What Other Struggling Teams Can Do to Replicate the Pittsburgh Pirates' Success
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The Pittsburgh Pirates have been one of baseball's surprises this season, emerging as a contender in the NL Central and looking like a favorite to win one of the league's Wild Card playoff spots.
Pittsburgh was also a surprise contender at this point last season before falling into a deep collapse. That resulted in a fourth-place finish, 24 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, that made most everyone forget how they raised hope and encouraged fan interest earlier in the season.
But Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has made several key moves that has Pittsburgh competing for a playoff spot again this year. And many of those transactions will prevent the second-half collapse that the team suffered last season.
For those clubs that are struggling this year or have slid down the standings after initially challenging for first place or a Wild Card bid, the Pirates' plan is one worth following. What did Huntington do that other hopeful contenders can attempt to replicate for next season?
Here are five points that teams should incorporate in their planning.
Look for Changes of Scenery
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The biggest difference between this year's Pirates and last year's club is an ace at the top of their rotation.
No one considered A.J. Burnett an ace for the New York Yankees.
Just the possibility that he might have to pitch in the postseason last fall sent Yankees fans to a dark corner, where they pulled their knees to their chests and bobbed their heads while constantly repeating "Jeter, Jeter, Jeter."
Oh, by the way, Burnett pitched well in that playoff game. He's a good pitcher that just got chewed up by the scrutiny and expectations that come with playing for the Yankees.
When the Pirates acquired Burnett, you could hear the snickering that the Yankees dumped a bust on a lowly team that needed pitching. But Burnett needed to get out of New York and just pitch again without constantly having to face a media horde covering his every move.
A team hoping to pull off a Pirates-like turnaround has to find a pitcher that has a previous track record of success but needs a fresh start with another team and city.
Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox is a name that immediately comes to mind, though he probably won't come as cheaply as Burnett did. The Los Angeles Angels' Ervin Santana might be another pitcher to look at. Gavin Floyd from the Chicago White Sox is worth checking in on as well.
Comb the Scrap Heap
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This is somewhat similar to the previous item, but Burnett is something of a name. How about the guys that are looking for another shot in the majors that still have something left to prove?
Granted, a team really has to do its homework on such players, but that certainly paid off for the Pirates.
Garrett Jones is one of the lineup's best run producers. Jason Grilli has experienced an absolute revival as a setup reliever. Juan Cruz has been less successful but also productive.
The Pirates followed that philosophy in their trade deadline acquisitions as well.
Travis Snider had hit his ceiling with the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Miami Marlins had given up on Gaby Sanchez. Both players get a chance for a fresh start and to prove that they can still be major leaguers in Pittsburgh.
Bring in Some Gloves
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Adding Burnett certainly strengthened the starting rotation, but a pitching staff is even better with a good defense behind it.
Pitchers aren't afraid to let hitters make contact if they know those batted balls stand a good chance of being caught. Being afraid of contact leads to nibbling at the corners of the strike zone and racking up pitch counts as a pitcher tries to get hitters to swing and miss.
Shortstop is particularly important for a team seeking to upgrade his defense. Clint Barmes doesn't hit very well, but he's an excellent defensive shortstop. He's the third-best glove at that position in baseball, according to Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating.
Alex Presley also doesn't hit as much as the Pirates would probably prefer, but he provides great defense in left field. UZR ranks him as the fifth-best defensive left fielder in baseball.
The Pirates rank seventh in team defense, with Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Casey McGehee (before he was traded) each playing their positions well. Jones was also surprisingly good in right field.
Draft a Superstar
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This is easier said than done, of course. If it was just that simple, every team would go get a great player. But 19 consecutive losing seasons have given the Pirates plenty of opportunities to pick high in the draft and get a crack at the best amateur talent.
Pittsburgh missed on several of their top picks, (Bryan Bullington, anyone?), but they've managed to build a solid roster around players like Walker and Paul Maholm. All it takes is for one or two players to emerge as stars, fulfilling the expectations that come with being a top draft pick.
McCutchen has broken out this season, looking like the favorite to win NL MVP. He's not just an outstanding hitter who only contributes with his bat either. McCutchen plays an important defensive position in center field, a luxury that several baseball teams don't enjoy.
Alvarez also looks to be developing into a star player. After disappointing in his first two seasons, the Pirates' third baseman is one of the team's best power hitters. He still has many improvements to make, as his .235 batting average and .758 OPS demonstrate. But he appears to have cleared an important hurdle this season.
Put Experience in the Dugout
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Clint Hurdle is no one's idea of a great manager, really. He's not considered a master strategist. His handling of a bullpen—perhaps a manager's most important skill—is questionable at best. And he's always been far too reliant on playing "small ball," giving away outs.
But some guys are good at motivation, and Hurdle has told his players continually throughout this season that just playing .500 baseball isn't good enough. Last season's collapse helped Hurdle's message, of course. The Pirates saw first-hand what happens when they let up and stop doing what made them successful previously.
Hurdle only has one winning season among his nine full seasons as a major league manager. But he made it count, helping lead the Colorado Rockies to the World Series in 2007.
No team can be expected to string together an 11-game win streak during a season. And compiling a 20-8 record in September, as those 2007 Rockies did, is a surge that few teams—even the best ones—experience. There's a lot of luck involved in putting together a run like that.
However, Hurdle knows from that experience what has to be done to win a pennant. He has credibility when he tells his players that they need to do more, what sort of pitfalls have to be confronted and avoid through a 162-game schedule.
Hiring an apparent retread might not be as appealing as a first-timer who could possibly bring some innovation to the dugout, a la Joe Maddon. But there's something to be said for experience, especially for a young team that hasn't won before.
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