Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pellas On The Pirates: As The Dust Settles

This Is Plainly Huntington’s Team (For Better Or Worse)

And to think, just a few weeks ago I wrote a column for GW about the Pirates’ 2009 season and called it, “Just…Kinda..There”. Just kinda there, indeed!

After what may have been the biggest flurry of trades in the shortest amount of time in Pirates history---and peering through the smoke and the dust that is still settling from those trades---it is safe to say that the Pittsburgh Pirates are now totally Neil Huntington’s team, sink or swim, live or die, win or lose, for better or for worse.

I’ll leave the blow by blow descriptions and analyses of every single player in every single trade to the wonk-sites for now. As for the less detailed, higher up the mountain, bigger picture view, I have these observations:

1) Although the Pirates appear to have acquired some good talent in the various veterans-for-kids moves Huntington has made, it does not appear that they have acquired any elite talent. This is troubling, though also somewhat predictable given that the current trend with most teams is to hang onto their own prospects at all costs.

2) That said, the Pirates have still managed to get their claws around three former first rounders: Lastings Milledge (picked by the Mets), Jeff Clement (Mariners), and Tim Alderson (Giants), still a noteworthy accomplishment for any GM and definitely in keeping with the current front office's strategy of acquiring talent, talent, and more talent at all levels of the minor league system.

None of those three are elite or can’t miss guys---particularly:

Clement---but Milledge can definitely play as long as his head is no longer stuck in his hind quarters (no sure thing, there) and Alderson has continued his impressive pitching this season at the Double-A level, lower-than-you’d-like-to-see strikeout numbers notwithstanding.

By the way, and I’m sorry, I just had to digress for a moment, what does Daniel McCutchen have to do to get a look in Pittsburgh? He’s been outstanding over the past month at Triple-A Indianapolis, and his season long numbers continue to show a righthanded Paul Maholm type who strikes out more than you'd think, doesn't walk anybody, and just keeps in winning.

This team needs to find out for sure what it has in him, if anything. He clearly has nothing left to prove in the minors.

By the way Part Deux: the writing is on the wall for Steven Pearce. Between Garrett Jones and Jeff Clement, has there ever been a clearer message of “No Confidence" sent to any recent Pirates player? I can’t think of one.

3) But, back to the trades. The Jason Bay deal is looking worse and worse all the time. It is Exhibit A in one of the few obvious flaws in Neil Huntington’s trading methodology: His worrisome tendency to absorb too much risk in the form of A-ballers who are too far from the majors to be the ones who have to succeed in order for the
Pirates to“win” a particular trade.

Some risk is definitely necessary, no question; none of Huntington’s immediate predecessors had any stomach for it, and the team and the organization definitely suffered.

And no, I have zero desire to return to the Littlefield, uhh, "strategy" of stockpiling our own and everybody else's perpetual "four A" types. However, it seems to me that Huntington, if anything, might be too far in the opposite direction.

In other words it was a bad idea right from the get go to assume that former Dodgers uberprospect Brian Morris, coming off arm surgery no less, would stay healthy and become a productive if not better than productive major leaguer.

So far, Morris remains stuck at High Class A Lynchburg and has had a season full of additional aches and pains . All of which might not be as much of an issue had the Pirates received more than fourth outfielder Brandon Moss and utilityman-in-the-making Andy LaRoche as the “major league ready” components of the Bay deal.

Instead, Huntington chose to roll the dice on an A-baller, worse yet a pitcher, as the key to the entire transaction. Too much risk too far down in the minors, in my view, much as I admire Huntington’s aggressiveness and general principles.

4) The major league lineup we are likely to see for the remainder of 2009 and for 2010 is - even after all of the turnover - still short on power and still short on team speed. That is disappointing, pure and simple.

It also lends credence to my suspicion that the current front office - for all the right and necessary things it does, and they are many - nonetheless is determined to rebuild the Pirates along American League rather than National League lines. But unless you’re the Blake Street Bombers or the Boston Red Sox, that usually doesn’t work in the NL.

However, I am willing to wait and see until after next season because Pedro Alvarez is probably an All-Star break callup in 2010, and Jose Tabata will be fighting for the starting job in right no later than 2011, and there are still some useful - not marquee, but useful - veteran free agents who might yet be willing to sign on in the 'Burgh over the next offseason or two.

Meanwhile, Brad Lincoln would figure to be joining a revamped (and much harder- throwing) rotation by next season at the latest, and before long, even more young reinforcements will begin to push for playing time in Pittsburgh as they come up through our system after two years of very strong drafting.

One thing the current regime has done unwaveringly and consistently since it took over is pursue talent aggressively (and fairly expensively) through the amateur draft
and through unconventional means on the international scene.

5) It must be remembered that the Pirates were not trading elite veterans in any of these moves other than, arguably, Jason Bay. And even Bay is, realistically, more in the “very good” rather than “great” or “elite” category. The other players the Pirates traded away are all half a notch or more below Bay, though Nate McLouth is very close (and I still say he shouldn’t have been dealt).

All in all, the Pirates are still on track and they are still staying the course as they attempt to teardown and rebuild the entire organization the right way, in order to lay the proper foundation for long term success. Huntington and the rest of the front office and even owner Bob Nutting are to be commended for their integrity and commitment to principle.

And while in my view there are a couple of small but highly significant areas in which Huntington has failed or at least acted questionably, nonetheless there is no doubt that the organization from top to bottom is much stronger now than it was when he took over.

Unfortunately, the major league roster is not significantly improved---at least not yet---and the only elite players projected to be playing at PNC anytime soon will have to come from within the organization. No big name free agents are coming here---again, at least not yet---and none of the players we’ve gotten back in trade have yet set the world on fire.

The bottom line? Win or lose, the Pirates have now put a total and final end to the Littlefield Era and are now firmly Huntington’s. Whatever happens from now on, good or bad, must and will be laid fully and completely at his feet. The realization that this is so must surely be sobering for Huntington. It certainly is for me.

Most of Pirates fandom has been clamoring for years for a GM and front office who will do exactly what we just saw. Okay. Mission accomplished. But, in the words of the pithy proverb, “Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it!” It remains to be seen, in other words, if the end result of Huntington’s moves will be another contender or another disappointment.

The odds are in our favor, and Huntington has acted mostly (though not entirely) in accordance with what most baseball people would call “best practices”, etc and so forth. But there are too many variables with young players to be sure of what the finished product will look like and how it will perform.

Ya gotta admire Huntington for sticking to his guns, doing exactly what he said he would do and what he set out to do, and now chaining himself to the mast, glory or bust. If nothing else, this should be interesting.

(Will Pellas on the recent shake-up and how it bodes for the future)

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