Saturday, June 2, 2012

What WOULD Syd do?

"Losers make excuses; Winners find a way.”  Syd Thrift, former GM, Pittsburgh Pirates

How can you not love this guy?
This post isn’t a backdoor “let’s bash Neal Huntington” entry.  The Pirates are three games out, the hitting is showing some life, and we’re in “wait and see” mode to see what Huntington does to keep the Pirates in contention, and maybe even put them over the top. 
This post is about Syd Thrift, the Pirates’ general manager from 1985-1988, who in three years turned a pathetic franchise into a contender that would go on to win three division titles in a row.  Thrift was a great baseball character, a long-time baseball man, and a man who knew – and spoke – his mind. There aren’t many like him.

It’s inevitable, though, that in looking at Syd’s accomplishments in three years, one can’t help but wonder if there are lessons for the current GM, particularly at this promising time. 
To be sure, Baseball 2012 is not the same as Baseball 1985. The free agent money is bigger. Draft pick bonuses have skyrocketed, creating serious constraints on what a GM from a small market can do.
Nonetheless, Thrift had some skills that he applied to his tenure with the Pirates and found success. Perhaps there are some lessons learned there and it’s worth exploring.
Go back to 1985. The Pirates lose 104 games.  They are last in the league in home runs, 11th in runs scored, and 9th in hitting.  The drug trials turn the franchise – as well as the city – into a national laughingstock.  Attendance for the year is under 740,000.  An expectation grows that the Pirates will be sold to out-of-town buyers – even veteran players call for the franchise to be moved. 
Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caligiuri convinces a local consortium to buy the team and keep it in Pittsburgh.  In November 2005 and on the recommendation of interim GM Joe Brown, the new owners hire a man out of baseball for almost ten years, Virginia realtor Syd Thrift, to be the team’s GM. A long-time baseball man, Syd takes on the unenviable task of rebuilding the Pirates into a respectable franchise. As he put it in typical fashion, “it ain’t easy resurrecting the dead.”
He is helped by the fact that his predecessor drafted Barry Bonds.  So there was something to build upon but not much else, unless names like George Hendrick, Johnny LeMaster, and Sixto Lezcano get your blood flowing.
Similar circumstances confronted Neal Huntington when he took the reins, almost five years ago. But the two men took different approaches to turning around their respective clubs. In essence, Thrift built up the minor league system AND the major league club at the same time, and in just a few short years.  Huntington focused on building the minor league system but at the expense of the major league club. 
This reflects, in part, the different fiscal circumstances under which they were operating.  Thrift could better afford to do both. Reflecting the many changes in baseball since Thrift’s tenure, Huntington had to make difficult allocation decisions that Thrift, generally speaking, did not.
Neither could rely much on free agency, given Pittsburgh’s market size and the unwillingness of highly sought free agents to sign with Pittsburgh.  Both did a good job in first year player drafts.  Thrift’s were unspectacular but solid; the Jury is still out on Huntington’s, but he netted some promising players. 
So let’s give Huntington credit for directing scarce dollars to the farm system, and at least attempting to make it respectable once again. 
At the same time, the reality is that after almost five years, it’s reasonable to expect more progress at the major league level than a .500 team. What did Syd do to succeed?
Thrift’s most essential talent was talent evaluation.  Talent evaluation can make or break a GM, especially one operating in a small market, where there’s little room for error.  This was the essential skill that Thrift brought to the table, and was the underlying basis for almost all he did as GM. 
Yeah, he was a decent manager

Let’s start with managerial hires.  In 1985 Thrift reached into the depths of obscurity and hired Jim Leyland, who is now of course “the legendary” Jim Leyland.
Neal Huntington also reached into the depths of obscurity.  We got John Russell.
It goes beyond that though. Would Thrift have seen the potential in Jose Bautista or allowed Bautista to go for peanuts? No one knows. We do know that he saw the potential in minor league 2B Jose Lind and traded popular 2B Johnny Ray to make room for him. We know that in 1981 it was Thrift, at the time a scout, who urged the Pirates to sign some undrafted kid named Bobby Bonilla.  We also know that Thrift, then working for the Kansas City Royals, founded a baseball academy for undrafted players that went on to produce over a dozen major leaguers.  The man could spot talent.
In the first couple years of his tenure, when he made the most trades, Huntington did not do well with respect to acquiring talent. Perhaps he was relying on scouts from the old regime; perhaps he thought he knew better than the scouts; perhaps other factors were at work.  I don’t pretend to know, but the results speak for themselves.  Over time, his evaluation on the pitching side has improved but not a single free agent signee has had a sustained positive impact on the Pirates, nor has any hitter acquired in a trade. The draft picks are only beginning to percolate up through the system, but there do not appear to be many impact bats in the system as of this writing.
After almost five years, that needs to be a source of concern, particularly as there is pressure right now on Huntington to make some kind of trade to keep this team in contention.
Trading is where Thrift most excelled at bringing his skills for talent evaluation – and deal making – to bear.  One thing Syd Thrift could do was make a trade.
·         He lost Bobby Bonilla in the 1985 Rule V draft, but traded back for him after the 1985 season. He gave up Jose DeLeon to do it; at the time, DeLeon was coming off of a 3-28 record since mid July, 1984.

·         In November 1986, he acquired Doug Drabek from the Yankees.

·         In April 1987, he traded popular catcher Tony Pena to the Cardinals for Andy Van Slyke, Mike Lavalliere, and Mike Dunne. This trade was not well received in Pittsburgh when it happened. However, like Drabek and Bonilla, Van Slyke and Lavaliere were mainstays of the Pirates’ division winning teams and were extremely popular players.

·         Also in 1987, he acquired two members of the bullpen that proved critical pieces: closer Jim Gott, and Jeff Robinson.
None of these trades, along with others, were salary dumps.  Each was made with the intention of putting together the pieces for a championship major league team.
Similar to Huntington’s history with free agents, he does better with pitchers.  Four of our current five starters were picked up in trades; the other was a free agent signing.  It leads one to wonder why such success can’t be replicated on the offensive side. Perhaps it is simplistic, but Neal must either rely more on the scouts he has…or bring in better ones with proven records evaluating talent.
It is reasonable for a small market GM to emphasize pitching as the basis for rebuilding a franchise.   And the team that Huntington inherited needed a lot of rebuilding. So my goal here, as I said at the start, is not simply to bash Neal Huntington. He had limited resources and he chose a path.
At the same time, you’ve got to find guys that can hit the ball. Both Thrift and Huntington had veterans to deal; one succeeded and one did not (Craig Hansen anyone?).  A small market GM can’t afford such mistakes, and on such a repeated basis.  Get scouts around you who can do the job, and listen to them. Don’t assume you know better.
In the end, though, what makes Thrift so unique was the fact that he combined his skill set with a willingness to take bold steps.  Boldness without the skill to make it work would be dangerous folly; combined, you get a competitive team in three years.
So what would Thrift tell Huntington were he still alive and kicking? Probably this: get the team – THIS team - what it needs to contend, right now. Be prepared to make trades and make good ones.  Trust your scouts – or get ones in place that you can trust.
And I imagine he’d also tell him:  be bold.  Be audacious.  As he put it, “losers make excuses; winners find a way.”

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