At the end of the 2012 season I wrote that 2013 was the make or break year for Neal Huntington and the current management group. When the group arrived in the 2007-08 off-season, the system was a wreck. There were hardly any prospects in the system, and very few players at the major league level who could be dealt for good returns. The guy with the biggest trade value at the time — Jason Bay — brought back Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss. The two were supposed to help turn the team around, and were part of a group of prospects getting a chance in 2010. LaRoche and Moss didn’t work out, and the Pirates went on to be the worst team in the majors that year.
Heading into the 2013 season, I can’t help but notice some similarities to that 2010 team. In 2010 the Pirates had a ton of question marks. They had Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones returning after strong performances in the second half of the 2009 season. They had unproven players like LaRoche, Moss, Lastings Milledge, Charlie Morton, and Joel Hanrahan who they acquired through trades. By mid-season they were expecting Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Brad Lincoln. Neil Walker ended up joining that list after a breakout in Triple-A in the first two months of the season.
The results from those question marks didn’t turn out well. Garrett Jones wasn’t an everyday player at first. The Bay trade didn’t work with LaRoche and Moss failing. Morton had a horrible season, but rebounded in 2011 with a new delivery. Milledge didn’t work out, but Hanrahan did. Alvarez and Tabata had strong starts to their careers, but Lincoln never made it as a starter.
The Pirates have some question marks and unproven players on their roster in 2013. I wrote about a lot of the players with question marks last week. Most of those players are options for either first base or the corner outfield positions. In looking at those players closer, I noticed that they conveniently represent a microcosm of Neal Huntington’s abilities as a General Manager. Whether it is the development system under him, the ability to spot talent, or the ability to recognize his own talent, the following five players and their performance in 2013 could end up making or breaking Huntington’s career with the Pirates.
Starling Marte will represent the current group’s ability to develop a prospect.
Marte was signed under Dave Littlefield, although I credit Rene Gayo and his staff for this, and the majority of Latin American signings. Marte was signed for $85,000 in January 2007. He played one season under Littlefield’s system, and spent most of his development with Huntington in charge. That included his jump to the US and his eventual rise to the majors.
Pedro Alvarez was the first big prospect this group developed and sent to the majors, but Alvarez was not like Marte. Alvarez was a first round pick and the top prospect in the draft. It wouldn’t have been a surprise for him to make the majors when he was drafted. Back in 2008, Marte wasn’t even a “prospect”. This group did a good job developing him so far, but the big test will be that final step to the majors. I could see an outcome where he’s a star player, but I could also see an outcome where he’s a very toolsy player who never puts it all together.
The Pirates have been criticized for not being able to develop hitters. A lot of that has to do with their approach in the draft. They spent most of their top picks on pitchers, making it less likely that they would develop a hitter since those were usually picked in the lower rounds. Marte is the first big hitter they’ve fully developed, but that final important step is incomplete.
The Pirates traded their first round compensation pick and Gorkys Hernandez to the Miami Marlins for Gaby Sanchez and Kyle Kaminska (who was later flipped for Zach Stewart). The move was questionable considering the makeup of the team, and the value of draft picks to the Pirates. It didn’t seem like they were valuing the pick properly, which will probably end up in the mid-30s.
Sanchez is an interesting case. He had almost identical seasons in 2010 and 2011. He struggled in 2012 with Miami, then was dealt to the Pirates at the deadline. His numbers with the Pirates were decent, but they didn’t fully return to his 2010-11 numbers. Looking at his splits, he looks like a strong platoon player against left-handers. If he can bounce back to his 2010-11 days, he could be an option as a full-time first baseman. He’d be more of an average first baseman, but a good place holder until the Pirates found a better alternative. If the Pirates deal Garrett Jones this off-season, Sanchez could get that everyday player shot.
The trade looks questionable since Sanchez had a low value when dealt, and looks like a platoon player who would be limited to 200-250 plate appearances per year. The Pirates haven’t made many trades where they dealt notable prospects/picks for major league players. It’s pretty much this deal and the Wandy Rodriguez trade. They can’t afford to make mistakes with these types of trades. Whether he’s a platoon player or an everyday option, Sanchez is going to be graded against that first round compensation pick to see if Huntington made the right call.
You could also add him to the “bounce back” category. The Pirates have invested in a lot of prospects or major leaguers hoping for a bounce back season. They don’t need many to bounce back for the strategy to be successful. Just look at the impact A.J. Burnett made last year, and that was only one player. Huntington has acquired a lot of guys who have seen their values decline, and Sanchez is one of them. He’ll need to be more like Burnett, and less like Lastings Milledge.
Travis Snider/Jerry Sands
Snider and Sands could fit in the “bounce back” category, just like Sanchez. However, I’m focusing on something different here. If there’s one thing Neal Huntington has done well, it’s finding good, cheap relievers. That’s a great thing for a small market team. You can save your money and spend it on more important positions. There’s also a high value on established relievers and “proven closers” around baseball, which means that you can deal those established relievers for good returns, all without worrying about how you’ll replace them. In the ideal situation, the Pirates would turn into a relief pitching factory, constantly churning out established relievers and dealing them for players who could play a bigger impact.
That second part is the key. The Pirates dealt a top young reliever in Brad Lincoln, and got back Snider. They dealt their closer, Joel Hanrahan, and got back Sands as a piece in the deal. Lincoln could be a good reliever for years, and would have been under team control through the 2016 season. It would hurt to see that if Snider doesn’t work out. The Hanrahan deal looks like it could be a lateral move, with Mark Melancon having the potential to be a cheaper version of Hanrahan. But the Pirates can’t settle for lateral moves and saving money. They need to come out ahead in the long-run. Sands is a key to the Hanrahan deal. If he doesn’t work out, the best case is that the Pirates save some money and get some extra years of control out of the Hanrahan trade.
In both cases, the Pirates made the right moves dealing established relievers (although they should have dealt Hanrahan a year earlier). Whether this strategy can be effective depends on the returns. Huntington has largely failed in this area. LaRoche, Moss, and Milledge didn’t work as young, recently top prospects. The Pirates have had a few success stories here, and a few that are still up in the air. Snider and Sands are two big ones. They’ve got power potential, and the Pirates lack that in their system. If one of these two can carry his potential to the majors, it would be huge. It would show that Huntington has what it takes to deal from a strength and fill a weakness. If both go the way of LaRoche, Moss, and Milledge, it would be a crushing blow.
When the Pirates signed Tabata to an extension in 2011, the deal looked incredibly team friendly. Tabata signed for six years and $15 M, with three option years that could take the total deal to nine years and about $36 M. At best, Tabata would become a good outfielder at an extreme discount. At worst he’d become an expensive fourth outfielder.
After his 2012 performance, a lot of Pirates fans are leaning towards the latter. You don’t see a trade idea without mentioning getting rid of Tabata and his money. The irony here is that Tabata is younger than most of the above players, and only two months older than Marte. There’s still time for him to become a good player, although he would be option number three or four on the corner outfield depth chart for me heading into the season.
Whether it’s dealing prospects or extending their own players, Huntington has mentioned something several times. To paraphrase, he’s said the Pirates need to know their own players better than other teams.
In this case, the Pirates signed Tabata to a long-term deal, hoping it would eventually be a value. The Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the most successful teams when it comes to value signings. It seems like almost every good player on their roster is signed to a team-friendly deal. There are some who sign extensions and don’t work out, but the majority of players they extend outperform the money. Andrew McCutchen’s extension was easy. He was performing even without the breakout season. Tabata is a different story. He was signed when the Pirates didn’t have to worry about signing him for a few years. He was signed at a time when his future was unknown, meaning he could either be a value or be expensive. Therefore, his signing is a representation of the Pirates knowing their own players.
Make or Break Year
The thing about all of the players above is that one player doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s why I said these guys are a microcosm of Huntington’s abilities. If Starling Marte becomes a star player, that doesn’t mean every hitter they develop will also work out. If Gaby Sanchez doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean every prospects for major league trade that they make will fail. I just found it interesting that the players who make up the competition for these spots come from some important avenues for talent — development, prospect for major leaguer trades, bounce back candidates, and strength for weakness trades.
This should be a make or break year for Huntington. Another sub-.500 finish would be unacceptable. The first base and corner outfield positions are all make or break positions. If a few of the guys above do play up to their potential, the Pirates would have a very real shot at contending in 2013. If all of the guys above struggle, then the Pirates will probably finish with another losing season, and that would be it for Huntington. I can’t really see a scenario where these guys work out and the team doesn’t contend, unless there are some major injuries to some key contributors at other positions. Likewise, I don’t think the current makeup of the team could seriously contend without a few of these guys playing up to their potential.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. Order your copy today!
**Pirates Release Rick VandenHurk.
**Winter Leagues Recap: Johnson Continues Strong Winter.