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Monday, January 30 2023 @ 08:39 am UTC
Time to Man Up   
By Wilbur Miller

One unfortunate aspect of the Pirates’ persistent, downtrodden state is the growing difficulty of engaging in any kind of meaningful discussion about the team’s management. Every “discussion” seems to break down into pro- and anti-front office views, or at least that’s the way the arguments often get characterized. Personally, I don’t think there are very many “pro-front office” people. Rather, there are a lot of people who generally approve of the direction the team is taking but aren’t sure about the execution. This is a mindset that the team’s detractors seem to have an especially hard time grasping. It’s a natural outcome of the extensive knee-jerk, reality-free criticism that greets every last move the team makes, down to every single minor league free agent signing. I know I spend so much time—far more than I should—responding to tinfoil hat blabbering that it probably seems like I don’t see any problems with the way the team is being run.

The myopic focus of many fans on the major league payroll is especially aggravating because it takes the focus away from real concerns with the team. The Yankees and Red Sox can succeed by spending money freely on expensive veterans. The Pirates can’t. Nobody in their circumstances has succeeded that way. Nobody. Their payroll right now is where it should be. Teams like the Athletics, Twins and Rays that have pursued rebuilding programs started winning while their payrolls were still at or near the bottom. It’s a natural part of the rebuilding process. Even Michael Weiner, the new head of the player’s union, has explicitly recognized that principle in public statements.

Dejan Kovacevic pointed out the real source of concern in a chat yesterday when he said, “I see the (Miguel) Sano and Tanner Scheppers examples as, in some ways, more negative than the actual major-league payroll.” Kovacevic has also commented several times that the Pirates seem to expect every contract to be a bargain, instead of making it the top priority to get the players they need. One way or another, they never seem to end up with the high-ceiling players they have to have in order to win. It’s something you can see just watching the team. How many times already this year have they seemingly had the opposing pitcher on the ropes, only to fail to deliver the key hit? That’s exactly what you have to expect from a lineup that has no legitimate 3rd or 4th place hitter. The rotation has the same problem. The starters so far this year, except for Zach Duke, have pitched poorly, but that probably won’t last. They’ll probably be OK in the end, but it’ll just be OK. There’ll be ups and downs all year because that’s what you get from a rotation of 4th starters. And aside from Pedro Alvarez, there’s nobody in the farm system at this point, despite the fact that it’s a very deep system, who’s shown a likelihood of addressing the lack of top-flight talent.

What’s especially frustrating is that, taken individually, the Pirates’ decisions always make at least some sense. They didn’t sign Scheppers because he wanted early first round money and they weren’t able to determine whether he was healthy. That’s one decision I didn’t have a problem with. They failed to sign Sano because they didn’t want to bid against themselves. (As an aside, if you’ve ever taken a negotiation seminar, you’ll probably be told that rule #1 is never to bid against yourself. But rule #2 is that everything is negotiable, and that should include rule #1.) They never were a player for Aroldis Chapman because he was too expensive and Cuban players have a dubious track record. But the “small market” Reds didn’t have the same reservations. They overdrafted Tony Sanchez with the 4th overall pick because there wasn’t a player they liked enough to pay a hefty bonus to and they could use the money later in the draft—another move that, by itself, I don’t have a problem with. There’s always a reason.

The 2010 draft may become a watershed for this front office. They’re faced with a difficult situation. The top talent, without doubt, is the outlandishly overhyped, but still very talented Bryce Harper. Excuses abound not to take him: he’s not the surefire talent Stephen Strasburg was, he’s represented by Scott Boras, he can go back in the draft up to three more times and thus has lots of leverage. The Pirates have already taken pains to state that they’re not convinced Harper is the best player available. That choice probably won’t confront them, though, because MASN is reporting that the Nationals will take Harper with the top pick, barring something unexpected like an injury.

The consensus #2 talent is high school right-hander Jameson Taillon. This presents another difficulty. GM Neal Huntington is on record saying that HS pitchers taken at the top of the draft haven’t done well. This is true, although college pitchers drafted early have done even more poorly than HS pitchers. Huntington has a clear preference for college hitters, a group that historically has returned much more value early in the draft than college pitchers or HS players. Unfortunately, no college hitter this year is good enough to be taken that high. Taillon will be very expensive, but anybody they take will expect at least what recent #2 overall picks have gotten. That would be $6M (Dustin Ackley in 2009) or $6.3M (Alvarez in 2008) as a likely floor.

Most people trying to project the draft are convinced the Pirates will go with a college pitcher. The one most often mentioned is Deck McGuire, a right-hander who ominously—hell, frighteningly—has drawn comparisons to Bryan Bullington. Another possibility is Anthony Ranaudo. He came into the college season this year with high expectations but he’s struggled with elbow problems and has yet to show outstanding stuff. I should emphasize, though, that these projections seem to be based entirely on speculation, some of it possibly based on the Pirates’ fascination with “safe” college pitchers under the incompetent Dave Littlefield.

The bottom line for me is that the Pirates can’t afford to waste the 2nd pick and probably at least $6M on another potential 4th starter/labrum surgery candidate. They absolutely have to pick somebody with a high ceiling. That means Harper if he is there. Since he probably will not be, maybe it means Taillon or another HS pitcher (the reported strength of this draft) like A.J. Cole. Maybe it’s somebody like high school shortstop Manny Machado, who’s young enough still that he might conceivably exceed expectations. Maybe they’ll have to pay somebody more than what their “internal value” tells them. Whatever they do, they have to stop focusing on the value of individual contracts and make it their priority to get the talent they need into the system. It’s in their overall talent level that they need to maximize the value they get for their money, not in individual contracts.

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