So August dimmed into September, and when we awoke to the light of the new month, the Pittsburgh Pirates were in first place in the National League Central, off consecutive wins by Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett in the seat of the division, St. Louis.
And in the city that brought us the Miracle of Bill Mazeroski in 1960, The Family of ’79 and the great Barry Bonds/Jim Leyland teams of 1990-92, a Rust Belt town that re-invented itself against all odds and built one of the best ballparks in America, the Pirates gave people something to dream on. Not only did Liriano, who was signed for $1M before the season and has thrown 24 scoreless innings in three wins against the Cardinals, throw the statement shutout Friday, but in the week that was the Pirates did what they hadn’t been able to do since the best player in the game left for San Francisco: they traded prospects for the pennant run.
They traded two big power arms the Mets and Twins believe can eventually pitch in the eighth and/or ninth innings and a couple of middle-of-the-field athletes to acquire Justin Morneau, coming off a 10 homer August, from the Twins and Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the Mets.
To a fan base that had come to believe that tomorrow never comes, Neal Huntington closed out the August waiver period acquiring three veterans for the now. “We looked at deals like these in 2011,” says Huntington. “We certainly looked last year, going into final month that was, at times, pretty painful. But we weren’t ready for those moves. Now we are ready.”
“In previous years,” Huntington says, “our system wasn’t developed and built enough to be able to make these deals. Now we are, and because we are we didn’t have to trade a Jameson Taillon or our top young players. But we have been able to build up an inventory in our system that allows to do these deals and hopefully get into the post-season.”
In past years, Huntington has taken his fair share of public abuse as the Pirates went through what seemed like their third or fourth post-Bonds, post-Leyland reconstruction. Owner Bob Nutting clearly understood, and stuck by Huntington. Now, in the sixth year of this administration, not only did the Bucs wake up on the first of September ahead of the Cardinals, but only a game behind the Dodgers. In their enthusiasm, what fans and media often do not grasp is real baseball teams are not constructed like rotisserie teams. “It takes a lot more time and a lot more of a developmental and maturity process than it appears, and I get that,” says Huntington. “Dayton Moore got hammered for saying that it takes six to eight years to build a solid organization. But he’s right. I’ve told people, it’s one thing to build a team to win once. What’s really hard is to build an organization where you can sustain winning. We’re not there yet, so I can’t speak to it.”
As September unfurls, there will be much discussion of front office and managerial firings. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County, California seem headed to an either/or/neither situation with General Manager Jerry DiPoto and Manager Mike Scioscia, although the fact of the matter is that the short-term, regional network attention-grabbing that preceded DiPoto gutted the farm system, tying the general manager’s hands and depriving a great manager like Scioscia the ability to do what he loves, namely teach and develop.
There has been the sound of thunder heard across Puget Sound concerning the job status of GM Jack Zduriencik, who is finishing his fourth year without a winning season. Ownership appears to understand that Zduriencik deserves to see Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen pitch in the big leagues and that Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, Franklin and Brad Miller should get further looks and will give Zduriencik at least another year.
“There’s a reason we and several teams are constantly checking in to see if ownership is losing patience and Jack may have to trade Ackley, Seager or Smoak,” says one general manager. “It’s like all the years there were so many teams trying to get Alex Gordon from the Royals when they were losing. I know several teams this season checked in on Eric Hosmer when he got off to a slow start. Some guys like Evan Longoria, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper or Manny Machado check into the big leagues and perform, consistently, right away. Most don’t.”
Ask Huntington. “Andrew McCutchen always looked as if he would be a special player,” says Huntington. “But last year was his fourth as a regular in the big leagues. This is his fifth, and he’s now a legitimate MVP candidate. It took Neil Walker a few years to be the player he is now. That’s the norm. Pedro Alvarez is in his fourth year.” And when it came time to bring up the former first pick in the country, Gerrit Cole, the foundation was laid with Burnett and Liriano, with an experienced catcher in Russell Martin who led teams in Los Angeles and New York into the playoffs.
“With the rare exception, people underestimate the transition period when young players get to the major leagues,” says Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. This is Hoyer’s second reconstruction project. He and Jason McLeod went from Boston to San Diego and left the Padres in far better shape than when they inherited them, between the Adrian Gonzalez and Mike Adams deals and the draft.
Theo Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod are re-united rebuilding the Cubs. The change in draft and international signing rules make it more difficult to restock organizations, but even when Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Mike Olt, et al are ready, there will be time learning in the waiting room before there is gratification. Hey, it’s happening right now with Anthony Rizzo and Starling Castro.
Hoyer studied the Cardinals organization in depth before he interviewed for that GM job, and observed a model of stability, the reasons why they’re headed for the post-season for the 10th time in 15 years. They have kept their scouts. The development has been handed from the great George Kissell on to Gary LaRoque.
But Hoyer also noted how the Cardinals have broken in young players. Yes, they always seem to have kids coming in. But look with whom they are arriving—Yadier Molina is 31, Matt Carpenter is 27, Allen Craig is 29, David Freese is 30, John Jay is 28 and they get the right veterans like Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran. The Cardinals have done an exceptional job finding and developing young arms, but they’ve had Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright for leadership, Kyle Lohse, Edwin Mujica.
No really good National League team has more critical young players than the Braves with Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons, but it’s taken them three years with Freeman and Heyward, they had Chipper Jones, they have Brian McCann, now 29, and they went out and got Justin and B.J. Upton when they were through their developmental years in Arizona and Tampa Bay.
The job Roger McDowell has done mentoring the blossoming of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel has gone underappreciated, but the fact remains they arrived under the wing on Tim Hudson and now have a Kris Medlen in a prime year at age 27. “You look at most good teams and check how many key players are 27 to 34, as opposed to 20 to 25,” says a GM.
In Pittsburgh, McCutchen and Alvarez are 26, and will have ten years combined if and when they make the playoffs. In Cincinnati, they do not have an everyday player under 25, and Joey Votto, Sin Shoo Choo and Brandon Phillips are 29-to-32, with Jay Bruce at 26 launching towards stardom. As good as Homer Bailey and Mat Latos may be at 27 and 25, Johnny Cueto’s injury could cost them an October berth.
Yasiel Puig may be the 22-year old L.A. Fire, but the next youngest regulars are Matt Kemp, 28, and Hanley Ramirez, 29. As for the pitching, Clayton Kershaw is in the Trout category, at 25 seemingly headed for his face on the Dodger Stadium wall. Ryu is 26, Zack Greinke 29, Ricky Nolasco 30.
Tampa Bay is another fascinating study. First, Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and scouting director R.J. Harrison have all been in place since 2006. When Maddon sought to “clean out the guys who think they’re on scholarship” his first two years and in 2008 they made it to the World Series, Maddon credited James Shields, Jonny Gomes and Dan Wheeler as being “critical to bringing the young players along.” Last month, when asked who were the key players in getting the Rays to the World Series in his rookie 2008 season, Evan Longoria did not hesitate to name Shields and Gomes.
Tampa the last two years has been able to trade Shields for Wil Myers and edge Matt Moore, Chris Archer, 24, Alex Cobb, 25 and Jake Odorizzi into their rotation. But ask Archer and he credits the 28-year old Price as being the ballast that led all the younger pitchers through their developmental stages.
As for position players, Myers is 22, and spent close to half the season in Durham. The next youngest position regular is Desmond Jennings, who at 26 is still on a learning curve. Next youngest? Matt Joyce and James Loney, 29.
Boston is edging 24-year old Will Middlebrooks and 20-year old Xander Bogaerts into the lineup. Detroit has 23-year old Jose Iglesias and 26 year old Austin Jackson, then Prince Fielder, 29, and all four of their starting pitchers are 29 or 30. Prime. In Texas, Elvis Andrus may be 25, but this is his sixth season as a regular, and Jurickson Profar is working in, although he and Bogaerts may turn out to be in the Longoria/Harper/Trout/Machado world. The only starting pitcher under 26 on a team that is very good at developing pitching is 22-year old Martin Perez, and in the bullpen, Joe Nathan at 38 is the closer and his court is experienced.
Even the Athletics have two everyday regulars under 28; Yeonis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson are 27. The one area they have had success in using kids has been pitching; Jarrod Parker is 24, Jonathan Gray 23, A.J. Griffin 25, with Bartolo Colon 40 (Celsius), the ballpark and the extraordinary outfield defense as a support system.
Maybe the Houston Astros will turn out to beat history and the learning curve, but it will not be easy. Many forget that the foundation for the great Atlanta Braves run was laid by Bobby Cox as general manager and, with Paul Snyder, the scouting and building wise men who then turned it over to Hall of Famer John Schuerholz as Cox went to the dugout.
In 1980, Cox’s fifth year running the organization, he said, “when you’re rebuilding, it takes five years with some luck to develop pitching, seven years before you can start realizing position players.”
The luck was the Doyle Alexander-John Smoltz deal in 1987. By the sixth year, 1991, they pitched their way to the World Series. Four years later, when Chipper Jones and David Justice and others developed, they won the world series.
So don’t go predicting a Cubs-Astros world series in 2015. As Neal Huntington can tell you, it takes a lot of days when you’re the fly before you’re the windshield.