2011 Organizational Rankings: #28 – Pittsburgh

The Pirates have some strength on the farm (though, it should be noted, that tie for 5th place is a 10-way tie, as Marc and Reed handled the prospect ratings, and with just two voters, the organizations are clustered more tightly in that section), but they are not very well regarded in the other three areas, and so they find themselves in the bottom tier once again.

Major League Talent: 67.50 (t-27th)

Pirates Season Preview

Minor League Talent: 85.00 (t-5th)

Pirates Top 10 Prospects

Financial: 70.38 (27th)
Baseball Operations: 75.00 (t-25th)

Overall Rating – 72.87 (28th)

In some ways, the Pittsburgh Pirates are the National League Central’s answer to the Cleveland Indians. Both are led by forward-thinking front offices, and Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington was a member of Cleveland’s front office for about ten years. Both front offices have hired prominent internet “saberists”: Keith Woolner in Cleveland and Dan Fox in Pittsburgh. Both are in the midst of painful rebuilding processes. Both are strapped for cash. Both seem to make moves that look good on paper but don’t quite work out in reality. Cleveland at least has the memory of their 2007 run in the playoffs, whereas Pittsburgh has experienced nearly two decades of futility. That is extremely unlikely to change soon for the Pirates, but there are some signs of hope for the future in Pittsburgh if they keep on the present course and catch a few breaks.

“Baseball Operations” is difficult to evaluate from the outside. The “process” by which decisions are made, rather than isolated and immediate results, should always be the most important factor in evaluating an organization’s operations. This is particularly so in the case of a team like the Pirates, in which contending for the playoffs isn’t always a realistic goal or measuring stick. Because we aren’t privy to how they do operations, so much of this part of the evaluation depends on inference and speculation, and this often involves looking at results to try and deduce something about the process — it’s far from ideal, but it’s what we have to go on.

The Pirates do have a “sabermetric” reputation, and that might help them a bit, but overall the FanGraphs writers have not been impressed, and the Pirates rank in bottom fifth of the league with respect to baseball operations.

As alluded to earlier, the Pirates have made moves that looked good on paper, but many of them have not really worked out. They bought low on prospects (such as Lastings Milledge and Andy LaRoche) whose shine had worn off for different reasons, which is a smart thing to do, but neither are with the team any longer after performing poorly. They did well to get Jose Tabata from the Yankees, but the returns for big assets like Jason Bay and Nate McLouth (at the time, he projected as a good player signed to a team-friendly contract) have generated very little. 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.

There are some positive signs regarding the Pirates baseball operations staff beyond merely a vaguely sabermetric reputation. The Pirates have spent in the draft, and while their farm system certainly isn’t on the same level as Kansas City, Tampa Bay, or Texas yet, it has made great strides under Huntington and his staff, and that is the most important thing for any team in the Pirates’ situation.

If the Pirates’ farm system puts them ahead of teams like the Astros and Diamondbacks in the ratings, along with their current major league talent, their overall financial outlook prevents Pittsburgh from moving up much further in the rankings. The Pirates simply don’t appear to have that much money. Their payroll hasn’t been over $50 million since 2003, and dipped under $40 million last season. To be fair, this is partly because the front office has rightly managed to avoid spending too much cash on free agents whose added value in the wins column is mostly superfluous during an extended rebuild, but given the recent history of the team, this is not a positive outlook for the future of the teams ability to spend when they are ready to contend.

Still, the team is obligated (according to Cot’s as of today) to less than $11 milllion in 2012, and has zero obligations going forward starting in 2013. That’s not exactly the case, since they’ll surely be keeping players like McCutchen, Alvarez, and others around and will be willing to pay them into their early arbitration years. The team probably also will be trying to lock some of their promising youngsters up to team-favorable guaranteed contracts. Nonetheless, the Pirates will have some money to spend in a few years. Whether that is enough money, spent wisely, to sufficiently supplement incoming help from their farm system (provided that help arrives in a timely fashion…) is another question entirely. Again, the immediate financial situation does not appear promising, but there is a bit of hope on the horizon.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.