After quiet offseason, Pirates respond to critics
Other teams spent big to upgrade, but Bucs GM says, 'Payroll does not equal playoff'
BRADENTON, Fla. -- If the Pirates' offseason had a soundtrack, it would not have been soothing to the ear. The Pittsburgh front office's decision to let some 2013 contributors go and not yet add new players through trades or free agency has been met with choruses of catcalls.
You'd have to have spent the offseason under a rock to not be aware of the almost nonstop potshots, from fans and media alike.
As an organization, to be sure, the Bucs got countless winter props for the lode of talent in their farm system. But that did not seem enough praise to offset the avalanche of criticism of the big league operation.
Yet, argued manager Clint Hurdle quite cogently, the two are related.
"We are one of about 15 teams that have to rely on prospects, depend on the pipeline from the farm system," said Hurdle, grouping his Pirates with other smaller-market teams. "We will always rely heavily on developing our own talent."
You grow it, you do not buy it. A very simple concept, and still the applause for the farm system couldn't drown out the knocks of general manager Neal Huntington for keeping the coffers zipped as Marlon Byrd, Garrett Jones, and most recently, A.J. Burnett, went elsewhere -- without being replaced.
Not replaced, that is, by veteran peers. For the Pirates, open competition trumps an open market, and Hurdle is extremely enthusiastic about seeing in the next few weeks some of the organization's plums take center-stage bows. The Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, Zack Thornton, Brandon Cumpton class.
"You have to anticipate change and get ready for change," Hurdle said. "We have created a culture of opportunity and manning up."
That's lower-case "manning," not "Manning," although Hurdle is a big fan of the Denver Broncos and feels his charges could do worse than emulate Peyton.
Ignoring the returning core of last season's 94-win team, the Pirates' critics spent the winter faulting them for not building on that success, and have even predicted their regression.
With Spring Training, the Pirates' party has had to come into the clearing, so to speak. Without directly responding to any specific brick, they apparently came to camp with a chip on their shoulder.
"We did some special things last year," Russell Martin said, "but everybody was disappointed with the way it finished. We felt like we had the team. So we're not that far away, and I think we've gotten better.
"I don't know what all the experts are saying," added Martin, with a twinkle in his eyes that suggested he knew very well, "but I consider myself an expert, and I think we're going to do better."
That, from a no-nonsense guy who a year ago, in his first Spring Training with the Pirates, had said he had never seen so many big arms in one big league camp -- before the team's staff went on to post the third-best ERA in the Majors (3.27, all of .02 behind the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke Dodgers).
The Pirates have been faulted for not spending on talent. That charge sticks: Nearly $2 billion have been spent on free agents this offseason; of that total, the Bucs have been responsible for $7 million (for right-hander Edinson Volquez and the return of shortstop Clint Barmes), despite an increase in their share of MLB's national television package and coming off a season in which they had the second-highest gate in franchise history (2,256,862).
The club thinking is, the in-house talent will get the job done. And, off the enthusiasm generated by the 2013 ride, no high-profile move was needed to stimulate fan interest.
"We'll reward our fan base by winning games, not by winning the talk shows or papers in the offseason," Huntington said. "We'll never win the offseason. If you look at the last four, five years, most teams that won the offseason have not won the season.
"Payroll does not equal playoff."
Huntington is not alone in making that argument. In its recent Spring Training Preview, the Los Angeles Times put it this way: "Spending is not winning."
Developing players could have a closer association with winning. The Pirates are confident that is how one reaches the next level, not by buying proven talent on the open market.
"We are really excited by where we can get to with some of the younger players we'll see in this camp," Huntington said. "The challenge is knowing when they will be ready, because when they get here, they will have to help.
"Like [Gerrit] Cole ... he made unbelievable adjustments at the Major League level on the fly [following his mid-June promotion last season]. He got into that going-to-beat-you mode."
In that mode, simply getting, and staying, here is not enough.
"The challenge for most rookies is to contribute, not to fall into that survivor mode," echoed Hurdle.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.