2012 Organizational Rankings: #27 — Pittsburgh

Read the methodology behind the ratings here. Remember that the grading scale is 20-80, with 50 representing league average.

2012 Organizational Rankings

#30 – Baltimore
#29 – Houston
#28 – Oakland

Pittsburgh’s 2011 Ranking: 28th

2012 Outlook — 37 (25th)

How can a 72-win season possibly represent progress? It helps for the franchise in question to be coming off a coming off a 57-win debacle the season before. And it helps for the franchise in question to be coming off four straight last-place finishes. And it helps for the franchise in question to entering its 19th consecutive season without a playoff appearance.

But there was something undeniably striking about what happened in Pittsburgh in the first half of the 2011 season. The Pirates actually contended through May, and then June. And then then they actually held the division lead for two days in July. It was the first season since 2002 in which the Pirates held a division lead after April 10th. It was kind of a big deal, mostly because the city of Pittsburgh took note. People — large groups of them, even — started to care about Pirates baseball again, and that can be the most important step on a fallen franchise’s trail back to relevance.

Still, the trail the Pirates face is a long one. The clear franchise-quality player is on hand in Andrew McCutchen, and the Pirates have two solid young position players establishing themselves in Neil Walker and Jose Tabata. Joel Hanrahan was a deserving All-Star last season from the closer position. After that, however, it gets dicey.

This season will be key for Pedro Alvarez, who needs to figure out his position and his bat this year. Last season’s brutal .191/.272/.289 showing was among the league’s biggest disappointments. There is still very little to be excited about in the starting rotation — A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard will make things better than last year, but neither can call themselves an ace nor can they promise much in terms of innings. The rest of the rotation — Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia — was a majority of the group which achieved just a 112 ERA- and an NL-worst 116 FIP-. The team will need some major steps forward from its younger players — like McDonald, Morton and Alex Presley — if they are to make a significant push beyond last year’s effort.

2013+ Outlook: 50 (T-15th)

With McCutchen locked into a six-year $51.5 million deal, the Pirates have a star player at a very reasonable price who can serve as the core for the next truly competitive team out of Pittsburgh. The question is where they find the next one or two similar players needed to crack through the top of the NL Central. Ideally, one or both of Jose Tabata (already signed through 2016 with club options through 2019) or Pedro Alvarez (under club control through 2014) can step up and assume that role.

The Pirates will need more. The most significant pieces to build around McCutchen and company will most likely come from the previous two drafts. The Pirates’ top four prospects — Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon and Tony Sanchez — all come from the 2009-2011 drafts, and six of the overall top 10 come from the past two years of drafts. Cole and Sanchez in particular have the potential to make the quickest impacts and Cole can equal (and possibly surpass) McCutchen in terms of impact on the franchise. The Pirates will need to continue drafting well, but their top picks from each of the last two drafts have the potential to form the lasting core they’ll need if they want to become consistent contenders.

Financial Resources: 35 (28th)

The last time the Pirates were above a $50 million payroll was in 2003. Adjusting for inflation, the $54 million the Pirates spent in 2003 is worth just under $68 million today. Since then, the Pirates have gone through a vicious cycle, trotting out terrible teams in front of tiny crowds (at one of the best stadiums in the league, no less), bringing only the same small diehard group back on a yearly basis to watch another similarly awful team. The seemingly unbreakable circle of life for a bad baseball team.

The excellent first three-and-a-half months of the 2011 season brought the highest attendance totals PNC Park has seen since opening in 2001, as over 1.9 million fans pushed the turnstiles. Still, the Pirates ranked 15th in the National League in attendance, beating only the Marlins — the same Marlins who closed the upper deck of their park before the Pirates had even dropped out of the playoff race. Forbes ranks the Pirates as the 28th most valuable franchise. As such, although the Pirates can probably pick up spending should the scenario call for it, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which they break the bank anytime soon.

Baseball Operations: 46 (T-20th)

Neal Huntington has executed a pretty simple plan over the past few years: trade veterans for young players with loads of service time. Find talented players through this relatively cheap avenue of talent acquisition and hope they can be enough to supplement your early draft picks and put together a winning team. In the time leading up to the 2009 trade deadline, for example, Huntington turned players with 28 years of combined team control into a group with a whopping 95 years worth remaining.

The problem? Huntington just isn’t hitting on nearly enough of his darts. Let’s take a look at the list of players who comprise those 95 hypothetical years:

Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Gorkys Hernandez, Lastings Milledge, Joel Hanrahan, Eric Fryer, Casey Erickson, Argenis Diaz, Hunter Strickland, Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno, Nathan Adcock, Brett Lorin, Aaron Pribanic, Tim Alderson, Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio, and Josh Harrison

And this is what they’ve done for the Pirates since:

Season Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2011 Charlie Morton 171.2 5.77 4.04 0.31 3.83 3.77 4.08 2.2
2010 Charlie Morton 79.2 6.67 2.94 1.69 7.57 5.29 4.11 -0.1
2010 Joel Hanrahan 69.2 12.92 3.36 0.78 3.62 2.62 2.64 1.4
2011 Joel Hanrahan 68.2 8 2.1 0.13 1.83 2.18 2.98 2

Season Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Fld WAR
2010 Ronny Cedeno 502 0.256 0.293 0.382 0.297 81 -3.6 1.1
2011 Ronny Cedeno 454 0.249 0.297 0.339 0.271 67 6.1 1.4
2010 Lastings Milledge 412 0.277 0.332 0.38 0.314 93 1.1 0.6
2011 Josh Harrison 204 0.272 0.281 0.374 0.287 79 4.5 0.9
2010 Jeff Clement 154 0.201 0.237 0.368 0.255 53 3.3 -0.1

Huntington has his finds. Hanrahan and Morton have been solid. Jose Tabata looks like a coup from the Yankees for Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady. James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel remains a feather in his cap despite McDonald’s down 2011 season. But until the process starts producing more major league regulars, it’s tough to give Huntington high ranks for turning mediocre players into mediocre players who make slightly less money.

Overall: 39 (27th)

To deny that the Pittsburgh Pirates are closer to a playoff berth now than they were even one year ago would be foolish. How far they still find themselves from the light at the end of the tunnel just goes to show the deep hole the last two decades of incompetence has put them in. There just isn’t enough elite or even above-average major league talent currently on hand for this team to make a true 162-game push towards the playoffs yet. Much of the talent that can help with that push is young and in the early stages of development. Finally, it remains to be seen whether the Pirates have the resources or the wherewithal to bring in the support characters from outside the organization that will be necessary once the prospects start to reach their potential.

Still, the Pirates are pushing forward. For all the questions about how quick that push is and whether it will ultimately be enough to break their playoff drought — very legitimate questions at that — Pittsburgh can at least take solace in a move in the proper direction.

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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

36 Responses to “2012 Organizational Rankings: #27 — Pittsburgh”

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  1. matt w says:

    Tony Sanchez comes from the 2009 draft. (But he probably shouldn’t be the fourth prospect either; he needs to show that 2011 was an injury recovery year.)

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  2. CabreraDeath says:

    Tony Sanchez is from the 2009 draft, not the 2010 draft. Further, he isn’t a Top 4 prospect, let alone a Top 8 prospect. While I think he is due for a comeback year (his BB/K rates held steady, assuring he wasn’t overmatched), to say the Orgz. is counting on him in that high or a role is not accurate.

    I wish they wouldn’t have had the resident ‘Brewers homer’ write up the Pirates article. Along w/ Ryan Braun and Jason Kendall, Jack Moore is clearly my least favorite Brewer apologist….

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    • Will says:

      Has Moore misrepresented anything in the article because of his interdivisional bias? As a baseball fan apathetic to fortunes of any team in the NL Central, this article seemed pretty spot on.

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  3. YanksFanInBeantown says:

    Innings are the only thing AJ Burnett CAN be relied on for.

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  4. SC2GG says:

    I think that “for young players with loads of service time.” actually is meant to say “for young players with many years of team control left”.

    At least, that’s what the rest of the paragraph indicates, not that they trade for young players who’ve played a ton of games.

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  5. Big Oil says:

    Fangraphs crowd: 4-4.

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  6. melkman says:

    Fangraphs ranked sanchez as the #4 prospect despite most other publications having him behind the likes of starling marte, robbie grossman & luis heredia. Its actually pretty crazy how few of these former top prospects the pirates have brought in have contributed. You’d figure at least 1 maybe 2 would thrive without the pressure and spotlight on them. Andy laroche & lastings milledge come to mind. As for this season mcgehee was a smart pickup with lefties slated to start at 1B and 3B on paper. The OF should be outstanding defensively with craploads of speed between cucth, tabata & presley, mclouth is a nice 4th.

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  7. gonfalon says:

    I agree that (too) many of the prospects Huntington has traded for haven’t worked out, but the tables don’t really add much to the article, as Cedeno and Milledge are gone and Clement is unlikely to ever return as a Pirate. Besides, it’s not like Huntington broke up the ’27 Yankees. Bay and Morgan had a good season or two left in them, but by and large the players dealt away fell off a cliff after the trade.

    Finally, I’m not sure how accurate your statement is that, “it remains to be seen whether the Pirates have the resources or the wherewithal to bring in the support characters from outside the organization”. It is true that many free agents still won’t even consider Pittsburgh, but note that the Pirates added salary at the trade deadline last year, traded for AJ Burnett and a large chunk of his contract, and tried to (re-)sign Derrek Lee, Roy Oswalt, and others this offseason.

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    • AJ says:

      Tons of prospects don’t work out, period. That’s just the game. But when you have Nutting breathing down your neck, watching every dime you spend, then I’m sure it really limits the lengths you’re able to go to find talent. In the “salary-dump” deals, the main “acquisition” is the lost salary… so if any player works out in it as well, then it’s a win. We spend our money on the draft and on international free agency – not on guys we can talk other orgs into giving us for our scrubs.

      Just not a fair criticism, so I thought I’d rebuttal – lol.

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  8. TK says:

    I’m not sure how a 72 win season for a team with 19 consecutive losing seasons is a sign of progress. How does that help to define 2011 as progress?

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    • jpg says:

      Try actually reading past the very first sentence of the article. Seriously dude its a rhetorical question that he answered in the very next sentence.

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      • TK says:

        Oh, I was supposed to keep reading. Thanks for the advice. Losing for 19 straight years does not make 72-90 a sign of progress. This is not answered in the next sentence. It is not answered at all. The first 3 1/2 months of 2011 were a mirage that convinced a few more fans (remember, still 15th in NL) to come to the games. In reality, they were barely over .500 and with a negative run differential at the time. That seems almost completely irrelevant.

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      • deadpool says:

        Well, they lost more than 90 games the year before so 72 wins is certainly progress in the sense that it was a better season. Getting better year to year is kind of the definition of progress. Whether its acceptable progress, or even sustainable progress is an entirely different question.

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      • TK says:

        The fact that they did better than the year before is progress. I agrees. The fact that they missed the playoffs for 19 straight years does not make going 72-90 and missing the playoffs progress. That additional information makes 2011 seem like more of the same.

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    • JWO says:

      I’m not sure why you are so hung up on the concept of progress. Few would argue a 72 win season is cause for celebration, but it does suggest general improvement compared to previous seasons. Over the previous five years, the Pirates had amassed between 57-68 wins on average. Reaching 72 Wins and finishing fourth in the central is a small uptick. I’m not sure if one year represents a trend, but the Pirates can (arguably) be said to be in the midst of minor improvement.

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    • AJ says:

      So – under your logic, a team can ONLY show improvements through their record. So if you have a team full of past-their-prime, mediocre stars and they win 75 games, that’s better than a team full of younger, high potential guys who win 70 games?

      My point is, the signs of improvement are not tangible… sure the extra 4 or 5 wins don’t really mean much on the grand scale – but the true improvements are more about the small things that we are finally doing right. We are no longer taking the “cheap way out” come draft day… we’re not taking Daniel Moskos over Matt Wieters anymore. We’re spending money… and lots of it. We are spending it in the 1st round AND later in the draft (well until they changed the rules). We’re also spending it on International Free Agency. In the past 3 years, NO TEAM has spent more than the Pirates in the draft and international free agency combined. The minor league system still needs work, but all the signs point to growth.

      If you’re too blinded by the past to actually see what’s happening than that’s your problem. But I just don’t see how anyone with even the slightest baseball knowledge could look at the 2012 team and think that there is no progress from what we’ve done the past 20 years… especially with Taillon and Cole on the way.. and signing our superstar to a deal that could keep him here for THREE of his FA years… wow, wake up!!!

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  9. KentuckyPirate says:

    Pedro Alvarez is under team control until after the 2016 season not the 2014 season. If Alvarez doesn’t turn things around, that won’t matter much but if he becomes even a passable starter at 3B or 1B (lets say a .240/.320/.450 player with 25 HRs and <180 Ks) those extra couple of years could mean a lot given the predicted arrival dates for Taillon, Cole, Marte, and Sanchez (among others).

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  10. chuckb says:

    This is a really great write-up, Jack. Excellent work!

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  11. themick says:

    How do you expect a poor team to draw a crowd in this economy, it’s a blue collar town that saves up it’s money to see the Steelers. Sure they are getting better and with the outfield and 2nd set they could surprise a lot of teams.

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    • gonfalon says:

      The Pirates actually drew more fans in 2011 than 7 AL teams… I’m not sure why the author focused only on their rank among NL teams.

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  12. Ross says:

    that list of 95 hypothetical years players, all of them are either NOT WITH THE ORGANIZATION ANYMORE or not drafted by the Pirates in the first place
    “Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Gorkys Hernandez, Lastings Milledge, Joel Hanrahan, Eric Fryer, Casey Erickson, Argenis Diaz, Hunter Strickland, Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno, Nathan Adcock, Brett Lorin, Aaron Pribanic, Tim Alderson, Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio, and Josh Harrison”

    Hart, Lorin, Ascanio, Cedeno, Milledge, Adcock arent even with the organization anymore…..the McLouth for Morton, Locke, Gorkys deal was an absolute steal on Huntington’s part, same with the McDonald and Lambo for Dotel deal. JMac has outstanding stuff and was the Pirates best strikeout pitcher on a staff that was chalk full of pitch to contact guys. a 9-9 record with a 4.21 era, 142 K’s, 7.5 K’s per 9 innings, opp BA of .286. and if you look closely at his pitching metrics, the Runs Expected for a Replacement Level Player in his situation wouldve been 102, where JMac ended up with only 86 runs allowed

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    • BlahBlahBlah says:

      Had you bothered to read the sentence prior to the section you quoted, most of your confusion might be gone:

      “In the time leading up to the 2009 trade deadline, for example, Huntington turned players with 28 years of combined team control into a group with a whopping 95 years worth remaining.”

      As you should be able to figure out, the sentence is solely stating he went out and acquired 95 years of controllable talent prior to a very clear cut-off. Combine that with the part you quoted detailing who those players are and the graph you mention showing how little the have actually done – you’ll end up with a list of targeted players acquired over a certain time and the minimal value they have provided despite a massive 95 years of possible production.

      Good/Bad trades, still with the club, John McDonald and his K rates… all of that is completely irrelevant. The point was, is and will always be, he acquired 95 years of control and received a whopping 0.1 WAR/Per Controllable Year over their first 2.5 (and up to 4) years of play for the club. That indicates questionable targeting and/or horrific luck – which is what the article says needs to change if one is to call him successful.

      Throw 95 early darts and (so-far) just 2-3 have even hit the edges of the board – hard to call that anything close to winning just yet…

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  13. Gopencil says:

    Pens = #1org

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  14. Carter says:

    I remember when the Pirates came to down during Strasburg Debut, & I went to all the games in that series because I had bought all the tix in hope of seeing him live. It was well worth it, but I’m pretty sure I saw more live Pirate games that year than about 95 percent of the fans in Pittsburgh.

    Anyways, I have made the trek up to PNC park from DC the last couple of years. It’s a fantastic place to watch a game. I have been to about 12 parks, and I give it a slight edge over Camden as #1.

    Also, its real easy “to upgrade” to better seats during the game since not many people are there. Though there was one time where they the ushers were hard asses about it because there was some silly concert after.

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    • kelso says:

      this is pretty hilarious because the nationals sold exactly 49 more tickets than the pirates last year…

      Nationals 2011 attendance: 1,940,478

      Pirates 2011 attendance: 1,940,429

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    • AJ says:

      You couldn’t be more wrong – the entire problem, over the past two decades, with the Buccos has been TOO MUCH attendance. Nutting is able to draw in 25,000 fans on a Saturday night by shooting off some fireworks, so why spend money to make the team competitive? We’re on a 8-game losing streak? Eh, just give away a bobblehead or a beach towel and the people will come.

      If fans had true pride in their city and this franchise, we wouldn’t have sat by for so long while Nutting & others raked in the cash. Spending 30M on an MLB team and pocketing the rest. But no – our fine city was right there everyday to see our AAAA team, live, with a $8 beer and a $5 hot dog.

      Yes, things are starting to look up-Huntington has been a savior to this franchise-but consistent attendance was exactly what allowed the money hungry owners to turn the Pirates into the laughing stock of the league for the better part of 20 years.

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  15. Jperb says:

    I find it a bit odd to talk about the state of the Pirates’ organization without talking about how much money (and focus) they’ve spent on the draft and internationally (to the point that MLB changed the rules this offseason to stop this kind of spending). They’ve spent more money than any team in baseball the last several years on youth. This (along with the failure of the MLB team, and the lack of similar spending at the MLB level) is the defining feature of the Pirates’ organization. So…whether the franchise is in good shape, and whether the FO is doing a good job depends largely on whether this was a good investment, both in process and results. Unfortunately, this question went unasked and unanswered.

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  16. AJ says:

    @BlahBlah – John McDonald? Isn’t it James McDonald? Just sayin’… but yeah, that guy is a numbnuts if he didn’t understand the point trying to be made. He just read a random sentence and flew off his hinges. Job well done putting him in his place.

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  17. When will M.L.B. take over this team from the inept people in charge.A blind man could do better than 20 straight losing seasons.But like the idiot I am .I will continue to watch common senseless organization keep going down the sewer.Thanks a lot Neil Huntigton & gum chewer HURDLE.

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