On September 29th, the final day of the 2013 MLB regular season, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have more wins than losses. Disregarding the infinitesimal chance that the Pirates undergo a colossal collapse for the second season in a row, there’s a strong chance the the Pirates are going to play more than 182 games this season.
It’s hard to explain how much that means for this franchise, a downtrodden punching bag whose last winning season came before I was born. Even last season, when the Pirates were on pace for their first winning season in over a decade before having a 5-18 stretch in September, Pittsburgh couldn’t climb above fourth in the NL Central.
Now that the Pirates can practically feel the brisk October chill flowing off the Allegheny, management has made a risky move to help firm up the roster heading into the post-season. In acquiring veterans Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the New York Mets, they’ve offered up 19-year old middle infield prospect Dilson Herrera.
What’s particularly interesting about this move is not so much the players involved – a pair of solid veterans and a well-regarded prospect – nor the effect that each party will have on their new ballclubs (although I suspect both sides will be happy with the deal in the short-term) but rather the idea of going for “it” whenever “it” is in sight. Herrera is not going to be the next Mike Trout or Manny Machado, so to some extent this is not the perfect illustration of a team sacrificing it’s future for immediate results, but it is fair to question why a team would trade an intriguing young player for a pair of older, more experienced guys, one of which will likely be nothing more than a back-up catcher.
Last season we saw a team take the opposite stance, albeit in a different context. The Washington Nationals decided that their organization would be better off in the longrun if they shut Stephen Strasburg down for the season in August. On the day after Strasburg’s last start of 2012, the Nationals were six and a half games up on the Braves in the NL East and were a sure bet to make the post-season. Even knowing that, the Nationals, an expansion franchise that had been one of the worst teams in baseball since they moved to the states and had the most electric young pitcher/hitter duo in the league between Strasburg and Bryce Harper, decided to take the overly cautious route.
One year later, the Nationals currently sit 13 games back of the Braves in their division with no hope of a wildcard birth. They wagered on their team being able to become a perennial playoff participant when they sat Strasburg, and they’ve lost the bet this season. Of course, we are just one year removed from the decision, and in the macro the decision to spare Strasburg’s arm a month of work may payoff somehow.
Or, more likely, fewer miles on Strasburg’s odometer won’t have any affect on his ability to perform in the future. As we continue to learn each time a pitcher tears a ligament, there is almost nothing that can be done to prevent it. Could Strasburg have blew out his elbow on August 30th of 2012, thus costing the Nationals a full year of service from their ace? Of course, but ligament damage is either going to happen or it’s not. Would it have been ill-timed for Strasburg to hurt himself then? Yes, but his risk was no higher that it has been any time he’s been on the mound this season. Washington made unnecessary preparations for something that could have happened, and it cost them an extremely rare opportunity to compete for a championship.
The game of baseball has an inherent challenge that few other professional sports do: it incorporates a minor league system in which the 30 major league teams have complete control over the development of their prospects. Thus, there is an added layer of strategy that must be factored in when building a team that regards to what the franchise will look like years down the line. While it’s important for teams to do their best to strike a balance between finding productive major league players and stocking their system with assets that project to take their place, it’s not a perfect science, and it’s heavily dependent on context.
In the case of the Pirates, they are a team that has been scratching and clawing at relevancy for as long as I’ve been alive, and they’ve finally built a team that is on the cusp of contending for it all. Herrera may turn out to be one of the best second basemen in the league someday, but right now he is an unknown, a question mark in a farm system full of them. What is not a question is that the Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball, one with a narrow gap separating them from a trip to the World Series, a gap that could be filled by someone like Byrd or Buck.
So, when you are presented with a chance to accomplish the ultimate goal of the sport, you have to be willing to deal with the unknown, whether that means taking the reigns off of your staff ace or trading away one of your better prospects. The tradeoff may mortage your future, but there’s no way of guaranteeing that the Pirates will ever have this good of a chance to win it all again.