UNIVERSITY PARK -- The pipeline from State College to Altoona might be coming to an end after this season as the Spikes are considering ending their affiliation with the Pirates.
Winning isn't supposed to matter much in the minor leagues, and in the vast majority of cities it doesn't. But Spikes officials believe it matters a great deal in State College, and they have told the Pirates they want to win this season or they plan to look elsewhere.
"We're not one of these ownership groups that demands a winner every single year, but we haven't even put playoff tickets on sale," Spikes general manager Jason Dambach said. "We've never really even come close to the playoffs.
"So the mandate has been put out there. We didn't have a good team last year, and so it really doesn't make any sense to re-sign with the Pirates until September, if we are to do that."
The Spikes' player development contract with the Pirates expires after this season, which begins June 18, and negotiations with other organizations cannot take place until September. Spikes and Pirates officials spoke briefly about the affiliation at the winter meetings in December but have not discussed the matter since then.
At this point, Dambach said the Spikes are prepared to test the free-agent market if they have to.
The Spikes have never had a winning record as a Pirates affiliate. Their records through the years:
"I would certainly say the Pirates, being the incumbent, we'll have discussions with them between now and then, and they'll have the opportunity to put their best foot forward before anybody else, because we're not allowed to talk to anybody else," Dambach said. "But I would anticipate right now I think we're going to take this to September and see what this season brings."
The Spikes finished 39-36 as a Cardinals affiliate their first year in 2006, but they have never had a winning record as a Pirates affiliate. The closest they came was 38-38 in 2009, which followed an abomination of a season in 2008, when they went 18-56.
"We value our relationship with the State College Spikes," Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark wrote in an email to the Mirror. "The people, the operation and the facility are all first-rate. The location is obviously a benefit, as well. We have interest in exploring the possibility of continuing this relationship."
If the Spikes were to switch affiliates, the most logical choice would be the Phillies, whose player development contract with Williamsport in the New York-Penn League expires after this season. The Crosscutters have gone 43-33 each of the past two years as a Phillies affiliate.
Dambach would not discuss any potential replacements for the Pirates, but he did stress how important winning is to minor league fans in State College.
"Not every market's the same," he said. "We have found now in the seven years of Spikes baseball that our fan base wants to win.
"Many of the people that come to the games here support Penn State football, Penn State basketball, they're involved heavily in youth sports. The culture of this market here tells us that we want to win. ... We have found in just talking to our fans and the feedback that we've gotten that people are more passionate about having a winning product on the field here than anywhere that I've been and anywhere that I've seen."
Therein lies the issue because the Pirates' development philosophy for the young players at the short-season A-ball level doesn't place much emphasis on winning.
For instance, the Pirates stress fastball command from pitchers throughout their minor league system -- which most other organizations do, as well -- but the Bucs have taken it to more extremes at the short-season level. They want Spikes pitchers to throw a higher percentage of fastballs than most other teams in the New York-Penn League, which in some ways is a sound philosophy because all pitchers must learn to command the fastball to be effective.
However, the Spikes traditionally have been easier to prepare for because opposing hitters know they will see so many fastballs, particularly first-pitch fastballs.
The Spikes have finished 11th out of 14 teams in the New York-Penn League in ERA each of the past two years and were last during the abysmal 2008 season. Their highest finish was fifth in 2009. (It should be noted they were 12th as a Cardinals affiliate during their lone winning season in 2006.)
If the Pirates were to lose State College as an affiliate -- and if the Spikes get the Phillies -- then Williamsport would be an option for the Bucs' short-season club. Pittsburgh was affiliated with Williamsport from 1999-2006, but returning there would mean going from a state-of-the-art facility in Medlar Field at Lubrano Park to the second-oldest minor league ballpark in the country in the Crosscutters' Bowman Field.
"The Spikes and the Pirates are both concerned with putting a competitive team on the field," Stark said. "This is not an either-or proposition for us. No one wants quality results and performance as much as we do.
"Our focus is on the process -- and ultimately the long-term process -- that leads to consistent quality results and performance. We believe that you can have both. The new draft rules [which include an earlier signing deadline] should impact our draft philosophy, which in turn, should impact our team in State College."
Medlar Field gives the Spikes a good bargaining chip with the Pirates or any other organization, plus the Spikes have a successful front office team run by Dambach and owner Chuck Greenberg, who owned the Curve from 2002-08.
There have been many players who have gone from playing short-season ball in State College to returning to the region for Double-A in Altoona. Those players have spoken about how nice it is to get reacquainted with host families and other people they had met just 45 minutes down the road.
"I had a lot of fun in State College," said Curve shortstop Brock Holt, who played for the Spikes in 2009. "I think it's a great place to play, great facilities over there, and it is nice to have two affiliates so close together.
"Me and Ted and Jennifer Oyler, my host parents [in State College], stay in contact throughout the offseason and have become really good family friends. So it's nice to be up here close to them so they can come and I can see their kids, too."
The Pirates are aware of the Spikes' desire to field a winning team, at least occasionally, and Dambach pointed out the officials in his franchise "do appreciate the partnership, the relationship" with the Pirates.
If the Bucs want that relationship to continue, they will have to make the win-loss record in State College more of a priority.
"We think that a winning team will actually move the needle here in this market," Dambach said, "whereas in some other markets it doesn't really. But in State College it does, and that's really an important factor for us."