Pittsburgh Pirates: Three Past Mistakes To Learn From

Following the 2015 season the front office of the Pittsburgh Pirates made a handful of mistakes. Now, the new front office can learn from these mistakes in order to have a longer, more successful playoff window in the near future.

The 2013-2015 Pittsburgh Pirates were some of the most memorable teams in franchise history. They earned three straight postseason berths and while they didn’t go too deep into the playoffs, they made plenty of memories among fans.

However, their window of competition quickly closed on them. After 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates failed to recapture the magic and haven’t been back to the postseason since. They’ve only had one season where they had more wins than losses since then as well. Their ability to compete was hindered by three mistakes that the old regime made that the new regime needs to learn from as this team could be back in it as soon as 2022.

The first big mistake was allocation of budget. The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates had a decent payroll, opening the season with a $100 million payroll. However, where the money went severely hindered their chances of winning.

For example, the Pitttsburgh Pirates put about $17 million into four pitchers, each of whom made at least a dozen starts. That was Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, Ryan Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio. These four combined for just 1.4 fWAR.

That wasn’t the only players they owed a noticeable amount of money to. They signed Neftali Feliz to a one-year, $3.9 million contract to produce a -0.1 fWAR. They paid Michael Morse $8.5 million to play six games before being released. John Jaso was owed $4 million and had a fWAR of just 0.6.

This carried over in 2017.

This time, they had a $100.575 million payroll, but again owed a fair amount to average or worse level players. To replace Feliz the Pittsburgh Pirates brought in righty Daniel Hudson who was paid $5.5 million to have a 0.2 fWAR. Another reliever who was paid a fair amount was Antonio Bastardo, who was given $6.625 million and gave the Bucs a negative fWAR total (-0.5).

The Pirates re-acquired utility man Sean Rodriguez. While he was coming off a strong 2016 season, the Braves signed him for $5.75 million in the off season, but a car accident kept him out most of the season.

The Pirates decided to take on the rest of his contract for him to have a -0.4 fWAR in 39 games. John Jaso was another sub-1 fWAR player owed more than $3 million. Wade LeBlanc and Phil Gosslin were owed a total of $1.3 million and combined to post a -0.4 fWAR. While they never had one awful contract, the fact they owed a notable amount in total to many players they brought in shows they could have spent more wisely.

When the Pittsburgh Pirates are good, ownership is willing to put the money on the table. This was clear as the Pirates had a decent budget to work with in both 2016 and 2017 and even in 2018. But it’s clear that the allocation of money was poorly used.

Another mistake the old regime made was the infamous pitch-to-contact strategy.

Now sure, this worked well with veteran pitchers who lost their velocity. A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli were excellent under Ray Searage’s tutelage. However, it becomes an issue when this is essentially forced on young, hard throwers when they make it to the majors. Tyler Glasnow and Gerrit Cole are the most famous examples of how this strategy fell flat on its face.

It seems the new regime has already learned from that mistake though. Many of their best pitchers in 2020, namely Joe Musgrove, Steven Brault, Richard Rodriguez, Chris Stratton and Chad Kuhl, had career best years and also saw major changes to their repertoire. They seem to be using the “pitch to your best strength” strategy.

The third and final major mistake that the last front office made was deviating from the set plan. After 2017, it seemed the Pirates were finally accepting a rebuild as they traded both Cole and Andrew McCutchen. But by the end of July they were 56-52 and in the hunt for a Wild Card spot. This was highlighted by an 11 game winning streak. This 11 game winning streak may have been the worst thing to happen to the Pirates in the last 20 years as this made them buyers at the deadline.

At the deadline, they made the Chris Archer trade. Obviously, we know how bad that trade is today, but they also sent two young players to the Texas Rangers for Keone Kela for a trade that has since become lopsided as well.

The Pirates could see a decent amount of improvement over the next year. Many of their prospects are going to be making their major league debuts in 2021 and 2022. However, their window of competition doesn’t fully open until 2023. Trading prospects should be the last thing the Pirates do right now unless it’s for a package that they absolutely cannot refuse.

The Pittsburgh Pirates could be successful for a notable amount of time. There’s a lot of young talent throughout the system that could eventually turn into major league talent. However, they need to avoid the mistakes the last regime made in order to stay successful.