By Wilbur Miller
After signing Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates have a credibility gap? Sure they do, and it’s growing. Not in a bad way, though. The gap is between the new regime and the people they replaced. Pirate fans have grown cynical for a reason. Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlefield maintained for years that they were committed to building up the farm system, but we can see now that they made no sincere effort to do so. When they ventured into Latin America, it wasn’t to sign real prospects; you know, those sixteen-year-old kids who take years to reach the majors, if they ever do, and who attract no attention among all but the most hardcore fans. Instead it was to make a PR splash with Yoslan Herrera and Serguey Linares, at best fringe prospects who supposedly could be in the majors soon and who had the attention-getting title of “Cuban defectors.” When Littlefield maintained he would take the best player available in the 2007 draft, he proceeded to do just the opposite.
So when Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington have expressed their own commitment to the farm system, they’ve been met with considerable skepticism. They’ll make a signability pick, or they won’t shell out for good Latin American prospects, or they won’t spend what they need to spend on Pedro Alvarez. Pirate fans cannot, and should not, fully suspend their well earned doubts until the team starts winning again, but one thing that can’t be doubted is that these guys are different from their predecessors.
It’s not just that they signed Alvarez, either. It’s their entire approach to the draft. Faced with a bottom-ranked farm system nearly devoid of impact talent, they stated a willingness not only to draft the best player with the second overall pick, but to pursue draftees who fell due to bonus demands and other factors in order to get high-ceiling talent in the system. Huntington and Coonelly described their plan to make “backup” selections in case they were unable to sign their priority picks. They also told the fans that ownership had authorized an increased budget for the draft. On draft day, well “days” actually, the team followed through on every one of these claims.
To a surprising degree, the signing period followed the stated plans. This included statements from Coonelly, known for being Mr. Slotting System in his time with MLB, that the Pirates would be aggressive in pursuing talent but would not be irresponsible. Not only did they sign Alvarez, but they signed him without setting any new standards. Due to his status as the top talent on most lists, as well as the identity of his agent, Scott Boras, he figured to get the top bonus in the draft and also to exceed Matt Wieters’ $6M bonus in 2007. Instead, the Pirates paid out the same amount Wieters got, a bonus that was equaled or exceeded by two or three other draftees, depending on how you calculate Tim Beckham’s deal. They plainly took a tougher stance, albeit only slightly, than the Royals or Giants did with Eric Hosmer and Buster Posey, yet they still got the deal done, and without giving out a major league contract.
With other picks the Pirates also followed the plan. They signed Wes Freeman and Robbie Grossman for above-slot money. When one prominent high school RHP, Drew Gagnon, decided not to sign, they turned to another, Quinton Miller, and got an above-slot deal done. When fifth round pick Justin Wilson, who was not a candidate for an above-slot deal, insisted on significantly above-slot money, the Pirates hung tough and still got a deal done right at the slot amount. With second round pick Tanner Scheppers, the Pirates were prepared to go well over slot according to Huntington, a statement that there’s no reason to doubt at this stage. When Scheppers’ rehab program fell behind schedule and prevented the Pirates from doing an adequate evaluation, and Scheppers still demanded early first round money, the Pirates let him go, a sensible move given the very poor track record of pitchers with shoulder injuries.
The draft is the latest in a string of examples of the Pirates doing exactly what they’ve said they’ll do. When Bob Nutting announced the team would consider building a new training facility in the Dominican Republic, he went ahead with it and the new complex is scheduled to open next year. The team claimed it would increase its Latin American spending and, for the first time, it actually signed a couple of players prominent enough to merit notice by Baseball America. Although the highest bonus the Pirates paid out, which was $400,000, is dwarfed by the seven-figure bonuses doled out by many teams, the Pirates may for once be ahead of the curve. MLB is currently engulfed in a growing scandal over possible skimming and kickbacks from Dominican bonuses that has already caused three teams to fire key scouts. The scandal may have fueled the escalating bonuses in Latin America. The Pirates so far have not been mentioned in connection with the ongoing criminal investigation. If they stay clean, they may find themselves with a leg up on other teams.
One other recent example of the Pirates’ seriousness was, of course, the deadline trades. Many fans were naturally unhappy to see Jason Bay and Xavier Nady depart, although the trades are engendering growing respect in MLB according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, among others. What is undeniable, though, is that Huntington had the guts to make some difficult and unpopular moves to shake the team loose from its deadly malaise. Under McClatchy and Littlefield, the Pirates steadfastly avoided any move that smacked of rebuilding. They clung to any player who showed the slightest sign of ability as if they were trying to hold together a dynasty. Huntington, when he took over, said there would be unpopular moves that had to be made. The moves got delayed from the 2008-09 off-season to the 2009 trading deadline, but just as he said he would do, when the team didn’t come through on the field, Huntington pulled the trigger. The delay even helped as Bay and Nady increased their value with strong seasons. And it wasn’t just Bay and Nady. Huntington also adhered to his commitment to enforce some hitherto-unknown accountability. When supposedly-entrenched catcher Ronny Paulino and erstwhile ace Tom Gorzelanny didn’t play well, they found themselves in AAA.
Of course, having a plan and even following it through isn’t enough. Execution matters, too, and the Pirates have yet to prove they can execute well enough to start winning. Only winning will prove that. There are good signs, like the team’s correct evaluation of Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit. There are also bad ones, like Huntington’s so-far unproductive fascination with high-velocity, scatter-armed throwers such as Tyler Yates and Marino Salas. There’s also the fiasco at State College, which has been due in part to the poor performance of many of this year’s draftees who signed early enough to play there. The pitchers have been especially bad, eerily resembling the Littlefield/Creech fascination with college pitchers who had poor track records and injury histories.
What can’t be denied, though, is that the events leading up to the draft signing deadline provided further evidence that current management has replaced its predecessors’ commitment to spin games with a commitment to trying to turn the team around. It’s like being back in the major leagues again.