As you might expect there's been some nasty things being written about McClatchy since the news was announced yesterday, but he never actually struck me as a bad guy. He seemed like someone that was trying, but was in over his head when it came to day-to-day baseball operations. His biggest mistake, and it was a huge one, was hiring and sticking with Dave Littlefield far after it became obvious that Littlefield was not a good general manager. But someone had to put a group of owners together in 1996 to keep the team from leaving, and McClatchy was the one that did that. And someone had to get the ball rolling to get PNC Park built and McClatchy was the one that did that.
His baseball management was terrible and that's the main reason the team is as bad today as they are, but he's also the main reason that they're able to be terrible in Pittsburgh and not Portland or St. Petersburg. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, and maybe it is a little bit, but thank you, Kevin, for not being Jeffrey Loria.
The week before Christmas I wrote a post wondering who Jack Wilson thought the Pirates were going to "go out and get" when he said that the team needed "more players." Baldelli signing with Boston is exactly what I meant. There's no real reason for Baldelli to sign with the Red Sox over the Pirates beyond the fact that the Red Sox are the Red Sox and the Pirates are the Pirates. In Boston, he'll be behind Jason Bay, JD Drew, David Ortiz, and probably Jacoby Ellsbury on the OF/DH depth chart. In Pittsburgh, he would've had every chance to start. Now, I obviously don't know all the details of his health, but I'd think playing time would be important to a guy trying to prove he was healthy.
You can blame this on the team not ponying enough cash for Baldelli, but that sure wasn't the case with Daniel Cabrera and I doubt that's the case here. You can say Baldelli's from New England, sure, but it's not like Pittsburgh is an incredibly long flight from Rhode Island. And we've got some pretty good health care in the city, if that's what he's concerned with.
So really, what useful player is going to sign here right now?
Dejan reports this afternoon that the Pirates are still in the mix to sign Rocco Baldelli. I was actually going to write something up this afternoon about their odds to get him increasing after the Reds re-signed Hairston and the Rays saying they've about hit their payroll ceiling, but I'll take actual reporting over having to speculate any day.
It seems like the choice for Baldelli is whether he wants (or is healthy enough) for regular playing time. In Pittsburgh he could almost certainly be the starting left fielder over Nyjer Morgan, while the AL teams that are interested in him are mostly contenders like the Red Sox and Yankees. If he's not completely healthy yet, he may want to stay in the American League where he wouldn't be expected to play daily and could DH from time to time. If he is healthy, I have to think he'd be interested in playing for a team like the Pirates where he could prove his health and given his age (he turned 27 in September), parlay that into a longer-term, bigger money deal.
I'd still like to see Rocco in a Pirate uniform for the same reason that Oliver Perez piqued my interest last night. I think a lot of people are misunderstanding some of my more recent posts to mean that I think that the Pirates should completely ignore the major league club until the players in the minors are ready. That's not my argument at all. What I've been trying to say is that the focus, and most of the resources, should go into the developing the minor leagues because the big league club can't contend right now. Therefore, signing a player like Pat Burrell or keeping a player like Jason Bay, who are both good hitters and not terribly old but have very limited upside and limited interest in being in Pittsburgh at this point in their careers, is a waste of time and especially a waste of money for the Pirates.
Baldelli represents something different. He's an unknown quantity with a huge ceiling that won't command a big salary this year due to his injury past. The potential is there to for him to improve the big league club immediately and if he does turn out to be healthy, the Pirates would have an inside track at keeping him here if things go well with the team. Since he's 27, it's not entirely out of the question that he could be useful if the Pirates begin to turn things around next year or the year after. If he's healthy and playing well and indicates no desire to stay in Pittsburgh, we can always trade him.
That line of thinking was why I asked about Perez. Yeah, he's asking for eight figures, but if Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu aren't getting $11 million and Ollie's a free agent in February, that asking price is going to come down. And he's still only 27 (he's just two months older than Baldelli). The point made by Bishop in my post from last night is probably the truth: Ollie's had five years in the league and there's just not a lot to indicate that he can duplicate 2004, which makes him a waste of our time.
I'm sure as hell not interested in Braden Looper or even Derek Lowe or Andy Pettitte or Bobby Abreu, but that doesn't mean that there's not any interesting players for the Pirates in free agency.
So I'm sitting here watching the MLB Network tonight (featuring Trenni Kusnierek, who's probably more popular among long-time WHYGAVS readers than any ex-Pirate not nicknamed Thor) and Al Lieter, Harold Reynolds, and Joe Magrane just did a "free agent pitcher draft" for the Pirates, Padres, and Reds. Lieter, who's a pretty astute guy, represented the Pirates and picked Oliver Perez with his first pick.
Now, this whole exercise was hypothetical, but I thought about it a bit and really, Ollie is the ultimate Neal Huntington project. He's got a better arm than probably 95% of everyone in the majors, he runs up a ton of strikeouts, and he's hard as hell to figure out. I think Joe Kerrigan could potentially do a lot of good for him, just like Rick Peterson did in New York. Plus, picking Perez up probably lets a guy like Ohlendorf go to the pen, where he's probably best suited to be. So the question is, if the price was right, would you want Oliver Perez back in a Pirate uniform?
You know, I thought that I might make it the whole life of this blog without naming a post that sounds like a bad graduation speech. Anyways, I almost made it four years. I guess that's not bad.
This morning, DK posted a letter on the PBC blog from a season ticket holder to the Pirates, informing the club that he would be cancelling his tickets. You can read the letter for yourself, but the guy basically says, "I'm sick of this crap and I'm sick of waiting. Have a nice life." DK goes on to note that while there are some people (like me) that aren't concerned with the outcome of the 2009 season if the new front office continues to move the team in the right direction on the minor league front, there is a vast majority of Pirate fans that's just plain sick of waiting and every year that passes, more and more fans bleed from the fanbase.
Before I go much further, I want to note that I'm not criticizing Andy (the fan that wrote Dejan), nor am I criticizing anyone that cancels their tickets. The Pirates suck. They've tortured us fans again and again and again over the past sixteen years and while I think that things seem to be moving in the right direction under Huntington and while I'll argue the value of a good draft vs. the value of trade returns or free agent signings and which of those things are truly more important to the Pirates until I turn blue, I get it that people are jumping ship and I'm not judging them, even if I don't think they're giving the front office enough of a chance.
In writing the Roadto 17, I've spent more time wallowing in the Pirates' recent past than any sane person should. Probably the most interesting part of it, for me, is really looking at the teams from the first three quarters of this streak and really examining them, the players they had, and the choices that lead the team to the point they're at right now. Doing that has made one thing incredibly clear: both Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield ultimately failed because they tried to straddle the line between rebuilding and respectability at the same time.
Bonifay had put together a legitimately interesting base after the 1996 fire sale, but rather than sticking with what he'd built he caved when the public pressure mounted to put the '97 immediately over the top. Instead of sticking with the initial (and now much maligned) "Five Year Plan," he gave bad contracts to worthless veterans and dealt Jose Guillen for catchers after Jason Kendall's injury, even though Guillen was a young, high-upside player and the Pirates weren't going to contend in 1999 either way. This plan bottomed out in 2001 and lead to his firing and the hiring of Dave Littlefield. Littlefield seemed constantly concerned with not being as awful as the club was in 2001 and he pursued that goal with as much fervor as anything, often leaving the actual rebuilding process as young players were routinely blocked by mediocre veterans who helped ensure that a Littlefield team never lost more than 95 games, but also ensured they never won more than 75.
The reality is that the past two GMs here failed not because they were terrible talent evaluators (Bonifay was a good scout before becoming the Pirates' GM and is still a scout in the league for the Reds and I'll still argue that Littlefield was actually incredibly good at what his primary goal was, which was staying employed), they failed because they misplaced their priorities. Instead of focusing on what they thought the Pittsburgh Pirates needed to do to get better, they both fixated on what they thought other people wanted to see from the Pirates, be that the fan base, the ownership, or whoever else.
In the end, the only thing that's going to bring fans back to the park is consistent winning. A one-year run at .500 might generate interest, but if it's not sustained then it won't truly change anything. That means that if Huntington and Coonelly think what they're doing (building through the draft, strengthening international scouting, and trying to pick a few players up in trades for the table scraps that Littlefield left them) is the best way to fix the Pirates, then they have to keep doing it, no matter how many people show up at PNC in 2009. This is not an easy thing to do. The public, who loves Jason Bay far more now than they ever did when he was a Pirate, will be screaming bloody murder if the offense has another month like last August when 2009 opens. Bob Nutting will likely be none too pleased if he starts hemhorraging money when the fans disappear. Pot-shots like this one from the media will only increase, especially if the Steelers, Pitt basketball, or the Penguins win a championship.
The biggest key for the Pirates this year is that Huntington and Coonelly stay the course. I take a lot of crap for being too easy on the new front office and I think I probably am. There's a reason for that: I think it's clear that they have a vision. Maybe they're signing guys like Chris Gomez and Ramon Vazquez, but the way they've approached the draft, Latin America, and yes, even the trade market seems to be much improved over the previous two regimes and everything seems to be done with a clear goal in mind. I think that's the most important thing for a front office in the position the Pirates are in right now. Prior to Huntington and Coonelly, there was no vision. I think this joke has been made 100 times before, but it's true and I'll use it again; Littlefield plan for the team was the baseball version of the plan the Underpants Gnomes used on South Park to make money.
Collect baseball players the fans will recognize.
After that, any sort of vision would've nice. In the next year or two, Huntington and Coonelly's plan and how they alter it in response to adversity will begin to really bear itself out and we'll be able to judge what they're doing a little more completely. For now, though, the most important thing is that they don't compromise it and that the ownership doesn't put any pressure on them to compromise it. If Bonifay and Littlefield have taught us anything, it's that you can't rebuild and try to contend at the same time. It sucks that fans are bailing, but what those fans want to see in 2009 just isn't part of the front office's vision. It sounds harsh, but the front office can't change what they're doing just to make fans happy right NOW. The MLB is not the NFL. The process takes longer and it's harder and that's just how it works right now. The ultimate job of these guys is to build a winning baseball team and if they do that right, it'll eventually make all of the fans much happier than if we'd signed Pat Burrell this week.
The Road to 17 is a look at each losing season that the Pirates have had since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The object is not to wallow in the misery of the Pirates, but instead remember just what it is that makes us Pirate fans in the first place. Every team has their great moments, the Pirates' are just fewer and further between. Today, we hit the eleventh stop on the Road to 17: 2003.
2003 was a benchmark year in this losing streak for the Pirates, but weirdly enough the first memory of the year that jumps to mind for me is the late-May rainout that happened between the Pirates and Red Sox. It was maybe a night or two before my high school graduation and my dad had grabbed the tickets for the throwback to the 1903 World Series. The Pirates had planned to turn the scoreboard off, the teams were wearing throwbacks, and it all seemed like it was going to be a lot of fun whether or not the Pirates got killed (because they probably were going to get killed, you may remember George Steinbrenner actually complaining in 2003 that it was unfair the Red Sox pulled the Pirates in interleague play and the Yankees didn't). Instead, we got a swirling rainstorm that should've had the game cancelled before anyone showed up at the park. The Pirates being the Pirates, though, meant that 38,000 people showed up at the park and wandered around for two hours, spending money on concessions, before the game was cancelled at 9:30. Which is pretty much exactly what happened during the Yankees game I tried to go to this summer, too.
Of course, that's just the memory of mine that stands out the most from 2003. In reality, there were at least as many noteworthy events in 2003 as there were in any of these past 16 losing seasons. After the 2002 season, the free agent market was remarkably stagnant (the owners later paid a $16 million fine when the player alleged that they were colluding to keep free agent price tags down this winter) and the Pirates ended 2002 with only one significant free agent signing: Matt Stairs. As early 2003 pressed on, though, there were a bunch of decent players who hadn't found teams and Dave Littlefield was there to scoop them up. He signed Jeff Suppan at the end of January, then after camp opened he signed Reggie Sanders on March 10th, then Kenny Lofton on March 14th. It was crazy, but the Pirates had somehow stumbled in to signing two guys that almost everyone had heard of before.
In reality, this philosophy was the downfall of Dave Littlefield, as he spent each off-season after 2003 trying to find his next Reggie Sanders, a guy who he could get for next to nothing and plug into his lineup with a 130 OPS+. We didn't know that in 2003, though, and when the Pirates shot out of the gate with a 7-3 record, it really seemed like this new GM was on to something. Of course, then the Pirates fell to 8-8, did a little tango with .500 up until they were 14-14, dropped pretty quickly to nine or ten games below .500, then stayed there for the rest of the year. It was the pinnacle of the "Drive for 75." If only we knew.
2003 was marked by hardcore roster turnover in Pittsburgh (Jason Kendall, Jack Wilson, and Sanders were the only two Bucs to play in more than 130 games) and I'll get to the scarring trades in a minute, but before I do that, I really want to take a minute to relive the strangest moment of the Pirates' seventeen year losing streak: Sausagegate. I will allow the video to do the talking.
I love how serious the news anchors are in this clip. If they'd ever met Randall Simon (or watched him play baseball), they would've immediately known two things: 1.) He's about as happy-go-lucky as Major League player come and 2.) He swung at everything. But instead, they're discussing assault charges. Thank you, Randall Simon, whereever you are, for the most ludicrous thing to take place on a baseball field since Disco Demolition Night.
As I'm working my way through this post, I can't help but feel it's a bit disjointed. It's probably because I'm dreading mentioning the Aramis Ramirez trade. Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton for Jose (K) Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and Matt Bruback. Hernandez was an over-the-hill journeyman who struck out a lot and was acquired simply because someone had to play third base with Ramirez gone. Hill was already a busted prospect when we got him and I'm 99% certain his career highlight was being featured in this Dugout. I just had to look Bruback up and it seems he made four appearances for Nashville (our AAA affiliate at the time) before being claimed off of waivers less than a month after the Ramirez trade. So for a past All-Star having a decent year at a position the Cubs needed to fill and a future star third baseman, the Pirates got a crappy journeyman, a prospect with no upside, and a guy they didn't want. I don't care why the trade happened, it still makes me too angry to really even start talking about it.
Because I'm having a hard time forming coherent thoughts after that paragraph, let's take a second for some Tike Redman fun facts.
Tike has a brother named Prentice who also played in the majors in 2003, hitting .125/.192/.292 in 15 games with the Mets. He is currently in the Mariners organization, where he's been bouncing between AA and AAA since for the past two years.
Despite all of his failings, I will always remember Tike for his game the day after the trade deadline that year. He was just called up to Pittsburgh and he tripled twice in that game, with his second triple tying the game at 11 after the Pirates had fallen behind 11-6 going into the bottom of the ninth, scored the winning run, and made some nice catches in the outfield. I think that officially made me and my dad the first two people on the Tike Redman bandwagon. Present Me is shaking my head sadly at Past Me.
You know, the more I think about 2003, the harder it's getting to keep this post shorter than the Book of Job. The Ramirez trade wasn't the only trade DL made that year. He also dealt Scott Sauerbeck and Mike Gonzalez to Boston for Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez, then decided that Lyon's arm was bad and sent Lyon, Martinez, and Jeff Suppan to Boston for Gonzalez and Freddy Sanchez. The net of the trade was Sauerbeck and Suppan for Sanchez. I seem to recall this deal making Pirate fans almost as angry as the Ramirez deal at the time.
If that weren't enough, Brian Giles was then shipped to San Diego after the trade deadline for Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, and Corey Stewart. Bay put up a fairly respectable line with the Pirates in his 100 or so ABs and managed to drive in 8 runs in the front end of a double-header against the Cubs in mid-September. As bad as Ramirez trade looked off the bat, the Giles trade always looked pretty good.
So many things happened in 2003. I mean, Matt Stairs was a Pirate! He spent all year hacking away with his awesome swing at the right field wall and he rolled several balls into rolling into the Allegheny. It was a pretty wild year, in all, that could be remembered for the Giles trade or that the team played about .500 ball for the last 100 games. Instead, we can remember that Dave Littlefield traded a 25-year-old budding All-Star for Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill.
It's interesting to see Frank Coonelly speak up in today's Post-Gazette in support of a salary cap, but only given his previous job and not his current one. I wrote up a long post at FanHouse on the subject just before the new year began and while I won't rehash every single step of the argument here, I do think that payroll disparity (and thus, a cap) is used as a crutch by uninformed fans and bad owners to explain why their team is so bad. It seems like Coonelly understands that, too, and the tone of his statements is, "I'll support a cap if Selig wants one, but otherwise we're pressing forward in the system as is."
It's not that I think a cap is a bad idea, it's just that a cap would only scratch the surface of what needs to be done in baseball. Time wasted thinking about the cap is time not thinking about getting a leg up on the league in Venezuela or not thinking about draft sleepers or anything along those lines.
There's not much news to kick the year off with here and I'm going to be driving today, so I won't be around to update much. There are a couple things that I did want to mention before I forget about them, though.
First off, there was news earlier in the week that Ian Snell would pitch for Puerto Rico in the WBC. I think this is generally good news, if only to give Snell a bit of a chance to really get himself ironed out this spring and start really thinking about pitching a few weeks early. He seems excited about the whole thing and that lead to him echoing Jack Wilson's call for the Pirates to get more "players" in yesterday's PG. So the guy who underachieved all last year, pouted, and made excuses for his bad performances is now looking to Neal Huntington to add some talent to the team. How Ian Snell pitches next year will have far more impact on the 2009 Pirates than any player Huntington could've realistically added this season. On a semi-related noted, I'm hoping to get back to the Snell PitchFX stuff that I started earlier this offseason and haven't had a chance to do much with since. So brace yourselves for that.
One player the Pirates won't be adding this winter is Derrick Turnbow. There's not a lot to be said about Turbow that hasn't been said ad nauseum. It's good that we don't have to think about him anymore and it's good that my unoriginality doesn't have to be exposed when I talk about "Turnblow" and "Grablow" in the same post on some hot July night this summer.
And while we're at it, John Sickels has his list of the Pirates' top 20 prospects. He's pretty high on Robbie Grossman and Bryan Morris. Like most other people who do this sort of thing, he notes that the Pirates' system is "thin but improving" and when reading about guys like Grossman and Quinton Miller, it seems like he thinks several of these guys may grade out higher in a year or two.
Most of the time when people do their year-end remebrances, they have a decent amount of positive things to write about. As a Pirate fan, it's hard to find positive things. Still, I've been thinking back about 2008 for a little while now, and there are at least a few good memories that the year has given me, so let's take a minute to talk about those.
The Comeback- For the most part, Jason Michaels' Pirate tenure will be forgettable. He was here for part of a year and for all the talk about veteran leadership and setting a good example and that kind of stuff, he just wasn't that great and he won't be that great in Houston. Still, no one that watched the game on July 12th this year will forget the game or Michaels for a long time. The Bucs were down 8-3 after six innings and 10-4 going into the bottom of the eight, but rallied back to tie the game at 10 thanks to big home runs by Jason Bay (in the eighth) and Nate McLouth (in the ninth). After they did that, Denny Bautista promptly served up a home run in the tenth to Troy Glaus and you could feel a collective, "Here we go again," go up from Pirate fans all around the world. But then something different happened, Raul Chavez singled and with one out, Jason Michaels hit a walk-off, two-run homer. So shines a good deed in a weary world.
Pedro Alvarez- Remember draft day? Despite weeks or assurances, I don't know anyone that truly believed the Pirates would draft Alvarez, who was the consensus best player available after it became clear that Tim Beckham would be picked first by the Rays. They said they would, but we'd all heard that before. Then on draft day, they came through. On August 15th, we all huddled around our computers late and night to hear if he was going to sign and we rejoiced when he did. And remember the relief you felt when the team re-negotiated the contract and made sure he'd be in the Pirates' system for years to come?
For Pirate fans, Alvarez represents more than just a left-handed thumper and a true talent; he represents a new way of handling the draft. The Pirates picked and signed not only him, but guys like Robbie Grossman and Quinton Miller as well. They spent more than $9 million in bonuses this year. And as much as people dislike the way they re-negotiated his deal after the deadline, they forged a relationship with Scott Boras and proved to him that they're willing to do business.
The trade deadline- Bear with me here and think back to deadline day. All day, the Jason Bay rumor we heard was Reid Brignac and Jeff Niemann for Bay. At one point, MLB.com reported it as a done deal. That was a hugely disappointing return for the guy that sure seemed to be the best player available at the deadline. The deadline then came and went without word of a deal and that was even more disappointing. Then word leaked out that something had happened. The Pirates managed to get Andy LaRoche (who I think still has more upside than Brignac, even after his hugely disappointing two months in black and gold) and three other potentially useful players for Bay. It wasn't a perfect trade, but it was a huge improvement over the way that the Kris Benson deal was bungled and Huntington even managed to trade for guys that weren't going to be placed on waivers the next day anyways (I'm looking at you, Shawn Chacon).
WHYGAVS had a great year, too. I got to Camden Yards, we had the first ever WHYGAVS Night, I got to talk to RoccoDeMaro, and the site got a new home and a facelift that gives it the baddest-ass Spiderman-inspired banner in the entire sports blogworld. Of course, all of this only happens because you guys keep reading and I can't thank you enough for that.
Thanks for everything in 2008. All told, it wasn't all that bad even though the Pirates were. They might not be much better in 2009, but when they are, we're all going to seriously party.