The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't finished at .500 or better since 1992. The franchise is perpetually in rebuilding mode, as even its reboots have needed a fresh start. Pirates fans looked to finally be reaching the end of that tortuous tunnel in 2011, but that bright light turned out to be the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, one that dashed their hopes into roadkill.
"Almost" turned into 24 games out of first place, and nine victories short of the elusive 81-win season -- the non-losing season -- the organization craves. The Pirates have a better farm system than during earlier rebuilding efforts, but Neil Huntington and company have now been in charge of the team since 2007, and there hasn't been that much progress. They have done better than those who came before, but it's going to take more than just smarts to get the Pirates back to respectability.
Ben Lindbergh recently wrote a piece for Baseball Prospectus detailing how the GM position has changed over the years. The Theo Epsteins and Andrew Friedmans of the world are no longer anomalies -- they might still be the best at what they do, but the impact of their success is seen in nearly every front office in the game:
Let's talk about Pittsburgh's resident saber-savvy GM, Neal Huntington. If the list of stats linked above didn't sell you on his solid saber credentials, maybe his hiring record will. Huntington enlisted both BP's Dan Fox and the since-departed Joe P. Sheehan, one of the first public PITCHf/x analysts, and he's currently looking for a data architect and a quantitative analyst with more statistical chops than you can wave a [Keith] Woolner at. He also served as Assistant Director of Player Development with the Expos and both Assistant Director and Director of Minor League Operations for the Indians before becoming an AGM and later Special Assistant to the GM in Cleveland. In other words, Huntington doesn't always drink beer, but when he does, he also orders tacos.
Huntington has the chops to be a successful GM in the majors, but the hand Pittsburgh has been dealt isn't a normal one. In addition to the history of poor drafting, the constant losing, a deflated fan base in a mid-sized market, and a park that, while beautiful, has limited seating capacity, the Pirates now have to deal with rule changes that will slow their egress from baseball purgatory. Smarts might not be enough in a game where everyone else is smart, too.
Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement directly interferes with an area the Pirates have been successful in since Huntington took over. The draft now limits team's spending, depending on how many picks a team has, where those picks fall (and that's dependent on record, at least in part) -- exceeding this pool, which ranges from $4.5 million to $11.5 million -- will result in penalties. These penalties can result in a tax -- which is fine for clubs willing and able to pay it -- or the loss of future draft picks.
The Pirates have led baseball in draft spending since 2007, Huntington's first season. All told, they have spent $52 million on the draft under this regime, when the average team spent $31.8 million in that stretch. You never see the Pirates spend on free agency like the Yankees, but they try to make up for that by throwing a combined $17 million at draft picks like Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell. Under the new CBA, they can't do that without future penalties that will stunt the growth of depth in their farm system. And they don't have the money to spend heavily on free agents in long-term deals, either, whereas the Yankees can shrug off the new draft rules and focus their wallet elsewhere easily.
The Pirates can't even proceed with their draft strategy without continuing to be terrible at baseball. The only way to stock up on high-priced draft picks is to keep failing on the diamond; even moderate success squashes their previous drafting strategy, as it limits their draft cap, and therefore, the money they have allotted for high-ceiling, high-cost picks like Bell.
That's not to say winning is a bad thing for the team, but they need more than minor victories for real change to occur. Television contracts are the exciting new way to make money; the Rangers' TV contract and new owners helped them nearly double their payroll in less than two years, and the Angels' signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson this winter before they even finished negotiating their new TV contract. The Pirates don't have a lucrative TV contract, but unless they start to win some ballgames, they won't get one, either; at least, not one that will be as productive for the Pirates as the deals of more successful, more marketable teams. People aren't exactly rushing out to see a losing Pirates' team, meaning no one is going dying for the rights to broadcast them, either.
They need that kind of revenue push, too, as Pittsburgh has averaged a payroll of just $43.2 million over the last three years. Even throwing in an extra $10 million per year in draft spending puts them at an unimpressive $50 million, and that ignores that everyone else spends on the draft, too. Forbes cites the Pirates as making just $160 million in 2010 (including their cut of revenue sharing). That's last in the majors, despite residing in a market that should do better than that based on its size, and it's partially due to not having a shiny new TV deal.
Given their history, it's tough to believe the Pirates will spend effectively on the free-agent market to overcome the loss of their draft strategy. Just this winter, they spent their budget on Nate McLouth (one-year, $1.75M), Erik Bedard (one-year, $4.5M), Ryoto Igarashi (one-year, $480K), Clint Barmes (two-year, $10.5M), and Rod Barajas (one-year, $4M). There's nothing wrong with these deals on the surface, but they do represent the Pirates running in place. Bedard replaces Paul Maholm in the rotation. McLouth is likely a fourth outfielder. Barmes is not a significant difference from the equally unexciting Ronny Cedeno. Barajas fits the same vein as Barmes: an upgrade, sure, but not by a lot.
That's $16 million used pretty un-creatively, to basically give the Pirates a chance at repeating 2011's failure in 2012. Prospects will be one year closer to the majors, but many of the club's top young players are in the lower minors -- prospect analyst Kevin Goldstein lists the ETA for the team's top four minor leaguers as mid-2013, 2014, 2016, and 2015. "Creative" is just what the Pirates' front office needs to be in the interim, if they are going to put themselves in a position to succeed before the next wave of Bucs comes up. Recent history -- and the new CBA -- suggests that's just not happening.