The Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t share a lot of similarities these days. The Rays broke out in 2008, and have been contending in the tough American League East ever since. The Pirates, on the other hand, just completed their 18th losing season in a row in 2010. However, both small market teams share a few similarities heading in to the 2011 season.
The Rays came in to the day with a projected payroll just over $38 M, according to Rays Index. They were also shopping their highest paid player, Matt Garza, who is making $5.25 M in 2011. The Pirates came in to the day with a projected $40.5 M payroll, and have been reported to be shopping Paul Maholm this off-season, who makes $5.75 M. But again, the Rays and Pirates share very few similarities.
The Pirates aren’t going to compete in 2011, even if they keep Maholm. The Rays traded Garza today to the Chicago Cubs, cut their payroll to $33 M, and even after the trade, they could still be competitors, despite heavy competition from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The main reason for the difference is that the Rays do exactly what a small market team should do: buy low and sell high.
There were two things I noticed today about the eight player deal between the Rays and the Cubs. The first was that the Rays really didn’t need the prospects they received. The top two prospects were Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee. Archer, a starting pitcher, was the number one prospect for the Cubs, according to Baseball America, and should start the 2011 season in AAA. Despite trading Garza, the Rays are loaded with starting options, with David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson still in the rotation. Lee, a shortstop in low-A and the number four prospect for the Cubs, is excess. The Rays have a young major league shortstop in Reid Brignac, and 2008 first round pick Tim Beckman also in the lower levels.
The other thing I thought about was that the Rays are never really on the other side of this equation. As we saw during the Jason Bay negotiations, the Rays are very stingy when it comes to giving up prospects. In fact, the most recent trade that could be considered a “buy” move for the Rays also included Garza. In 2007 the Rays traded top prospect Delmon Young, along with Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie to the Minnesota Twins, in exchange for Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Three years later the Rays replaced Bartlett with Brignac, replaced Garza with Hellickson, and traded both players in separate deals, landing a combined total of nine prospects.
As mentioned above, the Rays don’t need the prospects right now. That could be different down the line. If you told me right now that in December 2013 the Rays would trade Reid Brignac and Jeff Niemann, and replace them with Hak-Ju Lee and Chris Archer, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. That’s why the Rays are successful. They have a loaded farm system, and talent in the majors, and when that talent gets too expensive for their market size, they can afford to bring up someone from the minors, trade the veteran player, and in the process re-stock the system.
The immediate need for the Pirates is to actually build a talented team in the majors. There is hope on the horizon, with the 2010 Altoona rotation, the potential for Jameson Taillon to move quickly through the farm system, the chance that the Pirates draft Anthony Rendon, and the close proximity to the majors of top prospects like Tony Sanchez, Starling Marte, Andrew Lambo, and Chase D’Arnaud, who will all be in AA or higher to start the 2011 season. There’s no guarantee that this group will lead the Pirates to success, but when paired with the talent already in the majors, specifically Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and James McDonald, the group looks very promising.
Even if you concede that this group could turn things around for the Pirates, two arguments are always brought up. First is the “they will only have a small window of opportunity to compete before they will have to rebuild”. Second is the “they will end up trading (Insert Player Here) once he reaches free agency”.
If the Rays have shown anything, it’s that the window of opportunity doesn’t have to be 2-3 years if you do things right. The Rays are technically re-building, yet they have one of the strongest young rotations in the game, and they’re competitors in the strongest division in baseball. The Rays also trade their players before they reach free agency. In the last two years the Rays have lost Garza, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, and Scott Kazmir, to name a few. Yet they’re still contenders, thanks to their strong farm system, which will remain strong after the Garza and Bartlett trades, as well as the compensation picks for Pena and Crawford.
Part of the problem with the Rays is attendance. No matter how good the team is, they’re in a bad situation. They’re located away from the heart of Tampa, unlike the other sports franchises in the area, and they play in Florida, where sports teams shouldn’t exist due to all of the transplanted fans in the area who have no affiliation with the local teams. If the Pirates turn things around they do have the hope of pulling a smaller scale Minnesota Twins where their attendance would increase, allowing them to keep a player or two well beyond their free agent years.
Overall the most important thing is a strong farm system. The system was almost bare three years ago. Of the current young talent, only Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Brad Lincoln were considered prospects. Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf, and James McDonald were added via trades. Pedro Alvarez was drafted. Of the Altoona rotation, Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke were added through trades, Justin Wilson was drafted, and Rudy Owens only turned in to a top prospect due to the adjustments made over the last two seasons. The system is starting to show some promise, although it was an uphill battle from the start, and the work is far from over.
The lower levels are starting to see a boost in talent with all of the high-upside prep players that have been drafted over the last few years. Those players should start to reach high-A by the end of the 2011 season. The biggest jump in the minors is the jump to AA. A lot of scouts and players I talk to say that if you have the talent to be successful in AA, you have the talent to be successful in the majors. The Pirates are starting to look loaded at the lower levels, mostly in the pitching department, but the farm system won’t be in top shape until they become loaded at the AA level and above.
If that happens, and if the Pirates turn things around, then we won’t have to worry about potential Jose Tabata trades closing the window of opportunity for the team to compete. We can just turn to guys who are ready to step in to the majors, like Mel Rojas Jr. or Exicardo Cayonez as two possible examples. Then we can watch the Pirates trade Tabata to reload the farm system, all while keeping the same pace at the major league level. It’s all easier said than done, as you’ll notice the Rays are one of few teams who seem to have mastered this. That said, if there’s any question as to what the goal should be for the team, this is it.