For most of the last two decades, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves have shared little more than a time zone.
Now that the Pirates have placed themselves back among the National League’s better half, their paths don’t seem so divergent. Each team has seen recent success. Each has legitimate postseason aspirations. And after the Braves spent the offseason locking up their young core to a multitude of contract extensions, it’s clear the Pirates need to take a page out of the Atlanta playbook and begin locking up their own assets as soon as possible.
After all, isn’t this what Pirates fans have been told they were waiting for?
“What we’re doing, as we always have done and will do, is we’re going to focus on building the team the right way.” That’s Bob Nutting, Pirates majority owner. Nutting met with the media at the outset of spring training to deliver his thoughts on a number of topics, in part explaining why the Pirates have been so sedentary in the offseason following their first playoff appearance in 20 years (and with the largess of possible payroll dollars that comes with increased attendance and a postseason run).
“We’re going to focus on the resources that we know that we have,” Nutting said, “and we’re going to make sure that we’re focused not on total dollars, but how do we really invest effectively so that we’re getting the right mix of our development system.”
“The resources that we know that we have” cannot possibly refer to free agents and big-money trade targets. The Pirates can’t seem to afford participating in free agency in any impactful way, and the trade deadline is a non-starter for the asset-conscious Pirates outside of the occasional Marlon Byrd or Derrek Lee.
So how does this team best leverage the resources it has? By drafting well, and then signing those players while their values are still within their sights.
That’s how the Atlanta Braves spent their offseason. The Braves have never wanted for resources like the Pirates. They currently project to hold a middle-of-the-pack payroll in 2014 at some $91 million, or about $20 million more than the Pirates are projected to spend to start the 2014 season.
While the Braves are hardly in the stratosphere of the Yankees or Dodgers, many would point to the Tampa Bay Rays as the model for Pittsburgh’s way forward. The Rays are annual contenders despite having near league-low payrolls and constant talent turnover. Their situation is in many ways similar to the Pirates.
However, the Rays have never fully gotten over the championship hump, despite their considerable recent success. They’ve shown that a team can compete while turning over and replenishing their talent, but not that such a team can win it all. At some point, the talent has to be retained.
The Braves are staking their success on such a recipe. This offseason, Atlanta retained a number of young players who are approaching the peaks of their MLB careers. It’s a bit of a risky move. The Braves committed almost $300 million in future salary to five players who have a relatively small MLB resume. However, the Braves are paying for potential. The rest of the league has shown what it costs to pay for established success, and it isn’t cheap.
The Pirates have already done well modeling themselves after the Rays. They draft well, field one of the most highly-regarded farm systems in baseball and seem to have a small army of skilled players pushing to make the MLB roster — a group that will continue to grow and push for time in the Majors for the foreseeable future.
To foster such an ongoing cycle of talent is step one. What the Pirates must do now, if they intend not to simply compete, but to contend, is to take a step beyond what the Rays have done and model themselves after the Braves.
That means spending to retain the talent they’ve so boasted about for years now.
Atlanta has been a model of consistency, perhaps the perfect inverse of the Pirates during Pittsburgh’s two-decade run of futility. In the time Pittsburgh compiled no winning seasons and no playoff appearances, the Braves had a run of unmatched success — 19 winning seasons, 15 division championships and 17 postseason appearances (including five pennants and a World Series title in 1995).
Impressively, the Braves have managed that success without spending their way to the top of the standings.
Along with these extensions, the team also announced commitments with GM Frank Wren and Manager Fredi Gonzalez, making sure that the team continues to be run in top form. After the Braves started the 2013 season 16th in terms of payroll with a total of $89.7 million in salaries, their projected total for 2014 still places them 16th with a total of $89.9 million. Shrewd management is keeping the team competitive despite a modest payroll, but can they take the next step?
That’s a mighty impressive feat, one that puts the Braves in easy company with the likes of the Pirates and Rays. Further, it comes after having signed five players to contract extensions totaling more than $280 million.
This winter, the Braves identified and then locked up their core in just over two weeks’ time.
1B Freddie Freeman | 8 years, $135 million
OF Jason Heyward | 2 years, $13.3 million
RP Craig Kimbrel | 4 years, $42 million
SP Julio Teheran | 6 years, $32.4 million
SS Andrelton Simmons | 7 years, $58 million
That’s a solid core of players, mixing proven success (three-to-four MLB seasons apiece for Heyward, Freeman and Kimbrel) with star potential (Teheran and Simmons).
The key risk taken by the Braves here is that they may be overpaying for potential, especially in the cases of Simmons and Teheran. If those players fail to live up to their contracts, it will look like money lost on a payroll-conscious squad.
However, if those players continue on their upward trajectories, retaining them through their arbitration years becomes a messy prospect (while losing them outright to free agency becomes a near-certainty).
So, Atlanta struck early. Andrelton Simmons has just one full MLB season under his belt, but was signed to a 7-year, $58 million contract extension after having won the NL Gold Glove for his work at shortstop last season.
Beyond the hardware, Simmons’s defensive season was judged by metrics as one of the greatest ever. His 41 Defensive Runs Saved was a single-season record for the statistic, which dates back to 2003. According to FanGraphs, Simmons was worth 31.6 defensive runs above average (accounting for position as well), the fourth best total since tracking began in 2002 behind Manny Machado last season (33.6), Franklin Gutierrez in 2009 (33.4) and Adam Everett in 2006 (31.7).
But although Simmons bears resemblance to [a light-hitting defensive star] now, his already solid power stroke and contact ability could be enough to help him develop into a quality hitter as well as an amazing defender. And if that happens, $59 million will be highway robbery for Atlanta over the next seven seasons.
The bolding is mine, and it’s key to the Braves’ strategy in signing players like Simmons. These deals have little to do with the rest of the market and everything to do with the Braves’ gamble against future player values.
It’s not a tried-and-true method, but compared to competing in uncapped free agent market, it might be the safest play available to small-market clubs.
The Pirates have already done work in drafting and developing star talent within their system. If they are to take the next step beyond simply building those players, but locking them into a long-term, playoff-contending core, they will have to place their bets while those players are still affordable.
It’s not so simple just to sign young players to deals like the ones the Braves struck. MLB players become arbitration-eligible through their fourth, fifth and sixth seasons of service. Simmons won a Gold Glove in his first full season in the Majors. With such early success comes the risk that these young players may struggle or regress, but those arbitration seasons could yield much higher paydays than signing guaranteed, long-term contracts before reaching one’s fourth MLB season.
That becomes especially risky when working with players whose agents are notoriously tough. The Pirates have several players under the umbrella of agent Scott Boras, whose reputation is not one of smooth sailing and handshakes. Gerrit Cole and Pedro Alvarez are two Pirates players who Boras represents, and the Pirates had to hand over then-record amounts just to sign those players (who at the time were merely draft picks) to their first professional contracts.
To be sure, getting a Boras client to sign away his arbitration years is going to be much more difficult than the deals Atlanta swung.
It might be tough and is sure to be risky, but if the Pirates let their would-be stars play out their arbitration years, attempting to compete against the rest of the market becomes a total non-starter.
That begs the question — who can the Pirates identify as their core?
Start with the obvious. Andrew McCutchen is the franchise player. He is currently signed through 2018 after having signed a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension before the 2012 season, a contract which kicked in for the 2013 season.
After McCutchen, the team has a number of would-be core players. To wit,
Pedro Alvarez – 2nd overall pick, 2008.
Gerrit Cole – 1st overall pick, 2011
Starling Marte – 6.5 WAR in one-plus MLB season
Jameson Taillon – 2nd overall pick, 2010
That’s quite the core, five players of varying positions (two pitchers, two outfielders and one infielder) with high draft pedigrees and, except for Taillon, some considerable successes early in their MLB careers. And if you want to go one further, add prospect outfielder Gregory Polanco to that list. Polanco wasn’t the highly-touted draft pick Taillon was, but was recently rated as the 12th-best MLB prospect by Baseball America (2013) and projects to be a full-timer with the Pirates by the middle of this season.
While the Pirates might be a year or two away from signing so many players like the Braves did (and certainly are unlikely to do so all at once), one can see where their situations will become similar. McCutchen, the core player, is locked up through 2018 after five years of MLB service. Alvarez has played in parts of four seasons with two complete MLB campaigns in the last two seasons. Marte, like Simmons, is a defensive stud with one-plus season of MLB experience and real Gold Glove potential, if not questions at the dish.
Taillon and Polanco only figure to join the team later on this season, but it’s easy to see those players becoming indispensable assets in just a few years’ time.
To be certain, the Braves had plenty going for them when they completed those extensions earlier this offseason. The team’s ownership and management are stable. The club is slated to move into a new ballpark is a few years and they have a strong record of recent success.
The Pirates have yet to prove they will enjoy year-over postseason pushes, but the franchise is not where it was when McCutchen gave up his arbitration seasons to stick with the team.
At the time, McCutchen’s contract extension was a bit of surprising good news. That extension bought out all three years of McCutchen’s arbitration eligibility as well as the first three years of his free agent eligibility (with the final year at a club option of $14.75 million). He signed the contract after having played just three seasons in the Majors (two full years in 2010 and 2011) and after just one year with Clint Hurdle manning the bench.
That the deal was signed the year after the Pirates flirted with a winning record but again fell apart down the stretch was perhaps most surprising. The club, at the time, was closer to its last 100-loss season than to its next playoff appearance. Still, McCutchen committed to a long-term deal.
Enter 2014, and the franchise is much healthier all around. The team is coming off a winning season and playoff appearance. McCutchen has a legitimate crop of talent surrounding him. Management is stable, the fan base is re-energized and there seems to be a bottomless well of talent threatening to crack the Major League roster for years to come.
Organizationally, that’s a much more favorable environment than the one to which McCutchen first committed six seasons of his career. If the Pirates want to begin retaining other talent, they now have those factors working for them, rather than against them.
So long as they can get past Boras, it’s time to open up the wallets.
It’s not enough to build a house and tell your neighbors how nice it’s going to be. At some point, you have to move in.
For the Pirates, that means committing considerable, unprecedented (for them) dollars to the players they’ve developed and turned into productive Major League talents.
Pittsburgh is not Tampa Bay. While it’s enough right now to see this club crack the postseason and put up a few good games, no franchise, no matter how historically downtrodden, can get by on moral victories forever. The Braves haven’t won a World Series title since 1995, but they’ve been damn close for the balance of two decades while still managing to keep their payroll within the stratosphere of the league’s lesser wallets.
How much money do the Pirates have? It’s impossible to tell. This site has previously admonished the Pirates for letting A.J. Burnett walk at what seemed like an insignificant difference in dollars, but if those dollars are being banked to sign young stars like Alvarez, Marte and Cole, then the team will be better for it (even if we’ll have to wait to find out).
For the Pirates, management, ownership and player development are in place. The team has never been so healthy from the MLB roster down to the lowest developmental leagues, and they’ve still got a world-class facility and a solid season-ticket base (or, what should become a solid base with sustained success) to lean on.
The Pirates, as an organization, have done everything they’ve set out to do in support of a competitive, pennant-chasing roster.
The next step is to be like the Braves, and make sure that roster doesn’t slip from their grasp.(Featured Image courtesy Tim Williams, Pirates Prospects)