Pirates’ Unique Window of Opportunity

by M.C. Antil on February 12, 2011

Could things be finally looking up in Pittsburgh?  And could at long last the light at the end of the Pirates’ deep, dark tunnel be something other than an oncoming train?

Pirate General Manager Neal Huntington

Consider: In acquiring Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke for a gaggle of talented young players, the Milwaukee Brewers have basically pushed their future toward the center of the table and declared, “All in.”

Though not quite the to the same degree, with the Matt Garza deal the Chicago Cubs have likewise mortgaged a big chunk of their future in what appears to be a last ditch effort to squeeze a championship out of the club’s core of aging stars, each of whom seems to grow more and more irrelevant each year.

Meanwhile, last week Keith Law of ESPN.com rated the Houston Astros as the 27th best minor league system in all of baseball; which is another way of saying the 4th worst.

Tony Sanchez: Future All Star?

And Baseball America, which every April ranks all the teams in baseball, top to bottom, on the basis of organizational talent, had the St. Louis Cardinals ranked 29th out of 30 clubs.

In the NL Central, only the defending champion Cincinnati Reds remain somewhat stocked with young talent on both the major and minor league level.

What all this means, of course, is that after years of playing whipping boy to their rivals in the game’s junior varsity division, lo and behold, the poor, pitiful Pirates have stumbled upon a window of opportunity to once again become (gulp) relevant.

Jameson Taillon

The question remains, however, will they take advantage of it?

Based on their recent history, that clearly remains to be seen.  But this much is certain: with budding stars like Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, and Jose Tabata, there’s a core of very young and very talented position players already in place in Pittsburgh.  And those four will probably be joined at some point this year (or next) by a fifth potential All Star, catcher Tony Sanchez, the club’s 2009 first round draft pick.

But the $64K question is, can the Bucs finally build a pitching staff?  Or more to the point, can they do it — unlike they’ve tried to do every year since Sid Bream lumbered home just ahead of Barry Bonds’ throw — by scouting, signing and developing  the kind of high-ceiling, high-impact power arms that win championships? 

After so many years of cozying up to soft-tossers and bargain-basement pitch-to-contact guys like Zach Duke, Josh Fogg, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm, it seems as though a light has finally gone on in the head of the Pittsburgh front office.  Last June GM Neal Huntington spent three high draft picks and millions in bonus money on three prep stars with ridiculously live arms, the best of whom, Jameson Taillon, has electric, top-of-the-rotation stuff. 

Then just before the deadline, he flipped reliever Octavio Dotel for one of the liveliest young arms in the Dodger system, James McDonald.

Neal Huntington bears watching this season as much as any GM in the game.

Huntington is still a long way from where Dayton Moore finds himself in Kansas City this spring, or where Jon Daniels found himself two years ago in Texas — namely, with a slew of young power arms just a thumb scratch away from the big leagues — but he’s getting there.

That’s why Neal Huntington bears watching this season as much as any GM in the game.  Because, given his core of young position players and the nice head start he’s got on building an arsenal of young power arms, any move he makes in 2011 — including the very first pick of the free agent draft — that doesn’t somehow net him at least one more kid with swing-and-miss stuff will have to be considered a mistake. 

James McDonald

Will the Bucs win in 2011, or even contend?  Not a chance. 

But this coming season presents Huntington with a golden opportunity to get a leg up on the suddenly prospect-poor NL East, while at the same time adding to a pool of young talent that could keep his club in contention for years to come. 

And because virtually every other GM in his hotly contested division is entering 2011 in win-now mode, that window — at least for the first few months of the season anyway — is as wide open as it’s been in decades. 

Now, let’s just see what he does with it.

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