It hasn't been the easiest path, and some might be willing to admit that it's taken longer than initially expected. But general manager Neal Huntington's vision to rebuild the Pirates and return the organization to respectability through building a strong and deep farm system is being realized, as Pittsburgh is headed to the postseason for the first time since 1992.
The team Huntington inherited at the end of 2007 finished in last place in the National League Central. So did the 2008-10 versions of the club. Pittsburgh climbed out of last place in '11, flirted with its first winning season since that '92 campaign before falling short in '12, then finally broke through this year to end a 20-year drought without a winning record.
Throughout it all, Pittsburgh's front office consistently stuck to its long-term plan: Be very aggressive in acquiring talent in the Draft, build up a better presence in Latin America and try to acquire as much young talent as possible when trades of big league veterans were deemed necessary. It's not something to embark on if you're looking for a quick fix.
"The general philosophy is that our core is going to have to be built from within, whether it's international signs, the amateur Draft or if it's a player we acquired at a low-A or high-A level that we developed," Huntington said. "The challenge of baseball is that it takes years to develop those players."
The Pirates were able, eventually, to use that farm system to bring impact players to the Major Leagues or as trade chips to bring in missing big league pieces. Sprinkle in some wise investments in the free-agent market, and Pittsburgh has a winner on its hands.
Here's a closer look at how the Bucs' roster was built.
Huntington and Co. weren't completely starting from scratch when they came in. Neil Walker was the team's first-round pick in 2004 and was developing nicely. Starling Marte had been signed in January 2007 by Latin America scouting director Rene Gayo, and left-handed reliever Tony Watson was a shrewd ninth-round senior sign from that year's First-Year Player Draft, both before Huntington took over.
|Neil Walker||Draft||2004 (1st)|
|Andrew McCutchen||Draft||2005 (1st)|
|Starling Marte||Int'l sign||2007|
|Tony Watson||Draft||2007 (9th)|
|Pedro Alvarez||Draft||2008 (1st)|
|Jordy Mercer||Draft||2008 (3rd)|
|Justin Wilson||Draft||2008 (5th)|
|Gerrit Cole||Draft||2011 (1st)|
The biggest inheritance, of course, was the 2005 first-round Draft pick who had made it to Triple-A in '07 at age 20. He turned into All-Star and NL Most Valuable Player Award candidate Andrew McCutchen, no doubt a nice cornerstone around which to build.
Huntington started in 2008, his first Draft as GM, sending a signal that the Pirates' days of drafting conservatively were over by taking Pedro Alvarez with the No. 2 overall pick. Pittsburgh spent more money in the Draft than any team from 2008-11. Alvarez and Gerrit Cole represent the big-ticket items who are making a major impact in the big leagues this year, but they're not alone.
"Our 2008 Draft was a college-oriented Draft, and you see Alvarez, Jordy Mercer and Justin Wilson in key roles for us," said Huntington, whose scouting staff led by Greg Smith focused on high school pitching, in particular, in the seasons following that Draft class. "You need a lot of good players. As we put this roster together, we built around the McCutchens and the Alvarezes and the Walkers, our core pieces. We recognized we had other needs."
Some of those needs were met via trades, though the organization is in a much different bargaining position now. At the outset, the Pirates were sellers on an annual basis. Not all of these deals bore fruit, but there were a dozen players on Pittsburgh's Division Series roster who joined the club via the trade route.
Acquired via trade
|Mark Melancon||2012||Red Sox|
Huntington's first big trade involved Jason Bay, the Red Sox and the Dodgers. Most see it as a miss, though Bryan Morris has been a mainstay in the bullpen in his first full Major League season.
Pirates fans expressed disappointment when Nate McLouth was shipped to the Braves, but that deal netted the Bucs Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, who combined to make 50 starts this season.
The Pirates started acting as quasi-buyers in 2011 and '12, and there are five trade acquisitions from the latter year who are on the current roster. A.J. Burnett was the big splash at the start of the year, with role players like Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider coming later in the season -- along with Wandy Rodriguez. Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez all came aboard in under-the-radar deals after the 2012 season -- and all three have played much larger roles than most would have predicted.
This season's trading activity moved Pittsburgh to a completely different level. There was recognition that the Bucs could accomplish something more in 2013 and were thus more willing to make a bigger splash. And while the big blockbuster didn't come, the Pirates did trade from that vastly improved farm system to bring in Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau.
"There's enough depth there where one trade won't deplete [the system]," Huntington said. "We've been careful. We'd been willing to put some bigger names in play this year for the right fit. We didn't find that right fit. We traded two guys in our Top 20. That's not something we want to make a habit of. But we felt we could make these moves -- it was the right time to push because of the depth in our system.
"We've talked from Day 1," Huntington said, "that your goal to build and develop a talented and deep farm system is to have those players impact your club directly, like the Alvarezes and the Coles, or 2, indirectly, using them as pieces to acquire players to come and join your Major League team because you have a hole or these guys can make you better. We feel we've done that on both fronts."
A team with limited financial resources has to be careful on the free-agent market. A miss can not only hurt a team in the short term, it could have longer-term ramifications in terms of soaking up payroll space. The Pirates weren't in a position to add free-agent talent for a while, so not many experiments were made. Role players and veteran depth were sought, at times, with limited to no return.
Acquired via free agency
|Garrett Jones||MiLB FA||2008|
|Jason Grilli||MiLB FA||2011|
It was prior to this season that the Bucs really started to get aggressive. Pittsburgh wasn't going to be active in chasing a high-priced free agent like Josh Hamilton, but the club identified needs and targets, then pursed them. There's no question adding catcher Russell Martin and lefty Francisco Liriano is a huge reason the Pirates are playing baseball in October.
"We are certainly cognizant of our margin for error being smaller than most, but that doesn't mean we can't play in the free-agent market," Huntington said. "If we hit, it's huge. If we miss, it's also huge, because we don't have the money to pave over that mistake by just signing another player or moving in a different direction. Last year's club and this year's club were the first times we wanted to be aggressive in the free-agent market for players who could have a significant impact."
Winning, of course, creates a cycle. It appears the Pirates might have more money to spend in terms of Major League payroll, and gone are the days where trying to sell Pittsburgh to free agents was next to impossible.
"We're a much more attractive destination than we were from 2008-2011," Huntington said. We've become a little more recognized and a little more appreciated. We have a great fan base, we have a fantastic facility. We work to treat our guys in a first-class way and provide everything they need to be successful on the field.
"I think players recognize it and recognize there is upside here. We're no longer the 30th of 30 destinations. We may not be the top, but we're no longer the bottom of the barrel. It's taken a lot of effort by a lot of people to get to this point."