Bucs used mix of draft, trades, free agency to mold playoff team
Neil Walker still keeps in touch with Dan Schwartzbauer, his first roommate in the minor leagues. They played together in 2004 with the rookie-level Bradenton Pirates, their first exposure to pro ball after being drafted that June.
Walker was selected with the 11th pick of the first round. Schwartzbauer went in the 41st round. Four years later, Schwartzbauer, a former standout at Shaler and Duquesne, was out of baseball and headed toward a successful career in sales. Walker kept plugging away in the minors, changing teams — and roommates — as he climbed toward the big leagues.
Fast forward to 2013. Walker is the only player from his draft class still with the Pirates. As the club prepares for its first postseason game since 1992, no current player has been with the organization longer.
Nine years, three general managers and 1,565 games ago, Walker became the first building block of the 2013 Pirates. What followed was a painstaking process — using the draft, free agent signings and trades — to gather the pieces of the 25-man roster for Tuesday's NL wild-card game against the Reds at PNC Park.
“I've seen a lot of guys come and go,” Walker said. “I've seen different GMs, different owners and different coaching staffs. This is a very special group we have this year. We've built a lot from within, but we've also done a good job of finding the right combination of outside players.”
Walker is one of four players on the playoff roster acquired by former general manager Dave Littlefield. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen was a first-round pick in 2005. Left fielder Starling Marte was signed out of the Dominican Republic in January 2007. In June 2007, three months before Littlefield was fired, the Pirates drafted reliever Tony Watson.
The rest of the roster was assembled by GM Neal Huntington. Pedro Alvarez (first round), Jordy Mercer (third round) and Justin Wilson (fifth round) were among the picks in Huntington's first draft class in 2008.
From the beginning, Huntington said the draft would be an important tool. Yet the only other player on the playoff roster drafted by Huntington is pitcher Gerrit Cole, the top overall pick in 2011.
“The challenge with building only through the draft is the years it takes to get (to the majors),” Huntington said. “We felt the cycle was long enough as it was. So as we went into the 2011 season, we felt we were ready to be a little more aggressive in terms of trades and free agents.”
They were ready to explore those markets mostly because the overall talent level — in Pittsburgh as well as the farm system — was significantly better than what Huntington inherited in September 2007. Owner Bob Nutting is willing to bankroll trades and free agents if they will supplement a solid core of players.
Another important factor: Huntington and his lieutenants in the front office had gained Nutting's trust.
“Our analytics are better now,” Huntington said. “Our scouts are better now. And our conviction in each other is better now, I'm sure.”
Last year brought two ground-shaking acquisitions, one via a trade at the start of spring training and the other a free agent signing eight weeks after the season ended.
The Pirates swapped two players from the Dominican Summer League to the Yankees for pitcher A.J. Burnett. The veteran right-hander wound up winning 16 games and helped spark a paradigm shift in the clubhouse.
“From spring of last year to now, it's a different group of men,” Burnett said. “You see a belief in themselves.”
Last offseason, the free agent market barely had begun to heat up when the Pirates signed catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million deal. The quick-strike move filled the team's biggest need and showed the front office was serious about winning now.
“The team was ready for a move like that,” Huntington said.
In August, Huntington completed his roster-building by swinging two trades that landed outfielder Marlon Byrd, catcher John Buck and first baseman Justin Morneau.
“I look at it like I'm another piece of the puzzle, another presence in the lineup,” Byrd said. “I think the big thing was we got Morneau, too. That changes that 2-3-4 (in the lineup) into a 2-3-4-5-6. Those are pressure pitches for the opposing team. Maybe you get one guy out, but then you've got to deal with another and another. Adding veterans to this lineup, which was already good, is a big plus for this team.”
There is one other big-time free agent the Pirates lured in November 2011. His value is immense, although he's never swung a bat or thrown a pitch. Clint Hurdle, who also was being courted by the Mets, signed to become the Pirates' 39th manager.
Before taking the job, Hurdle asked current and former Pirates employees to frankly assess the organization's talent and depth. Hurdle concluded that although some adjustments needed to be made, he was walking into a good situation.
“People talk about three-year plans or five-year plans,” Hurdle said. “I didn't have a plan coming in. I had a contract, and you'd better get something good done before that thing expires or you won't get another one.
“After my second year (2012), I felt really positive about what was going on. Even as bad as the year finished on the field, the challenges that came with it and the adjustments we made through the winter, I felt really good going into spring training this year. I felt maybe we were ahead of schedule a little bit.”