In one of the great public-relations coups in the recent history of Pittsburgh sports, the Pirates this week unveiled plans for a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and came across for one of the few times in recent memory as actually looking smart.
For less than they spent on Jeromy Burnitz, for about a season's worth of Derek Bell, and for about half as much as they're scheduled to pay Matt Morris this season, the Pirates will build a facility in the Dominican that will be up and running by the summer of next year.
The news sent a message of hope to the team's fan base, particularly the passionate core that eagerly grasps any positive as a sign of a quick turnaround. But, even beyond the faithful, the news was received with much applause.
On closer examination, though, the hope that comes with the academy looks more like a sliver than anything else. Since these academies cater to the rawest of talent and youngest of prospects, the Pirates can't expect to see a return on this investment for six or seven years, at the earliest.
Could it be that there trods today on some littered ball field in the Dominican a future phenom who in 2014 will bring to an end 22 years of consecutive losing?
The Dominican is ripe with baseball talent, a phenomenon that can't logically be explained but is nevertheless true. The academy is viewed as a sign that the Pirates are set to start mining it. The team has had a marked absence of Dominican talent during its 15 consecutive years of losing.
But here's the point everyone is missing. It's not just been Dominican talent the Pirates have been lacking, it's any kind of talent.
It's true the team has had little success in the Dominican, but it also has had little success in the rest of Latin America, to say nothing of the 48 states, from where most baseball talent is found.
The Pirates don't just need an upgrade in the Dominican, they need it everywhere.
And the notion that they have been absent in their quest of Dominican talent isn't correct. The Pirates have been signing their share, if not more, of Dominicans. It's just that like the rest of their signings, these players have not developed into successful major-leaguers.
The team's 2007 media guide lists 211 minor-leaguers. Of that total, 116 were from Latin America and 57 of those from the Dominican Republic. That means 55 percent of all minor-leaguers were from Latin America and 27 percent from the Dominican. That clearly indicates there has been no lack of effort in scouting and signing of players in Latin America or the Dominican.
To make sure this wasn't a one-year aberration, we checked the 2004 media guide, where there were 195 minor-leaguers listed. Of that total, 87 were from Latin America and 47 from the Dominican. That means 45 percent of the minor-leaguers were from Latin America and 24 percent from the Dominican. Again, it's not lack of numbers from Latin America that is holding back the Pirates.
We're not suggesting the team can't do better in Latin America. It can, and the academy eventually will help. What we're suggesting is the Pirates' Dominican effort has been no different than their effort elsewhere.
In fact, the case could be made that the Pirates have been as -- or more -- successful in the Dominican than elsewhere. The best player the team has signed and developed in the past 20 years came from the Dominican: Aramis Ramirez. Of the current eight starting position players, only three were signed and developed by the Pirates: catcher Ronny Paulino, third baseman Jose Bautista and whomever the center fielder is between Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth. Of those players, Bautista and Paulino are Dominican natives. [Bautista was drafted out of a junior college, not signed as a free agent in the Dominican.]
Something has been inherently wrong with the Pirates' method of scouting and developing players. Both Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield, the immediate predecessors to current general manager Neal Huntington, had impressive baseball resumes. As is well known, both made major blunders during their tenure. But both were steeped in scouting and development and both were passionate in pursuing those goals.
That it didn't work speaks to many things, not the least of which has been an astonishing run of bad luck. In Huntington's favor, as he tries the near-impossible, is that the Pirates luck is due to turn.
And that, more than a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, is the Pirates' best hope of some day having a winning season.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .