This week, the Pirates clinched their third straight playoff berth, and they’ve been as strong as ever this year, with a 95-win total that ranks second in the Majors. Most successful small-payroll teams are built through their farm systems, and the Pirates do lean heavily on theirs. But they’ve also gotten surprising production from veterans, most of whom they’ve acquired for pennies on the dollar. Here’s how they got their key players.
CF Andrew McCutchen (5.8 fWAR in 2015). In 2005, the Pirates, then led by Dave Littlefield, took McCutchen with the No. 11 overall pick in the draft. That pick sticks out as an outstanding one even in a first round loaded with top-tier talent — other early first-rounders that year included Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and Jay Bruce. Of course, 2005 was long ago, and McCutchen is still in Pittsburgh thanks in part to his contract. He entered 2015 with over five years of service time, and it’s likely the Pirates would have traded him by now had current GM Neal Huntington not signed him to an incredibly team-friendly $51.5MM extension that allows the Bucs to control him through 2018.
SP Gerrit Cole (5.5). The Bucs made Cole the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, ahead of other potential top picks like Anthony Rendon, Danny Hultzen and Trevor Bauer. A number of first-round picks from that draft have had very good careers so far, including Rendon, Sonny Gray, Jose Fernandez and George Springer, but the Pirates are surely very happy with their choice — Cole didn’t quite turn his elite stuff into elite results in his first couple seasons in the big leagues, but this year he’s emerged as an ace, posting a 2.60 ERA, 9.0 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 in 201 terrific innings.
IF Jung-Ho Kang (3.9). Kang injured his knee while trying to turn a double play last week and is now out for the season, but he made a big impact in his first year in Pittsburgh. Kang hasn’t matched the 40-homer power he displayed in his last year with the Nexen Heroes in Korea, but he hit .287/.355/.461 in his first season in the US, also adding value with his defense and baserunning. The Pirates got him for an incredibly cheap $11MM over four years, plus a posting fee of approximately $5MM. That deal was possible because no one knew what to expect from Kang, the first position player from the KBO to make the leap to the Majors. Next winter, Kang’s former teammate Byung-Ho Park will likely benefit greatly from Kang’s success.
LF Starling Marte (3.6). Pirates Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo takes pride in finding good players others miss, and he prefers to spread available bonus money around to many player rather than one or two. Marte, right fielder Gregory Polanco and infield prospect Alen Hanson are the gems of the Pirates’ recent efforts in Latin America, and none cost more than $150K. Marte was already 18 — old for an unsigned Latin American prospect — when Gayo signed him for just $85K in 2007. In 2014, Marte finally cashed in, signing a $31MM extension with two options that allows the Bucs to control his rights through 2021.
C Francisco Cervelli (3.6). Russell Martin helped lead the Pirates to playoff berths in 2013 and 2014, but the Bucs had little choice but to allow him to depart when the Blue Jays offered him five years and $82MM last winter. To replace him, they made a low-profile trade with the Yankees, getting Cervelli in exchange for reliever Justin Wilson. The deal hasn’t turned out badly for New York — Wilson has been a key cog in the Bronx bullpen, and the Yankees already had a starting catcher in Brian McCann. But Cervelli has been a revelation in Pittsburgh, hitting nearly as well as Martin did and ranking as the best catcher in the big leagues in pitch framing, all for less than a million dollars. The Bucs also control his services for 2016.
SP Francisco Liriano (3.3). Last offseason, the Bucs signed Liriano to a three-year, $39MM free agent contract last year that’s at least somewhat close to what he’s worth, but they originally signed him to a cheap two-year deal prior to 2013 after two seasons in which he posted ERAs above five. Like many pitchers, Liriano has shined in Pittsburgh thanks in part to the Pirates’ program of ground balls, pitch framing, excellent coaching, and defensive shifts. He’s been arguably the most successful of the Bucs’ pitching reclamation projects, joining current rotation-mates A.J. Burnett (2.8 fWAR) and J.A. Happ (1.7 fWAR since the Bucs acquired him in a low-profile move at the deadline) as starting pitchers who have thrived in black and gold.
SP A.J. Burnett (2.8). After a year with the Phillies, Burnett turned down a player option with Philadelphia and signed a one-year deal with the Pirates for significantly less ($8.5MM) so that he could finish his career with the Bucs. Burnett battled through hernia issues with the Phillies, but his significantly better performances with the Pirates as compared to the Phillies and Yankees are no accident — the Bucs’ ballpark and pitcher-friendly system are great fits for him.
2B Neil Walker (2.5). The Bucs selected Walker in the first round of the draft the year before they picked McCutchen, and Walker has enjoyed a strong career playing in his hometown. Unlike with McCutchen, though, the Pirates haven’t extended Walker, perhaps figuring his skills aren’t as likely to age as well. Walker played catcher and third base before moving to second in the big leagues and isn’t an outstanding defender there, and it’s unclear how much defensive value he’ll have as he ages. He’s still a good and consistent hitter with excellent power for a second baseman, but he turned 30 this month and is eligible for free agency after next season. He’ll be an interesting qualifying offer candidate a year from now.
CL Mark Melancon (1.5). After the 2012 season, the Bucs traded then-closer Joel Hanrahan and utilityman Brock Holt to the Red Sox for Melancon and three other players. Holt has had a surprisingly good career, but the key player in the deal at the time was Hanrahan, who got hurt soon after the trade and never recovered. The Pirates, meanwhile, turned Melancon, who had posted a 6.20 ERA the year before, into a setup man and then a closer. The Bucs were surely intrigued by Melancon’s peripherals (8.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9) and ability to generate ground balls. Since the trade, he’s emerged as a dominant reliever.