Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pellas On The Pirates: The Small Market Death Spiral

The Pirates just got swept by the Cincinnati Reds. That, in and of itself, is not news in the annual 162 game marathon that is major league baseball. What is news is the way the sweep occurred, and what it says about the state of the organization and, most critically, the state of the team that the organization is actually putting on the field at increasingly empty PNC Park.

That team stinks, pure and simple.

Not only does it stink, it’s boring in its stinkage. There is nothing worse in sports than a team that is both bad and boring. Bill Veeck, (in)famous for decades for his, umm, creativity in the face of consistently terrible baseball on the south side of Chicago, understood this. Bob Nutting, Frank Coonelly, and Neil Huntington plainly do not. That’s why the Pirates are now firmly in the vice grip of the dreaded “small market death spiral”.

Ironically, it was a writer from Cleveland who best described this phenomenon back in April, in an article about the Indians---Huntington’s former team. Here is what he said:

The Indians now are in the (graveyard) spiral of the small-market team, the one that links payroll to attendance and prohibits them from getting better because they can't spend beyond their means, and they see their means dwindle with each bad season.

Attendance during the 3 game brooming by the Reds was less than pathetic. Given the way the Pirates played in the series, in which they came within a seeing eye single and a hit batsman of a perfect game by the luminous Johnny Cueto and then followed that gem with a listless shutout against perpetual underachiever Homer Bailey, there is no reason to expect it to get better any time soon, if ever.

The pathetic attendance, it says here, was due not to the weather but to the inescapable fact that this team is brutal, and it is boring, and it is painful to watch. We’re talking about the team that takes the field in Pittsburgh, the so-called major league team, the product that the organization is presumably trying to sell, the one for which it charges customers a fee before they are allowed the, err, privilege of watching it. Somewhere along the line, probably very early on in the current “rebuilding plan”, the current front office decided that the quality of the product it put on the field was irrelevant. This is not merely an insulting notion. It is, and has been, disastrous.

In short, there is little or no reason to go see this team play. It’s that simple and that bad.

Let’s start with the pitching. There is not one starting pitcher on the current staff who could reasonably be expected to do something special against the enemy on any given night. Not one. That’s not to say that the likes of Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, etc., are “bad” pitchers. They’re not. They’re just nothing to write home about, and they don’t throw particularly hard, and so as a fan you never get the gratification of the occasional wow-he-really-mowed-‘em-down-tonight moments in the face of a terrible season. This staff never mows ‘em down.

At best, it gives you some quality starts and keeps you in games---which is certainly not a bad thing (just ask the Cardinals, except that they have a real team alongside their otherwise mostly pedestrian staff), it’s just not something that grabs your attention and gives you some hope and entertainment.

Steve Carlton, who was of course a Hall of Famer and far better than anyone we have on hand, was nonetheless a great example of this when he won 27 games for an utterly brutal Phillies team back in the early 70s. Curt Schilling, speaking of Philadelphia, did the same thing for a couple of seasons in the 90s, before the Phils began their current run of sustained excellence.

The Pirates have no similar pitcher in their current rotation and are highly unlikely to have one anytime soon, unless Brad Lincoln and his reconstructed elbow can fulfill the can’t miss label he had coming out of college. But that’s probably too much to ask of him after his surgery.

The bullpen has Evan Meek and Octavio Dotel and Brendan Donnelly, and they are all big, mean guys who throw hard and who “miss bats”. They come closest to providing some “wow” moments, but they are relievers and they aren’t going to be in many epic confrontations unless this team is playing meaningful baseball in July---which it won’t be.

The hitting is not only lackluster, it’s boring. Well, other than Andrew McCutchen, who is certainly the closest and only thing this team has to someone who is worth the price of admission. But it’s increasingly apparent that he’s just about all this team has.

The sad thing is that the Pirates traded away McCutchen’s charismatic running mate from last season, Nyjer Morgan, and he has gone on to give Washington a real boost amid an unexpectedly competitive and---that word again---entertaining season. Now, obviously, no one is saying that Morgan is headed for Cooperstown or even the All-Star Game. Well, probably not the All-Star Game. But despite his higher-than-you’d-like caught stealing numbers and punch and judy bat, Nyjer was….well, he was fun. Fun!

And he and McCutchen together were like frick and frack, the more so because they came up together through the Pirates’ minor league system. The two of them together at the top of the order would certainly have added enormous entertainment value to this Pirates team, but instead Morgan was sent to the Nationals in exchange for Lastings Milledge.

As with so many of Huntington’s moves, this one made sense on paper. Further, Milledge has unquestionably done everything that was asked of him by management, and has evidently put his previous pain in the neck behavior behind him, perhaps for good. Unfortunately, as with so many of Huntington's moves, his performance on the field has been almost as bad as his behavior has been good, and on top of that, he’s been ho-hum in the process. Well, except for that whole getting tagged out while jogging because he thought he’d just hit a grand slam thing. That was funny. Heh.

I could go on. Garrett Jones is either coming back to Earth, or being pitched around to an incredible degree, or both. Probably both, though I still think he could be a productive, better than average hitter with any support around or behind him.

But this lineup just doesn’t put any pressure on the opponent. It doesn’t run---again, other than McCutchen---and it doesn’t hit home runs and it doesn’t hit for a high average and it doesn’t flatten opposing catchers after running a stop sign at third base. It’s bad and it’s boring, and there’s no reason to expect improvement any time soon, except, perhaps, from Jose Tabata, who looks to be nearly ready at Triple-A Indianapolis.

But Tabata, cue the drum roll, please, looks more like a solid, complimentary, “professional hitter” type than he does an impact prospect. Again, not someone who is going to “wow” you. He’ll probably be better than Milledge, at least the Milledge we’ve seen thus far in 2010, but not as much fun as Morgan.

Pedro Alvarez, currently Tabata’s teammate in Indianapolis, does have the “wow” factor, but he seems to have stalled a bit in his rise through the system, and it might not be until next season that he gets established in Pittsburgh.

All of which returns us to the disgruntled Indians writer. Insert the word “Pirates” for “Indians” and he would be writing about the Bucs:
The Indians are doing their best to sell this rebuild as one made for the long-term, not the short. And it may well turn out that way. But if they were going to have any kind of season that would keep fans interested and keep revenues at any kind of acceptable level, they needed a decent start.

This team is not decent. It is not good. And it’s not even watchable. The current front office is getting the terrible attendance it deserves with its putrid on-field product. It seems to me that there was an arrogance about the way Neil Huntington went about his task, an arrogance that insisted the team’s on-the-field performance while it was being rebuilt simply didn’t matter. That always rubbed me the wrong way, and it only gets worse the longer I watch what is going on at PNC.

No, you can’t have everything, and yes, the longer term really is more important. But bad baseball doesn’t have to be as boring and hopeless as this bunch clearly is. While it’s not the main thing, it’s critical that fans be able to have some fun in exchange for their long-suffering patience.

That’s what made Veeck’s teams somewhat tolerable, and it’s what made the Cubs “lovable losers”, and it’s what made the Phillies occasionally interesting even when they were otherwise terrible. There’s almost nothing interesting about this bad team. That’s something that Neil Huntington evidently never understood when he set out to fix the Pirates.


WilliamJPellas said...

Hmmm....I'd a thunk I struck a couple o' chords with that last little missive, but I guess not! I sometimes wonder if the Pirates fan base is either A) apathetic, or B) so accustomed to losing that there's no more outrage no matter what's happening (or not happening) on the field, or C) afraid to say anything because they're afraid the team will move away if too many demands are placed on it.

Maybe there's also an option D), namely, since there's no realistic way the team can compete with its current financial resources other than a slow build through the draft, why not blow it all up sooner rather than later and gamble everything on the hoped-for improvement in another "X" number of years. In fairness, the Pirates HAVE outspent every other team in baseball in the amateur draft over the past 2 seasons, and if that trend continues, surely there ought to be real improvement in the on-field product before too much longer.

I get all that. I just think there's something very wrong when a team essentially deliberately tanks entire SEASONS; to me, there has to be more professional integrity than that. People talk about steroids skewing the game's statistics; well, what about Pirates teams that lose for 18 straight seasons?

I dunno. Maybe I'm just gettin' old and crotchety. Or maybe I've just had it with crap teams and crap baseball.

Ron Ieraci said...

Oh, but you did, Will. A couple of guys at work told me that they thought you hit the nail on the head - Pirate baseball is just no fun to follow anymore.

WilliamJPellas said...

Well....maybe the four of us can storm the Bastille! :-D Hey, it's a start!