Pirates hope to catch next big wave of talent soon
Left fielder Jose Tabata is the only Pirates player signed past 2013. Outfielder Josh Bell, left, and pitcher Gerrit Cole, are part of a young corps of players drafted by the Pirates and paid $17 million in bonuses in 2011.
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The Pirates refer to them as waves.
One wave of young talent already has arrived on the shore of PNC Park, carrying everyday starters Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata.
The next one remains offshore, but it's coming in hot, featuring the young talent of Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell and several others.
At some point, if all unfolds as planned, those waves will meet and create a promising lineup capable of ending the 19 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, the end game of the front office's emphasis on player development.
Now, the Pirates are ready for the next step.
"We're not really looking for that as a perfect storm of everything colliding and coming together," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "We're looking to compete in 2012."
The Pirates have added players via free agency and trades this offseason, though none likely will provide a big enough lift to push a young team over the hump. Coonelly said the ability to sign more expensive free agents down the road depends on the composition of the roster and the holes the team needs to fill, but it can be done.
"Our focus has really shifted from building a strong system, not that we ever want to move away from building a strong system because you always need players coming, but to taking steps to improve the major league club now," he said. "It's time to compete now."
"I'm hoping we pop in 2012, not 2013," left fielder Alex Presley said. "That's all we're focused on, is the coming season."
Coonelly said the team's payroll can increase, and it can pursue a more expensive free agent when it has fewer offseason needs.
To reach that point, it must rely on the strength of its minor league system.
The Pirates opened 2011 with a $45 million payroll, third lowest in the majors, but added about $5 million at the trade deadline when they acquired Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. Some of that money, Coonelly said, came from payroll flexibility retained for such situations, but some came from increased attendance. The Pirates broke .500 and flirted with first place in the division during the first half of the season, which helped to increase attendance from 1,613,399 in 2010 to 1,940,429 in '11.
They finished 72-90, fourth in the National League Central, and ended the season with a $51.7 million payroll, according to Major League Baseball figures obtained by The Associated Press.
The organization has committed roughly $28 million in payroll so far to its 40-man roster for 2012. That number does not include the salaries of the seven Pirates eligible for arbitration, including closer Joel Hanrahan, whose 40 saves in 2011 will earn him a sizable raise.
"We're not done yet, but I believe that the payroll in 2012 will be higher than the 2011 payroll," Coonelly said.
Higher ticket prices go into effect in 2012. Coonelly said increased revenue from attendance can help the club immediately.
"Every available resource that we generate from this club, and it's my job to maximize the revenue that we generate, will be plowed back into the team to build a winner and make good on our commitment that we're going to build a winning team," he said.
Signing high-caliber free agents would increase the payroll. To do so, Coonelly said, the team must reach a point where it can fill most needs from inside the organization.
The Pirates needed a shortstop, catcher, starting pitcher and first baseman after Lee left via free agency and the team declined options on Ronny Cedeno, Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm. To fill those holes, they signed catcher Rod Barajas, shortstop Clint Barmes, left-handed starter Erik Bedard and traded for corner infielder Casey McGehee.
They also brought back Nate McLouth to provide depth in the outfield. McGehee is eligible for arbitration; the rest will earn a combined $15.25 million in 2012. At the winter meetings, general manager Neal Huntington referred to the moves as a "portfolio approach."
"We wanted to fill the holes that we had, add depth to the organization, and we've got some higher investments in that portfolio and we've got some smaller investments in that portfolio," Huntington said. "But we believe that was the best way for us to approach the offseason."
No player will earn more than $5 million in 2012, and the only player signed past '13 is Tabata. Alvarez has options for '13 and '14.
Coonelly said by signing less expensive free agents, the Pirates avoid potential long-term financial damage and a limited capacity to retain homegrown players.
Coonelly cited the Texas Rangers' $252 million expenditure on Alex Rodriguez, which crippled the Rangers for several years, as a cautionary tale against overspending on one player. That type of spending can also reduce the ability to re-sign current players on the roster, such as McCutchen and Walker.
"There's nothing more important to us than locking up key players on this team," Coonelly said.
The most expensive free agents, Coonelly said, are the best bets, while the lower-tier free agents, like Bedard, from an injury standpoint, and McLouth, present greater risk.
"It could be great value," he said. "But you also are dealing with the players who are most risky in terms of, can they be productive major league players."
To combat those dangers, the Pirates need to find solutions to roster needs internally or through a trade, Coonelly said, and only rarely dabble in free agency. Then, when they do, they can target a higher-priced, impact free agent.
"[If] I can allocate all of my resources I have available this offseason with one player, and I have one glaring need, bang," Coonelly said.
To reach that point, the Pirates need a strong minor league system, and therein, in theory, lies the promise for the coming years.
Since owner Bob Nutting took control of the franchise in 2007, and Coonelly and Huntington took over the front office, capital expenditures for player development have increased, including $5 million on a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, $2 million to improve the spring training facility and $2 million to buy the Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates' Class A affiliate.
While the team's payroll remains among the lowest in Major League Baseball, the Pirates led in spending on draft bonuses with $17 million in 2011 and $52 million over the past five years.
That includes a record $8 million signing bonus for Cole, $5 million for Bell, $6.5 million for Taillon and $2.25 million for '10 second-rounder Stetson Allie. They also gave Mexican pitcher Luis Heredia $2.6 million in '10.
Those youngsters will arrive at various times over the next few years, but most are advancing quickly. Cole, a 21-year-old right-hander with a 100 mph fastball, went 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in five starts in the Arizona Fall League. Taillon, a 20-year-old drafted out of high school, struck out 97 in 922/3 innings for low Class A West Virginia, going 2-3 with a 3.98 ERA in 23 starts.
Grossman, 22, the Pirates' minor league hitter of the year in '11, hit .294 with a .418 on-base percentage in Bradenton and had 104 walks, scored 127 runs. Marte, 23, hit .332 with 12 home runs in Class AA Altoona.
Throw in Bell -- a switch-hitting outfielder out of high school who projects as a power hitter -- with Allie, Gorkys Hernandez, '09 first-round pick Tony Sanchez and Kyle McPherson, the organization's '11 minor league pitcher of the year, and the paper version of the future looks promising.
"With those guys that we have coming up, Starling Marte, Gorkys Hernandez, those guys, it's good to be able to have them," McCutchen said. "We have depth. That's something we didn't have when I was in the minor league system."
Neither management nor players wants to wait.
"I've seen the guys that are here now, McCutchen, Walker, Pedro, Tabata, Presley," Hanrahan said. "That's a good, solid core right there; that's what you're looking for."
Whenever they reach the majors, their time together in the minors will prove beneficial.
"You talk about core players and guys playing for a long time, guys like Neil, Cutch, [Brad] Lincoln and Tabby and myself, we played together in the minor leagues for quite some time, and that's the case with these guys coming up," Alvarez said. "That adds a lot to a team, those intangibles where you have guys that know each other and are compatible with each other."
It's still is offshore, and sandbars of injury or ineffectiveness could weaken it, but the second wave of talent is approaching.
First Published December 27, 2011 12:00 am