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Pirates lesson: What not to do

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I usually try to write some sort of Pinch Hitter response around noon, but I put it off today because the Justin Upton trade clearly stole the show. That said, this morning Lucas wrote about small market baseball, and I like things that are often labeled as small market baseball. I like the minor leagues and fringy, platoon players and September call-ups. I like to pay attention to the smaller moves on the edges of the roster. Those moves often have a small market feel, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter in a big market like New York.  

I liked the idea of this morning’s Pinch Hitter post, but to me, there was one tough-to-swallow flaw in Lucas’s argument: It’s hard to suggest the Yankees can learn a thing or two from the Pirates. Some small market teams thrive, and there’s something to be learned from that, but the Pirates have been about as flawed as any team in the game (sorry Lucas).

How can the Yankees learn from the Pirates? Maybe by learning from the Pirates mistakes.

[3]Focus on the rotation
Kip Wells. Zach Duke. Ian Snell. Tom Gorzellany. Ross Ohlendorf. Every time the Pirates seemed to have the beginnings of a rotation, it never worked out. Granted, their lineups haven’t been awe-inspiring, but at least Pittsburgh’s been able to put a few good offensive pieces in place (Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, Ryan Doumit, Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen). It’s hard, though, to sort through those Pittsburgh roster and find a standout pitcher unless you’re really high on Paul Maholm.

Compare that to other smaller market teams that actually did find success in recent years. Obviously the Rays stand out because of their longevity and their division, but they’re not alone in building a foundation of pitching. The Twins might be better known for Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, but their 96-win season came with Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano (the Twins actually had a below-average offense but the second-lowest team ERA in the American League that season). When the A’s have been at their best, it’s been because of pitching. The Reds have built a good young offense, but much like the Twins in 2006, they won 97 games last season with a below average offense and the second-lowest team ERA in the National League.

Find value in the draft
The Pirates have one massive advantage over the Yankees: Their position in the draft. A lot of drafting is luck — the percentage of players who make the big leagues is stunningly low — but success is crucial for a team trying to spend less and build from within. Bobby Bradley (eighth overall in 1999), John Van Benschoten (eighth overall in 2001, Bryan Bullington (first overall in 2002) and Brad Lincoln (fourth overall in 2006) might be helping the Pirates pitching staff right now if they’d lived up to the franchise’s initial hopes. Other first-round picks — Paul Maholm, Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen came in three consecutive years — have helped the franchise, but a bunch of notable misses have been costly.

Thing is, the importance of the draft is true for any team, it simply stands out a little more with a small-market, low-budget franchise. Also, it’s hard to compare the Pirates’ draft approach to the Yankees’ approach. The Pirates have gone into drafts knowing they might need to fill multiple roles with in-house prospects. The Yankees have gone into drafts looking for potential superstars (hence some of the high-risk selections like Andrew Brackman, Cito Culver and Gerrit Cole), knowing they can spend on the role players. Regardless of whether drafted players make it to the big leagues with the team that drafted them, getting value out of the draft — superstars, role players, trade bait — is important.

Make the big moves count
Big moves carry big responsibility. In 2008, the Pirates traded Jason Bay (when he was still an elite player) and got this package in return: Craig Hansen, Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris. Hansen and LaRoche have been busts, Morris has moved from the minor league rotation to the minor league bullpen and Moss finally had his breakout season (with Oakland). A year later, in 2009, the Pirates traded another outfielder, Nate McLouth (one year removed from the all-star game) and got this package: Gorkys Hernandez, Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton. Hernandez might never be a viable big leaguer, Locke has struggled in 10 big league starts and Morton has a 5.06 career ERA. Even the somewhat infamous Yankees trade for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte — a clear loss for the Yankees — wasn’t much of a win for the Pirates (unless Jose Tabata turns things around, fifth starter Jeff Karstens will have been their most significant pickup in the deal).

Make no mistake, even with a smaller payroll, the Yankees are still going to make big moves. They’re still going to spent more than most every other team in the sport, and they’re still going to make trades (despite recent evidence to the contrary). The lesson from the Pirates mistakes would be that you’ve got to make the big moves count. Stuff like losing Justin Maxwell and signing Pedro Feliciano are going to hurt, but they’re not going to criple the franchise. The huge decisions — free agent signings like Alex Rodriguez and blockbuster trades like the Michael Pineda deal — can signifcantly change things. The Pirates big moves did nothing to get them out of their hole, and blown moves by the Yankees could put them in a hole, if they’re not there already.

Associated Press photos