Rebuilding by trading veterans

In this week’s Sports Illustrated, Joe Posnanski has an excellent story about the Royals’ phenomenal farm system that’s worked Pirate fans into quite a frenzy today. In general, a certain subset of Pirate fans seem mad that the Pirates don’t have such an excellent farm system and their fires have since been stoked by Dejan Kovacevic’s comments in his chat today at PG+: 

I often have been charged with overvaluing the quality of the veterans that this management team inherited in 2007, but no one will convince me that the Pirates got anywhere near a representative return on all those players shipped out.

That’s the best way to build up a farm system with elite prospects in a hurry. The draft and international venues take time, but they’re even more important in the long run. The draft has gone well for the Pirates, I think, but my above point underscores yet again the folly of letting Miguel Sano get away.

Just picture the Pirates if they had gotten even decent returns for all those trades, plus signing Sano. Then, SI might have been writing about them and the Royals.

WTM already has an excellent response to this at Bucs Dugout, which I strongly recommend. One of my favorite points in his post is that the Royals’ farm system was ranked just 16th by Baseball America last year. Since then, Hosmer and Moustakas and Owen and a bunch of their pitchers broke out, they added the fourth pick in last year’s draft, they traded Zack Greinke, and now they have one of the best minor league systems of the last decade. This is exactly the point I tried to make back in January; the Pirates are currently ranked low, but last year’s young draft picks have generally been ranked conservatively and they hold the top pick in this year’s draft. If a couple players have big years and they add Anthony Rendon or Gerrit Cole to the system, I can almost promise you that the Pirates will be a top 10 or better system next year. When Frankie Piliere ranked the farm systems across baseball back in February, he put the Pirates 22nd but noted that he thought they were the most likely team to make a big jump forward in 2012. Farm systems are living, breathing, evolving organisms. A static picture is nice to have for the sake of comparison and charting progress, but it’s not always representative of the big picture. 

The part about DK’s chat that bugged me the most, though, was his assertion that  “even a decent return” on the veterans that Neal Huntington has traded thus far is “the best way to build up a farm system with elite prospects in a hurry.” Comb the rosters of teams like the Brewers or Reds or Rays (all teams that have more or less been where the Pirates are and are comparable teams in terms of market size and money), and show me the Jack Wilson or Freddy Sanchez trades that got those teams to the playoffs. Hell, show me the Jason Bay trade that did it. Maybe the Padres turning Akinori Otsuka into Adrian Gonzalez counts, but now Gonzalez is gone and the Padres never made the playoffs with him there. For the most part teams like the Pirates rebuild with their own talent or by finding talent on the scrap heap. It’s only after they do this that they start swinging trades with their own young players to fill the remaining holes. 

The best way to build up a farm system with elite prospects is through the draft and the international free agent market. The best way to do it in a hurry is to sacrifice a virgin to Quetzlcoatl and hope that you draft 10 top 100 prospects in one draft. Teams are only willing to trade top prospects for elite players. For Roy Halladays and Mark Teixeiras and Cliff Lees. For everyone else, you get Tim Aldersons and Andy LaRoches and Bryan Morrises; talented head cases, guys with good frames but bad mechanics, etc . Since 2007, the closest the Pirates have had to an elite trading chip was Bay, who was 29 and less than a year removed from playing like a 50-year old with nothing left in the tank. In hindsight, Huntington’s biggest mistake may have been trading Bay at all instead of taking the draft picks that would’ve come with his Type A free agency. The Pirates would’ve had four picks in the top 57 of 2010’s draft instead of 2 in the top 52. If the best they could do was only a little better than the package they ended up accepting, in hindsight I’d take the draft picks. 

Here’s a question: Was the Jason Bay/Brian Giles trade a good trade for the Pirates? Because the Pirates traded away their best player while they were in the process of gutting their big league roster, and all Bay and Oliver Perez really did was ensure that the Pirates weren’t 105-loss awful in 2004. The trade did nothing to address the Pirates’ empty farm system, which was the club’s biggest problem at the time. Basically, a bad team traded its best player for two players that more or less approximated the old player’s value for a few seasons. It didn’t make a bad club better and it didn’t replenish their farm system, so what did that trade really do? At least Huntington has kept an eye towards the future with almost every move he’s made, whether that’s acquiring Jose Tabata or Bryan Morris or Jeff Locke or Tim Alderson or a slew of young pitchers from the Mariners. Excepting Tabata none of these guys are Top 100 prospects, but they’re still prospects and if Morris and Locke are pitching solidly in the middle of the Pirates’ rotation in 2012, Huntington will have accomplished at least some of what he set out to do with the earliest trades of his tenure. 

Huntington’s not batting 1.000 on his trades so far. It’d be stupid to argue that he is. But rebuilding isn’t really about making good trades and it’s not fair to imply that it is. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.