How the Pittsburgh Pirates Rebuilt a Losing Franchise into a Contentder

In 1979, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the MLB World Series in seven games over the Baltimore Orioles, making Willie Stargell both National League MVP and World Series MVP. After 1979, it would be 34 years before the Pirates won another postseason series. That victory came just two seasons ago, in 2013, and at the time, that win seemed like the start of a renaissance for a once-proud franchise that had fallen on the hardest of times throughout the previous decades.

At some point, losing breeds bad habits and becomes self-fulfilling. In the early 1990s, behind Barry Bonds, the Pirates did make three straight postseasons, but they couldn’t get over the hump for a variety of reasons. After that, Bonds departed for San Francisco, and the Pittsburgh organization went in the tank. Counting the strike-shortened 1994 season, Pitt would finish at least a dozen games out of first place in its division 19 of the next 20 seasons. The lone exception was a respectable, yet under-.500 year in 1997.

One of the few advantages of losing it’s allowing a team to continually pick high in the amateur draft and stockpile assets. This advantage goes to waste if a team is poor at drafting or developing prospects, but at some point the advantage is even too much for such teams to squander. That’s exactly the category Pittsburgh falls into.

The team drafted catcher Jason Kendall with its first-round pick in 1992. Kendall went on to be a very good major-league catcher, playing 15 years, nine with Pittsburgh. After Kendall, the team seemed to make one lousy pick after another. Its next six first-round selections didn’t do much of anything. It finally got the first-overall pick in 1996 and took pitcher Kris Benson out of Clemson University. Benson lasted nine years in the majors but is considered a bust after never winning more than 12 games in a season and finishing with a career record under .500.

Another first-overall pick six years later would be spent on another pitcher, Bryan Bullington. He fared so much worse than even Benson. It wasn’t until the next year that Pittsburgh began to make use of its high draft picks and years of losing.

In 2003, the Pirates started a run of selecting useful pieces with their early pick, culminating in the selection of Andrew McCutchen 11th overall in 2005. The next thing the organization did was finally nail a first-overall pick. By taking Gerrit Cole first in 2011, Pittsburgh looked to be on its way back.

In 2013, the playoff drought finally stopped as the team advanced to the NLDS. McCutchen won league MVP, and Clint Hurdle was named Manager of the Year while Francisco Liriano grabbed Comeback Player of the Year honors. It was an all-around fantastic season buoyed by the continued success had the following year.

In 2014, the Pirates were once again challenging for a division title. They made the playoffs two years in a row for the first time since those early ‘90’s years. There was also buzz surrounding the team for the first time since Barry Bonds left town.

Now in 2015, they’re getting somewhere once again. They actually have the second best record in the league, trailing only the St. Louis Cardinals. Much of that record comes from the team’s development of young players.

McCutchen is 28 years old now, in the prime of his career. He leads the team in offensive WAR with 4.5 wins above replacement through mid-August. Joining McCutchen have been contributions from a roster filled with depth and flexibility. Former first-round pick Pedro Alvarez has nearly 20 home runs for the third time in his young career. Former first-round pick Neil Walker is on pace to top 190 total bases for the sixth straight season.

Free-agent signees Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Jung Ho Kang are also playing like valuable commodities in just their fourth, second and first years in the majors respectively. While other teams had opportunities to sign these guys, no one else did. The Pirates staff took a lot of flack specifically for the Kang signing considering the amount of money it was worth, but Kang has been worth the couple million he’s paid and more this season.

On the pitching side of things, Cole is simply amazing. He anchors a staff otherwise filled with veterans but guys who get the job done. Cole is just 24 years old and in his third season. Named to his first All-Star team in 2015, Cole is on his way to challenging for the Cy Young Award each and every season.

It’s hard to feel great about an organization that has taken this long to simply reap the benefits of picking early. However, the mindset and feeling behind the Pirates has changed. The numerous free-agent signings underscore the good moves this current management group is making. Backing up a young ace with veteran arms is also a valuable use of pitching resources for a club that doesn’t necessarily have the monetary assets to sign big arms in free agency.

Neal Huntington has been the Pittsburgh general manager since 2008. As covered, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing in the team’s rebuild. Part of rebuilding is luck and circumstance. As the Pirates’ luck changed, they made the best of changing circumstances. Those moves now have the team as one of the favorites to win the National League pennant, and who knows where they can go from there?

2 Responses

  1. naturaljag0ff

    Please stop referring to Bonds’ departure as the watershed moment for the Pirates of the early 90’s. They also lost Bonilla, Van Slyke, Drabek, and others after ’91-’92.

    Neither the Pirates org. nor the Pgh fans wanted to keep Bonds – he was universally disliked long BEFORE he departed for free agency, and was just one of many key pieces to leave town in ’92, the most important of which was probably Jim Leyland.

    Contrary to popular opinion outside of Pgh, Bonds did not carry those teams, and Pgh was not disappointed to see Bonds leave. Great player, yes, but Pgh’ers don’t root for a-holes. And if that team had remained intact (sans blockhead Barry) they would have remained competitive for some years thereafter…

  2. naturaljag0ff

    This article fails to mention several non-draft strategies that Pgh has pioneered, also contributing the their recent success…

    advanced metrics: Pgh was perhaps the first team to glean peripheral adv. metrics to find & target hidden value/talent. Pitch-framing stats yielded an undervalued Russell Martin (and Cervelli).

    defensive shifts: Pgh employed more shifts than any other team, and it would be fair to say that this ‘radical’ degree of def. shifting has worked to their advantage.

    The Searage Pitching Laboratory: Pgh has ID’d & rehabbed multiple undervalued FA pitchers, w/ a focus on groundballs (playing into the def. shift strategy).


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