Or, at least, losing for the sake of winning in the future. I think it has, and the Pirates are the latest example.
The Rays, of course, are the new prototype. The team lost, and lost, and lost… until they won. The difference wasn’t so much in the core of the roster, but in the marginal aspects: the defense, bullpen, and bench. Josh Wilson, and Greg Norton turned into Willy Aybar and Cliff Floyd. Gary Glover, Brian Stokes, and Shawn Camp turned into Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, and Grant Balfour.
This wasn’t an accident. There are a lot of smart people in Tampa’s front office, who knew exactly what they were getting when they brought in Josh Wilson. I’m sure they also knew the relative values of going 67-95 or 81-81, and chose the former.
This is smart business, as long as the team can withstand the lean years financially. And this seems to be the approach the Pirates are taking.
I wrote last year that the Pirates were right to do nothing, despite Jason Bay’s frustration (the only move I suggested was to trade Freddy Sanchez, in a sell-high move). Now, Jack Wilson is complaining, saying that the Bucs need “more players” in order to compete.
He’s right, obviously. But free agency isn’t the way to acquire those players; the draft is, and the only way to get high draft picks is to lose. And the Pirates are doing a solid job of that.
Consider: this past spring, Dan Fox introduced a defensive metric on Baseball Prospectus that rated Luis Rivas as one of the worst defensive middle infielders in the last fifty years. Weeks later, Fox was hired by the Pirates. And yet Rivas played over 400 innings at second or short for the Pirates last year, with predictable results.
Like the Rays, the Pirates have some pretty smart people in their front office. They didn’t expect Luis Rivas to turn into Cal Ripken, nor do they think Derrick Turnbow will suddenly become Mariano Rivera. They seem to be purposely filling the margins in poorly, in order to keep picking up high draft picks until the very moment they feel they can compete.
As anti-competitive as it sounds, it’s a fantastic strategy, when executed correctly. There is no value in being mediocre, as the Kevin McClatchy/Cam Bonifay/Dave Littlefield Pirates clearly showed. For so long, they seemed to be shooting for .500, just so they could end their string of losing seasons (now at a record 16 years and counting). When they failed to do even that, management decided to keep spending as much on the Major League payroll as possible, while never going above slot on draft picks. If anything, this was anti-competitive.
The Pirates finally seem to be on the right track, under Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington. It’s easy to take what the Rays did for granted, so let’s not assume that the Pirates will be able to be so successful so quickly. But if nothing else, there seems to be a real plan in place, which, for this franchise, is very new.
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