I have got the opportunity to work with, and talk, people form all walks of life and people and bloggers that are fans of many different teams. This post is no different.
A few weeks ago I got a DM from Ryan Topp, a guy that I follow, who covers the Milwaukee Brewers (boo) through the blog known as Bernies Crew. All the guys over there, including Ryan, do a great job of covering an up-and-coming team that is probably going to win the NL Central running away and have a real chance to make it to the World Series this year.
Now living about an hour and a half outside of Milwaukee I have go a more in depth look at the sports teams here and it has been rough. All of you that have followed and/or read my stuff know that I hate the Brewers. They rub me the wrong way and they get under my skin like no other team does, and that includes the Capitals and Ravens. They truly are one of the few teams that I hate the most.
While I can't stand the team I can appreciate what they are doing. Much like the Pirates now are, they were terrible some time ago. They hadn't reached .500 in some year and while it wasn't a stretch like the Pirates are going in they were in bad shape. They quickly turned things around with the likes of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks and now they are one of the top offensive and pitching teams in all of baseball. Two of the best hitters in the league are on the team, in Braun and Fielder, and they have put together a pitching staff that, when they are on, are very tough to deal with.
Well, Ryan sends me a DM and said that he was in the middle of working on an open letter to the Pirates fans. As we got to talking he noted that he sees a lot of what the Brewers went through in the Pirates right now, and while they didn't go through that long of a stretch like the people from Pittsburgh, he knew what it was like and that Pittsburgh might be in the right direction.
A few weeks later I had kind of forgot about the whole thing and then Ryan sent over what he had put together and it was great. He talks about the lean years for the Brewers and how it all turned around. It wasn't all smooth sailing as you will see but as a Pirates fan who has suffered through some tough years the Brewers actually have gone through the same things.
After the jump you can see the open letter to the Pirates fans. Before we get into it I want to give a big shout out to Ryan and thank him for doing this. For most Pirates fans it seems like winning is never going to happen. This year started out really great and then fell off the map but stuff like this can really put things into perspective on how fortunes can turn. I hope everyone enjoys this, even if a Brewers fan wrote it.
Dear Pirates Fans,
I write this today because I’ve been thinking an awful lot about your team lately. Even though it may not seem like it at the moment, things are looking up for the Pirates these days. You’re finally looking to build a team from the ground up, spending the money and taking the time to develop better players. That’s what got the Brewers where they are, and all the signs are pointing in that direction. Thinking about the Pirates got me thinking about some of the things the Brewers did when they were trying to dig out from a similar, albeit shorter lived, misery. Mainly, I want to point out that while the Brewers have had some successes, notably in 2008 and 2011, they made some key mistakes that the Pirates should look to avoid if they wish to have the most success possible in the coming years.
Before we start, I need apologize for a couple of things right off the bat. First, this is going to come off a little know-it-all-y. I’ll try and tone it down, but since the basic nature of this letter is unsolicited advice, it’s unavoidable. Just pretend I’m your mother and smile and nod politely. Second, I know, you’re probably not too fond of my team and thus you may not be predisposed to care at all what I might think. I could tell you the Cardinals used to beat up on us, but that’s not going to make me any less annoying from that perspective. All I can say is that I’m coming to you honestly here with my take on some things to look out for as you go through this process as fans. If I didn’t think the Pirates were on the right track generally, I really wouldn’t have any reason to sit and write this at all.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the Brewers were in the same situation as the Pirates find themselves now. As you probably know, 1992 was a “last gasp” sort of year for both the Brewers and Pirates, and both took a big dive in the years that followed. Those dark days were marked in both cities by penny pinching ownership and truly awful front office management that tested fan loyalty to its very limits. I understand that the waiting for improvement stinks. It stunk for us too. Even in 2004-2006 when the signs of impending improvement were everywhere, the fans in Milwaukee were exceedingly restless. Many could not believe that the end of the suffering was in sight, and even fewer were willing to patiently wait things out. Even when Mark Attansio purchased the Brewers, ending years of ownership by the Selig family, fans weren’t ready to fully buy in that the darkness was about to give.
Following a surprising 2005 season that saw the Crew get to .500 for the first time since 1992, the city was energized for the Brewers. JJ Hardy, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder were up with the big club and there was more talent waiting in the minors. People expected results and they expected them right away. What followed was a disappointing season in 2006 and a lot of pressure from fans for immediate results. From July to December 2006, multiple major decisions would be made that would go on to impact the Brewers for years to come.
First, the Brewers traded away impending free agent Carlos Lee for a collection of mediocre veterans at the deadline. Fans were told “we’re not selling, we’re retooling,” but no one really bought it. To jaded fans, this looked like another owner not wanting to spend to keep his best player around. Of course the Brewers did the right thing not paying Lee the monster contract he got (thanks Houston!), but what they failed to do was address their biggest need: controllable young starting pitching. They were so anxious to sell the illusion of competing to fans that they missed the chance to help themselves actually compete in coming years.
As a result of this failure, the Brewers had to turn to the free agent market to address their glaring need for pitching. That’s how we ended up with Jeff Suppan for 4 years and over 40 million dollars. At the time, this was hailed in some corners of the fan base as proof the owner was serious about winning. Others saw it for what it was: an impending disaster. What they should have done was build with the idea of trying to compete for a World Series in 2009-11 when players like Fielder, Weeks, Hart, Hardy and others were headed into their primes but right before they were free agent eligible. That would have precluded signing Suppan, an albatross waiting to happen, just to get a little short term improvement in 2007-08.
Instead, we were told we could win right away. For a time in 2007, it seemed to be possible, until a hot start unraveled and the team was left staring 2008 in the eye as the final year Ben Sheets would likely be with the team. Luckily, the Brewers put themselves in position in 2008 to trade for CC Sabathia and he carried us into the postseason for the first time since 1982. It was a lot of fun while it lasted, but the problem was that as a result of that “all in” effort, the Brewers ended up falling apart in 2009 and 2010 because the team never addressed it’s need for young pitching, and we were paying Jeff Suppan and others big money to stink. The farm system had to be emptied out to rent a starter for half a year. We didn’t have the resources, either talent wise or financially, to build a team around a solid core in 2009 or 2010 and to compete in 2011 more young prospects had to be sacrificed.
The implications of all of this should be obvious for Pirates fans. In essence, the Brewers ended up killing their chances for multiple runs at a title in 2009-2011 with Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo so they could take one premature shot in 2008. Then they had to trade away more talent in 2011 for a last chance to win with Fielder, just as they had done in 2008 with Sheets. It may still work out for us in 2011, but we have paid a steep price for this run in losing some very good prospects. This constant throwing everything available at one year isn’t the best way for a team with limited resources to operate.
Fortunately for you, it doesn’t appear that the Pirates plan on making these mistakes. Sure, management could have sold at the deadline and looked toward the future, but the deals for Derek Lee and Ryan Ludwick did little to undermine the long term outlook. Most importantly, a few years ago the Pirates committed to building from within in a way they hadn’t in recent memory. Instead of drafting guys like Dan Moskos in the first round and passing on better talents, the money is now being spent year in and year out to acquire amateur talent. The Pirates’ farm system has begun to produce the types of top prospects that led the Brewers resurgence a few years ago. Neither the Brewers nor Pirates are going to land a superstar in free agency, so the talent simply must be developed from within. Of course, if you’re reading this, you already knew that.
Another way the Brewers have been sub-optimal in how they’ve done things: they routinely waited players out (Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo not withstanding) before committing money to them long term. They didn’t lock up Corey Hart or Rickie Weeks until within the last year, and thus had to pay something close to market value for them. The Brewers waited until arbitration to do anything with Bill Hall, then overpaid and watched him fall off. The Pirates seem determined to not only lock up their stars, but complimentary players as well. Sure, Jose Tabata might turn out to be a disappointment, but if he does work out you’ve got a big bargain. Either way, failure for him won’t hamstring you the way Bill Hall’s contract signed later on in his career did us.
Overall, the best advice I can offer is to be patient. You have young talent at all levels of the organization; you’re spending money to get more of it and trying to keep it around. Don’t demand that ownership prove their willingness to spend on the best free agents that can be afforded. As tempting as that path is, you don’t want your own Suppan. Be patient with the players. Sure, Pedro Alvarez is disappointing right now, but check out what Rickie Weeks was like early in his career before turning into an all-star. Plenty of people tried to run him out of town before that breakout and the Brewers are lucky they didn’t.
Let the organization make the tough decisions that need to be made in the short term to build a winner in the long term. That may mean having to let go a player you don’t want to see go this offseason or perhaps even next season for something further down the line. It’s better than waking up one morning and being told Kevin Mench is the answer to your problems. In short, demand that your team be more like the Rays than like the Brewers. We’re having some fun here in Milwaukee, but we could have had even more if we, collectively, had just been a little more patient.
Again, a big thanks to Ryan for putting a lot of time and effort into doing this and giving me a chance to put this up on the blog for all of you to see. I know we have heard all of this stuff from management and from bloggers like me before but seeing this from an outside blogger really puts it in perspective, for me at least.
What do you guys think? Let me know in the comments.