Pittsburgh Pirates Are Right to Attempt to Balance Present, Future Priorities

Andrew Kaufman@akaufman23Senior Analyst IFebruary 20, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Andrew McCutchen #22 of hte Pittsburgh Pirates looks on during a rain shower against the Cincinnati Reds during the game on September 30, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Zachary Levine of Baseball Prospectus recently penned an article for ESPN Insider that discusses the Pittsburgh Pirates' present and future. 

The main premise of Levine's article is that the Pirates are wasting Andrew McCutchen's best years by failing to build a contender around him and that the team is caught in limbo between chasing playoff appearances now and maintaining a strong foundation for the future.

Levine primarily proposes dramatic solutions, like trading McCutchen or selling the farm for one or two "missing pieces," neither of which seem like particularly palatable options. Instead, we should challenge the assumption that a team cannot focus on both the present and the future at the same time. 

McCutchen is 26 years old. He is just entering his prime, not languishing towards the end of it. He will still be in his prime when Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon anchor the Pirates' rotation, and he will likely still be a very effective player when players like Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco join the major-league club.

Meanwhile, the Bucs have added several players over the past 18 months who have the potential to be effective for longer than just the immediate future. Veterans like A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez still have something in the tank, while players like Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez were acquired for both their present and future value.

The Pirates have long been targeting this period as the time when they would begin to show sustainable progress, and it is difficult to argue against the evidence of this progress. Even considering last year's collapse, 2012 remains one of the Bucs' best seasons in recent memory, while the Pittsburgh farm system is teeming with top prospects and is in its best shape in years.

Neal Huntington has made many mistakes during his tenure as the Pirates' general manager, but his approach to organization-building has not been among them. Big moves such as the Jason Bay trade, which are deservedly criticized for what appears to be poor talent evaluation, represented sound directional decisions even when the final outcome was less than desirable.

The model the Pirates are following, one seemingly driven by indecision as long as the team keeps losing, is a very similar model to the one followed by the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays clearly aim to put a contending product on the field each year, yet they do so without trading prospects for veterans and unload veterans when they become overvalued or too expensive.

Tampa Bay has been extremely successful pursuing this model, perhaps as successful as a small-market club can be over any stretch of time longer than a few years. The Rays have been successful both because of the sensibility of their strategy and their front office's ability to repeatedly make the right decisions with regard to talent evaluation.

The Pirates have not remotely been in the same league as the Rays when it comes to evaluating talent, but this is not a reason to indict their strategy.

The Pittsburgh organization has been very patient as it attempts to climb out of the large hole the team found itself in as recently as five years ago. It would be a shame to lose that patience just as the Bucs are getting close.