The growing sentiment against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ moves this off-season has led many to believe that the Pirates lack homegrown talent. Is that truly the case?
Sports are the very definition of a “What have you done for me lately?” business. This will always cause some level of doubt to be shed on 29 out of 30 Major League Baseball general managers, with the most recent World Series winner getting somewhat of a reprieve. A quick scouring of message boards and twitter can come up with any level of distrust or questioning for those at the helm, regardless of track record.
It’s doubtful that Neal Huntington is losing sleep over criticism of one slow off-season, but it has brought an apparent weakness of Huntington’s regime to light: a perceived inability to draft and develop players.
Critics cite that the best players on the most recent Pirates team have been mostly the work of previous Pirates GM Dave Littlefield. Draftees such as Andrew McCutchen and international free agents such as Starling Marte are always referenced as superstar type players that Huntington inherited when he took over as general manager in 2007. That is true. The Pirates are a small market team that must live by their farm system, yet many feel that system has not lived up to expectations.
Obviously Huntington has done a superb job with trades and budget free agents, given the framework in which he must ply his craft. Francisco Liriano and Francisco Cervelli are two recent examples of players that were undervalued until they got to Pittsburgh. Both were scouted and signed or acquired because of Neal Huntington and his team.
This criticism of Neal Huntington got me thinking and I wondered how the Pirates measured up against the rest of Major League rosters in terms of truly homegrown players currently on the major league roster.
For ease of research, I am going to include players that were on the teams’ active roster and received regular playing time during the bulk of the 2015 season. I decided not to count players that were September call-ups and received cups of coffee because I want to judge Neal Huntington and the Pirates on purely impact-type players.
I define ‘homegrown’ as either a draftee or amateur signing – international or otherwise – that is developed chiefly by the Pirates. So if you trade for a guy while he is in A-ball and he gets to your MLB team, I am not going to count it for this article. I also decided to include international free agents signed and then developed by the teams. This is the best way to completely level the playing field and draw fair comparisons among every team.
So without further ado, let’s dive right in and see how Neal Huntington and the Pittsburgh Pirates measure up to the rest of Major League Baseball.
In 2015, the average Major League roster had 6.6 home ground players receiving regular playing time. The high was 11, which was shared by the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets. The low mark – one – is held by trade-happy Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics.
The Pirates as a team rank right near the top in terms of homegrown players as they had 10 regular contributors in 2015. They were Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Jung Ho Kang, Jordy Mercer, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Gerrit Cole, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes.
Compare that to the rest of the playoff finishers in the National League:
Homegrown contributors for 2015 NL Playoff Teams
|Team||2015 Record||Homegrown players|
It’s obvious that the Pittsburgh Pirates rely on home grown talent, but it’s very important to note that not all of these players came from Huntington’s time as GM.
If we remove the holdovers from Littlefield, five players remain: Alvarez, Kang, Mercer, Polanco, and Cole. Five is slightly under the league average of 6.6, but it is far from other playoff teams. In 2015, those players accounted for 11.6 Wins Above Replacement, with three players being good enough for three of the top 12 spots on the team in terms of WAR.
I think it’s fair to say that those five players had a substantial impact on the Pirates in 2015.
Does this mean that Neal Huntington misses badly on drafts? The track record is a bumpy one. His drafts might be perceived as up and down, but that’s genuinely the nature of the Major League Baseball draft. You draft 18-year-old players and hope they turn into big leaguers many years later.
Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. Baseball is not like the NFL, where you draft someone to make an immediate, or close to immediate, impact. The goal is always to draft the best player available and develop their raw skills into Major League ready. Huntington has taken the best player available more often than not, Tony Sanchez not withstanding.
If the current pipeline is any indicator, we will be seeing a large influx of Huntington drafted and developed players in 2016 and 2017.
Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Alen Hanson are all expected to be contributors in either 2016 or 2017. It is this core of players that will determine how people judge Huntington and his team as drafters and developers. You could see the first and second basemen of the future and two very important pieces of the starting pitching rotation. If Glasnow and Taillon are as good as advertised, by 2017 you could see three/fifths of the pitching rotation be Neal Huntington draft selections.
I don’t expect to change any minds with this research, because narratives are really hard to break. Going purely by the numbers, as of 2015, Neal Huntington and the Pirates aren’t far from average in terms of home grown players on the active roster. If things go as expected, Huntington could do above average or better in 2016 and almost certainly by 2017.
If you couple this paradigm shift with Huntington’s solid record of free agent signings and trades, then you have all the makings of one of the better General Managers in all of baseball. This offseason may be slow and underwhelming at the moment, but during his tenure as Pirates’ GM, Huntington has been anything but that. He and his team have helped turn the Pirates into one of the best run organization in the game and it seems that his drafting is finally catching up with his trades and free agent pickups.
That could mean very, very good things for the Pirates in the near and far future.
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