Pirates built it, but can they sustain it?
After Game 5 of the National League Division Series, there was no agony in the Busch Stadium visitors' clubhouse. Pirates players said the night marked not an end but a beginning of a franchise renaissance. This was not 1992 when the club lost in devastating fashion and braced for the break-up of the last, great Pirates team.
Neil Walker looked around the quiet clubhouse and noted many players would return. He motioned to the locker of Gerrit Cole, who dominated after Sept. 1 and is under contract until 2020. To Walker's left was MVP favorite Andrew McCutchen, signed through 2018. Soon to join them are prospects from a rich farm system. There are many encouraging indicators within the organization.
Still, there are challenges. A number of key veterans are not under contract beyond 2014. The Pirates are in the bottom third of revenues, making it difficult to retain talent and fill voids through free agency. The NL Central is loaded with young talent.
So are the Pirates entering a golden age of sustained winning, or was 2013 an outlier? “We've said from Day 1: It's going to be one thing to build it,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “It's going to be even harder to sustain it.”
Reason to believe: young core
What should inspire optimism is the core. Cole, McCutchen and Starling Marte are the club's three most valuable assets, and they are under club control through at least 2018. They are among 15 players who are 28 years old or younger from the NLDS roster under club control through at least 2016.
“You can see where (the Pirates) are going to have core players to build around,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “You look at second base, third base, probably the most athletic outfield in the game. That's a good, solid base.”
Reason to doubt: an aging supporting cast
One misconception about the 2013 Pirates is they were a young team. The Pirates fielded the 12th-oldest roster, an average age of 28.4. A number of veterans are at or nearing free agency. A.J. Burnett, Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd are free agents. Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Russell Martin and Jason Grilli are signed only through 2014.
Liriano, Burnett, Grilli and Martin produced 12.7 wins above replacement in 2013, a free-agent market value of $63.5 million. The Pirates paid those players a combined $23.5 million. Replicating such value is a challenge.
Reason to believe: the farm
The most prospects from one organization on Baseball America's top 100 list was nine, by the Royals, in 2011. The Pirates could come near that mark in 2014.
“(They) have a depth of impact players,” Baseball America editor John Manuel said. “It's hard to imagine them not being a top five or six farm system.”
The Pirates are loaded with pitching. Jameson Taillon could arrive in June. Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham are viewed as future impact starters.
“The young pitching they have coming is what you get excited about,” Mozeliak said. “Health is critical, but it's not hard to envision them having success for years to come.”
Offensively, Gregory Polanco is a top-20 prospect. Alen Hanson projects as an above-average middle infielder. First-round picks Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire had excellent debuts. Said Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo: “We can pitch. It's going to keep being that way because in the minor leagues we have some serious arms. … And we've picked up (the organization) position-player wise in Latin America.”
Reason to doubt: losing an edge
The Pirates enjoyed a competitive advantage in 2013. They increased defensive shifts and blended in a spiked ground ball rate to improve defensive efficiency. That competitive advantage is expected to evaporate as defensive efficiency becomes universally adopted in baseball.
As a small-market team dependent upon finding market inefficiencies, can the Pirates discover the next big thing?
“I think that's the whole game,” owner Bob Nutting said in a recent radio interview. “You have 29 other clubs ... looking for that edge. We have to be in a constant state of improvement.”
Reason to believe: the front office
Once an embattled cast, the front office signed two of the best free-agent values in Liriano and Martin, improved defensive efficiency and acquired Byrd and Morneau at little cost.
“I do think the front office has established themselves,” Mozeliak said. “They have that credibility, and they are probably not looking over their shoulders like they may have been two years ago.”
Reason to doubt: revenue streams
The Pirates' local cable deal — signed through 2019 — generated $18 million last season, tied for an MLB low, according to Fangraphs.com. The Pirates claim they took in more TV revenue but didn't disclose the figure.
The Pirates finished 19th in attendance. The team's payroll of $66 million ranked 27th in baseball.
Ownership has indicated a willingness to increase payroll, and the Pirates will receive millions more in national TV revenue this offseason, but arbitration and free-agency costs threaten the ability to keep their core together.