I strongly believe in the impact a good role model can have on a person’s life. Proteges can learn from the master and in time can become the master. Success is often imitated with the belief that it can contribute to one’s own success. While ingenuity and forward thinking are also important, the wheel does not always need to be reinvented. Of course, there is also the concept of the anti-role model. These are people whose mistakes we can learn from and not make ourselves. I honestly may have a longer list of anti-role models than I do actual role models, but that’s another story entirely and not one for TPOP.
After pulling themselves out of the muck of 20 years of losing, the Pirates have become the model organization for others. What they need now are anti-role models to help avoid their pitfalls and sustain winning beyond their current window. Thankfully, the NL has provided some good ones in 2015. Here’s a handful of teams the Pirates don’t want to be like and what they’re doing wrong.
Career players are nice, but nice doesn’t always make you competitive
Keeping a player in one organization is a romantic, noble pursuit, but it’s not a luxury for the small market. Problem is you have to pay a guy tons of money after their useful life ends and they begin to decline. Don’t get me wrong, $14 million for Joey Votto was a steal this past season. However, Brandon Phillips is no longer an eight figure second baseman and Jay Bruce hasn’t flashed much of his early career mashing. Both are overpaid and dragging the rest of the organization down. An injury to another big money player, like Homer Bailey, compounded the problem this past season. If you have that much salary tied up into a trio, there is little margin for error when one or more doesn’t produce. Two of three didn’t and the Reds struggled when they weren’t playing the Pirates.
Here’s the thing about signing a player to their third contract. You get most of the value from a player before it kicks in most of the time. Votto will go on to earn $20 million next season, $22 in 2017 and then will likely round out his career with three $25 million seasons. At 32, Votto showed enough last year to where he could still justify his price tag next season, but as he rides the decline into the final years of the contract, he’ll consume a larger percentage of the Reds budget, produce less and less, and become more difficult to trade. Attempting to keep Phillips for his career is hurting the Reds, but it’s not going to come close to the challenges they’ll face as Votto gets closer to pasture.
The Pirates are nearing the point where they need to make a decision on what’s next for Andrew McCutchen and fans want to see him stay in Pittsburgh his entire career. However, it’s important to note that the Pirates will need to increase the quality of what they’re plugging in around him to stay competitive. Even if he stays, the Pirates can’t expect 2015 Cutch in 2020. I’d like to see him sign, but only with a couple of caveats. First, they need to front load the contract paying him the big money when there is still a strong chance that he will still post big production. This may help shave some money off the overall deal and allows his contract to de-escalate in value as other players’ contracts, like Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte’s, begin to escalate. Second, I’d like to see a deal that allows him the opportunity to potentially get a fourth contract somewhere else. While 32 seems like the Pirates scary age, it’s 35 for me. I expect McCutchen to play beyond this age, maybe to 40, but his market value will be well beyond his productive use. If he stays a Pirate until he’s 36 and wins a World Series or two while he’s here, no one will ever remember that he finished his career with another team.
It’s also worth noting that Cutch is the only player on the Pirates current roster that I would consider extending beyond 32 at this time. Keeping Neil Walker in Pittsburgh for life would be a great story but bad for business.
Excellent Offensive Production Doesn’t Take You Far
Offense is sexy and makes sports fun to watch, but successful National League teams win with good pitching. The Rockies scored the most runs in the league, but finished tied for the fourth worst record. Problem is they allowed the most runs in all of baseball, even though they only face 8 batters most of the time. Granted, both of those numbers are inflated by Coors Field, but as I’ve been saying for a while, a good staff is more important than run production.
While it would have been exciting and fun if the Pirates had won the auction for Byung-ho Park, the resources may be better allocated into finding an effective third starter to replace AJ Burnett. Doug Fister is a name often connected with the Pirates as is deadline acquisition JA Happ. Scott Kazmir could also make sense on a three year deal. Any of those three would impact the Pirates chances in 2016 more than Park, while possibly leaving more budget flexibility to add more.
No Amount of Spending or Player Acquisition Guarantees a Win
There is nothing more controversial than saying that there are zero guarantees in baseball. If you’d like to get ridiculed on message boards, tell them that talent and player acquisitions can only take you so far. No level of spending or trading will automatically translate to winning a World Series. The best you can hope to be is competitive and let the rest take care of itself on the field.
In 2010, the Phillies looked set up to be a dynasty. They had just made back to back Series appearances. Their lineup was loaded and still young enough that it might sustain them for a few years. They had a top 15 prospect in baseball looking to supplement their core. The staff had depth and two aces at the top. They even acquired the hotly pursued Hunter Pence at the 2011 trade deadline.
On paper, the Phillies were the best team in baseball for a two year stretch. They never made another World Series and missed the playoffs entirely in 2012. Their GM is also looking for a new job.
Why? There are no guarantees in baseball. Anything can happen in a 5 or 7 game series and it just didn’t work out for the Phillies. They’re bad now, because they married their stars from 2008 and 2009 and rewarded them with massive contracts. They also traded away some of their best prospects at the time, while others busted and busted hard. There was no depth in system to fall back on when they did. The Phillies could have won the World Series without Roy Halladay or Pence, but they decided to go all in and got burnt. Their window closed because they closed it with a win now mentally.
The Pirates were good enough to win the World Series last season. They likely need to get a solid third starter, but when they do, they’ll be good enough to win the World Series again in 2016. They don’t need to make a big splash. They can play for now and the future by making smart signings and keeping solid depth in the minors that could supplement the core and sustain success. While fans would like to see a big acquisition, it’s likely not necessary.
Players provide value on the field and in trades
Maybe the Braves didn’t think they had the horses to compete in 2015 and pulled the trigger on an early rebuild. Kudos to them if they believed and executed it, as I feel very few front offices have the courage to make such a move. However, I really felt like the Braves had a strong enough core to reload in 2015 rather than rebuild, especially with Nick Markakis in the mix.
The Braves dumped a lot of star power this past winter moving Jason Heyward to the Cardinals, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel to Padres and Evan Gattis to the Astros. They did get major league talent in return, but it felt like they were trying to stick their toe into the competing-now pool with the other foot entirely submerged in the rebuilding. This combination rarely provides short or long term benefits. As a result they finished near the bottom of the NL and have already traded Andrelton Simmons to the Angels (also getting a major league piece in Erick Aybar in return). They’re also rumored to be shopping top first basemen Freddie Freeman.
The Braves may have done well to be more selective with the moves they made. They did need to make additions to the rotation, so maybe flipping Heyward for Shelby Miller was a good thing. However, their trade returns netted 4.4 fewer WAR than what they gave up. Granted, there are other pieces to the puzzle progressing through the system, but it’s conceivable that the Braves could have been a considerably better team in 2015 by keeping the players they had and investing the money spent on Markakis in the rotation.
In fairness, the Pirates are in better shape than the Braves were heading into 2015, but they also have some players heading into their final year of team control. Those players are not on par with the players dealt by the Braves and any decisions the Bucs front office make won’t be as stark. Adding and subtracting is something that all teams, large or small, need to do to sustain winning, but Neal Huntington and friends will need to acknowledge that there is value to keeping some players and simply allowing them to play out their time. One might argue that they allow the player to then walk away for nothing. However, I’d argue that they are letting them walk after one more year of contribution. That’s not nothing. The Pirates should shop players like Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli, and Mark Melancon, but they should also consider how they can help the big club now. Personally, I would trade at least one for the sake of the future while keeping some for now.
At the end of the day, the Pirates should stay the course with what has made them successful. They should supplement their core with minor leaguers ready to make the jump or to provide depth. They should make smart, low risk signings with the confidence that they can rebuild them. They should make a splash in the pitching department if they make one anywhere. They should avoid going all in as they’ve proven they can compete without doing so. The window is open for the Pirates and it can stay open if they simply avoid the traps of the Reds, Rockies, Phillies and Braves.