There are countless ways to examine and use history to one’s benefit. Today we’ll look at some of the lessons the Pittsburgh Pirates must learn and remind ourselves that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Before I get started, not all the Pirates history is a lesson in failure. They have won five championships since their inception and that’s more than many teams can say. There have been big successes and moments that have gone down in MLB lore, not just Pirates legend. On the other hand, 20 consecutive losing seasons is a record not only in MLB but all American professional sports leagues. One of those leagues employs the Cleveland Browns.
So, what kind of lessons am I talking about? Well, let’s dig in.
Trading Your Best, Can’t be for Nothing
Common sense, right? Branch Rickey famously told Ralph Kiner “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.” I’m not sure Branch wanted to be right with this prediction but he sure was. Eventually we all know the team rebounded and won in 1960 but the 40’s and 50’s could give the 00’s and 10’s a run for the worst stretch in team history and none of the players acquired in the Kiner deal contributed by 1960.
This lesson needs absorbed and not repeated. The last time the Pirates traded their best player they moved Gerrit Cole to Houston for Colin Moran, Jason Martin, Michael Feliz and Joe Musgrove. Some of these players are still writing their stories and some have real promise, none will touch what Gerrit is or was. Prior to that they moved Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco for Bryan Reynolds and Kyle Crick. This trade has of course been great. Perhaps a lesson from this admittedly short sample-size of history is that trying to receive MLB-ready talent in return does not net as much fruit as just getting good players no matter the level.
This is exactly why I don’t like the current team advertising what they want for Starling Marte. The likelihood of losing a trade in which you move your best player, is higher than Kyle Stark when he introduced Hoka Hey. Trying to get MLB ready players seems to increase that likelihood more often than not, so why limit yourself by putting out a wish list?
If You Want to Rebuild, Do it, All of It.
I’m not going to take this back too far in the Pirates history and with good reason. The landscape of the game has changed drastically. For instance, if Willie Stargell was right now a power hitting leader on this club, say 27 years old, we wouldn’t be considering moving him to first base so he could still contribute, we’d be looking to move him and most likely to an American League team where he could DH. Free agency has been great for the players and it certainly is fairer, but the fans especially those in small to mid-markets only experience the downside primarily. Sure, there are exceptions, but rebuilding is simply not what it once was.
For a real, honest-to-God rebuild, you really do have to target a time frame, identify who will be here when that time frame hits, then move anyone outside that picture and restock with young talent. This is typically a 3 to 4 season process but if done correctly gives you a window of 3 or 4 seasons in which to compete. I know everyone hates Neal Huntington around here but if you can possibly tramp that down for a moment, Neal really did exactly that when he took over for Dave Littlefield. This culminated in the 98-win season, a total that most seasons would get you a division championship, which should be the goal rather than wildcard births. After that season the Pirates were at a crossroads and they chose to try to keep the team “competitive” meaning .500 (They actually said this. I know, gross) rather than build on the team or tear it down again.
My hope is that Ben Cherington studies the history preceding him and understands half measures won’t get the job done no matter what direction he chooses.
Remember that talent emerges slowly for some
As fans we often want to dismiss a player after watching them struggle in 100 at bats or 20 innings of relief, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Being reactionary is quite literally a fan’s place in the game. As management however the Pirates were guilty of the same thing several times throughout the years. There’s the short version, Jose Bautista being left exposed to the Rule 5 draft. And the long version, Kevin Newman being all but written off after a sub-par September call up in 2018. Injuries would give Newman the opportunity, and he took full advantage, cementing himself as the short stop solution for years to come in Pittsburgh.
Another young player named Roberto Clemente was stolen in the Rule 5 draft from the Dodgers who were trying to leave him hidden in Montreal, their AAA affiliate at the time in 1954. He came to the Pirates and struggled with injury, performance and language. Everything came together for him toward the end of ’59 and ultimately ’60 when they won the World Series. Obviously, I wasn’t alive for this event but when you think about letting a player take 5+ seasons to allow his talent, the tools you observed in his possession to really come together for the ultimate reward that was Clemente, wow. It makes me think of how many players WE have collectively decided are useless after a couple seasons.
Patience is a virtue and in baseball where you draft players sometimes with an eye toward developing them for 6 years prior to making an appearance in MLB, it’s also a necessity.
We are blessed to have one of the longest-tenured baseball franchises in all of Major League Baseball here in Pittsburgh, and it is filled to the brim with legends of not only the Pirates but the game itself. If you track back to the last championship, its hard to say we’ve created any since without stretching a bit at least. Doug Drabek won a Cy Young award, Andrew McCutchen won an MVP, but neither had the staying power or legendary status bestowed upon Clemente, Pops, Parker, hell even Teke. The big reason for that, the elephant in the room if you will, is a lack of winning it all. Being a legend is more than being a nice guy who can hit the leather off a ball or Cutch would already have a statue. It's more than being a dominant pitcher for a few seasons or Drabek and AJ Burnett might well have numbers on the wall next to Maz.
We should always study our history, revere it, learn from it, enjoy it. At some point though you must realize that an entire generation has missed any of their own. An entire era of fans has no first-hand stories to pass on to their children. An entire generation being brought up to appreciate a nice ballpark and some crab fries with a side of bobbleheads.
Learn from the early 90s teams and the wildcard teams of the early ‘10s and do what is needed to push the team over the edge when you get close, lest we watch another group fail to study the lessons history has to teach us. History may very well be our richest and most valuable asset, IF we know how to use it.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007