Bob Smizik: More than one way to build a small-market winner

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If you have been following the Pirates for at least the past five years, it has been pretty well beat into your head that the only way for a small-market team to succeed is to build through the draft and its farm system. Even staunch critics of General Manager Neal Huntington likely would agree with that.

Then came this truth-shattering factoid from baseball writer Jonah Keri, who was a guest on the “‘David Todd Show”’ on 970 ESPN Friday. It concerned the Oakland Athletics, the quintessential small-market team and also the team with the second-best record (35-22) in MLB this season. Keri noted that of the A’s 13 position players, 12 came from outside the organization.

Upon further examination, only two players on the team’s 25-man roster were drafted by the A’s.

There you have it: The best team in the American League -- home of the filthy-rich Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Tigers -- has built a contender with shrewd trades, incredibly canny dumpster diving, and with an occasional nod to the draft, and all the while having one of the lowest payrolls in the sport. No wonder Billy Beane is on the very short list of best general managers in baseball.

Pirates fans were lauding Huntington for landing a first-round draft choice from Miami on Sunday in exchange for mediocre reliever Bryan Morris. No question, it was a favorable deal, but it did nothing for the present.

Obtaining the 39th choice from Miami would have looked a lot better if it had been acquired to fill the hole left by the loss of the 24th pick -- as a result of signing Nelson Cruz. Cruz, the MLB home run leader with 20 and owner of a 1.056 OPS, was available as recently as Feb. 23. He signed with Baltimore on the 24th. He cost the Orioles $8 million and their first-round draft choice.

The Pirates, presumably, never gave Cruz a serious thought because of the lost draft choice involved. He sure would have looked good in right field for the Pirates.

Consider the differing approaches of the two teams involved in Sunday’s trade. In an attempt to win now, the Marlins were willing to deal the 39th pick in the draft for a mediocre reliever. The Pirates were not willing to trade the 24th pick for a potent middle-of-the-lineup hitter who hit 135 home runs in the previous five seasons.

The Pirates’ adherence to their plan may well be the best way to go.

But consider this from Joel Sherman of the New York Post on rebuilding through the draft:

" [T]aking the time to rebuild and 'doing it right' slowly and methodically with player development does not guarantee an extended stretch of winning. Though that is what you are sold.

"Be patient, you are lectured. Sure, it is going to take a period to create a fertile farm, to get through a few drafts, to get an entire organization to buy into the new regime" gospel. But the payoff you — the fan — are promised is that all the misery will be rewarded on the back end with sustained contention.

"At best, that is a false promise; at worst, a con game. There is nothing that saves jobs in this sport like pledging a better tomorrow."

And this from Howard Bryant of ESPN The Magazine: "Supposedly, the Astros have a plan, but baseball history is littered with dim-witted small-market teams whose plan never paid off."

These two quotes were not presented as a criticism of the way the Pirates are retooling their franchise. It is to suggest the Pirates’ way is not necessarily the only way and not necessarily the best way for a small-revenue team to operate.

Consider the Oakland way:

• First baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss, a failure with the Pirates and Phillies, was signed as a free agent in December 2011. In his three seasons with Oakland, his OPS numbers are: .954, .859, .934.

• Third baseman Josh Donaldson was a No. 1 draft choice of Cubs in 2007. They traded him to Oakland in July 2008 for two players now out of baseball. His OPS the past two seasons: .883, .927. He has 48 RBIs.

• Catcher/designated hitter John Jaso was acquired from Seattle after the 2012 season. His OPS numbers in two years with Oakland: .759, .870.

• Catcher Derek Norris was acquired from Washington in the Gio Gonzalez trade after the 2011 season. His OPS this year is .868.

• The only Oakland position player not from another organization is Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes.

• Of the five Oakland starters, only Sonny Gray, a first-round choice in 2011, came through the draft. Scott Kazmir was a big free-agent signing; Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz, failures with other teams, came in minor trades, and Tommy Milone, like Norris, came in the Gonzalez trade. Reliever Sean Doolittle is the only other player drafted by the A’s on the team’s active roster.

• Oakland starters, through Saturday, had a 2.98 ERA, best in MLB. Its bullpen ERA of 2.82 was fifth best.

Beane has done this with a $77.2 million payroll that is 27th in MLB, one slot behind the Pirates. The A’s have won their division the past two seasons, while competing against the Angels and Rangers, perennial top 10 in payroll.

There’s more than one formula for success for a small-market teams.


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