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Maybe the Pirates aren’t the new Rays

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Count this as my first editorial since the changeover.

Frustration is pretty much the order of the day for Pirates fans and calls for heads to roll are going to be a natural result. It’s certainly legitimate to ask whether the front office has run out of solutions.

When I think back to the GM Who Shall Not Be Named, I remember that the solution to everything was, We just have to work harder and make smarter decisions. Even if there’d been a shred of evidence that the Pirates in those days were capable of making smarter decisions than your drunken nephew, that’s still not a plan. It’s really a deflection. It’s what the Nameless One said when confronted with issues like making a financial commitment in the draft or Latin America, or taking risks on players like bounce-back pitching candidates or catchers with undervalued skills. It’s only a plan when you’re doing something more than going on autopilot and doing what everybody in MLB does as a matter of course.

Only a fool, or somebody who’s just so angry he can’t even pretend to use the capacity for reason, would equate the current front office with that level of failure. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something missing. It’s clear, to anybody who’s paying any attention at all and who isn’t beyond reason, that this front office is very good at evaluating and developing pitching. At the same time, I don’t see how it’s even debatable that the same front office is bad at evaluating and developing position players, whether you’re talking about hitting, fielding or baserunning.

What I really feel like much of the time is that this front office lacks that last ounce of boldness that’s needed to succeed as a lower revenue team. It’s not easy, clearly. Billy Beane confronted the same problem and, maybe out of desperation, concluded that he’d have to try to “genius” his way to a solution. That led to moves like trading Addison Russell for veteran rentals and then trading Josh Donaldson for prospects just a few months apart. If that’s not schizophrenia, I don’t know what is. And that’s the risk in the “just do something” line of thought.

What really brought all this on is the news that the Tampa Bay Rays have acquired an international signing slot from Seattle. The Rays are easily the most financially strapped franchise in MLB, but they blew past their international bonus pool limit a couple years ago and now can’t sign any player for over $300K. The Pirates, of course, are in the minority of teams that have refused to make that commitment. The Rays obviously did it, and in the process paid a 100% tax on the overage, because they thought it was a good way to get value for their very limited money.

The particularly aggravating part is that the Rays, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America, have continued to be aggressive despite the penalty, signing the very large total of 36 players. In other words, they’ve spread the money around while subject to the penalty, which is precisely the reason the Pirates give for not incurring the penalty. The Rays are doing exactly what the Pirates are doing and still went on the big spending spree that the Pirates weren’t willing to undertake.

And that’s what I see going wrong with the current front office. They’ll do all sorts of things the Nameless One never would try: looking in strange places for talent, using analytics to identify undervalued assets, paying real attention to the farm system instead of just giving it lip service. But they seem to stop one step short, to shy away from doing something truly bold or taking a risk that a particular player move may not be a bargain. I don’t want to see a Pirate version of the Donaldson trade, but I would like to see some recognition that the current strategies aren’t enough.