The Pittsburgh Pirates: After the Dust Has Settled
- Updated: August 8, 2009
Of the 25 Pittsburgh Pirates who took the field on Opening Day 2008, 7 remain with the organization today. General manager Neal Huntington has turned over his depth chart methodically and added a number of talented prospects to his farm system. Doing so was not easy. Huntington sent away All-Stars in Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson in the past year, undoubtedly frustrating the average fan in the process.
Considering a streak of 16 consecutive losing seasons is likely to be extended once again come October, no one would blame yinzers for questioning the team’s intentions. Five-year rebuilding plans have come and gone with no results. The current roster features 1 player over the age of 30 — utility infielder Ramon Vazquez — and millions of dollars have been slashed from the payroll.
Huntington’s late July fire sale included deals for Sanchez, Wilson, Ian Snell, John Grabow, Tom Gorzelanny and Adam LaRoche. Sean Burnett, traded with popular outfielder Nyjer Morgan to the Washington Nationals in June, recently called the Pirates the laughingstock of the league. And maybe there was truth in Burnett’s outburst — despite being considered winners at the trade deadline by national baseball writers, the team had turned into a punchline. Huntington listened to offers on everyone and anything, including the kitchen sink, in the nearly unprecedented sell off.
But what choice did he have?
The GM entered an impossible situation when he inherited Dave Littlefield‘s job. The major league roster was weak and aging, but the minors were undeveloped, too. Huntington did what was necessary: He kept what little talent could be controlled long-term and dealt remaining assets at as high a price as the market would bear. For the first time in years, the franchise would develop from within. Littlefield’s goal of reaching a single .500 season would no longer be considered acceptable. The cycle of overpaying role players and ignoring premium talent pools would end.
Huntington deserves the benefit of the doubt, and as soon as this winter he could prove his plan has the team headed in the right direction. After shedding veterans past their primes, targeting players with over-slot bonus demands in the draft and entering the Latin American free agent market aggressively, Huntington can take one more action to assure me that he’s the man who will turn the organization around.
Sign Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal.
Fans lacking savvy would be quick to point out that Huntington extended McLouth, Sanchez and Snell, only to trade them away. There’s a difference between buying out arbitration years and cheaply controlling a premium player through three seasons of free agency, though. That’s exactly what the Tampa Bay Rays were able to do with Evan Longoria in April of 2008, just days into the franchise third baseman’s career in the show. There was no doubt that Longoria would emerge as a star, and so the team offered the 22-year-old a guaranteed $17.5 million. The Rays bought out his arbitration seasons and acquired club options for three free agency years.
Longoria could have hit the open market before 2014, and if history is any indicator, the Yankees or Red Sox or Mets or Cubs would have signed him then to a huge, multi-year contract. Instead, should Longoria progress as expected, the Rays can choose to control him from 2014-2016 for a combined $28 million. According to FanGraphs’ value statistics, Longoria was worth $24.1 million in 2008 alone.
It’s now that Huntington needs to sign a player of McCutchen’s star power; he can’t afford to wait until his center fielder can see free agency coming. Give McCutchen a life-changing amount — which $18-20 million certainly is — and ensure that he’ll be a key contributor to sustained winning in Pittsburgh through his physical peak. By all accounts McCutchen is a hard-working, explosive, two-way standout. His debut has quieted even the harshest critics. Prove to him, to his peers and to the Steel City that the Pirates are serious about winning and keeping the best players in Pittsburgh. Piecing together a top farm system is meaningless if All-Stars can’t be retained when they’re needed most.