On the one hand, there are the Pirates, who in the sixth year of Neal Huntington’s regime remain one of baseball’s best stories. Yes, they made the playoffs for the first time since the George H.W. Bush presidency with the National League’s third best record, but, more important, what Frank Coonelly and Huntington and Clint Hurdle built took the Pittsburgh audience and media from their dwelling in the past regions to the present.
A possible MVP, Andrew McCutchen. A home run champion, Pedro Alvarez. A dazzling, brash 23-year old, number one starter in Gerrit Cole, who put Bryan Bullington and Daniel Moskos, John Van Benschoten, Bobby Bradley and Clint Johnston over the horizon in the dimming of the day. Agents, players and scouts now rave about the development system run by Huntington and Kyle Stark—a system ridiculed for some boot camp practices—and the leadership councils and relationship-building from the Gulf Coast League to PNC Park, as they now boast a deep, talented system with projectable players like outfielders Gregory Polanco and Austin Meadows, righthanded pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon.
It took time, and it took owner Bob Nutting and Coonelly to be patient, take the public hits, and appreciate that an organizational overhaul is, at least, a six year proposition. When Bobby Cox left the Blue Jays to be in charge of the overhaul of the Braves after the 1985 playoffs, he said that he thought it would take at least five years before they began reaping the benefits of self-developed young pitching, seven or eight years for positional players. He was exactly right, per usual, en route to his induction in Cooperstown next July.
The Pirates at least had their rebuilding process established under the old draft system, which in 2011 allowed them to go well above “slot” to get Josh Bell in the second round and Tyler Glasnow in the fifth. Now, with restrictions on both draft allotments and international signings of players under 22, teams trying to build from within cannot do what the Pirates, Red Sox and others have done; the new system is entirely rigged to reward upper class revenue markets as the price of free agents has skyrocketed.
Which is why the negativity that greeted the Cubs’ hiring of Rick Renteria this week seemed so stunning. Did the Chicago columnists think that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod were going to turn a talent-barren organization into the Cardinals in two years, with two drafts and with the impending re-development of Wrigley Field a restriction on payroll? They inherited Javier Baez, a potential big power infielder whose batspeed is the talk of every league in which he’s played. This past June, they got by far the best power bat in the pool, third baseman Kris Bryant. They’ve added outfielders Albert Almora through the draft and Jorge Soler as a Cuban signing. In trades for Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster, they’ve acquired two high-ceiling young pitchers in C.J. Edwards (two year totals of 163 1/3 IP, 108 H, 66 BB, 240 K) and Kyle Hendricks.
They hired a manager with whom Hoyer is familiar, a man whose bilingual and teaching reputation will be an important part of the 2015 arrival of several of these players, as well as the retracking of Starlin Castro and Rizzo. To develop young arms, they hired Derek Johnson away from Vanderbilt; several teams had tried, but couldn’t afford him, because a lot of crustaceans in pro ball think less of coaches and coaching than really good college programs like Vanderbilt, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
Huntington constantly reminds Nutting and Coonelly that the easy part is getting to the post-season for the first time, as much as it seemed a mission impossible since 1992, or what it seems like in Kansas City; even the Blue Jays lost patience as their system rebooted, and after traded a half-dozen of their best young players for Jose Reyes and other name veterans last winter may be have to endure another uphill climb.
The more difficult task is building a system that can simultaneously build and maintain competitiveness. That is what the Cubs are trying to do, rather than invest 30-something per cent of their payroll into 30-something year old free agents and mercenaries.
One team that could reboot in a hurry is Miami, if Jeffrey Loria will allow Dan Jennings and Mike Hill to make the kind of decisions he stopped allowing Larry Beinfest to make so capably for so many years. Loria gave Jennings the wherewithal to invest the capital to hire two highly-respected professional scouting directors in Jeff McAvoy, who was an assistant to Andrew Friedman in Tampa, and Billy Beane’s longtime ally Craig Weissman, and do not be surprised if Jennings makes additions to his amateur scouting operation .
Jennings inherits the fruits of Beinfest’s labors. They have terrific young pitching with Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner and a premium closer in Steve Cishek. It is probably a pipe dream to sign Giancarlo Stanton longterm, but with Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Colin Moran, et al, the position players are good enough to be carried into contention by the pitching, even if Stanton leaves. And say the Rangers would part with a package with an infielder (Jurickson Profar or 2B Rougned Odor), slugger Joey Gallo and a couple of arms from their never-ending pool (Luke Jackson? Others?), they could move on for five years while Stanton hits 60 home runs in Arlington.
But, otherwise, it takes time. This is Year Three in Houston and while the Astros will have had the first pick in the draft three straight Junes and inherited some very good players from the Eddie Wade regime, they are just going to begin to benefit from the pitching coordination of Brent Strom, a couple of years before Carlos Rodon and Mark Appel see the bright lights of Houston; remember, Appel and Rodon have a combined total of 0 professional wins, so they are not going to help their local cable problems before 2016. Seattle is in Year Four of its reboot. The Twins may have the best system in the game, but we will be well past the next Iowa Causes when their young players start filling their ballpark.
It seems as if it always takes Colorado a long time to go up the slopes, but a lot of that has to do with the air and the park. Which is why if the Cardinals keep dangling Shelby Miller, another arm and David Freese for Troy Tulowitzki—to go with two of the best arms in the game, Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray—they may have to think about it, because the only way the Rockies are ever going to build anything that is sustainable is to develop their own big arms; no free agent pitcher in his right mind would sign to pitch in Coors Lite Park.
Look, even the big market, big revenue teams have their issues. Brian Cashman isn’t going to know if the Yankees have Alex Rodriguez or his $25M until January, or whether or not Derek Jeter is going to be himself until April, hence they bring back Brendan Ryan. The Dodgers clearly want to find takers for two of Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and/or Andre Ethier. The Red Sox may have to figure out how to re-fit their team without Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mike Napoli. The Braves have to reconfigure their team with close to $50M in arbitration payouts.
But if you’re crawling from the wreckage—which the Pirates have done, the Royals are doing and the Cubs have just begun—there are few Advent or Epiphany solutions. It takes time, it takes a thin skin.
No one knows better than Huntington and where he, Kyle Stark and others were in the Pittsburgh popularity world at this time last year. His is a lesson for Dayton Moore, Hoyer and Epstein and others, with this reminder from the great mind of Bobby Knight:”If you listen to the guys up in the stands, very soon you’ll be sitting up there with them.”