Money isn't always the problem when small-market teams struggle

Neal Huntington has been the general manager of the Pirates since 2007. AP Photo/David Goldman

Spring training got off to a tumultuous start for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays. Following an offseason in which the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, David Freese and Josh Harrison came to camp and lamented about the state of the franchise. The Rays traded Evan Longoria in December and then kicked off spring training by trading Jake Odorizzi and designating Corey Dickerson for assignment, moves met with fast and furious criticism across the baseball landscape.

Freese’s comments were the most pointed, saying the culture in Pittsburgh hasn’t been conducive to winning. “The last two years, we haven’t done as well as we could have because of our environment. That’s what I think. I walk in every day, and it’s not in the air. The demand to win just hasn’t been in the air,” he told reporters. In January, Harrison released a statement that he’d rather not play for a rebuilding team. He doubled down when he reported to camp. “I want to win,” he said. “If that’s not what they want to do here, trade me.”

The Odorizzi trade to the Twins was hardly a shocker, although many questioned the light return of unheralded prospect Jermaine Palacios. Dickerson was never better than the moment he was designated for assignment, as his mediocre .310 OBP the past two seasons with the Rays was ignored in favor of reminders that he started in last year’s All-Star Game. In a curious twist, the Rays ended up trading Dickerson to the Pirates for reliever Daniel Hudson.

Anyway, for some reason, everyone seemed surprised that two penny-pinching franchises were again pinching pennies. These moves were registered as further proof that the Pirates and Rays simply aren’t trying to win, or don’t care enough. Pirates fans blame the spending of owner Bob Nutting for the team’s fall from three straight playoff appearances from 2013 to 2015 to two straight losing seasons. After finishing 75-87 in 2017, the Rays have had four consecutive losing seasons since making the playoffs four times in six seasons from 2008 to 2013.

I’m not going to defend the frugality of Nutting or Stuart Sternberg, although some reports haven’t been completely fair. One of the major criticisms of the Pirates is that they didn’t add enough in-season pieces during their playoff runs. That ignores the 2015 team that won 98 games and added J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria, Aramis Ramirez and Joe Blanton at the trade deadline. Unfortunately, that team still fell two games short of the division title and lost to a red-hot Jake Arrieta in the wild-card game. Reports have indicated the Rays have cut their payroll from $100 million in 2017 to $73 million. As Sternberg pointed out when he met with reporters Tuesday, Tampa Bay’s estimated Opening Day payroll will be higher than last year’s ($70 million).

The bigger issue is that both teams have done a lousy job lately of producing major league talent. According to thebaseballgauge.com, the Pirates produced the least amount of talent in the major leagues in 2017: Just 12.3 WAR came from players originally signed or drafted by the Pirates. The Cubs led the majors with 58.1 WAR. That disparity explains the 17-win difference between the Cubs and Pirates a lot more than Nutting’s unwillingness to increase the club’s payroll. It’s a minor miracle the Pirates won 75 games with such little homegrown talent.

What happened? After the Pirates drafted Neil Walker in the first round in 2004 and McCutchen in 2005, they had eight picks in the top 10 of the draft from 2006 to 2013, but those players have combined for just 23.0 career WAR. Only Jameson Taillon remains in the organization after the Cole trade.

Neal Huntington became general manager at the end of 2007 and has presided over 10 drafts. He and his lieutenants simply haven’t drafted well.

Consider:

2008: Pedro Alvarez, second overall (6.0 WAR). Alvarez did contribute to the playoff teams and led the National League in home runs in 2013, but he was taken ahead of Eric Hosmer and Buster Posey.

2009: Tony Sanchez, fourth overall (0.4 WAR). This was a weak first round aside from Stephen Strasburg, Mike Trout and A.J. Pollock, but Sanchez accumulated just 144 at-bats in the majors.

2010: Jameson Taillon, second overall (3.6 WAR). He could still break out, but the Pirates took the high school right-hander one pick ahead of Manny Machado.

2011: Gerrit Cole, first overall (12.2 WAR). He’s been solid, but five other first-round picks have produced more WAR, including Francisco Lindor, the eighth overall pick.

2012: Mark Appel, eighth overall (0.0 WAR). Appel didn’t sign with the Pirates, who passed on high school shortstops Addison Russell and Corey Seager, both taken a few picks later.

2013: Austin Meadows, ninth overall, and Reese McGuire, 14th overall. The Pirates took Meadows with a compensation pick for not signing Appel and then a high school catcher in McGuire. Neither has reached the majors and McGuire is now with the Blue Jays. They passed twice on college bat Aaron Judge.

OK, what I just did is a little unfair. You could do a similar “what if” scenario for any team. But you get the idea. On top of that, the Pirates have fared poorly in Latin America. Gregory Polanco, who had a terrible 2017 (0.0 WAR), is the only significant Latin player to come up since Starling Marte in 2012.

The Rays produced more overall value in 2017 than the Pirates with 32.0 WAR, but only 14.2 of that was earned with the Rays. Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero (2.7 WAR) and Rockies starter German Marquez (3.0 WAR) were original Rays farmhands traded away -- Marquez was actually part of the Dickerson trade, along with Jake McGee.

Like the Pirates, the Rays struggled in the draft after plucking Longoria in 2006 and David Price in 2007. They have a little better excuse, as their on-field success meant they weren’t drafting high -- their highest pick between 2009 and 2014 was 17th, wasted on high school outfielder Josh Sale.

Is either team tanking? Predictably, both owners rejected that notion. In his session with reporters, Sternberg said the team will win “more [games] than you think. Whatever it is anybody in this group here is thinking, it’s more. I’m a high man.”

Nutting met with reporters last week and insisted his team’s moves were about building a better team for 2019 and 2020 while remaining competitive in 2018. “Other clubs have taken [the approach], 'We’re going to embrace the cycle. We’re going to build for a few years, and we're going to tank for a few years,'" he said. "We believe that we have the better approach. We believe that we can have a more steady window of performance. That's why this year is not a rebuild year. It's younger players, but it's not a three-year tank."

The Rays appear to have the edge in young talent. Aside from young starters Blake Snell and Jake Faria, who have already reached the majors (unfortunately Brent Honeywell, the team’s top pitching prospect, underwent Tommy John surgery a few days ago), they have some high-ceiling prospects in shortstop Willy Adames, pitcher/first baseman Brendan McKay and outfielder Jesus Sanchez. Others such as first baseman Jake Bauers, infielder Christian Arroyo and outfielder Justin Williams could contribute this season. Keith Law rated the Rays’ system seventh overall (although that was before the Honeywell injury), and their list of 25-and-younger talent is impressive.

The Rays could even be getting a new, more lucrative TV deal in 2019. Sports Business Daily reported that the Rays are close to signing a new TV contract with the Fox Sports Florida regional network that would increase their payment from $35 million in 2018 to an average of $82 million over 15 years (starting at $50 million in 2019). The Rays haven’t commented on that, and even details of their current contract have been secretive.

The Pirates’ system, meanwhile, dropped from fourth to 15th in Law’s rankings. The Latin American pipeline remains thin. They desperately need Marte and Polanco to bounce back and a couple of the young starters to take a big leap forward.

One thing we know: Don’t expect either team to play in the free-agent market in the future. It’s not in the genes of either franchise. Unless the young talent develops, it won’t matter if you label them rebuilders or penny-pinchers because they’re not going to win without the next Andrew McCutchen or the next Evan Longoria.