Pittsburgh Pirates Roundtable #9

The Pittsburgh Pirates recently experienced a shift in power amongst its ownership group. What changes does Bob Nutting, the new face of the team, have to make in order to field a competitive ballclub in Pittsburgh? Should Pirate fans anticipate the emergence of a successful team in the near future?
Jeff Sackmann is the creator of MinorLeagueSplits.com, the only source for comprehensive split and situational stats for every active Minor Leaguer. He is a long-time Brewers fan and blogs about them at BrewCrewBall.com. He also runs the sabermetrics site BeyondTheBoxscore.com and contributes to the fantasy magazine Heater. Jeff says:
In short: no, Pirates fans have little to look forward to.
While there are undoubtedly multiple roads to success with a small-market team, they all center on properly evaluating and deploying young talent. The Pirates have done a decent job of the latter, giving pitchers like Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny the opportunity to sink or swim at the big league level. Despite mistakes such as Jeromy Burnitz, the Bucs have gotten younger on the offensive side, too.
The main difficulty, though, is that when you try to compete with a $50 million payroll, you just don’t have very much room for error. In a division filled with high-payroll and well-run teams (and the Reds) the bar is set increasingly high. Even a more substantial commitment from ownership–say, $65 or $70 million–would require skillful management to translate into a contender.
And, as every Pirates fan is surely aware, Dave Littlefield does not provide that skill. A great example is last week’s Adam LaRoche acquisition. LaRoche is a nice player; he might even be a fair return for Mike Gonzalez. But when you operate on a budget, you should always be aiming to get younger. A prime chip like Gonzalez should’ve turned into a young player or two–perhaps, I don’t know, a Brent Lillibridge type. I’m not saying Littlefield could’ve gotten a Gary Sheffield-esque bounty for his closer (though I wouldn’t rule it out), but that’s the sort of package he should be looking for.
Acquiring LaRoche is the same sort of mistake as dealing Oliver Perez for Xavier Nady, picking up Sean Casey, or signing a mediocre shortstop to a long-term deal at market price. These players are average. Sure, average has value, but average isn’t scarce. In 2008, Jack Wilson will be earning $6.5 million while Lillibridge will somebody’s else’s luxury. I’m not suggesting that, when he gave Wilson his contract, Littlefield should’ve recognized that any specific player might be able to take over at shortstop. Even now, Lillibridge might not turn out to be that guy. But a slick-fielding shortstop with a career OPS+ of 75 doesn’t need to be kept under team control. Ten guys just like that will start in Triple-A this year, and four or five of them have been signed to minor league deals in the last few months.
As we all know, getting younger carries with it some risks. On the other hand, these are risks that a small-market team simply must take. You can’t buy a playoff berth with $60 million worth of free agents. (Or $100 million, most likely.) A big chunk of your team needs to consist of guys in their first three years of service time, and your roster needs to be continually shifting in that direction. The Twins have done a masterful job of that, and the Brewers are moving in that direction as well.
For a blueprint of what Littlefield ought to be attempting, look no further than Doug Melvin’s Lyle Overbay trade last offseason. Overbay is roughly comparable to LaRoche (perhaps a bit better, but also older), and Melvin flipped him for a starter with only a year of service time (Dave Bush), and a pitching prospect who could be major league ready this year (Zach Jackson). True, Melvin had the luxury of moving Overbay, with Prince Fielder right behind him, but the point is that he took advantage of Overbay’s value when he was still young and cheap. If you wait until the trade deadline the year before a player hits free agency, you don’t get much. (For example, you get Shawn Chacon.) Keep cycling in younger players, and you get key cogs in your next pennant winner. Will that gamble work out for the Brewers? Who knows. Maybe Jackson will never successfully make the leap to the bigs. But if one out of every five prospects you acquire turns into Zach Duke or Jason Bay, or one out of two turns into something so modest as Jose Castillo, you don’t have to burn your free agent bucks on “average.” I don’t know when the Pirates will next contend, but I suspect that when they do, the team will have more guys–and corresponding salaries–like the 2007 Dave Bush than the 2007 Adam LaRoche.
Dan Szymborski is the Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Think Factory, a website “containing stats, news, links and analysis for all types of baseball fans.” Dan says:
While turning the Pirates into a successful franchise is a pretty tall order and probably wouldn’t be accomplished in a few years, there are a few things that Bob Nutting could do right off the bat. Probably 80 percent of the people reading this probably already think the same thing, but Dave Littlefield clearly has to go. If we make the assumption that winning games is the primary goal of the organization, something that’s clearly up for debate, the organization is rotten at practically every aspect, from misevaluating the value of players at the major league level to developing minor league talent, especially position players.
When the biggest successes of your general manager happen purely by accident–getting Jason Bay in the Brian Giles trade instead of Xavier Nady, and Freddy Sanchez being given a real shot at a full-time job only because of Joe Randa’s fouling a pitch off his foot–bringing down the axe isn’t a bad place to start.
To be honest, the Pirates, with their current ownership, would probably need an overhaul of MLB’s revenue-sharing system, which has proved to be a bounty for small-market teams that are very risk-adverse rather than small-market teams that attempt to compete, thanks to the methods that the pooled revenues are distributed among teams.
Do Pirate fans have any reason to expect different in the near future? I doubt it. I can envision a number of scenarios in which the Pirates could be competitive in the next few years–the NL is rather weak at the moment, the pitching staff could stay together and remain healthy, Andrew McCutchen could advance too quickly for the Pirate minor league staff to provide him much of their patented “instruction.” The team, however, without a major organizational overhaul, will continue to make poor decisions, make very few goods, and generally do just enough to not completely alienate what’s left of the fanbase, pocketing the rather impressive revenues that the team gets from revenue-sharing and other sources of shared revenue, such as national television, international revenue, Internet revenue and merchandising.
David Pinto is the author of Baseball Musings. He has worked for Project Scoresheet, STATS, Inc. and ESPN. David says:
The Pirates need to bring in a fresh GM to run the team. Over the years, I’ve found myself in agreement with Littlefield’s moves. His trade of Brian Giles for Jason Bay and Oliver Perez was a perfect example of trading a player going into a decline for someone on the rise. But those moves are few and far between. He did the exact opposite last season when he spent money to bring in an aging third baseman when he owned the answer to the position on the club. On a recent perusal of the Pirates farm system looking for young slugging first basemen, not only did I find none, I found very few young players in AA or AAA. The Pirates are in the worst of both worlds. They can’t afford to buy high priced talent, and they’ve done a poor job creating a reservoir of young players that can step in as players like Giles are traded away. In other words, the Pirates are pretty much stuck with their current team.
Littlefield did bring along three young starters recently, Duke, Maholm and Snell. The first two are very similar, however. Both are lefties who don’t strike out a lot of batters. This puts pressure on the defense. While one of this type of pitcher is fine if your defense is outstanding, two may be just too much for the team to handle. They allow too many balls in play.
When Lloyd McClendon managed the Pirates, he talked a good game about getting on base and going deep into counts. But Littlefield rarely provided the talent to accomplish that. It’s time for Dave to follow his manager out the door. The Pirates need to find a GM who knows the value of players and how to pursue the acquisition of those hitters and pitchers. Littlefield’s offseason-long pursuit of Adam LaRoche at the expense of the rest of the team was counter-productive. Pittsburgh’s new GM should realize that filling holes at easy defensive positions is much easier than finding a good starter or a good middle infielder. That’s where his concentration should lie.
The new GM also needs to restock the farm system so there is a steady supply of talent into the majors. That’s how the Braves, the Athletics and the Twins keep winning. And it looks like the Red Sox will be joining that group soon. With the purse strings of the owner staying tight, the young route is the best way for the Pirates to field a competitive team again.
Unfortunately, this takes time. So for the foreseeable future, don’t expect much from the Pirates. Sanchez and Bay are great players. Maybe the three young pitchers all turn in good years together. But unless everything goes absolutely right for Pittsburgh, they’ll continue to dwell at the bottom of the division.
There is one other way for the team to become competitive quickly. Mark Cuban talks about buying the team. He’s an owner in the game to win. He’d spend money, and could make the team respectable while the farm system grew. And I believe he’d bring some excitement to the team all by himself.
The Pirates, a once proud organization, are looking at another losing season. They’ve failed to develop a farm system that feeds the major league team with talent. The cost of high quality free agents or trade acquisitions is beyond their means. The team needs a new GM with a better eye for talent and a better sense of how to build a ballclub. Even if they team implemented changes today, I’m afraid they’re looking at a few losing seasons before reaching the top again.

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