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What Can The Pirates Learn From The Nationals?

I recently wrote about the mess that was made of the Montreal Expos in the years before and after they thought they might be contracted, and the connections between that situation and the one Neal Huntington inherited:

Dave Littlefield's reign of error at the big-league level has been well documented. But he was no less awful at the minor league level, and by the end of his tenure he was essentially behaving like he thought the team would be contracted. He picked Daniel Moskos over Matt Wieters, passed over high-upside players late in the draft, ignored Latin America, ignored the back end of his 40-man roster, ignored the issue of depth. He behaved like nothing that happened after 2009 mattered. Despite a horrible farm system and no immediate chance of contending at the big league level, Littlefield took a reliever with the fourth overall pick of the 2007 draft. Think about that. Contemplate it. It's staggering.

In the early 2000s, the Montreal Expos actually thought they might be contracted. In that time and in the weird years that followed, they traded Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips for Bartolo Colon. They traded Chris Young (the pitcher) for Einar Diaz (who, incidentally, has the weird distinction of being traded not only for Young but for Travis Hafner). They traded Jason Bay for Lou Collier. They used first-round draft picks on Chad Cordero and Bill Bray (neither of whom are terrible pitchers, but they're both relievers). They let Vladimir Guerrero leave and didn't offer him arbitration. As a result, when the team relocated to Washington, it had a terrible farm system and little at the major league level. They had a hole they're still trying to dig their way out of, four years later.

The Pirates team Coonelly and Huntington inherited was really no better. There was just one potential impact player in the farm system (Andrew McCutchen), a perennial 67-win major league team, and a general lack of good young players anywhere in the organization.

An excellent comment by WTM about the Nationals, though, has convinced me that I didn't go quite far enough. If the situation Huntington inherited in late 2007 was very much like that of the MLB-owned Expos/Nationals, then what can we learn from the Nationals' attempt to pull themselves out of their hole? The answers might surprise you.

For the Expos, the threat of contraction loomed in 2002 and 2003, but for a while after that, the issue was not so much contraction as it was the fact that the Expos were owned by Major League Baseball, which kept the team's budget to a minimum, to the clear detriment of both the short- and long-term futures of the team. Late in the 2003 season, for example, Montreal was in the midst of a Wild Card race, but Major League Baseball would not let the Expos call up players once rosters expanded in September, on the grounds that MLB didn't want to spend the tiny sum of money that would be required to pay those players. This period was characterized by negligence to both the minors and the major league club that resulted in the departure of Guerrero and a farm system that was among the worst in baseball. In other words, the overall situation of the 2004 Expos was a lot like that of the 2007 Pirates.

The Expos became the Nationals and moved to Washington after the 2004 season. In November of that year, they signed Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla for a total of about $23 million. These signings made a splash and signaled changes in the way the team would be run, but they ultimately had little impact on the team's performance. The Nats also signed Esteban Loiaza to a cheap one-year deal, and Loaiza had a comeback season, providing the Nats with 217 good innings. They traded Maicer Izturis and Juan Rivera to the Angels for Jose Guillen, who gave them a decent year in 2005 before struggling in 2006. In the 2005 draft, the Nationals grabbed Ryan Zimmerman and John Lannan. After two years of picking relievers in the first round, the choice of Zimmerman, a high-upside hitter, was a significant improvement. 

The Nats' most significant move in the 2005-2006 offseason was to send Brad Wilkerson, Termel Sledge and Armando Galarraga to the Rangers for a year of Alfonso Soriano. Many commentators blasted the Nats for the deal, but Wilkerson and Sledge did little for their new team, and Galarraga did nothing for the Rangers before being shipped to the Tigers in a minor trade. 

Ted Lerner became the owner of the Nationals in May 2006. On July 2, the Nationals announced that they'd signed 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez for $1.4 million, and the team hailed the signing as an indication that they were finally ready to compete:

The signing is considered significant for the Nationals because it demonstrates that they intend to compete with the Braves, Yankees and Red Sox for the best talent in Latin America. In fact, incoming president Stan Kasten considers the Gonzalez signing the equivalent to the Braves signing outfielder Andruw Jones and shortstop Rafael Furcal in 1993 and 1996, respectively. Jones and Furcal are now stars in the big leagues.

"This is an important signing," Kasten said via telephone. "We can now compete for the best talent in Latin America. We will have a presence there."

A couple weeks later, Nationals GM Jim Bowden pulled off what appeared to be a great trade, getting Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez from the Reds for next to nothing. Also that summer, the Nats drafted Christopher Marrero and acquired a couple of solid prospects in Garrett Mock and Shairon Martis for mediocre veterans.

In terms of the overall path of the franchise, the moves to acquire veterans like Castilla and Guzman were mostly noise. The acquisition of Soriano brought a jolt of excitement to the team, but he was gone after the season, and while Bowden does deserve credit for bringing in a star player for very little, many of the folks who bashed him for the trade at the time had a point. Soriano had posted terrible OBPs and frightening home/road splits in his two years with the Rangers, and the path he's followed since then was far from a foregone conclusion. And Wilkerson was, at the time, a solid player in what should have been the prime of his career; he collapsed immediately after joining the Rangers.

So the Nats' acquisition of Soriano was mostly noise also. Or it would have been, if not for the fact that he netted them two draft picks when he left. The ultimate impact of the Soriano acquisition thus might not be felt for many years. The Nats used one of those picks to grab Jordan Zimmermann, who now might be their best prospect. They also used a compensation round pick that they got from the Mariners signing Guillen to select Michael Burgess, now perhaps their second-best prospect. The Nats were thus able to turn veteran acquisitions into young talent.

The Nats' excellent 2007 draft returned more than just Burgess and Jordan Zimmermann: they also got solid youngsters in Ross Detwiler, Derek Norris, Jake Smolinski and P.J. Dean. They even set a record for sixth-round picks for the $1.8 million bonus they gave Jack McGeary. Zimmermann, Burgess, Detwiler, Norris and McGeary are all now among the Nationals' top prospects, and Smolinski and Dean were shipped with Emilio Bonifacio to the Marlins for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham. Baseball America, which had ranked the Nats' farm system the worst in baseball entering 2007, ranked it ninth in 2008. And at the big-league level, new manager Manny Acta led what should have been a terrible 2007 Nats team to 73 wins, thanks to some creative use of defensive shifts, intelligent management of a weak pitching staff, and a surprising comeback year from Dmitri Young. After the season, they improved what already appeared to be a reasonably bright future by trading two mediocre vets for a high-upside outfielder in Lastings Milledge.

In the meantime, though, something strange was going on. In 2008, the Nats didn't give any six-figure bonuses to Latin American amateurs, and Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo were implicated in the bonus-skimming scandal. Then the Nats failed to sign their top 2008 draft pick, Missouri State pitcher Aaron Crow. And their 2008 big-league team completely fell apart, losing 102 games.

As WTM pointed out, the Nats took their eyes off the ball, and in the coming years, they're going to pay for it. They had a spectacular draft in 2007 and made a number of intelligent trades, but 2008 hurt them significantly. It would be a huge mistake for the Pirates to make the draft and Latin America anything other than priorities number one and two, and the Bucs' new front office, much to its credit, seems to understand that. 

Beyond that, I'm coming around more and more to the idea that acquiring veterans might actually be a good idea, as long as it's done right. This means 1) the veterans shouldn't be allowed to block anyone important; 2) money spent on veterans shouldn't keep the Pirates from spending heavily on the draft and Latin America; and 3) acquiring veterans should not, in itself, be confused with actual progress, which comes from the more important business at hand, which is building a core of good young players from the farm system.

The Nationals have actually gotten quite a lot of mileage out of veterans--the two best prospects currently in their farm system came as the result of the departures of veteran acquisitions Soriano and Guillen, and they also got a nice prospect for Stanton. In addition, Soriano in particular surely helped them at the gate while he played in Washington. 

The key, for teams like the Nationals and the Pirates, is to know what to do with veterans once you get them. If a prospect who plays the same position as the veteran comes charging through the farm system, you've got to get the veteran out of the way. You've got to look for opportunities to trade veterans to GMs who are stupid and/or desperate (and you can't get too attached to the veterans you do acquire, or you'll miss those opportunities). And, finally, compensation picks are your friend. Whenever there's even a theoretical chance you might get them, it's worth it to offer arbitration.

Among Bucs Dugout readers, Dave Littlefield really poisoned the well on veteran acquisitions, because he did it in exactly the wrong way. He used them to block more interesting young players, he rarely traded them for players who ended up helping (with one big exception, which was the trade of Jeff Suppan and Scott Sauerbeck for Freddy Sanchez), and he never, ever offered arbitration to a free agent, so he never got any compensation picks. As a result, the Bucs almost completely missed out on opportunities to turn veteran acquisitions into young talent. 

A lot can go wrong when a team like the Pirates acquires veterans, as the Littlefield example shows, and it's something that should be done carefully. But the example of the Nationals suggests that when it's done right, it can really help. Again, though, veteran acquisitions are not progress in and of themselves--that can only really come by building a good core of cheap, young players. The Nationals took steps in that direction for a while, but really set themselves back in the 2008 season with their missteps in the draft and their problems in Latin America. More than anything else, the Pirates can't afford to have a year like that.

UPDATE: As I was writing, the Washington Post published this, in which the Nationals' top brass speak in defense of their slipping farm system.