I'm a sucker for crime dramas like Law and Order. I know it's not a great show and that most every episode, good or bad, follows the same formula. But anything crime-related reels me in ... except shows like Snapped or any other Lifetime/Oxygen show detailing women meticulously plotting the deaths of their boyfriends and husbands. Too scary, and my girlfriend watches far too many of them for my tastes, taking careful notes.
So yeah, it's certainly not the best of entertainment choices, but the great thing about a formula show is that you can pretty much tell within ten minutes or so whether the episode is going to be any good. Sometimes less: "Oooh! That line from Jerry Orbach was extra sarcastic. It's gonna be a good one!"
Whether there is ever a similar moment when you can give up on a sports team is a completely different story. I've been thinking about this because of two letters to the Post-Gazette, published on August 9th. Neither letter says anything substantively new - 'Why do you idiots continue to watch and support a losing franchise?' - but the timing is interesting, because I think we're fast reaching that key ten-minute window where even a fan like me is wondering: Are the Pirates serious about winning?
That key moment is August 16th, the deadline for signing the 2010 draft class. Like most teams, the Pirates will surely be going to the wire with their top picks, pitchers Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. Both pitchers have tons of talent and would immediately become the most interesting minor leaguers in the system.
You might be wondering why this draft class is the key moment for me. Why not after last draft class, when the Pirates picked Tony Sanchez, instead of a riskier but higher-ceiling talent, fourth overall? Why not get mad at them for botching the Jason Bay trade, and worse, for giving playing time to Andy LaRoche at the expense of Jose Bautista, who has launched 34 homers this year for the Toronto Blue Jays?
I could, unfortunately, go on with the list of errors ... but I could also on with a list of successes. It isn't the individual decisions but rather the larger picture that's important. A lot of bellyaching goes on about the Pirates' abysmal record. 'Neal Huntington can't even put together a decent team in his third year; why should I think he can build a winner?'
The answer is in the formula. First, a word about the old ways; the old formula, if you will. There's no doubt that it was bad. Dave Littlefield, the General Manager from 2001 to early September 2007, left the Pirates the situation he left was as grisly as any murder scene on L&O. Heck, the whole operation could have been the subject of its own spinoff. "A baseball team is managed by two separate and equally important groups: The scouts, who draft the players, and the coaches, who develop them. These are the stories of their incompetence." Littlefield's carefully groomed appearance already made him look like an actor ready to jump on set, so it's not that big of a stretch. Under his leadership, the Pirates frequently ignored elite talent, drafting "ready" guys.
Truth be told, the Pirates got unlucky with guys like Bryan Bullington, Daniel Moskos, and Brad Lincoln. They were drafted precisely because they were seen as good bets to at least contribute, even if they'd never be stars. (Think of 2003 first round pick Paul Maholm: Solid, but not a star.) But even if they had reached their expectations, the Pirates would never have had much of a chance to make the playoffs. Littlefield wanted to surround these draft picks with veteran free agents. This produced middling teams - not contending, but not embarrassing. The 2002-2004 squads are good examples. Respectively, those teams managed 72, 75, and 72 wins. Not good, but not abysmal. It's the kind of result that (incorrectly) convinced some fans that the Pirates were just one or two free agents away from winning 90 games.
Clearly, Neal Huntington has followed a completely different formula, especially when it comes to acquiring young talent. Drafting and signing Pedro Alvarez in 2008 was a great start. Alvarez was the kind of expensive, elite talent the Pirates avoided under Littlefield. Sanchez was not a high-upside pick, but the Pirates justified it by arguing there was no elite, Alvarez-level talent remaining, which was true. More importantly, they spent a lot of money on high-upside high school players. While these guys are years and years away, the idea is that if one or two of them hit, the Pirates will control their rights for six years, without having to pay the huge bonuses they'd command if they had gone to college and succeeded.
Talent like Alvarez represents a shot in the arm for the Pirates. I don't think Steve Blass and Greg Brown would have been as excited about Saturday's extra innings 8-7 win over the Colorado Rockies if it had been Chris Snyder hitting the homer to propel the Bucs to an extra innings victory. (You should all listen to that call, courtesy of North Side Notch.) Sure, their childlike excitement is funny to an outsider, as reflected in this Deadspin story. Obviously, though, the excitement wasn't from the fact that the blast took the Pirates from 38 to 39 wins. No, it's because one of the Bucs' young talents, partially carrying the hopes of the franchise on his shoulders, came through in the moment. Outsiders who haven't suffered through years and years of a bad plan can't understand how important that moment was. When Pedro's shot soared through the air, so did our hopes, if only for an instant.
But the team needs to keep building on those moments. For the most part, they have: The Pirates have been following a plan they weren't following before. There have been missteps, but each and every successful team has made mistakes along the way. Expecting perfection is unrealistic, and even an error like losing Bautista is perfectly acceptable because it fits the formula. The team gave playing time to Andy LaRoche, a guy with lots of potential at the time of the trade. Even if those moves failed, they were the kinds of risks the formula demands. Guys will fail from time to time, and I'd rather LaRoche fail than Pat Meares. Better to die on your feet than on your knees, and all that.
Fortunately, the Pirates have, to this point, been willing to take shots on young talent. The team has been the top spender over the last two drafts, handing out $18.7 million. We know this formula can work, because it's what teams like the Tampa Bay Rays did, and what teams like the Kansas City Royals are currently doing.
I recall watching Bobby Cox, the legendary Atlanta Braves manager and, less famously, their general manager from 1986-1990, talk about teams like the Pirates during MLB Network's coverage of the draft. Cox said it takes at least six years to build a solid foundation for a winning team. He presided over four years of talent collection that became hugely important to the Braves. Their corresponding win totals from 1986 to 1990: 72, 69, 54, 63, and 65. In 1991, the team won 94 games. Building the team with young players still learning how to play the game will lead to more losses in the short term, but the payoffs at the end can be tremendous.
Obviously, I'm not saying that losing at the major league level guarantees future success. My point is simply this: Pretty much everything the Pirates are doing is completely consistent with what a management committed to building a winner would be doing. It's consistent with that winning formula. Spending money on younger players, instead of washed up veterans, is a smart allocation of resources for a small market team like the Pirates.
The flip side is that the current course is equally consistent with what a management committed to maximizing profits with no intentions of ever getting better, as the letter writers linked at the beginning insinuate, would be doing.
So which path are the Pirates going to take? Should we stick around or turn off our televisions? Taillon and Allie are the kinds of talents a team like the Pirates can't afford to lose, and while I can get behind rolling the dice on quantity rather than quality (like they did last year, in taking Tony Sanchez and spreading money around) talents like Taillon and Allie don't fall into a team's lap very often.
The winning formula demands the team makes a serious effort at getting both players. August 16th will tell us a lot about how serious the Pirates are to following the formula.