State of the Pittsburgh Pirates

Dave Tomar: Dark Days in Usually Sunny Pittsburgh

On any given day, you are likely to find more qualified major leaguers assembled together in a Florida ‘anti-aging clinic’ than in the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse.  Give the old team credit.  They actually have five World Series titles under their belt, a remarkable accomplishment considering they have taken the past 16 years off from baseball.  The last time they posted a winning record, O.J. Simpson was better known for his football skills than his cutlery acumen.  Since the departure of Jim Leyland, the Pirates have had four managers, charged largely with the responsibility of warding off that dubious 100-loss marker with which the Pirates seem always to flirt.

The 12 fans who still give a shit raised hell over the May trade of center fielder Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves for three bags of minor league stadium mulch.  First baseman, offensive leader and occasional goat Adam LaRoche spoke with candid anger about the trade, reflecting the general belief that the front office is more interested in money than winning.  I might intervene with the argument that they don’t know a whole lot about either.

It should come as no surprise that the Pirates have the league’s lowest average attendance numbers, which is pretty disgraceful for a team that has been in the same place for well over a century.  After involving themselves in a trade last year that included such names as Manny Ramirez and Jason Bay, the Pirates managed to come away with three seat warmers and a possible major league pitcher in Craig Hansen.  At present, Jason Bay’s 17 home runs well exceed the 7 produced by Pittsburgh’s remaining cast of outfielders.  For generosity, you could throw in the 10 produced by McLouth between Pittsburgh and Atlanta and I still have trouble understanding how they so badly underestimated Bay’s value.

The McLouth trade is just as vexing, perhaps for its timing more than anything else.  Pittsburgh will have no legitimate chance of competing in a division where the opposition is stacked so tightly.  But with a record closer to .500 than not, and following their first winning April (11-10) since 2002, the Pirates traded the only player from last year’s squad to make the All-Star game.  Without getting bogged down in stats—which Chris will most assuredly detail with greater clarity than myself—McLouth seemed to register as a positive radar blip with a fan base floating in a disinterested abyss of anonymous paycheck players and undeveloped prospects.  More than that, the Pirates had awarded McLouth a contract extension prior to the season and bailed on him two months before the trade deadline.

This neither presents itself as a strategy constructed toward winning or toward yielding economically sensible trade values . . . unless of course, you are a team which spends the third lowest percentage of its already paltry profits on payroll in the majors.  In that case, you might consider this a personally profitable move.  Lord knows, you’ll never have to pay Gorkys Hernandez a ton.

So the implications of General Manager Neal Huntington’s tenure, begun in 2007, is that the Pirates are now in a rebuilding phase.  Yeah, like Iraq is in a rebuilding phase.  How do you fix something that’s still getting blown to bits?  For fans tired of watching their team stink, the McLouth move must strike the senses as particularly malodorous in light of the preseason contract negotiation charade.  After signing him to a three year, $15+ million dollar extension, team President Frank Cooley issued the following statement, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: “The long-term commitments we have made to core players developed here, both this year and last year, reflect our commitment to build a strong core from within our system.”

Meet the new boss . . .  same as the old boss.  The Pirates may have a great future of building championship teams ahead of them.  Every time they develop a marginal talent, they ship him out to a real competitor.  They’d be a pretty decent farm team if they weren’t a terrible major league organization.  For a team that has now spent an eternity at the front end of the amateur draft, its piss-poor conversion rate from early round selection to major league player makes it seems unlikely that constructing a winner built entirely on prospects will either improve its performance or energize its fans.

Right now, the Pirates claim to be betting on their future.  They should bet on the fans instead.  Without a doubt, the Pittsburgh Pirates will set a record at the end of this year.  While the steel city lofts its Stanley Cub and its Lombardi Trophy, the Bucs will, at 17 years, quietly become sole owners of the worst losing streak in professional sports history.  That’s not an accident.  It’s a conspiracy.

CHRIS PUMMER: The Pirates have been bad for a long time, but it’s not really fair to put the blame for 16 losing seasons (and counting) on the head of current GM Neal Huntington. A team that’s bad for that long has to be quite a mess, and less than two years into his job Huntington is still in full cleanup mode.

So why are players like Nate McLouth, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady ending up on the curb with the rest of the trash?

In the cases of Bay and Nady, both were set to be free agents in less than two years, with Bay sepecifically coming off a bad 2007 season. So with the Pirates far behind in the standings in the summer of 2008, I don’t think anyone can hold it against Huntington for thinking he was selling at the right time.

This season’s trade of McLouth is a little different. With his team hanging around .500, thus in the NL Central race, Huntington dealt his most visible player for prospects.

The outcry was understandable, but at the same time is it unreasonable to think the Pirates made the right decision?

McLouth is relatively young (27), but not really young enough to think he’ll get much better. He was an All-Star last season, but as Mark Redman can tell you, somebody from each team has to go. And McLouth is a Gold Glove-winner — though most defensive metrics think he’s horrible in center field. He’s a good-but-not-great hitter.

While McLouth recently signed a relatively cheap contract extension (around 3 years, $15 million), is he really that good of a deal if he’s only a modest-hitting corner outfielder? The Pirates could likely do just as well on the free-agent market.

The timing might have been bad and the return underwhelming, but there’s no reason to think Huntington didn’t get at least fair value in the deal.

The problem in Pittsburgh isn’t that the Pirates trade away their star players. It’s that they’ve had so few star players to build around. Since Barry Bonds left as a free agent following the 1992 season there’s been Jason Kendall (when he was young), Brian Giles, Jason Bay and … that’s it. Maybe Aramis Ramirez, but he was never good until he got out of Pittsburgh.

Hanging on to guys that aren’t that good is the old way of doing things in Pittsburgh. That’s how Pirate fans ended up seeing more Kevin Young than they ever wanted. Trying to placate the masses with veterans is how Derek Bell was able to successfully launch Operation Shutdown against the city.

Until the Pirates develop more high-ceiling talent, holding on to so-so players like McLouth isn’t going to push them into a winning season.  That might sting for a city tired of losing baseball games, but it’s not Huntington’s job to be an armchair therapist for a fanbase that’s mistaken in making McLouth the face of more than a decade’s worth of discontent. It’s his job to make the right decision, even if it’s a tough one.

It’s tough to say if Huntington is making the right decisions because it’s still too early in his tenure.  But he is entitled to do what he thinks he must do to build a winner, regardless of the failings of his predecessors Dave Littlefield and Cam Bonifay.

Let’s just hope for Pittsburgh fans that should it become obvious he’s taking the team in the wrong direction, Huntington is given a much quicker hook than the last two GMs.

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