After seeing the Pittsburgh Pirates make a series of decent, unassuming signings this past offseason in an effort to remain competitive in the tightly-contested NL Central, I thought back to the comparison of the Pirates' excellent outfield trio and the Miami Marlins' own triplet of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. That comparison holds up well several years after the breakout campaign of the trio in 2014; heading into the 2016 season, the Marlins' trio is projected by Steamer to put up 11.5 wins, while the Pirates' group is slated for 11.6 wins, basically identical numbers.
When looking at that comparison, it is a wonder to think that the Marlins and Pirates have started off with the same foundation, and yet somehow those two teams seem to be in opposite worlds right now. The Pirates have won a Wild Card spot three years in a row, while the Marlins have suffered through yet another disappointing campaign. What is the difference between these clubs, and how far away is Miami from being a Pittsburgh-style contender? What has Pittsburgh done to differentiate themselves?
Low Budget Beginnings
It is important to note that both the Marlins and the Pirates are traditionally low-budget teams. Last year, the Pirates worked on a $90 million payroll, and the team has not worked at a number higher than that in some time. Under the leadership of Neal Huntington and the team's ownership, Pittsburgh's payroll has been among the lowest in baseball at this time, routine ranking in the bottom five and hitting the lowest numbers in two seasons since 2010. This is very similar to where the Marlins classically work.
Farm System Depth
The early years of the Pittsburgh time period under Huntington and this regime were lean on wins until the arrival of guys like McCutchen and company. The team utilized those lean years intelligently, trying to nail as many draft picks as possible. Since 2008, the Pirates have picked in the top 10 of the draft six times, yielding three players who are expected to be Major League contributors at some point this year. They also have earned several compensatory draft picks under their old system.
But the Pirates' drafts have not merely been lucky. In addition to signing and identifying some of the best talents at their draft pick positions, the Pirates also took an aggressive approach to drafting and international free agent signing. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, the Pirates took advantage of the unlimited spending and loose slotting to pay up for top domestic and international talent. The team was among the highest spenders in the later days of the free market of international free agent spending, which yielded guys like Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte. Gone were the days of going cheap on their talent in the upper draft picks, which yielded moves like the team passing up on Matt Wieters for Daniel Moskos, for example.
The Marlins, on the other hand, have not gotten the most out of their farm system management. The team has selected in the top 10 four times in the same time period, most recently in 2014 with the selection of Tyler Kolek Kolek remains a long-term project who could still work out, but none of the other three selections have become top-tier talent. Two of them were traded before they were even given a chance to contribute, all in the name of immediate upgrades. You will note that the Pirates never traded names like Jameson Tallion, Gerrit Cole, or even the lesser valuable Tony Sanchez, opting instead to hold onto their depth.
The Marlins also failed to spend significantly in the draft or the international market. The team traditionally stayed at slot and signed lower-risk talents in the draft and was among the lowest spenders in international free agency. The team nailed two of its mid-first rounders with Christian Yelich and Jose Fernandez, but combining low spending in both areas has deprived them of farm depth.
All of that led to Miami suffering when it came to building up a farm system. The club has suffered from depth issues in the past because it was forced to promote talent quickly through its system to help at the big league level. The Pirates have continued to keep the pipeline flowing, but Miami forfeited too many opportunities to do the same.
The Current Roster State
This leads to the situation Miami and Pittsburgh now face. Both teams have star cores. For the Marlins, the team can boast one star outfielder and two guys with All-Star potential along with an ace at the top of the staff. The Pirates have the same in their outfielders and Gerrit Cole. Each set of guys was home grown. Both teams have some semblance of strong position player work across their positions, and both teams face some question marks on their rotation.
On the Marlins' side, they accumulated some of their talent by trading away depth and Major League talent. Their third baseman, Martin Prado, cost them a valuable league average starter in Nathan Eovaldi. Their second baseman cost them three prospects, all of whom are at or bordering the Major League level. Only one more Marlins starter is a homegrown player. Meanwhile, the Pirates made smart moves that cost them either minor talent or money. They were fortunate to get a good player out of the $11 million they invested in Jung-Ho Kang, but they risked that money in international waters to get that benefit. They traded an overachieving reliever for what ended up being a starting catcher in Francisco Cervelli. The team took more calculated bets than Miami has.
On the pitching side, the same stands, except with the inclusion of the team's vaunted depth. Sure, behind Cole and Fernandez, both teams are weaker. However, the Pirates made several smart moves in recent years in signing A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano to bolster their team on the relative cheap. They bought wins at appropriate rates and now have a veteran hand on their roster to help guarantee wins. In addition, the Pirates have enviable depth in Tallion and Tyler Glasnow along with other potential names.
The Marlins traded some of their depth, and the few smart gambles they made did not pay off. The team was right to go after Mat Latos in a high-upside play, but unlike Burnett for the Pirates, it did not work out. They traded Andrew Heaney because they had so much confidence in Justin Nicolino, which turned out to be incorrect. When they gambled, it went wrong, and when they chose to utilize depth, they paid too much for the wrong players. The Pirates, on the other hand, never risked or put up their elite prospect talent, leaving them plenty of help in case of injury or players leaving.
What Can They Do?
It is hard to say what the Marlins can do to remedy this. After all, the Fish seems to have doubled down on this current core, though this has never stopped them from divesting from any players in a hurry if things go wrong. But the rapid changes from thoughts of contention to rebuilding has really hurt this roster. When the Pirates decided to compete, they decided to make the right moves to push them closer while still keeping their salary among the lower ones in the league. Miami has vacillated too much between wanting to compete and looking to rebuild, and their choices appear haphazard in this department. It has made their rebuild more difficult.
The Marlins could look towards the Pirates for the right approach, but it starts with a realistic approach and the right monetary investments on free agents. The Fish have exhibited some of those habits, but due to their past transgressions, it is going to be harder to build a base from here; the team simply lacks the depth to compete with the Pirates right now despite similar problems. Still, the club can learn some lessons on how to run a small-market organization on a budget and still sign and acquire the right players.