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Is The Pirates' Front Office Bad At "Talent Evaluation"?

Yesterday in the comments someone mentioned a series of posts I did two years ago called "It Takes Time." It was a few months after Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington had been hired, so I looked at other moribund franchises that had hired new GMs to see what Coonelly and Huntington's first couple of years might look like.

After glancing through those posts, I'd encourage you to look at them if you weren't around when I originally published them. I hate looking at my old writing in most cases, because baseball players' careers are so difficult to predict that, with the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the assumptions turn out to seem really wacky. (I imagine most baseball writers feel like this.) The "It Takes Time" series does have some ideas that turned out to be pretty weird, but a lot of it still stands up really well. It's also relevant because we can look at it to provide a frame of reference for Coonelly and Huntington's first couple of years, now that they're over.

A lot of what I take away from the series is that we're too close now to what Coonelly and Huntington are doing to see anything too clearly. The phrase "talent evaluation" gets thrown around a lot by critics of Coonelly and Huntington, and it always makes me squirm a little bit, simply because I don't know how much we can really tell about their abilities in that area right now. Any honest baseball writer will tell you exactly what I did in the last paragraph--predicting careers is an incredibly inexact science. Most players worth worrying about could take any of a very broad spectrum of career paths, and the younger the player, the broader the spectrum.

Some examples: Garrett Jones spent his entire career through age 27 looking very much like a run-of-the-mill AAA hitter who would never get more than a couple cups of coffee in the majors; by the end of his age 28 season, he was the Pirates' best hitter. Bill Hall had a horrible minor league career and never hit more than ten jacks at any stop outside of the homer factory at High Desert, and yet he somehow made it to Milwaukee and hit 35 homers in 2006 before fading back into oblivion. Fernando Tatis was a star by age 24 with the Cardinals, but didn't post an OPS+ above 81 in his age 26 through 28 seasons and wound up out of baseball before coming back in his thirties and emerging as a good complementary player with the Mets.

My point here is that if we look at a sample size of hundreds, or thousands, of major leaguers, their careers will be broadly predictable (quick improvement throughout early twenties, peak in mid- to late twenties, and then a slow decline), but individuals buck the trend in ways that aren't that predictable at all. In a few years, a GM will only make a couple dozen moves that have immediate and dramatic impact at the big-league level. So when we're talking about "talent evaluation," what are we really saying?

One possibility is that we're saying that Huntington and Coonelly just don't know what a good player looks like. If the only pitchers they acquired were 5'4" knuckleballers, or the only centerfielders they acquired with 42-year-olds with bad knees, we'd know pretty clearly that their "talent evaluation" skills were poor. 

I don't think this is primarily what the "talent evaluation" crowd is saying, though (although they might have a case with regard to a few of the front office's more minor acquisitions, like Luis Rivas, who just fundamentally did not look like a major leaguer but who picked up a bunch of playing time anyway). Instead, I think what the "talent evaluation" folks are saying is that Huntington and Coonelly have acquired a bunch of guys who haven't turned out to be very good. 

I usually have a couple of problems with these sorts of argument. First, they rarely consider how little was given up to acquire some of Huntington's more disappointing acquisitions (like Charlie Morton or Lastings Milledge, say). And second, we just don't have a big enough sample to determine whether Huntington and Coonelly's "talent evaluation" abilities are lacking or not. We just don't know.

A thought experiment: would you say that Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman has problems evaluating talent? I certainly wouldn't--he helped the Rays win a pennant in 2008, and they had an above average team last year and are playing brilliantly this year. And yet if you look at the stage of his career where he was trading away lots of players he inherited (this is the part of Huntington and Coonelly's careers that most fans tend to focus on), there isn't an overpowering sense that he knew exactly what he had or what he was getting. He traded two relievers for Edwin Jackson and a prospect, and Jackson turned out to be a good pitcher, but Friedman quickly shipped him out for Matt Joyce, who has done nothing. He traded Aubrey Huff for Ben Zobrist, who unexpectedly turned out to be a great player. He dealt Julio Lugo, back when Julio Lugo was good, for Joel Guzman and Sergio Pedroza, who didn't do anything. He signed Carlos Pena to a minor league deal, but partially negated the value of that excellent signing by letting Josh Hamilton go in the Rule 5 draft. He also let Evan Meek go in the Rule 5 (which was probably fine, given all the awesome stuff the Rays had that needed to be protected then) and then basically gave him to the Pirates for nothing after the Bucs couldn't protect him on their roster anymore (which wasn't so good, from the Rays' perspective). 

Friedman's masterstroke was a genuinely bold and brilliant trade in which he shipped Delmon Young, then an extremely valuable property (more valuable than any Huntington and Coonelly had when they entered the organization, except maybe Andrew McCutchen) for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. That is the trade you can point to and convincingly say, "Yep, this guy knows what's he doing." But that's just one trade. And most of the moves he made before that were uneven--a step forward, a step back. It was very clear, even then, that he had the right idea, but then it's also pretty clear to me that Huntington and Coonelly do too. 

The point, and you'll see this very clearly when you look back through the "It Takes Time" posts, is that there's just a ton of chance in the business of acquiring players. Another key point is that when a GM takes over a really bad franchise like the Pirates or the Royals or the early-aughts Brewers, he usually doesn't have much to trade in the first place, so the players he gets back in return will often be pretty speculative. Take that Julio Lugo trade, for example--Lugo was a good player, but not young and not a superstar, so Friedman got Guzman, who was once a top prospect in the Dodgers system. Guzman got too big to play shortstop and completely fell apart as a hitter, and Friedman got nothing in the deal. 

It is way too early to concede that, overall, Huntington and Coonelly's trades have even been disappointing, with Jose Tabata and Bryan Morris standing out as potential impact players from those deals and with Nathan Adcock and Jeff Locke also showing significant promise.

It's certainly clear that some of the individual players have been disappointing, but that's hardly surprising, and what does it even mean? If we line up the biggest disappointments next to one another (Charlie Morton, Lastings Milledge, Kevin Hart, Brandon Moss, and perhaps Jeff Clement, Tim Alderson and Andy LaRoche), what do they prove? The only player those guys were traded for who really had significant value and is still any good is Jason Bay. So, as with the Lugo trade, most of the other guys would have to be pretty speculative, and if we look at them, we can see pretty clearly why they were good players to speculate on. Morton has filthy stuff but seems to struggle with the mental aspects of pitching. Milledge was a former top prospect who'd already had semi-productive major-league seasons and was still in his mid-20s. Hart had promise but busted his arm. Clement was a former third-overall pick with a sweet swing. Alderson was a big lefty who had, at times, pitched brilliantly as one of the youngest players at his minor league stops. Moss was less interesting than the others, but then he wasn't that important a part of the Bay trade to begin with. 

Maybe the failures of these players do represent a failure by Huntington and Coonelly to identify talent, but I think it makes a lot more sense to just say that these were intelligently speculative moves that haven't panned out so far. They rolled the dice and haven't been rewarded for it. And even then, they didn't give up much. The Bay and Tom Gorzelanny trades have turned out very poorly (though there's still some hope for both in the minors, and the Gorzelanny deal might have looked a lot better if Jose Ascanio hadn't busted his arm immediately after joining the team), and the Nationals have to feel relatively happy about the Nyjer Morgan trade so far. But the Pirates have won the Xavier Nady trade outright, and in several other trades (Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth) it's looking more and more like their trading partners will get little or nothing, while the Pirates at least have several interesting players in the minors who might turn those deals into net positives.

In short, I think it's way too early to declare that "talent evaluation" is an issue. The picture I see is complicated, and in the absence of a larger pool of trades to evaluate, I see some deals that have worked out or at least have a pretty good chance of working out, and some that haven't. In most cases, I see trades that were basically the right idea. 

Besides, if there's another lesson in the "It Takes Time" series, it's that the long road from oblivion to contention has very, very little to do with who a team gets for its starting players. The Rays and the Brewers and the Pirates were bad because of those same players, so it's foolhardy to expect to get much for them. Go back and look at the post on the Brewers. New GM Doug Melvin traded guys like Eric Young and Mike DeJean and Valerio De Los Santos, even though they were vaguely useful players, for next to nothing. (And it was perfectly clear, even at the time, that he wasn't getting a whole lot.) These kinds of players--the vaguely useful players that awful teams have way too many of, your Jose Bautistas and your John Grabows--mean almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. One can take this line of reasoning too far, but it should have been expected that the Pirates would get very little in return for most of the players they traded. Those players weren't any good, which is why the Bucs were in a position to trade them.

In the end, whether or not the Pirates return to contention will depend very heavily on acquiring amateur talent. This was true for all three teams I looked at that succeeded. Tampa's success has been driven heavily by homegrown guys like Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, James Shields, and David Price, plus having a valuable homegrown trading chip in Delmon Young. Milwaukee has won in large part because of draft picks like Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Ben Sheets. And Oakland never would have gone anywhere without homegrown players like Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito.

In amateur talent acquisition, Huntington and Coonelly's record is relatively strong. Their two drafts have been excellent, and the low minors are now filled with interesting players whereas three years ago there were very few. They have made clear strides in Latin America, although much remains to be proven there. Ultimately, though, It Takes Time--a lot of time--for good drafts and good Latin signings to bear fruit. It will be several more years before we know for sure how effective Huntington and Coonelly have been.