Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pellas on the Pirates: Making Peace With Neal Huntington ---or--- How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tampa Bay North

I’ve sat down several times to write a pithy piece about the appalling trainwreck that is your 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates, but every time I got started, the words just trailed off into the ether.

That’s because unlike the (rapidly dwindling?) legion of Neal Huntington apologists, I expect a “major league” baseball team to make at least a show of trying to win a few games every year instead of deliberately tanking entire, multiple seasons on the premise that that’s all okay “because we’re rebuilding”, doncha know.

Unfortunately it’s become crystal clear that while current team ownership and management certainly has its priorities, winning in the here and now is definitely not among them. All of which does not make Huntington or his apologists right to blow off season after season on the hoped-for premise that someday, it’ll all be made right and no one will care. What it does do is force me and fans like me to re-evaluate how we perceive and follow the Pirates.

As a General Manager, Huntington makes a good Farm Director. Which, according to his apologists, is exactly the point. The Pirates, such fans continually remind me, were totally broken when “Opie”(seriously, he looks just like him) took over. Dave Littlefield’s approach didn’t work, nor did Cam Bonifay’s before him.

Littlefield may have seen to it that the Pirates were consistently somewhere in or not far from the realm of mediocrity, but his farm system was a disaster and there was no hope of contending. Bonifay tried to retain a couple of productive stars in Jason Kendall and Brian Giles, only to see the team’s finances ruined for...well, ever since.

Thus, only a complete and total teardown-and-rebuild of the entire organization, top to bottom, had any hope of producing another winner in Pittsburgh. Only the kind of consistently outstanding minor league systems we see in Tampa Bay, in Miami, in San Diego, and perhaps in Oakland and Minnesota had any chance at all of turning the team around.

Believe it or not, to this point in the discussion I largely agree with the other side. It’s when we go past this point that we part company. That’s because I don’t believe it’s ever “okay” to all but completely ignore the product that’s being put on the field at the (allegedly) major league level.

Not when your team plays in the elite professional organization in the entire industry, worldwide. Not when wins and losses and statistics can all be distorted, even pennant races affected, simply because you can’t be bothered to put even a mildly competent, sort-of professional team on the diamond for 162 games. And not when you charge paying customers admission in order that they might witness the carnage firsthand.

I don’t care how dysfunctional or “unfair” the economics of major league baseball are, or are purported to be. Them’s the rules. I don’t care that no free agent of real consequence would be caught dead in Pittsburgh even if ownership had the will and the cash flow to outbid other teams for their services. I don’t care that the Pirates are, in fact, making a real and legitimate effort to produce a consistently productive farm system. Well, that’s not true. I do care about that. I just don’t think a “major league” GM’s job description begins and ends in the bushes, even though Neal Huntington’s evidently does.

But wait, the apologists will protest. Didn’t he sign some very useful guys for the bullpen this past offseason, and didn’t he get a productive hitter in Garrett Jones off the junkheap, and didn’t he make a great trade with the Yankees? The answer to all of those questions is, yes he did.

Unfortunately, those deals are just about the complete extent of all the major-league-productive-right-now moves Huntington has made to date. That is, they’re about the only thing he’s done that has helped the team on the field at PNC even a little during the entire time he’s been the GM of the Pirates. (Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez have, of course, made the big club this season as the first wave of homegrown kids under Huntington’s watch. But they’re still too few, too young, and too inconsistent to really affect things without considerable reinforcements.)

To be sure, other moves were attempted. A few of them, anyway. But for reasons I will never comprehend, when it came to trades and signings that were supposed to help bridge the gap until the kids arrived, a veritable M*A*S*H unit of already-hamburgerized players was brought to Pittsburgh, apparently with little or no due diligence on the part of the front office.

Aki Iwamura, Jose Ascanio, Ryan Church and Jeff Clement were all certainly hurt before they ever put on a Pirates uniform. Andy LaRoche probably was. Same with Kevin Hart and Bobby Crosby. Charlie Morton, maybe, though his problems run far deeper than his supposedly sore shoulder earlier this season. Think the Pirates win more games if even half of those guys are physically sound and able to contribute over the past two seasons? I do.

Nor does the list stop there. Most of the current regime’s trades have been veterans for prospects; this was in keeping with the aim of rebuilding the farm system as fast as possible and so at least the approach was consistent. But does anyone else wonder if Tim Alderson’s sudden drop in velocity after he came over in the Freddy Sanchez deal might have been due to a pre-existing injury? Were any other prized prospects hurt when we got them?

Granted, almost anyone who has ever played organized sports knows that you’re rarely 100%; from Little League to the big leagues, playing hurt is part of it. Injured, or sort-of injured, players change teams all the time. But the Pirates had limited resources on hand when Huntington took over, and he could not afford to miss with many of his veterans going out, kids coming in trades.

This indisputable fact should have made the team more thorough in its medical diligence, not less. Yet somehow, multiple already-hurt players came in, and they made up almost the entire complement of the guys who were supposed to help in the here and now as opposed to Someday Over The Rainbow.

The fact is that Huntington missed badly with both Sanchez and Jason Bay, and the kindest thing you can say about most of his other trades is that the jury is still out.

Add the resulting dearth of talent caused by these moves to the wholesale exodus of the on-hand veterans, then mix in the horrendous (and to my mind, inexcusable) regression of virtually the entire starting staff in every season since the current front office has been in charge, and the results are entirely predictable: this team is bad beyond belief, it has only gotten worse over the past three years, and there is little or no reason to conclude it will be significantly better any time soon.

So, the picture is bleak and the outlook is grim, at least for the near term. Further down the road, there is certainly some talent in the Pirates’ minor league system, and there is enough talent to form the core of a significantly better team.

Huntington has, in fact, succeeded to some extent in his makeover down on the farm, and team owner Bob Nutting has certainly not been shy about paying large bonuses to sign top amateur talent. Unfortunately there’s still not yet enough talent to weather any significant storm.

For example, while there are four promising starting pitchers currently toiling at Double-A Altoona, none of them figure to make the Don Robinson 1978 leap, when he jumped up from Double-A to the Pirates and became the Sporting News Rookie Pitcher of the Year. One of the kid hurlers, Brian Morris, is the last realistic shot for getting anything significant out of the Bay deal. But there are doubts about his mechanics, and he’s already had a sore elbow this season after going down with Tommy John surgery while in the Dodgers’ system.

The other three pitchers, Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens, and Jeff Locke, are all more or less Paul Maholm clones and project as middle-of-the-rotation types in the bigs. There are few if any other hurlers anywhere in the system above Class A who figure to help the Pirates anytime soon. So, if any of these four go down or don’t make it, let alone two or more of them, it is difficult to see where the team will acquire any starting pitching.

In fact, it’s difficult to see where the team will acquire any talent, other than from its own farm system. Sure, there’ll be the occasional adroit junkyard signing---like the aforementioned Garrett Jones and a few others---but by and large this front office has cast its lot entirely with its kids.

That, in turn, is what Tampa Bay and the (Miami) Florida Marlins have done. Kids, kids, kids, and more kids, period. Maybe you make a deal for an established veteran to help you if you’re ever close enough to sniff the playoffs, but that’s it. Otherwise, it’s sink or swim with your own homegrown talent and very little else.

To bring things full circle, believe it or not I have no problem with a team that wants to be smart with its finances, and that chooses to invest the bulk of its resources in acquiring and developing most of its players from within. Most winning organizations have been built primarily (though please note, with rare exceptions not entirely) with homegrown talent, including the Pirates during the glory years of former General Manager Joe L. Brown.

Where I have a problem is with a front office that apparently can’t be bothered with the here and now---even a little bit---while it is doing the hard work of rebuilding. Something about that rubs me 180 degrees the wrong way. But it is clearly the path this team has chosen.

In short, the Pirates want to be Tampa Bay North, which is a fine and dandy notion in principle, but exceedingly difficult to carry out in practice. To be sure---putting aside my considerable disgust and disagreement with the current state of affairs for the moment---it is possible to win with such a strategy; the Marlins have two World Series titles and Tampa Bay is headed back to the playoffs after losing the Series to the Phillies in 2008.

The Pirates clearly believe in the Tampa Bay – Florida Marlins model, and they clearly mean to follow the same blueprint. Very well: the die is cast, the gauntlet thrown down. Like it or not, that’s the plan. But it remains to be seen if the “Best Management Team In Sports” is up to the task of building the “Pittsburgh Rays” before they’re run out of town on a rail. So far, clearly, they’re not.

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