Chuck McGill: W.Va. Power follow the Pirates' blueprint for success
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mike Ryan learned long ago that professional baseball and frugality are not mutually exclusive.
The West Virginia Power manager was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the fifth round out of Indiana (Pa.) High School in 1996, and was in his seventh season in the organization before he finally made his Major League debut in 2002.
He recorded just 11 big league at-bats that season, but he was officially part of a Twins team that won the American League Central title with a measly payroll that barely topped $41 million.
In fact, only three teams spent fewer bucks than the Twins that season, and all three of those franchises have since either relocated or tweaked their team name: Florida Marlins, Montreal Expos and Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
It was Ryan's education in how to win big without cutting big checks. It makes the 36-year-old a perfect fit to manage and develop players in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.
"Tampa Bay is always in front in the standings because they build from within," Ryan said Monday, a rare off day for the West Virginia Power. "Players are used to playing with each other, they develop that culture and they've got each other's back, and the organization stresses doing things the right way.
"I felt that when I was with Minnesota. We made the postseason a couple years and we didn't have the payroll, but we still competed because we were brought up through the system together."
As former Power players matriculate to Pittsburgh, the wins have trickled down the farm. The Pirates, with the fourth-lowest payroll in the bigs, are in first place and seem poised to play in the postseason after decades of futility.
The Power (69-50) has the South Atlantic League's best record in the second half, and begin tonight's seven-game homestand with a 13-game win streak at Appalachian Power Park.
Barring an August collapse, the Power could reach the postseason for the first time since reuniting with the Pirates' parent club in 2009.
Ryan has witnessed a team that lost six of seven to start the season regroup and begin to emulate the big Bucs in Pittsburgh. The Power is 59-35 since going 10-15 in April.
"After that first month this team saw what it needed to do to be a better team," Ryan said. "You try to instill the Pirates system. Everything is the same: the attitude and the culture. That's why it's so much fun watching the Major League team play, because they do it the right way."
The Power has one of the most electric arms in the minors with 19-year-old Tyler Glasnow, who should pitch in the middle of this homestand. He has the Power's single-season strikeout record and is fifth in the minors - regardless of level - with 140 punchouts (Will Inman established the previous mark in 2006).
Glasnow is the only teenage minor leaguer in the top 50 in strikeouts.
Josh Bell, like Glasnow one of the Pirates' prized prospects, is second in the Sally League in doubles with 35. He is flirting with the Power's team record there, just five behind Dan Gamache's 40 two-baggers from 2012.
The Power is second in batting average and fifth in earned-run average. The baby Bucs are 18-5 at home in the second half, and haven't lost at the East End ballpark - officially - since July 6.
West Virginia has 21 games left, starting with tonight's opener of a three-game series against Greensboro.
The Power will play seven at home, seven on the road, three more at home and then close with four at Lexington to conclude the regular season.
There are two scenarios in which the Power can qualify for the postseason: win the Northern Division outright in the second half - the lead is 2 1/2 games over Hagerstown - or by posting the best overall record other than Hagerstown if the Suns finish with the best record in both halves.
The Power also has a 2 1/2-game edge on Hickory for the second scenario, and finishes this homestand with a four-game series against the Crawdads.
Pennant race baseball can only enhance the development of minor leagues, Ryan said.
"When you're in games that mean a lot and you're in close games all the time, you have to do everything correct," he said. "It puts more pressure on them to be ready for every pitch, think ahead and anticipate. Before you know it, they're developing into better players.
"These kind of big games do that for players."
Ryan should know. He has walked in their cleats.
Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at email@example.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.