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On the Pirates and seeing the big picture


I'm not quite sure what to make of this article in the Atlantic, which is a head-spinning 180 from the usual MSM narrative about the Pirates. To start, it argues that the criticism the Pirates faced following the 2010 leak of their financial documents was unjustified.

2010 was also the year that documents were leaked revealing that three major-league franchises—the Pirates, the Florida Marlins, and the Tampa Bay Rays—actually made money and in fact made substantial profits from losing. ... In theory, this wealth-redistributing dose of socialism should give the poorer teams a chance at parity. But what the leaked documents seemed to indicate was that the Pirates, Marlins, and Rays weren't putting those funds toward competing for free agents but instead pocketing the revenue-sharing checks.

In reality, that's what the Marlins and Rays were doing. But though the press came down particularly hard on the Pirates ... what the press didn't understand was that at the time, the Pirates were in the midst of a radical overhaul from the bottom up. ... They poured millions more into stocking their farm system with the new prospects—unlike other owners and managers who prioritized their teams' main rosters.

It's nice to see that, obviously, since that's pretty much what bloggers were saying all along. Better late than never, I guess. The article goes further, though, arguing that:

1) The Pirates are "selling out at home." That gives a misleading impression. The Pirates are second-to-last in the NL in attendance, the same as they were last season.

2) The Pirates have been successful thanks in part to "shrewd tactics in scouting." That's vague enough to be debatable, but ... wow, yeah. Haven't heard that one before.

3) "While most of the Pirates' talent is homegrown, the front office has also made judicious use of the free-agent market." That's certainly true for this season, and Russell Martin's importance to this year's Pirates team is hard to overestimate. But let's not forget all the free-agent flops of previous years.

In baseball, the reality of a franchise's health is rarely as good or bad as what appears directly in front of our noses. The Pirates' losing from 2008 through 2012 masked the fact that the health of the franchise was actually improving. The length of the losing streak, the Pirates' scouting/drafting issues (which now, ironically, themselves appear to have been not as bad as I and some others thought, thanks to the emergences of Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow), and some of the Pirates' free agent choices during that time show that the Bucs' front office was flawed.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that if the question is how well the Pirates' strategy is working, the only good answer is a complex one. That was true before the season, and it's true now.

Allen Barra, who wrote the article linked above, doesn't write about the Pirates regularly, so this isn't his problem in particular. But if, for example, the criticism of the Pirates' financial documents was baseless -- and it pretty much was -- let's say so at the time, and not wait until the Pirates are winning to say it. If I recall correctly, Dejan Kovacevic was one of the few really loud voices trying to get that issue right at the time. Most of the media was in outer space somewhere, saying whatever it wanted because the Pirates were losing, and if the Pirates are losing, you can say anything, as long as it's nasty.

Now, apparently, since they're winning, you can say whatever you want, as long as it's nice. Let's be consistent. The Pirates are having a great season, but we've been through some terrible times to get here, and the good times might not last. And if they don't, we run the risk of coming down with an awful case of whiplash. Much of the media commentary during the last few years of the Pirates' losing streak had no relationship to reality. Let's not go straight from that to a different kind of non-reality.