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Can any other team follow the Pirates’ blueprint?

Even though Andrew McCutchen is leaving his prime, Pittsburgh is ready to compete. Do the Pirates have a strategy other teams can emulate?

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Through this past Wednesday, the offseason in Pittsburgh had been dominated by one thing: Andrew McCutchen trade rumors. Though he had a distressingly bad 2016, McCutchen is a legitimate homegrown superstar — he’s talented, charming, and probably the single biggest part of the Pirates’ recent resurgence. The prospect of parting with Cutch was depressing; the fact that he was (of course) aware of the ever-approaching trade only made it more so.

Of course, the trade never happened, with no team meeting the Pirates’ demands (reportedly, multiple near-majors prospects), and on Thursday, the tenor of the Pirates’ offseason changed rapidly, as they announced that Ivan Nova had just signed a three-year, $24-million deal. This wasn’t just a value signing, where a bad team signs a player they think the market is undervaluing in hopes of flipping them at the deadline (though it could of course become that); this was the Pirates looking to compete in 2017. It’s not a crazy proposition — after incorporating the Nova signing, FanGraphs projects the Pirates to go 82–80, even with the Rangers and Blue Jays and ahead of the Marlins, and finish three games out of a Wild Card spot, behind the Giants (88–74), Cardinals (85–77), and Mets (84–78).

You can quibble about the projections themselves, but the precise number of wins the Pirates are predicted to get is less important than the fact that, even as their superstar enters his decline (one that could be rapid: after averaging 6.7 fWAR from 2011–15, McCutchen accumulated just 0.7 fWAR in 2016, and is projected for 3.5 fWAR in 2017), Pittsburgh remains ready to compete. In the last decade or so, the cyclical, boom-bust approach to team building has become the norm, as clubs and fans take for granted that winning now requires mortgaging the future, and enduring several years of rebuilding at some unspecified point in the future. But at a point in their club’s history where the Pirates might be expected to follow that pattern — as McCutchen prepares to depart, and after several consecutive years of competitive play — Pittsburgh looks ready to break it instead, and do so without breaking the bank. What’s enabling them to follow this always-competitive path? And is it something other teams can replicate?

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Homegrown talent

McCutchen obviously headlines this category, but he’s one of several excellent players the Pirates have developed. Starling Marte is a great outfielder in his own right, and one that would likely be more famous if he played in either a larger market or not alongside McCutchen. While Gregory Polanco hasn’t hit his upside yet, he’s been a solid regular for two consecutive seasons, and the Pirates have him signed through 2023. And waiting in the wings are Austin Meadows and Josh Bell, a pair of blue-chip position player prospects who look ready to pick up any slack left by McCutchen’s decline.

The Pirates are also led by a homegrown star on the pitching side of the equation, in Gerrit Cole, who has averaged more than three wins per season in his relatively young career. Behind him lies Jameson Taillon, who, after missing two full seasons to injury, threw 104 innings in 2016 with a 3.38 ERA and 3.71 FIP. And behind him is Tyler Glasnow, who didn’t exactly impress in his cup of coffee in 2016, but has the kind of prospect stock that makes teams salivate.

The FanGraphs depth charts currently don’t include a projection for Meadows, since there’s a good chance he doesn’t see the majors next year. But the seven other homegrown Pirates are collectively projected for a whopping 19.3 fWAR, just over half of Pittsburgh’s total projected fWAR. Not only does that base of talent make building a team around them relatively easy, it makes it relatively cheap; all of those players are getting paid less than they would on the open market, either via arbitration, pre-arbitration minimum salaries, or extensions signed while in one of those periods. This is a huge part of the reason that the Pirates have been good, and a huge part of the reason they should be able to stay that way.

It’s hard to say precisely to what extent this strategy is replicable by other franchises, since it’s impossible to tell how much credit the Pirates should get for one of their prospects turning into a productive major leaguer. Maybe McCutchen would’ve never made it past Double A if not for the Pirates coaching staff; maybe he would’ve been even better. But regardless, the way all these homegrown players were acquired shows that this isn’t simply the product of strategic choices any team can make.

Cole was drafted first overall; Taillon, second; Meadows, ninth; McCutchen, 11th; Bell, 61st; and Glasnow, 152nd. Teams can certainly try to emulate some aspects of the Pirates’ player development strategies, but those strategies likely wouldn’t have done nearly as much without the glut of upper-first-round draft picks the Pirates had stocked up. Marte and Polanco were both international signees, and we’re in an era when it seems every team is highly active in the international market, and, under the new CBA, the ability of a given team to emphasize international signings more than their peers is steeply curtailed. This group of players is a colossal part of the Pirates’ success, present and future, but there’s no lesson to be learned from their acquisition, and no strategy that can be exported elsewhere.

Smart free-agent signings

An alternate title for this section would be “No free-agent signings,” since the Pirates have never been active on the open market. I’m not a fan of teams intentionally keeping their payrolls low, but even as the Pirates have risen from the lowest payroll in 2012 to the 11th lowest in 2016, they haven’t spent all their money in one place. Instead, they’ve spread it around, insulating themselves from the risk that permeates the high-end of the free agent market and sticking to players they can sign for less than what they’re probably worth.

Mark Melancon #35 and Russell Martin #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate after the game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on September 22, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Scott Cunningham, Getty Images.

Often, that has taken the form of assets the rest of the market is hesitant to sign for whatever reason. For example, in the 2012–13 offseason, the Pirates agreed to a two-year, $17-million contract with Russell Martin. Martin had been roughly a league-average hitter to that point in his career, which is valuable enough for a catcher, but he was also an outstanding framer. By Baseball Prospectus’s WARP, which incorporates catcher framing, Martin was worth over ten wins in his two years with the Pirates, and he went on to sign a five-year, $82-million contract with the Blue Jays before the 2015 season. The Pirates followed a similar pattern to find his replacement, Francisco Cervelli, whom they acquired from the Yankees in exchange for reliever Justin Wilson. Cervelli is also a fine hitter, if not great, and he also gets lots of value from framing. He’s been worth 8.5 WARP in his two years with the Pirates, and signed a three-year, $31-million extension this past May.

Aside from framing, the Pirates also demonstrated less risk aversion than the rest of the league when they signed Jung-Ho Kang to a miniscule contract of four years and $11 million with a team option for a fifth year at $5 million, plus the $5 million posting fee, in the 2014–15 offseason. Kang was the first player to try to make the jump directly from the Korean Baseball League to MLB, and while he had raked there – he hit .356/.459/.739 in 2014 – teams were skeptical of his ability to play in the majors. Teams other than the Pirates, that is, whose willingness to take a risk has paid off handsomely. While Kang missed some time with a broken leg, in two seasons and 837 plate appearances, he’s run a 131 wRC+ (comparable to Manny Machado, Ryan Braun, and Chris Davis) while playing a passable third base and shortstop.

In the short term, other teams can certainly take some lessons from the Pirates’ successes on the free agent market; indeed, it seems they already have, as an increased emphasis on framing has spread across the league, and four more teams signed players from the KBO prior to the 2016 season. However, the more broadly these strategies are adopted, the less valuable they are, so the real lesson is not in the specific signings the Pirates made, but their open-minded approach. Again, there’s probably an element of luck involved, and while every club can emulate Pittsburgh’s approach to risk, the Pirates also picked the right risks to take, and that’s harder to match.

Coaching magic

Wizard; pitch doctor; pitcher whisperer. Ray Searage has a real reputation at this point, and it seems to be deserved. Searage, and the Pirates with him, have made a habit out of signing pitchers that the rest of the league doesn’t think much of and turning them into productive players. A.J. Burnett looked washed up after 2011, but went to the Pirates for two more excellent seasons, and after a brief interlude with the Phillies, returned to Pittsburgh for a third. J.A. Happ started 2015 with the Mariners, and had a park-adjusted ERA 20 percent worse than average over 108 23 innings, but finished the year with the Pirates, and had a park-adjusted ERA 51 percent better than average over 63 13 innings. (Happ also carried that success into 2016, when he posted his career-best park-adjusted ERA with the Blue Jays.) Joe Blanton also finished his 2015 with the Pirates, and also seemed to turn a corner, throwing 31 13 innings with a 1.57 ERA and a 28.5 percent strikeout rate.

As with everything on this list, there’s some question about how much this is the product of skill versus luck, and even within the luck, how much is Searage himself versus the Pirates’ strategy of throwing inside and attempting to generate ground balls. And even assuming the Pirates themselves can sustain this success — and it’s not clear that they can; the magic seemed to run out in 2016 — it’s not clear how any other team could possibly replicate it. Ray Searages don’t grow on trees, and if developing prospects is hard, developing coaching seems much harder.

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Those three defining characteristics sum up the Pirates — if not in their entirety, in large part. Success with developing prospects, bringing in free agents, and tweaking pitchers is a big reason why the Pirates are reloading, not rebuilding, and ready to carry their success over into another generation of prospects. Unfortunately, those defining characteristics seem fairly unique to the Pirates; they’re products of luck, circumstance, or the kind of skill that can’t be replicated. In another five years, Pittsburgh themselves might join the rest of the league in looking back on their trajectory over this period and wondering how they can replicate it.