Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pellas on the Pirates: Coming Full Circle

Today is the day I came full circle as a Pirates fan.

For a long time I was in the "traditional fan" camp. Get 'em next year, let's go Bucs, and all that. With the arrival of each spring training, I'd look hard at our roster, try to project how well (or poorly) our players would perform, formulate a couple of trades or modest free agent signings that would presumably get us over the top, and root the team on.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that for a variety of reasons, the entire Pirates organization was broken and in sore need of fixing. Along the way, it also became clear that whatever priorities the organization had, fielding a winning team at the major league level wasn’t one of them.

Thus, it seemed that the entire “traditional fan” paradigm was no longer valid; it simply wasn’t possible to root-root-root for the Pirates in the traditional sense because the whole appeal of sports is based on the ideal of (more or less) pure competition, and the uncertainty of the outcome of that competition, and the emotional investment you make as a spectator in that uncertain outcome, and the joy that comes with your vicarious participation when the team wins.

But the Pirates were too badly broken for all of that.

So, I reinvented myself as an interested observer in how the whole train wreck might be repaired. Along the way, I abandoned my “traditional fan” perspective because, after all, it’s unrealistic to expect---much less demand---even a mildly competitive big league product on the field at PNC when there’s little or no talent coming up from the minors and when there’s no hope of outspending the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, and Cubs. Or even St. Louis, really.

Being a “fan”, then, became less about wins and losses and more about hanging in there, learning about the entire operation from rookie league to Pittsburgh and all points in between, and vicariously participating that way.

To be sure, going through that process has been highly educational and, honestly, pretty interesting. In a strange sort of way, it might even be more fun to be involved with the Pirates from that point of view than it would be to be a BoSox or Yankees fan---after all, those folks pretty much know they’re going to be in the postseason every year unless something truly remarkable occurs. And if they’re not, they just import the latest and greatest gazillion dollar free agents and spend everyone else into oblivion. Not much fear of failure or anticipation of an uncertain outcome in all that.

But then came the bloodletting of 2008 and especially 2009.

The "team" the Pirates front office put on the field over the second half of 2009 was criminally incompetent. The result was arguably if not probably the worst stretch of baseball this city has ever seen. Yes, most of the veterans that the Nutting-Huntington-Coonelly regime inherited had to be dealt in order to speed the transfusion of talent into the system because that system was, in fact, broken.

But ALL of them? Nate McLouth in the first year of his quite reasonable contract extension? John Grabow when there wasn't a lefthander anywhere in the entire organization who could even begin to replace him? Really?

And even if we swallow hard and look the other way in that regard, well then: where are the handful of intelligently-chosen veterans this offseason? Guys who will both make us better in the short term and who can police the clubhouse and show the kids the ropes? Hello? Bueller? Anybody? BUELLER?

The truth is that there are any number of mid-range, "professional ballplayer" veterans who could and who definitely would help this team be more competitive. Right now. No questions asked. Want proof?

The fondly-remembered 1997 team was all about that sort of player. Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs, et al, and all of a sudden we're sort-of interesting even into September. What, I ask, is wrong with that? Oh, I see, we're "rebuilding", as all the sabremetric wonks tell us, so therefore it's somehow totally wrong to even try for moderate (but real) improvement on the field while we wait for the kids to arrive.


As I said, I’ve come full circle. To be sure, every Pirates fan has to accept significant pain and disappointment, at least in the short term, because a significant teardown-rebuild was, in truth, the only kind of strong medicine that had any hope of laying the foundation for a return to winning baseball. But a “significant teardown-rebuild” is emphatically not the same thing as a “total demolition and wins and losses be damned because the kids will save us”.

I refuse to believe our product on the field doesn't matter because, well, you see, it’ll all be better someday and then no one will care. I do not accept that entire premise, not anymore.

If only from the standpoint of professional and competitive integrity---what they used to call "being a big leaguer"---you owe it to your sport and to your fans to put a team on the field that will, at bare minimum, make the other guys sweat to beat you. If you can't, or won't, do even that much, you are not a major league organization and you should sell or be contracted. Period.

(Sounds like you can add Will to the list of disgruntled fans!)


Anonymous said...

I'm in for a penny, in for a pound. Don't think I could give up so easily on a team that I've followed faithfully my entire life.
Nate "the great" was a decent player, not "great"... decent, good, above average. But he didn't want to move to a corner spot for McCutchen who, may indeed turn out to be great. That isn't being a team player and if that is the case, who needs him?
Anyone who abandons this team at this point is missing the point. We have been a terrible ball club for over a decade and a half, new management is finally trying to right that wrong. They were absolutely right to gut the team and I won't be surprised to see more go from here (Doumit, Duke etc) The sad truth is trading our favorites like Bay, Sanchez, Wilson and McLouth was the ONLY way to repair the mess that they were presented with.
I for one am more excited for this team than I have been for a long time. The coming year looks to be another rough one, but it will have a purpose: to nurture and mature the young core and build toward the future.
I really don't understand why so many so-called fans don't get this.

WilliamJPellas said...

And your point is the ongoing refrain from the front office, and there is---to be sure---more than a little truth to it.

My beef---as I stated above---is NOT with the idea that most of our veterans needed to be dealt in order to speed the influx of young talent into our system at all levels. Absolutely, I'm on board with that concept, as far as it goes.

I just don't believe that the product we put on the field in the meantime doesn't matter, and I don't believe that ALL of our veterans had to be dealt more or less all at once. More than one observer has wondered, as I have, whether Huntington has it in for Littlefield's players, some of whom were actually pretty good, believe it or not.

And I'm not bailing out on this team. I've come full circle. Which means, I believe we CAN and SHOULD seek modest improvement in the team that actually takes the field at PNC Park, while still putting the bulk of our assets and our long term future in the hands of the kids. It's doing the former without neglecting the latter.

If that puts me in the minority, so be it.

MarkInDallas said...

Living in Dallas, I've been able to watch up close as the Rangers have built up their farm system at the same time they did not completely stink on the field. So, obviously it can be done, but I think it's instructive to see why the Rangers were able to tread water after trading off Mark Teixeira for prospects.

#1. The Rangers are in a market much larger than Pittsburgh, and that means they regularly pull in a larger attendance and have more lucrative media contracts than do the Pirates. They are also in an area that athletes find more attractive to live in year round, as evidenced by the fact that many Dallas area athletes continue to live in the area after they have moved on to other teams. Whether it's the weather or the central US location or simply the fact that there are opportunities that an area of 6.5M people provides over an area of 2.3M, I don't know. But it's a factor.

#2. They've been good with developing hitters through coaching and guys like Josh Hamilton and Marlon Byrd were low cost players that flourished under the Rangers coaching.

#3. Because of #2, some of the best "come here and build up your value" free agents have come to Texas because of the reputation of Texas as an offensive stat builder and Rudy Jaramillo's rep as a hitting coach that can help players find their swing. This has allowed the Rangers to attract players like Milton Bradley and Andruw Jones among others.

If the Pirates can become known for their superior coaching and ability to take MFAs and give them opps to make the big leagues, maybe that can be their ticket in the future. Anyway, the Pirates had neither advantages in market, nor the perception of good coaching when all this started. I just don't think there was enough of an advantage in any area that would have allowed the Pirates to not waste resources that might be better used in the future.

Ron Ieraci said...

Hey Mark - nice to hear from ya. I agree that Texas has considerable revenue advantages over Pittsburgh. It also, despite Tom Hicks, has never let its product sink to the level of the Pirates.

You can justify the McLouth deal assuming that the suits loved Charlie Morton and Jeffrey Locke. The Cub deal too, in that they weren't going to sign Grabow, even if it left Pittsburgh without a lefty in the pen.

With Freddie Sanchez and Jack Wilson, they were locked into bad contracts. They've replaced Freddie, but left a pretty gaping hole at short. The front office has more faith in Ronny Cedeno and Bobby Crosby than I do.

The waters are a little murkier with the Morgan trade and Diaz/Capps releases.

Apparently they considered Joel Hanrahan a huge upgrade over Capps when they pulled the trigger; it seems that they had already decided to jettison the Mad Capper by then.

But they left a big hole at leadoff when they sent Nyjmo to the Nats, and hurt the defense while they were at it. Personally, I think the energy of the club took a big hit when he left, too.

With Capps and Diaz, even if they were considered excess baggage, they had some value. They got nada for either.

When McLouth went, you knew the dismantling was in high gear. They could have kept the team somewhat more competitive, but opted to go whole-hog for the 2012 window (even if they won't admit it).

The point Will was making is that they let guys go that weren't blocking anyone for a variety of reasons, and even with a few shekels rattling around in their pocket, haven't made much headway in filling the gap with rental players who can, well, play.

I think that sometimes the suits fall in love with the art of the deal, rather than piecing together a lineup and long-term plan. As an old grunt, I know that tactical success has to be tied into overall strategy, or it's wasted effort. Maybe I just haven't gleaned their battle plan yet.

The frustrating part is watching the squad struggle with problems it hasn't created. Sometimes you get the feeling that the Pirates are a pick-up team.

WilliamJPellas said...

Nice to see you again, Mark! I always enjoy your well-informed comments!

Not much I can add to what Ron said other than that he and I eye to eye on the issue of "rebuilding vs/and/or competitiveness". I think you make some excellent points about Texas, but the Pirates still have some of their own mojo that could be leveraged; it's just that there hasn't been any kind of dynamic ownership and/or management for nearly two decades that had any clue.

By "mojo" I mean: Pittsburgh as a city has plenty of its own unique history and it has long been a hotbed for the arts---which might not appeal to many ballplayers, but definitely will appeal to many of their wives. The living expenses in Pittsburgh aren't bad, which does to some degree offset the economic weakness relative to a place like Dallas-Ft Worth. And the Pirates, don't forget, have won 5 World Series titles of their own, even if it's now been 30 years since the last one. Guys like McLouth---from the industrial Northeast in Michigan---are much more cognizant of that sort of history than are players from other parts of the country. You just knew from talking with him that he "got it" about Pittsburgh, and that he had really bought in. That's why, of all players to trade, he to my mind should have been the last. (That, along with the fact that our lineup went totally limp without him.) But he wasn't, and I suspect Ron has the right of it as to why he wasn't.

A final point: the Pirates still have considerable clout in Latin America. The name of Roberto Clemente still means something to many Latino ballplayers---even Javier Lopez made mention of Clemente when he signed here. And of course, historically, the Pirates led the universe in signing and developing players from south of the border for many years.

MarkInDallas said...

Hey guys, just dropping by here and saw your responses to me...

Ron, I'm with you on a few points.

#1. I'm not only not sold on Ronny Cedeno, I'm downright skeptical. He doesn't look like more than a replacement level shortstop to me. I am quite happy with the Freddy trade and Aki acquisition, but I would have wanted to keep Jack. None the less, if Clement can put things together, there's a chance he makes the Pirates better than Jack would. I think the correctness of the decision to trade Jack will hinge on that.

#2. I was very unhappy with the Morgan trade initially for the reason of defense that you mention, and there's still no telling how it will turn out. But I do think there's a chance that Milledge will be a plus defender and could hit better than Nyjer, but it seems like a risky move.

On the McLouth trade, even though it's true we likely would have won a few more games with McLouth than with Morton in 2009, I like that trade a lot. In my mind, Morton has a lot more potential to be a top of the rotation starter than any other pitcher we have. I think if you can get that, even in the raw state, you take that. You can never get it in the polished state so if you don't take the opportunity when it comes up you lose it.

I do think that we'll begin to see some improvement in wins come 2010. A lot of the worst losing in 2009 came as a result of people who will not be in starting jobs or even backups in 2010. The bullpen, and guys like Jaramillo, Moss, DY, Cruz and Pearce.

WilliamJPellas said...

Mark, I'm not sure why you would include Jaramillo in with the other flotsam and jetsam you mentioned (Cruz, Moss, and Pearce; I'm ambivalent about DY and believe he's OK as a utilityman and bat off the bench). Jaramillo, to all accounts, can definitely play defense, throw out basestealers, and handle a pitching staff. His hitting isn't great and probably never will be, but as a high end number two or perhaps platoon catcher, he looks pretty solid to me.