When the Pittsburgh Pirates introduced general manager Neal Huntington on September 25, 2007, a once-proud franchise was in disarray. Nearly seven full years later, the Pirates are coming off a postseason appearance and overflowing with young talent.
Since the start of play on May 6, Pittsburgh has won 30 of 50 games to climb within two games of the second wild-card position in the National League. Over that span, 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen has raked, 25-year-old Starling Marte has provided all-around value and super prospect Gregory Polanco has arrived to stake a claim to the NL Rookie of the Year award.
McCutchen, Marte and Polanco have combined to hit .411 with 3 homers and 13 RBIs at top of the order last 5 games.— Richard Justice (@richardjustice) June 18, 2014
That trio, led by the emergence of Polanco, is the latest sign of a franchise heading in the right direction due to a knack for finding elite talent in the international market, annual June amateur draft and trades.
Alongside the young, ascending outfield, the Pirates roster is filled with under-30 players, most of whom have been added to the organization during Huntington's tenure. From third baseman Pedro Alvarez to staff ace Gerrit Cole to closer Mark Melancon, the Pirates have become a model organization for unearthing contributors.
The following chart highlights how Pittsburgh acquired its best and most valuable contributors. As you can clearly see, the free-agent market isn't a major source for a low-revenue Pirates team. Instead, Huntington and the front office must continue to develop elite talent to win.
|Player||Age||How Acquired||2014 Stats|
|Andrew McCutchen||27||Drafted 1st Rd (11) '05||166 OPS+|
|Gregory Polanco||22||Amateur FA (DOM) Mar '09||.374 OBP|
|Starling Marte||25||Amateur FA (DOM) Jan '07||2.0 WAR|
|Pedro Alvarez||27||Drafted 1st Rd (2) '08||42 RBI|
|Gerrit Cole||23||Drafted 1st Rd (1) '11||8.1 K/9|
|Mark Melancon||29||Trade (BOS) Dec '12||15 SV|
MLB Depth Charts
When looking back to the date Huntington was hired, a stark contrast becomes evident. The 2007 Pirates were in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, on the path to a 15th consecutive losing season and with little hope of reversing course.
With a roster filled with underwhelming players such as Ronny Paulino, Jack Wilson, Matt Morris and Salomon Torres, the pre-Huntington days never showed direction or much promise. For every young star like Jason Bay, the team would fail in the draft or international market, wasting prime years from All-Star-caliber contributors.
Now things have changed due to a roster littered with elite talent at the same time. In baseball, it's not just about talent evaluation, but rather the ability to develop players and graduate them to the big leagues around the same time.
That's part of the reason the Pirates won 90-plus games in 2013 and are on the path to another pennant race this summer.
Polanco, of course, is the youngest and most recent talent to arrive from Pittsburgh's farm system. After tearing the cover off the ball at Triple-A Indianapolis, the five-tool talent was summoned to the big leagues in early June, giving manager Clint Hurdle an embarrassment of riches across the outfield.
Former Philadelphia Phillies manager and current senior adviser Charlie Manuel recently gushed about Polanco's skill set, per Hal Bodley of MLB.com: "And Polanco, the exciting rookie, is the final piece," said Manuel. "He's been everything the scouts predicted. He's got great plate discipline for a rookie, speed and power."
While Manuel may have been speaking solely about the exciting outfield configuration at PNC Park, the thought could work in this sense: Polanco is the final piece of the rebuild that began in the late days of the 2007 season.
When the Pirates broke through in 2013—finally finishing over .500 for the first time since the days Barry Bonds patrolled left field at Three Rivers Stadium—baseball had a Cinderella story for the summer and fall. Beneath the fuzzy narratives, however, a possible long-term contender has emerged.
Have the Pirates become a model franchise for finding elite talent?
Pirates international scouting director Rene Gayo has had a large influence on the current roster, as evidenced by the slew of international talents on the roster and in the system. He recently spoke about what he saw when scouting Polanco, per John Perrotto of Sports on Earth.
"There's a fine line between projection and insanity," Gayo said. "But I thought once this guy gets man strength, he's going to be a special animal. He jumped out at me."
Much as in the case of Manuel's comments, that quote can be used in reference to the entire Pirates organization and future. A quick look at Cot's Baseball Contracts illustrates a stark reality for Pittsburgh's NL Central opponents: The sextet of McCutchen, Marte, Polanco, Alvarez, Cole and Melancon is under team control through at least the 2018 season.
In the current landscape of Major League Baseball, there's no perfect way to build a baseball team or long-term contender. In Oakland, Billy Beane has a knack for finding talent where others fail to look. In Los Angeles and New York, money is available to purchase high-end contributors. In Miami, drafting and development trump all. In Detroit, general manager Dave Dombrowski consistently wins trades.
For the Pirates, a knack for finding elite talent is becoming evident. With the exception of highly priced free agents, the rising NL power has used almost every avenue to rebuild a franchise that was once moribund and lost.