New regime brings new farm philosophy

New regime brings new philosophy

BRADENTON, Fla. -- In Pittsburgh, there are a few things that can be counted on with certainty. The traffic always slows near the tunnels. Steelers updates will trump most other city news. Your Primanti Brothers sandwich will be dressed in French fries and coleslaw.

Oh, and the Pirates will build through their farm system.

It's become the expected phrase in a city where baseball is sustained not as much by money as it is through development. Everyone's heard it. And heard it again. And again.

But just because that formula has been expected doesn't mean that it has translated into being successful. Not for a club teetering after 15 straight losing seasons. Not for a club that has been chided by outsiders for not taking the best talent in the Draft or not developing their talent to its maximum potential in the past.

So with fans calling for change and recent results dictating the need for it, the Pirates have ushered in a new regime, led by general manager Neal Huntington. There has been a shakeup of faces. However, the philosophy of building through the farm system has stayed the same.

So what's different? How does this new group succeed with a philosophy that others before them have preached but not produced? Why should this same message be received in a new way?

This new group is convinced that it has the right plan.

Case study
It was Sean Burnett in 2001. The following year, it was John Van Benschoten. Then came Bryan Bullington in 2002.

Three pitchers. Three first-round Draft picks. A combined four arm surgeries.

Three players now at crossroads in their respective careers, still fighting to make a Major League roster.

It can be shrugged off as coincidence that all three had to undergo season-ending surgery during their development in the organization. Then there's the theory that because each accumulated wear and tear by playing collegiate ball, arm problems were going to be inevitable.

Or there are the more pointed questions. Did the Pirates not draft the right players? And if they did, has the organization's player-development system fallen short?

"I think the reality is [that] Pittsburgh hasn't won in 15 years, and there are some things we have to do better throughout the whole organization," said new farm director Kyle Stark, trying to shed some light on the past. "I think it's easy to look at a guy and say [what] we should have done, looking back. But I think, ultimately, what we are trying to do is to make sure that the way we do things is sound, and if there are questions about how those decisions are being made, yes, we need to fix that. I think we're taking some strides to make sure that our process is more sound."

That's been the focus of months of evaluation and restructuring by the new management. During that period, it quickly became evident to both Stark and Huntington that certain aspects of the scouting and development system weren't maximizing talent or resources.

Obviously, the Draft isn't an exact science, and first-round picks don't always pan out as expected. But if the Pirates are going to rely so heavily on its system, Huntington knows that it is imperative that their probability for success in both Draft selection and development increases.

"Are we going to be perfect in every decision we make? No," Huntington said. "But if our process is sound and we have the quality of information and we evaluate it the right way, that will allow us to be more successful."

Pursuing cohesiveness
So how is that process being changed?

In some areas, wholesale changes were needed. That's why Huntington brought in Stark, a new scouting director in Greg Smith and moved Bryan Minniti to the post of director of baseball operations. Other parts of the system just needed tweaking.

In that initial assessment of the farm system, Huntington found what he called a "disjointed" Minor League system.

"Dysfunctional is a strong word, but dysfunctional is probably the best word. It didn't work," Huntington said. "I did not feel like it was cohesive. I did not feel like people were on the same page."

Consequently, cohesiveness has become a buzzword in the Pirates camp this year. There is an emphasis on consistency, on familiarity and on speaking the same language. For example, in something as elementary as how coaches name certain drills or the on-the-field lingo that is used, it will now all be the same from rookie ball in State College up to PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

What will this accomplish? Huntington believes that it will give players an innate familiarity with the Pittsburgh Pirates system, cutting down on the transition time from level to level.

"We don't want [a player] to have to worry about how he plays the game any different," Huntington said. "That expectation of how he plays, the energy level, how we take infield and outfield practice, that should stay the same all the way until that player reaches the big leagues."

Added Stark: "We are hopeful that by bringing in the instructors that we have and having this consistency throughout, that more players will be able to reach their potential."

In addition, new programs are being implemented across the Minor League rungs. Nutritional programs have been enhanced. Education on supplements will be commonplace. Video capabilities are in the process of being upgraded so that video can be used not only as an evaluation tool but as a teaching tool.

Emphasizing accountability
"The public's perception is that there is nothing here, and I think there is more here than the public thinks," Stark said. "There is some potential here in the system, and I think it's up to us to make sure that guys reach that potential."

Both Stark and Huntington said they have realized that -- without naming names -- the potential of certain players in the organization's past has not been maximized. Consequently, in order to cut down on that frequency, the two have adapted and implemented a tangible "player plan" that they watched work so effectively within the Indians organization.

Though the process is obviously being tailored to fit Pirates personnel, Stark is leading the way in developing a detailed portfolio on every player in the system. This personalized plan will have a player's goals laid out and will contain a conglomeration of perspective from coaches, coordinators and the player himself.

As a player climbs the Minor League ladder, that plan goes with him. Obviously, additions and revisions will be made along the way, but the goal is for the plan to be able to clearly communicate all expectations to a player.

It will, in turn, force accountability. It will also be an aid to the coaching staff.

"It forces us to look at a situation, evaluate it, put together a game plan and then implement it," Stark explained. "We're not reacting to what we see but putting a system in place to build on."

Simply put, it's another mechanism by which to eliminate the problems of "disjointedness."

According to Huntington, the Yankees, Indians, Red Sox and Rockies were among the first clubs to implement this type of system. And all four clubs have recent proof that their systems have worked.

The strength of the Minor League systems in Colorado and Cleveland were evident in the organizations' playoff runs last year. In the same respect, the farm systems for Boston and New York have produced such a talented group of young players that the two perennial contenders have begun to rely more heavily on their own talent rather just the free-agent market.

"I think there are some things that can be separators for some organizations, and I think we are going to try and take some steps to do that," said Stark, who hopes to be able to implement this program through a Web-based system. "It's not something that is going to be lip service and eye wash. It's something that I think can make us a better organization and make it as practical as possible."

In addition to using player plans, the organization is looking into developing its own sophisticated computer program. Hoping to go beyond the standardized data-analysis programs that some clubs use, the Pirates would like to hire a programmer who can create a program that tracks every available statistic and measurement on any given player.

It's yet another tool that the Pirates are counting on to give them a competitive advantage.

"We need to be creative," Huntington said. "We need to come up with different ways to be able to evaluate talent, because if we go toe-to-toe with the powerhouses, we're not going to be able to win."

Drafting philosophies
As disappointing as the 2007 season was for the Major League club, there was arguably no greater outcry of disappointment than that which came when the Pirates opted not to draft Matt Wieters in the First-Year Player Draft last June.

It was, according to fans, another example of the Pirates drafting the wrong player. Though that conversation is sure to be continued, Huntington and Smith have initiated changes in the organization's drafting philosophy.

Five people have been added to the amateur scouting side, and the areas for which each scout is responsible have been shuffled and restructured to ensure that no area goes uncharted. There has also been a complete revision in how scouts evaluate players.

"We've put a whole new structure and a whole new system in," Huntington said. "We have established a Pittsburgh Pirate-type player and established what we'd like from a player at all different positions."

Huntington explained that change in philosophy a little further.

"We're not looking for the crude athlete who we can teach to hit, but we also aren't looking for the first baseman who can swing the bat but has no athleticism," he said. "We can't eliminate areas of talent, but if we're going to take that crude athlete or the one who can swing a bat, we have to understand when in a Draft it's appropriate to take a player like that and when we're going to do it."

And that -- knowing when the risk is right to draft certain players -- hasn't consistently been executed by the Pirates in the past, he said.

In addition, the budget for Latin American signing bonuses has been doubled, and the money available for signing bonuses in the amateur Draft has also significantly increased. As a result, management has said that financial limitations will no longer dictate Draft selections.

Bound for success?
How deep the dividends of the restructuring and retooling are will likely be the means in which Huntington's success as a GM is measured. Because he inherited an organization that hasn't been as successful in drafting and developing premier talent in recent years, his philosophies have already been met by naysayers.

He understands that doubt, and he won't fault Pittsburgh fans for it. However, it is evident in talking with him that he truly believes that even though he may be singing the same song that's been sung for years, this time the notes are in tune.

"[Were we] given resources that maybe our predecessors weren't? Perhaps," he said. "But at the same time, I'd like to think that the way we are going to go about evaluating players is going to be different than other organizations."

They are also hopeful that it is going to be different than it was here, in Pittsburgh, in the past.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.