After firing John Russell, the Pirates are in the process of finding a new manager, and they'll probably hire one after the World Series is over. But the new manager, whoever he is, won't usher in a new era for the Pirates so much as he'll mark the second half of one. The Pirates are in much better shape than they were when general manager Neal Huntington was hired three years ago, but the organization still has a number of problems.
In 2007, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays won 66 games. In 2008, the Rays dropped the "Devil" and won 97. They changed from a perennial loser to one of baseball's best teams almost overnight - or so it seemed. The transaction most emblematic of that change was their brilliant trade of the talented young outfielder Delmon Young for starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Almost instantly, pieces fell into place, as Garza helped shore up the rotation and Bartlett helped fix a terrifyingly awful defense.
The real key to the Rays' emergence, though, was that they had most of the pieces of the puzzle even before the trade - the Bartlett trade merely allowed them to start putting the puzzle together. They might have only won 66 games in 2007, but the organization was already in pretty good shape.
When Neal Huntington took the Pirates job in 2007, he had a 500-piece puzzle box with about four pieces in it. There was Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, and not much after that except a couple years left before a middling major-league core hit free agency.
Building a major-league team from the ground up takes time. An organization consists of more than 200 players in the majors and minors. Most of the 200-plus Huntington had to work with when he took over were worthless, and establishing the kind of talent pipeline the Pirates needed to succeed would take years. There wasn't any getting around it. Most of the criticism of Huntington since he took over has focused on all the wrong things - first, whether the rebuilding plan was the right one (it obviously was), and second, whether Huntington got enough in his series of trades to ship veterans out of town. The results of Huntington's trades are certainly debatable, but they aren't the sorts of things Huntington's job should hinge on - anyone expecting a sturdy collection of impact talents from the bunch of players Huntington had to trade really wants a magician, not a general manger.
Despite their 105-loss season in 2010, the Pirates are unquestionably in much better shape than they were three years ago. After three strong drafts, their farm system has gone from one of the worst in baseball to being in the top half. They've also made their first big splash in Latin America by signing promising pitcher Luis Heredia, two years after spending millions on a new academy there.
That said, the next few years will present a number of problems. The Pirates are still at least one draft, and probably two, away from having enough talent on hand to even begin thinking about what their Jason Bartlett moment will be. There still isn't enough talent. The Bucs tried a mini-Bartlett trade this year when they acquired Chris Snyder to move the iron-gloved Ryan Doumit out from behind the plate - as with the Bartlett trade, Snyder was acquired not to add young talent to the organization but to make the most of the existing talent by aligning it well. But the Snyder trade was only possible because the Diamondbacks were willing to give him up for practically nothing. We shouldn't expect many of these sorts of trades in the next two years.
In general, for this coming year and probably also the next, the Pirates will be trying harder to increase the overall talent level of the organization than to assemble that talent into a team. There hopefully will be significant improvements at the major-league level over that period, but there might not be - the Rays' example shows that wins and losses at the major-league level aren't the only indication of franchise strength.
John Russell got three years to establish himself as the manager of the Pirates. He wasn't the greatest manager, but he was also a sacrificial lamb, since the Pirates had no chance of competing during that time. His successor will probably also get about three years, and if there aren't serious indications by then that the Pirates have moved closer to contending, both he and Huntington will be out the door. Clearly, the Pirates' chances for the first two years aren't great, and even in the third, there may be a substantial number of headaches.
For one thing, the Pirates currently have a fairly interesting core of young hitting talent already in the big leagues, in Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, McCutchen and Walker. That group will be entering its prime in three years which, if all goes well, could give the Pirates a formidable offense. But while the Pirates organization also contains a bunch of pitching talent, many of their best young pitchers (Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, Luis Heredia, Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain) still aren't of legal drinking age, and therefore are unlikely to help much until four or more years from now. (There's also a decent group of pitching prospects in Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke that is closer to being ready, but this batch has less upside than the Taillon-Allie group does.)
That their best young players are at such different stages of their careers could put the Pirates in a tricky situation three years or so from now. The best-case scenario is that they'll have the best core of 26-and-under talent in baseball, and even then it will be difficult to assemble it into a contender. The Pirates thus could find themselves in a tricky position - they could have a manager three years into his tenure who has never had a winning season, and a general manager who has been on the job six years and never had one. Calls for Huntington's firing are already quite loud, since most fans have little understanding of what a team in the Pirates' position needs to do to win, or what terrible shape the franchise was in when Huntington took over.
2013 thus could be a critical year for Huntington and his new manager. If they succeed - if Huntington continues to gather talent, and has his Jason Bartlett moment by finding a way to assemble that talent into a real team rather than just a collection of jumbled pieces - the city of Pittsburgh will treat them as heroes. If they don't, they'll both probably be fired.
If I were a prospective big-league manager, I'd be interested in the Pirates job. There would be a ton of upside if I got the job and had success, and Jim Tracy's example shows that one can continue to have a managerial career elsewhere even after failing miserably as a Pirates manager, simply because there's no shortage of excuses if you fail. But that doesn't mean it will be easy. In three years, there's a very good chance the Pirates' manager will be looking for work yet again.