Thursday, January 24, 2013

In Defense of the Front Office

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't completed a season with a winning record in two decades.  While all of that isn't on current general manager Neal Huntington's hands, a good chunk - arguably one-fourth - of it is.  Therefore, to claim Huntington is or should be immune from intense criticism would be asinine. That's undeniable.

All that hashed out, I personally believe Neal Huntington, and the entire front office he has assembled, have the Pirates on the right track. In addition, I think there is evidence indicating such a statement is true.  My argument consists of several factors, broken down piece-by-piece in the paragraphs below.

The Forest For the Trees

I went ahead and went against my better judgment by calling on an overused idiom for my first argument.  Despite being overused, I think it's particularly apt in this situation.  Neal Huntington has damaged, maimed, and destroyed trees throughout his tenure with the Pirates, but that's inconsequential if the entire forest is still standing.  The important calculus here is whether the Pittsburgh Pirates forest is dying or thriving.

The Entire Calculus

While major league success coupled with minor league development doesn't cover every single aspect of the health of a baseball organization, it comes pretty darn close.  To determine if the forest is dying or thriving, those are the two major elements this article will examine.  That - the success or failure of the major league squad and the promise of a minor league squad able to replenish the major league squad - is virtually the entire criteria upon which Neal Huntington and his front office should be judged. 

The Major League Squad

The absolutely simplest way to judge the major league team is on wins and the playoff berths those wins earn.  Neal Huntington has yet to lead the Pirates to the playoffs; however, the Pirates have seen significant progress at the major league level under his leadership.  The improvement is clearly evident in the year-by-year win-loss record of the Pirates since 2008.  In 2008, Huntington's first year at the helm, the Pirates won 67 games. In 2009, they won 5 less games, totaling 62 victories.  The trend continued in 2010 as the Pirates finished with 57 wins.

From those raw numbers, it seems the Pirates were trending in the wrong direction under their new general manager. However, context is important.  Early on, Huntington was unabashed in his declaration that the correct path for the Pirates would be a complete rebuild.  Part of that complete rebuild was a series of trades that gutted the major league team of the little talent it did possess. Hence, the rough start for the Pirates under Neal Huntington.  However, 2011 brought a breakthrough.  The Pirates increased their win total by 15, totaling 72 victories.  This past season, 2012, saw more improvement, with the Pirates adding 7 more victories resulting in 79 total wins.

Unfortunately, those increasing win totals are bittersweet in one sense.  In both years, the Pirates contending for a playoff spot fairly deep into the season prior to a second-half collapse.  2012 was especially harsh as the Pirates seemed almost guaranteed to break a nearly two decade streak of futility before finishing out the year in historically bad fashion.  However, those details, while brutal as they may be, don't tell the full story.

First, they are - at least in one sense - arbitrary end points.  If the Pirates had started out both season terribly and then came on strong at the end to win 72 and then 79 games respectively, the buzz and excitement would be electric going into the respective following year.  Second, they do not eliminate the progress that has happened.  Despite the collapse, the Pirates ended 2012 with their highest win total since 1997, when they also had 79 wins.  Another stat for context; during the losing streak, the Pirates have averaged 68.7 wins.  That means the Pirates team of last year was over 10 wins better than the average Pirates team of the last two decades.  Clearly, the Pirates of the future do want to be anything like the Pirates of the past two decades, but a 10-win improvement is enough of a spread to provide hope that future teams will, in fact, be different.

Now, speaking of the future, it must be noted that 79 wins would be a disappointment if there was evidence to believe the Pirates peaked in 2012.  However, there is no reason to think that; the Pirates should improve over the next few years at the major league level.

The Minor League System

To make sure the Pirates don't stall out at 79 wins, the minor league system is key.  Huntington major goal immediately when he took over was to stock the farm system, with an eye to the future.  Huntington made sure the Pirates were fully committed to building from the ground up, utilizing three major methods to inject talent into the farm system.  The first was a series of aforementioned trades.  The results on those trades have been a mixed-bag and that's being kind.  The other two methods have involved spending copious amounts of money, especially for a small-market team, on amateur players in the Rule 4 draft (The standard June major league draft) and amateur players from the international free agency market.  In fact, the Pirates spent more than any other organization under Neal Huntington's tenure, including a whopping record-setting 17-million dollars on bonuses in the 2011 draft. They also shattered the record for a non-cuban international free agent by paying 16 year-old Mexican pitcher Luis Heredia 2.6 million dollars.  Since then, the Pirates have given out 4 more bonuses of over $500,000 and dozens of 6-figure bonuses, a rarity under past regimes.

To determine the overall effect of the steps implemented by the front office, I will use two well-known, industry-respected, objective sources.  The first is Baseball America's organizational talent rankings, which are published each year.  The second is John Sickels' prospect grades, published at minorleagueball.com.  My analysis will not be extremely in-depth; I will simply compare how the Pirates ranked each year under Baseball America's annual evaluation of every farm system and then make a basic GPA calculation* - John Sickels uses a letter grading system - for the top 20 lists found at Minor League Ball.

Baseball America Organization Talent Ranking

2008 - 26
2009 - 18
2010 - 15
2011 - 19
2012 - 11
2013 - projected top 10**

John Sickels Top 20 Prospects GPA***

2008 - 2.31
2009 - 2.36
2010 - 2.43
2011 - 2.44
2012 - 2.56
2013 - 2.99

Using these two sources, it's fairly clear the Pirates farm system has improved since Neal Huntington has taken over and by a substantial margin.  Both Baseball America's organization talent rankings and the grades from John Sickels indicate that a leaps-and-bounds improvement has occurred over the past two years, from pre-season 2011 to pre-season 2013 and one major factor is the talent Huntington has acquired via the draft and international free agency has been able to percolate throughout the system.

Another important aspect when examining the farm system is identifying if it is actually graduating meaningful talent that produces at the major league level.  Looking at the above statistics, it would be unfair to expect significant talent to make it's way to Pittsburgh via internal promotion under Neal Huntington, especially in the first few years of he was at the helm.  That's true, but productive players have made their way to Pittsburgh from the farm system over the past few years.  The headliner is Andrew McCutchen of course, but Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez have been useful pieces as well.  Alex Presley and Jose Tabata have had stretches where they have been serviceable and Josh Harrison, Chase D'Arnaud, and Jordy Mercer have all contributed from the bench.  Bullpen options have included Jared Hughes and Brad Lincoln before he was traded.  While it's still promise rather than production, Starling Marte has the chance to be the next big piece to arrive in Pittsburgh starting this season.

I'm not trying to argue the talent has been overwhelming, but there are a few building blocks and a few complimentary pieces in place.  Considering the strength of the farm system that produced those building blocks and complimentary pieces, the return has been more than adequate.  In addition, and perhaps more importantly, a markedly better farm system that's been in place the last few years and that really blossomed this year should put proportionally more talent in Pittsburgh than we've seen in recent years. 

Another Type of Improvement

Now, an argument can be made that the Pirates minor league system should be in a better position considering the amount of money spent to add talent to the farm system and because of the fact that the Pirates have had high draft picks every year Huntington has been in charge.  That argument has legs, especially considering Huntington's track record early on in his tenure in regards to adding talent outside the first round of the draft.  In 2008 and 2009, the Pirates gave out 6 significant overslot bonuses outside the top 3 rounds.  Adding those 6 players - Robbie Grossman, Quinton Miller, Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, Zack Dodson, and Trent Stevenson - to the 4 players the Pirates signed in rounds 2 and 3 - Jordy Mercer, Victor Black, Brook Pounders and Evan Chambers and none of those prospects really stand out.  Robbie Grossman was a solid prospect and added value to the organization via trade to the Houston Astros.  Jordy Mercer has made the major leagues and should provide some value.

Overall, Huntington needs to do better.  Evidence suggests he has improved as he's become more experienced at his job.  The 2010 draft brought Nick Kingham in the fourth round and Matt Curry and Adalberto Santos in later rounds.  The 2011 draft added Alex Dickerson, Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, Clay Holmes, and Jake Burnette.  2012 draftees Barrett Barnes, Wyatt Mathisen, Adrian Sampson, and Max Moroff have all shown solid promise.  Furthermore, results from Latin America have been significantly more pronounced under Huntington.  Luis Heredia is the obvious name, but he's also an exception as he was paid like a first round draft pick.  On the other hand, Starling Marte, Alen Hanson, and Gregory Polanco are true diamonds in the rough and while a portion of the credit must go to Rene Gayo, it almost must go to the man at the top, Neal Huntington.  Dilson Herrera, Willy Garcia, and Jose Osuna are legitimate prospects too. Looking at the last several sentences, outside of the first round, the Pirates have added a significant amount of talent over a 3 year period.  That doesn't even include guys such as Harold Ramirez, Elvis Escobar, Julio De La Cruz, and Michael De La Cruz, all of which are promising young Latin American prospects.  Ultimately, the point is, if the Pirates can continue to add talent from 2013 through 2015 at the rate they did from 2010 to 2012, they should be able to maintain an above-average farm system, if not better. 

Buying Extra Time

Perhaps the most important move Huntington has made since he's been at the helm hasn't even been mentioned yet.  The Pirates best player is by far Andrew McCutchen and the same will almost assuredly be true into the future.  Andrew McCutchen's 6 years of team control were scheduled to expire after the 2015 season, putting pressure on the Pirates to win before he could exit Pittsburgh via free agency.  Huntington made sure to alleviate that pressure by signing McCutchen to a much deserved extension.  McCutchen is now under contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates through 2018.  That gives the Pirates the opportunity to excel between now and 2018, and perhaps create a mini-dynasty.  The importance of the McCutchen extension cannot be overstated for a small-market team such as the Pirates.

Conclusion

There's not much to say that hasn't been outlined already.  My support of the front office can be boiled down to three points.  The major league squad has improved in both talent and production.  The minor league system has improved dramatically.  Finally, evidence supports the fact that Neal Huntington himself has improved at his job.  Those three factors combined means that I'm satisfied with development of the Pirates to date under Neal Huntington and also believe that future progress will be acceptable.  That's my defense of the front office.

* I used a GPA calculation that gives the following values to each letter grade.

A | 4.0
A- | 3.7
B+ | 3.3
B | 3.0
B- | 2.7
C+ | 2.3
C | 2.0

** The Baseball American talent organizational rankings have not been revealed and published yet. This article from Baseball America reveals Jim Callis's personal top 10.  The Pirates rank 8th and it would be reasonable to think they will rank around there on the final compilation rankings.  Furthermore, looking at the GPA increase from 2012 to 2013 from Sickels suggests the farm system improved substantially and an improvement from being ranked 11th would also naturally follow, putting the Pirates comfortably in the top 10.

*** In 2013, the Pirates reached an level of depth not seen before in Sickels' rankings.  They managed to have all 20 prospects ranked as C+ or better.  In fact, 22 players got a C+ or better ranking in the rankings that came out recently.  Therefore, to accurately determine GPA, I took the total "points" for every year from the top 20 and added 4 points - for 2 "C" prospects" to take the GPA of the top 22 players each year.  Had I not, the 2013 GPA would have actually been punished for factoring prospects number 21 and 22 into the equation, despite being ranked better than their number 21 and 22 counterparts for all previous years.  Hence my method. 

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