Does the Pirates Front Office Want to Win?

“We finished eighth with you, we can finish eighth without you.”

Pirates great (and longtime Mets broadcaster) Ralph Kiner was fond of recalling that quote from Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey, his pithy explanation for why Kiner was being traded to the Chicago Cubs in the middle of the 1953 season. It also helps explain why Pittsburgh’s current front office traded away several fan favorites in recent years.

In response to my recent post on the Pirates, the Gunner expressed understandable skepticism that his beloved team will hold on to their young core four:

As a long sufferening [sic] Buccos fan, we all know that McCutchen, Tabata, Walker and Alvarez are simply doing their time in horsehide purgatory before they are shipped off to the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox or Cubs in exchange for a handful of minor league, minor salary, minor talent prospects.

Since taking over a wreck of a franchise following the 2007 season, general manager Neal Huntington has traded many of the team’s starters as a means of rebuilding the organization from the ground up, a process which has convinced many fans that the front office has no interest in fielding a winning team. (On the other hand, gone too is the ludicrous notion that bringing in a pricey, over-the-hill veteran, such as Derek Bell, Jeromy Burnitz, or Matt Morris, while neglecting the rest of the franchise is the way to division supremacy.)

Here are the higher-profile players sent packing over the next two seasons:

Other than Bautista — and who among us foresaw last year’s 54-home-run performance with the Blue Jays? — is there anyone on this list that you would want on the 2011 Pirates, let alone next year’s club? Probably not. Most are beyond their prime and/or injury-prone and/or have regressed. (Oh, before you grab a pitchfork and come looking for me, please look at their numbers since departing Pittsburgh.)

Sure, Capps performed very well while with the Nationals but, let’s be honest, the only reason a lousy team needs a good closer is to ship him to a contender at the trade deadline for a promising youngster . . . which is precisely what the Nats did when they sent Capps to the Twins for high-ceiling catching prospect Wilson Ramos, and, coincidentally, what the Bucs did when they traded Dotel to the Dodgers for pitcher James McDonald.

Yes, Bay had a fine year-plus in Boston, but do you really think Mets fans are dancing a hora over his signing? The middle-infield tandem of Sanchez and Wilson? When healthy, Sanchez has been reasonably productive for the Giants, but had he remained with the Pirates, Neil Walker would not have a position to play. The Mariners have moved the anemic Wilson to second base, where he will remain in the starting line-up until prospect Dustin Ackley gets called up.

Moreover, when the 12 players listed above did take the field at the same time, the Pirates did not win many games. In 2007, this roster lost 94 games; the following season, it lost 95. (Marte and Nady were traded to the Yankees shortly before the 2008 trade deadline.)

To be sure, one may take issue with the talent received in these trades. In addition to McDonald, three of the players Huntington received from the Yankees are currently on the 25-man roster: starting left fielder Jose Tabata, starting pitcher Ross Ohlendorf, and reliever Jeff Karstens. Otherwise, the return has been way less than stellar.

Matt Klaassen of Fangraphs analyzes what may have gone wrong:

While it is all about “the process” and perhaps the Pirates have just have some bad luck despite doing the right things, one does wonder how much of this has just been “bad luck” and how much of this is a failure of baseball operations — specifically, their scouting department — to identify the right targets. The Pirates may also have made a mistake in opting for quantity of prospects over quality in trade returns. It may have been the case that they weren’t offered quality. But the trade returns haven’t been impressive so far.

What should generate optimism, however, is team’s amateur-draft commitment: It has spent more in the past three years in the draft — $30.7 million — than any of the other 29 franchises. The Bucs have been active on the international market too, having signed Mexican pitcher Luis Heredia for $2.6 million last August and Cuban defector Cesar Lopez for $600,000 earlier this year.

Longtime fans have every reason not to drink the Kool-Aid, but I am increasingly confident that Huntington will make every reasonable effort to invest in youngsters Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, and very possibly Tabata and Walker too. (Even if no contract extensions are signed, McCutchen is under team control through 2015, while Alvarez, Tabata, and Walker will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season.)

As I noted in the previous post, doing so will send the clearest signal yet about the front office’s intention to build a winner.

Stay tuned.

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