The Pittsburgh Pirates are getting better as an organization. While it took a damn long time, the next step, sustainability of their success will be most critical. Often times as a Bucco fan I have looked at just what the Tampa Bay Rays are doing and been envious. The Rays define sustainability and they do it with a swagger that’s unmatched in baseball.
With the Winter Meetings in full swing it’s a reminder that before long, we will be in Florida for Spring Training. Sounds good doesn’t it? God, that’s nice to type. But I digress as of course, PirateFest will actually be the next item checked off the list, but our focus is on what players we will be watching in Bradenton.
As my mind starts to drift from the ice/rain/snow of recent days, I can’t help but refer back to this excellent article written eight months ago by Tom Verducci. (my ability to directly link is still not working, so cut and paste please—it’s a great article http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1207224/index.htm)
In the article, Verducci calls the Rays the “Silicon Valley of pitching.” We all want the Pirates to be that. It’s not hard to imagine the Bucs actually doing it when you look at what the system has started to develop. Pitchers like Tyler Glasnow, Luis Heredia, Clay Holmes, Nick Kingham and of course Jameson Taillon.
Despite the talent, the Bucs still haven’t been able to get their prospects to adopt one of the major Rays strengths. The changeup. Check out this part of the Verducci story from April:
Today’s lecture might well be titled, The Importance of the Changeup. The minor leaguers are told that last year Tampa Bay had the lowest ERA (3.19) in the American League in 22 years. No staff in baseball was close to being as good. The Rays also held batters to the lowest batting average (.228) in the AL since it adopted the designated hitter 40 years ago, and struck out more batters (1,383) than any team in the league’s 112-year history.
The changeup, the students are told, is the key to such success. Last year, according to Fangraphs.com, the Rays threw a greater percentage of changeups (18.4) than any team in baseball. (San Diego was next, at 15.5%.) And they did it with the second-best average fastball velocity (92.9 mph, two ticks below the 93.1 average of the Nationals).
The lecture lasts about 30 minutes. When it ends, the pitchers walk onto a practice field in brilliant golden sunshine under a morning sky of robin’s-egg blue—hues that have been prominent in the Rays’ color scheme since 2008, when they ditched the Devil Rays nickname and began one of the most astounding and efficient runs of success in the free-agent era. Tampa Bay has won an average of 91.6 games during the last five seasons, lower than only the Yankees and the Phillies. Of course the Rays, who will have the AL’s third-lowest payroll this season ($65 million), did so while spending a total of $286 million, a fraction of the five-year expenditures of New York ($1.04 billion) and Philadelphia ($688 million).
The Rays rely on the changeup. The Pirates don’t. Maybe the changeup is this year’s defensive shifts for the Pirates. Let’s hope so. We still think the inability of Brad Lincoln to throw a changeup was his ticket out of town. Cole’s change is a work in progress. Taillon’s sucks. So for the Pirates best two pitchers, the change up might not be a make or break, but when you look at some of the fringe pitchers, it’s a must have. The Pirates must improve in this area and pound into the heads of their arms the importance of a changeup.
The other difference between the Rays and the Pirates is the fact that the Rays routinely unload players at their peak value. If the Bucs were to mirror the Rays model, Francisco Liriano would be gone. A.J. Burnett would have been sent packing when the Bucs still controlled his rights. The team pulled off such a move with Joel Hanrahan and look at how the return impacted the 2013 season.
Pirates fans are going to begin hearing more about the Hanrahan trade as the current regime marches on. It was a big win.
It’s a huge undertaking. The strategy that the Pirates will need to pull the trigger on moving forward is a challenging one. The Pirates will need to ‘educate’ their fans that trading players when they still have a few years of control is a wise strategy. Selling high on players is difficult for fans to understand. But the Rays have it down to a science. When pitchers get expensive, they are traded off. Look at James Shields. Matt Garza in 2011. They did it with Edwin Jackson in 08. It looks like David Price is next.
Of course, we still think the value of Price could be impacted by the change in the posting rules for Masahiro Tanaka. If Tanaka is posted, teams will only need to write a check, not give up valuable prospects. As expected, we heard that the Pirates are out on Tanaka.
Looking ahead to when talented arms like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon reach the point where their value is more than the Pirates can afford to keep in Pittsburgh is a bit scary. The team will need to trade Cole and Taillon because they have developed their replacements in the minors. Educating the fan base might be one of the toughest sells moving forward for the Bucs. Does anyone remember the Nate McLouth move? Wow.
The move staring at the Pirates in the near future will be Pedro Alvarez. Petey is a powerhouse and set for big salary increases. The return for Alvarez might be ground shaking should he continue to destroy opposing pitchers. The
PostSeason PedroSeason numbers will only drive up the value.
So how the team uses the next few years to set the stage for the inevitable–when Alvarez is ready to go, when Starling Marte is ready to go, continue to fill in the blanks with the Pirates talented players names because the Bucs cant keep everyone–but how it’s sold is vital. Not every season ticket holder is going to agree with the strategy. But how it’s sold is vital.
How are the Pirates going to educate their casual fans that trading Alvarez is actually a wise move because he is going to have the Brinks truck backed up to house? That’s not an easy task.
We think it could be one of the most interesting storylines to come to Pittsburgh baseball in well, forever. It’s never been done. The Pirates have always made mistakes and kept players past their prime, the team has made poor trades, the ballclub has not been able to sustain success. There is no doubt it’s challenging, but just how the Pirates pull it off or fall on their faces is one of the things we are looking forward to.
The Rays Way works. The Pirates will need to make it work by developing their own way. Hoka Hey?