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Big changes coming for Pirates

| Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007

Tucked away in the fourth-floor board room at PNC Park are miniature replicas of the team's five World Series trophies. On the shelf below is a much larger, more eye-catching trophy.

There is a touch of tarnish around the inscription, which reads: "Pittsburgh Pirates, Topps' 2002 Organization of the Year."

The franchise received the award after its minor league affiliates combined for 399 victories, the second-winningest farm system in baseball. Although the major league club lost 89 games in 2002, the first full season under general manager Dave Littlefield, the Topps award was a sign of hope.

False hope, as it turned out.

Friday afternoon, the Pirates' new management duo huddled in the board room. Neither president Frank Coonelly nor GM Neal Huntington cast a glance at the big, golden trophy in the corner.

Coonelly and Huntington want to turn around the Pirates, who have lurched through 15 consecutive losing seasons. The first step was to sweep away Littlefield and many vestiges of his regime.

Over the new couple of weeks, the Pirates will hire a new manager, scouting director, director of player development and assistant general manager. The turnover could extend to coaches and scouts throughout the system.

New facilities are rising in Bradenton, Fla., and the Dominican Republic. The club also plans to develop a leaner, more efficient data storage system.

"I don't think we're at square one," Huntington said. "But we do need to implement some new systems. We need to add more quality people."

There is one other thing which, more than anything else, will determine whether the Pirates rise or continue to fall. Management must change the way it appraises players -- from skinny 16-year-olds in Latin America to the millionaires in the clubhouse at PNC Park.

"The Pirates' main problem as an organization is an evaluation problem," said ESPN baseball analyst Keith Law, a former executive with the Toronto Blue Jays. "They do not do a good job evaluating talent -- not amateur talent, not international talent, not pro talent, not even their own minor league talent. Nothing. They have made one poor decision after another."

The Pirates' farm system has not produced a bona fide superstar since Barry Bonds two decades ago. It's last impact player was Aramis Ramirez.

The front office failed to prevent a ridiculous raid of top prospects in the Rule 5 draft.

It took months before the major league coaching staff rated a future league batting champion worthy of being an everyday player.

The scouting department somehow decided to use the fourth overall draft pick on a relief pitcher.

The Pirates have been plagued by bad choices, bad gambles, bad advice, bad contracts, bad signings, bad information and, yes, some bad luck.

It starts with the players the Pirates bring into their system.

A team that loses every year gathers a lot of high first-round draft picks. The Pirates made a habit of using them on pitchers -- nine in the past 15 years -- with an eye toward signability. Five have pitched for the Pirates, none with any great success.

"They do pretty well with that first-round pick, which isn't that hard of a decision to make, but they really don't do well later in the draft," said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America. "They have to be more aggressive, both internationally and domestically, and spend more money."

Many major league clubs recently have stepped up their efforts to acquire Latin American players, who are signed as free agents rather than drafted. The Pirates, who practically ignored the region for years, finally are re-establishing their presence there.

Earlier this month, the Pirates signed a purchase agreement for land to build a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. The facility is slated to open in December 2008 and will help recruit as well as develop players.

"We're not going to just throw them into a house and run them to a field on a bus every day," Huntington said. "We're going to put them in an educational environment. They'll learn English as a second language and some life skills, too."

When scouting high school and college players in the United States, the Pirates have relied heavily on the input of cross-checkers, a sort of "super scout" who covers a large region. Area scouts -- who often are less experienced but who have the most direct contact with players and coaches -- had a lesser role in the decision-making process.

"I'm not sure that's the best way to go about it," Huntington said.

The Pirates have 15 area scouts, fewer than any other team in the NL Central Division and all but two other teams in the majors. The Houston Astros have 22 area scouts, including 13 stationed in the eastern half of the country.

Huntington is considering adding more area scouts to the payroll. He also wants the cross-checkers -- labeled "supervisors" in the Pirates' new lexicon -- to do more hands-on work with the area scouts.

Once a player is in the Pirates' farm system, his progress is monitored at several levels. Major league coaches may see him during spring training. Minor league coaches and roving instructors mentor him during the season. Huntington and his advisers also scout him.

The player's physical tools are rated and debated. His contract information is compiled. There are notes about his personality, how he handles success and failure, his leadership ability. His health history is detailed.

When Huntington joined the Pirates, he found the storage system for all that data was awkward compared to the one he used while working for the Cleveland Indians. The Pirates will bring in full-time technicians to create and manage a new, in-house system.

"We need to make sure we have a systematic way of getting that information from the field up to the front office, and we have to make sure that it's listened to," Coonelly said. "And as we get that information, we have to have a consistent focus from year to year on how we're going to build the organization."

Coonelly and Huntington are bringing in new faces, new systems and a new philosophy.

About the only thing left from the Littlefield era is one lonely trophy in the corner of the room.

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