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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. II, No. 19
June 16, 2010
Pedro Alvarez, who was a hyped prospect before Stephen Strasburg redefined the concept, will be promoted by the Pirates tonight to make his major-league debut. The left-handed-hitting third baseman was the fourth pick in the 2008 draft out of Vanderbilt. His selection was something of a watershed moment for the Pirates, the first time in years they’d nabbed the best talent available with a very high pick in the draft. Taking Alvarez represented a break from the old ways of doing things in Pittsburgh, a sign that the new front office, under new GM Neal Huntington, would be burying the penny-wise, pound-foolish approach of the old regime in favor of doing whatever was necessary to build a championship team.
Not a single thing that has happened in the intervening two years has provided any reason to doubt that notion. The Pirates, who put off a full rebuild for a decade under David Littlefield, have undergone a radical restructuring under Huntintgton. The former director of player development and assistant GM in Cleveland, Huntington brought over the Indians’ approach, mixing scouting and data, including the hiring of Baseball Prospectus staffer Dan Fox to bolster his data operations. He traded away the entire lineup he inherited, the kind of housecleaning that had been necessary for years. The Pirates have spent more money in the draft than any other team the past two years and could be in line to do so again in 2010. They took the best talent available at #2, in Jameson Tallion, and a player with huge upside and signabilty concerns, Stetson Allie, in the second round. This is how successful franchises behave. Why dispensing with the core of a .450 team brought so much criticism was hard to understand, but Huntington had to deal with significant angst then, and still does today.
The Pirates are one of the worst teams in baseball this season, on the heels of losing 99 games in 2009 and 95 in 2008. This is exactly what is supposed to happen. Putting undercompetitive teams on the field to stave off this kind of stretch while sustaining an illusion of contention is one reason why the Pirates had 15 consecutive sub-.500 seasons before Huntington was hired. To build a great team, you have to be willing to build some bad ones, to trade players who have present value but no future with your team for those who might be able to contribute to that future. If there’s a criticism to be made of Huntington, it’s that he hasn’t done a particularly good job of this; while the fans and media in Pittsburgh seem focused on what he traded away, popular but fungible players such as Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson and Nate McLouth, the main problem for Huntington has been the lack of return on those deals. That is one reason why the 2010 Pirates look as bad as they do; Jeff Clement and Charlie Morton and Ronny Cedeno and the rest of Huntington’s haul have simply been awful.
The Pirates’ poor performance in 2010 has even raised the notion that Huntington could be let go at the end of the year. This would be an enormous mistake. Huntington walked into a situation not of his own creation, with a farm system decimated by years of poor drafting and minimal international efforts. The 2010 Pirates aren’t bad because of Neal Huntington’s efforts, and in fact, the 2010 Pirates are close to irrelevant to his job performance. Huntington didn’t waste four straight #1 picks from 1999-2002 on pitchers who would combine for 10 MLB wins. He wasn’t in the room when the Pirates chose Brad Lincoln over Tim Lincecum, Daniel Moskos over Matt Wieters, the tail end of a decade-long run of hyperconservative, cost-conscious draft picks that is the single biggest reason why the Pirates are where they are.
You don’t fix what was wrong with the Pirates in three years. Three years is barely enough time to put the plan in place. It’s barely enough time to start restocking the system with talent, to change the way the organization thinks about its goals, to . On-field results over a three-year period for a team such as the Pittsburgh Pirates tell you nothing about what the current GM is doing and everything about what the last guy did. If the Pirates fire Huntington, what will happen is that the next GM will get credit for the work Huntiington did. (I’ve written frequently about Ned Colletti “winning” two NL West crowns with Paul DePodesta’s roster. See also Ruben Amaro, Jr. in Philadelphia.)
You cannot evaluate Neal Huntington by the Pirates’ record in 2010. As bad as the team looks, the Pirates are closer to being a championship-caliber team now than they ever were or were going to be when giants such as Xavier Nady and Jason Bay walked the earth. It’s slowly coming together, as a core of Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Tony Sanchez and Neil Walker on the field; Tallion, Allie and Lincoln on the mound. That team won’t play together for a few years still, but it has a chance to be the best team in the league, something that you haven’t been able to say about any version of the Pirates in nearly 20 years. Huntington is doing exactly what he was hired to do, and that the fans and media in Pittsburgh can’t quite grasp this, that they still hold the 2008-09 trades against him, is an indictment of their sensibilities.
Having defended Huntington, I will say that I’m not completely on board with the decision to promote Alvarez. It does have a feel of “hey, look over here!” to it. Whereas recent call-ups Strasburg and Mike Stanton have forced there way to the majors with dominant minor-league seasons, Alvarez has been good, but not necessarily great, at Indianapolis. His power is unquestioned: a .533 SLG and a .256 ISO, similar to what he did at lower levels a year ago. His contact rate is a concern, as he’s struck out in 28% of his at-bats, with a 68/30 K/BB, which has limited him to a .277 BA. His defense hasn’t improved: 11 errors against eight DPs turned, the third level at which he’s had more errors than DPs. His future may still be at first base, which in turn ramps up the offensive expectations. If he’s Paul Sorrento or something like that, that’s not a franchise player. Alvarez may be better off working on his plate discipline and defense in Indianapolis rather than becoming Pittsburgh’s answer to Strasburg. The timing of his promotion feels like an attempt to make him the latter.