Among the myriad diaspora of things that I disliked about Dave Littlefield, one of the things that really bugged me towards the end was his inability to evaluate his players as a team and the resulting refusal to tear something apart that clearly wasn't working. The reason that so many fans currently pine for the now-absent Dave Littlefield All-Stars is because Littlefield managed to put together a team that generally fielded Major League quality players at each position, even if they weren't really necessarily good players.
For example, on Opening Day 2007, the Pirates were pressing on with Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, and Jose Bautista as featured players. Chris Duffy was in center field, but he was replaced by Nate McLouth before the end of the season and Ronny Paulino was catching, though he slowly lost his job to Ryan Doumit over the course of the season. On Opening Day 2009 each of these players (save Duffy) is still playing at the Major League level and they're all, for the most part, assuming at least semi-regular roles, albiet mostly on different teams.
Littlefield was prepared to ride that 2007 lineup for all it was worth (we've been over this again and again, but it was almost entirely locked in through 2009 and after trading for LaRoche, it became apparent that he was ready to roll with the guys he had) and in the end, it got him fired before the season even ended. It was what he'd built up to, the culmination of his efforts in six years as team GM. The problem with that particular group of guys was that even though individually they all stacked up as at least semi-acceptable every day players, they weren't even close to being good enough as a group to hack it on a daily basis. You can play Adam LaRoche at first base, for example, but not with Jose Bautista at third. And you can play Bautista at third, but not when Xavier Nady's in right. And you can hide Jack Wilson's bat at shortstop because of his excellent glove, but not when Bautista and Nady and LaRoche are in the lineup.
Of course, if you looked at what's probably going to be the 2010 lineup on Opening Day and got the same feeling, you wouldn't be at all off base. The difference here is that this team is full of young players with upside that the Pirates can potentially control for the long-haul, personified in guys like Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge, Jeff Clement, and Garrett Jones, as opposed to known quantity guys approaching arbitration and free agency. The goal here is to give these guys a chance, figure out who's worth keeping, and cast the rest aside in search for other players.
That means that it's not all that important that Jeff Clement didn't hit well in Spring Training or that Lastings Milledge didn't show much other than a decent batting average down the stretch last year. What's important is how they hit and field this year, and what the team decides to do with that information as it pertains to the future. We got a bit of insight into how the front office will handle this sort of thing today when Brandon Moss was sent packing, even though the team is pretty sure he'll be claimed off of waivers if they can't work a trade out for him.
The decision was essentially to keep John Raynor instead of Moss so that the team could claim Hayden Penn. Penn is a 25-year old pitcher with that scouts have always said good things about, but a penchant for injuries and a poor big league performance record. Raynor is 26 and coming off of a terrible season in Triple-A that caused the Marlins to leave him exposed to the Rule 5 pick. The real truth is that it's very possible that neither player will have as good a Major League career as Brandon Moss, who I still think has enough talent to turn things around despite all of his struggles at the plate last year and this spring. The thing is, after seeing Moss flail around at the plate for the better part of the last 12 months it became more and more apparent that he's won't cut it as an everyday corner outfielder. We know Moss's ceiling now and as I wrote last week, it's probably something similar to Ryan Church, a player we managed to acquire without much difficulty this winter. Raynor may have a latent Nyjer Morgan/Rajai Davis sort of breakout in him somewhere (maybe even with more power), while Penn may take to a relief role and be a valuable find. We know about Moss, we don't know about Raynor or Penn.
Cutting Moss free is one thing; we all knew when the Pirates acquired him that he was a guy that didn't fit into the Red Sox plans in short or long-term and that there was a good chance we were acquiring a fourth outfielder in the hopes that we'd found a Nate McLouth. Despite the way anyone may try to recast the Jason Bay trade, that trade was made for Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris with Moss being a nice toss-in that Neal Huntington thought was worth evaluating. Making the same decision for someone like Jeff Clement or Lastings Milledge or Andy LaRoche (ranked by me in order of likelihood to have to make said decision) will be more difficult. Those three all have much better pedigrees than Moss and they were all more or less the focal point of their trades (Clement is debatable, I guess, but since the passel of pitchers acquired for him are so far away from the big leagues the Pirates must think pretty highly of him). If Clement has a terrible year, if Milledge doesn't hit enough to support left field and his glove doesn't make up for the difference, Huntington is going to have to find new solutions at these positions.
As hard as it might be to believe, 2010 will be the third full season under Huntington's belt as general manager. He inherited a huge mess from his predecessor and has spent the better part of the first two seasons mopping it up and one of the ways he chose to do that was to acquire top talents that lost a bit of luster in their previous homes in hopes of them hitting their stride in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that how they perform this year will be hugely significant to the future of the Pirates, but how the front office reacts if they don't is almost as important.