successful regular season rosters–which a predicated upon relying less on established star players–might not play as well in the post-season when the bench is ‘shortened’ so to speak.

    Whether this is indeed true, I’m not sure. But it does seem worthy of some consideration/examination.

  38. BostonsCommon says:

    “The bench is shortened”.
    .
    Isn’t it the exact opposit in the playoffs. The bench is extended, and you pintch run and pintch hit and bring in late defensive replacements and left on left pitching matchups and do whatever you can’t to win a game?

  39. BostonsCommon says:

    Pinch*

  40. Brendan says:

    Maybe that’s the not the short hand to describe the differences in roster management in post season versus the regular season.

    I think the thought is that because you’re playing a 5 or 7 game series (often with days off in between), rather than a 162 game season, you can lean more heavily on your best players and teams with larger payrolls can often afford to employ more of those players at one time.

  41. NMR says:

    Gotta think like Dayton Moore. His job is on the line. Hanson and Kingham do him no good as big leaguers in 2015 if he’s out of a job.
    .
    Tabata and Mercer fill their two biggest holes, 2B and RF, while shedding Butler provides salary relief needed to sign a starting pitcher.
    .
    But you guys do bring up the obvious disadvantage of trading with a potential contender. They’re probably not gonna want prospects.

  42. NMR says:

    Career high ISO, line drive, and home run rates in 2013. Never say “all” when speaking sabr. :)

  43. Foo says:

    Nmr…you got me…that’s why i get for being lazy….

  44. Foo says:

    ‘What i get’

 
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