COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Pirates have been rebuilding for a baseball eternity.
Two decades removed from their last postseason appearance, general manager Neal Huntington and his Pirates are entering the sixth of their five-year rebuilding plan with a pair of late-season meltdowns fresh on everyone's minds.
A series of offseason re-signings sees the Pirates returning the lion's share of their 2012 roster for the '13 season, the first time in the Huntington era the Pirates have had such little roster turnover between years.
That roster stability could be one of the last missing pieces in the Pirates' decades-long effort to contend.
One of baseball's perennial doormats, Pittsburgh has progressed in recent years, going from a 100-loss team in 2010 to within three victories of the long-sought winning record a season ago. The Pirates hadn't finished with fewer than 90 losses under Huntington's stewardship until 2012, when they limped from first in the NL Central to a 79-83 final record.
Forgetting for a moment the consecutive late-season meltdowns, the team has seen a steady increase in victories, growth which has come hand-in-hand with a steady improvement in personnel. The Bucs have a bona fide star in CF Andrew McCutchen and a rapidly improving farm system that was currently ranked 7th-best in MLB by ESPN's Keith Law.
Pittsburgh's rebuilding efforts have often focused on matters off the major-league diamond. Such crucial organizational items like team payroll, depth and quality of draft classes, and Latin American scouting have improved markedly since Huntington began cleaning up Dave Littlefield's mess in late 2007, and the results are just beginning to bear fruit at the MLB level.
The road from dumpster fire to division contender is paved with discarded personnel. By design, the Pirates of today are a very different team from the one Huntington inherited in 2007.
Jeff Karstens, recently signed to a one-year, free-agent contract after being non-tendered by the team earlier this offseason, is the longest-tenured player on the club (2008-2013). That he managed to survive so much roster turnover makes him a Pirates success story.
Despite Karstens being the elder statesman heading into his sixth season with the team, the Bucs are finally beginning to see some roster continuity.
Pittsburgh re-signed a number of regulars this offseason, including Karstens, Neil Walker, James McDonald, Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones. McDonald and Karstens figure to be mainstays in the rotation, and Walker is an everyday player.
Elsewhere, the Pirates have a number of returning players who are on long-term deals. Andrew McCutchen is signed through the 2017 season, and Jose Tabata has a payroll-friendly deal that keeps him under team control for four more years. Borderline starters like Starling Marte, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson have years of control remaining on their entry-level deals, and the Bucs are returning other bench players such as Alex Presley, Josh Harrison and Michael McKenry.
Even veterans like Wandy Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin have one or two years of team control left, a rarity for the spendthrift Pirates.
For the first time since the early-2000s, the Pirates seem to have a "core" of cornerstone players who can be useful as starters at the MLB level, if not genuine stars. They even own a few franchise talents or possible franchise talents in McCutchen, Marte, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.
Should the Pirates see fit to spend on the rest of their young players like they did McCutchen, they stand to feature one of the best homegrown lineups in the majors.
A winning roster in a small market such as Pittsburgh will have to be mostly homegrown. As baseball's free-for-all economics have shown, a team like the Pirates simply can't compete in free agency.
Bringing in proven free-agent talent is often the loudest and proudest way to announce a desire to contend. It's a technique that's also reserved for baseball's upper class. If an impact free agent is off the Pirates' radar, can continuity be a real asset in his place?
There's always the chance a team could be closer to a championship by cobbling together a free-agent All-Star team than developing their own talent, like the Marlins teams of 1997 and 2003, or the 2009 Yankees. Conversely, teams like the Marlins, Angels and Dodgers went on record spending sprees in the last calendar year and none qualified for the 2012 postseason, while cheaper, more-seasoned rosters belonging to the likes of the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants reached the second season.
Whether they like it or not, the Pirates will be counting on continuity to provide success.
All told, Pittsburgh now owns much of what it has lacked in the last 20 years. The farm system is rapidly improving. The major-league club has legitimate talents who are still on the upswing. International scouting and development has improved (largely in Latin America under the eye of Rene Gayo), and even ownership has begun to open its wallet (relatively speaking) to build a winner.
It may not be the most direct way to a World Series title, but owner Bob Nutting has been nothing if not patient with his front office and coaching staffs. They'll all return in 2013, along with many of the players that were midsummer division contenders in each of the last two seasons.
After 20 years of chaos, maybe a few years of continuity is what it will take to finally get this group over the .500 hump.
James covers the Pirates as part of the Yahoo! Contributor Network, as well as at Baseball News Source and his own Pittsburgh sports blog, Slew Footers. He is a credentialed blogger with the Pittsburgh Penguins and reports on the Penguins and NHL at SB Nation and The Hockey Writers.