The Real Point About The Royals

In a chat at the PBC Blog (subscription required), Dejan Kovacevic today addressed the inevitable comparison between the Pirates and the Royals, who now boast one of the strongest farm systems within memory.

It never stops surprising me how many people fail to see the real problem of these Pirates. It's really not about payroll or ownership nearly as much as it is about plain, old baseball decisions that have bombed.

I often have been charged with overvaluing the quality of the veterans that this management team inherited in 2007, but no one will convince me that the Pirates got anywhere near a representative return on all those players shipped out.

That's the best way to build up a farm system with elite prospects in a hurry. The draft and international venues take time, but they're even more important in the long run. The draft has gone well for the Pirates, I think, but my above point underscores yet again the folly of letting Miguel Sano get away.

Just picture the Pirates if they had gotten even decent returns for all those trades, plus signing Sano. Then, SI might have been writing about them and the Royals.

Kovacevic is correct in noting that the exclusive focus of many fans on the team’s payroll as the source of all its trouble is missing the real issue. He’s also correct in noting that he’s been charged with overvaluing the veterans that GM Neal Huntington traded away, by me among others.

But in focusing primarily on the trades (apart from Sano), he’s missing the issue almost as badly as the fans who are obsessed with the payroll. Well, no, not "almost," but he is focusing on the wrong point. I’m not going to rehash the arguments about the value of individual players like Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, et al. It’s not really necessary, either, because the notion that "breaking up" a collection of 95-loss talent was going to produce contender-level talent, or even 70-win talent for that matter, while also getting much younger and less expensive, is absurd on its face.

The Royals are certainly the model for the Pirates, but not because of veteran-for-prospect trades. Their farm system wasn’t built on trades. None of their top ten prospects, and only one of their prospects who rank in Baseball America’s top 100 (Jake Odorizzi at #69), arrived in trades. By contrast, Andy LaRoche ranked #31 at the time of the Bay trade. And the Pirates had no trade piece, not even Bay, who was nearly as valuable as Zack Greinke.

The Royals have really done just one thing well, and that’s draft brilliantly. That’s what the Pirates have to duplicate, as well as succeeding in the international arena. The Royals are an especially bad comparison for any decisions other than drafting. Dayton Moore’s work at the major league level has been one long succession of "plain, old baseball decisions that have bombed." Just ask Royals’ fans about Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Yuniesky Betancourt, Mike Jacobs, Joey Gathright and Coco Crisp. While you’re at it, ask them if they’re looking forward to watching Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera. And see if you can find a more foolish series of transactions than Moore’s decision to dump Miguel Olivo and John Buck so he could sign the far older Jason Kendall to catch for two years. Olivo and Buck both enjoyed solid seasons in 2010, with Buck making the All-Star team, while Kendall sunk to just a hair above replacement level.

Whether the Pirates can come anywhere close to the Royals’ success (or, let’s say, tentative success, because they’ve done nothing so far at the major league level except tussle with the Pirates for top draft positions) remains to be seen. As Kovacevic rightly points out elsewhere, Moore’s been on the job a year longer than Huntington. It proved to be a crucial year, at least as far as perception of the farm system is concerned: one year ago, BA ranked the Royals’ system 16th. They had a slew of huge breakout seasons in 2010, mainly by players drafted out of high school. With the Pirates focusing heavily on teenage pitchers the last two years, it’s obvious from the Royals’ example that it’s too soon to judge. In another year, though, or two at most, it won’t be any more. But that’ll be the crucial judgment, not Huntington’s decision to break up the ’27 Yankees.

UPON FURTHER REFLECTION, AN ADDITIONAL POINT:

Dejan infers—with the comment about SI writing about the Pirates instead of KC—that the Pirates’ system would be vastly stronger if NH had gotten “even decent returns” in the trades. To say that’s an overstatement is, well, a huge understatement. But it’s possible that the Pirates’ farm system could be marginally stronger now if NH had gone for lower level prospects instead of major-league-ready players like LaRoche, Morton, Milledge, Clement, etc. Then again, they probably would just have ended up with more flawed prospects like Tim Alderson and the system would be rated about where it is now. Those are the sort of prospects you get when you tear down a 95-loss team.

But this line of thinking also ignores the situation NH was facing. In the typical rebuild situation, a team will have some talent ready to go in AAA and AA, even if it’s just B-/C+ type prospects. A sad-sack franchise usually will have had high draft picks combined with at least a little recognition that it needs to build through its farm system. But the Pirates weren’t like that. Not only did they have a rotten team at the major league level, they had almost nothing in the minors. To my knowledge, that’s unprecedented. The Royals weren’t known for astute drafting prior to Moore’s arrival, but he inherited a farm system that BA ranked 11th. NH inherited one that was ranked 26th. The only teams ranked below them were the Astros, whose owner was unwilling to invest anything at all in the farm system; the A’s, whose system had been depleted by large numbers of graduations and injuries; and the Tigers and White Sox, who’d just traded away all their best prospects. In short, the only teams rated below the Pirates were ones that either weren’t trying or had extenuating circumstances.

Typically, a rebuilding team would just bring up the prospects, regardless of whether they were quite ready and regardless of whether they were more than marginal prospects. But the Pirates didn’t have that option. All they had in the upper minors was a bunch of career minor leaguers with no upside at all. I don’t know that NH has ever publicly explained his strategy in the trades, but he had to put a team on the field. I suspect he was trying to balance the goals of building the farm system and populating the major league roster with players who had at least a little upside. To do the latter, he brought in a bunch of struggling, former top prospects who might still turn things around. I don’t think he did a very good job of it, but I also don’t think he had the option of focusing solely on lower level prospects. And that’s apart from the difficulty of getting teams to turn loose of truly high-ceiling prospects these days.

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