Monday, January 31, 2011

Littlefield's Larder

OK, we're as guilty as anyone at throwing stones at Dave Littlefield's legacy. While the major league roster he constructed has been systematically demolished by the current FO - we believe that Paul Maholm and Ryan Doumit are the last men standing - what did he leave the current regime?

Well, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are former first round picks of Littlefield, and they're key pieces of the 25-man roster. Steve Pearce and Rudy Owens also have a decent shot at being part of the big club sometime in 2011.

Littlefield still has some guys lurking on the current 40-man roster: RHP Brad Lincoln, OF Alex Presley, RHP Mike Crotta, LHP Tony Watson, LHP Daniel Moskos, RHP Ramon Aguero, and RHP Kyle McPherson.

So that's it; a lucky thirteen players on the forty-man roster that pre-date the current FO. There are still some Littlefield draftees floating around in the mid-to-upper minors: IF Brian Friday, IF Jimmy Negrych, OF Quincy Latimore, C Kris Watts, RHP Duke Welker and OF Miles Durham being the most prominent.

But the top guns he took have by and large passed into the baseball netherworld; SS Brian Bixler, SS Brent Lillibridge, RHP Jeff Sues, 2B Shelby Ford, LHP Mike Felix, C Steve Lerud, RHP Bryan Bullington, RHP John Von Benshoten...there weren't many impact guys among his elite picks, and that's dogged the franchise.

Littlefield's efforts in Latin America have been bad-mouthed; everyone uses the example of RHP Yoslin Herrera as the epitome of Pirate struggles south of the border. But we think that may be due more to the financial resources of the McClatchy years, when the team just couldn't or wouldn't get involved in bidding wars for talent.

Rene Gayo did his job as well as he could given the financial constraints he was under, and some of the Latino guys he dug up are working their way through the system. A few - OF Starling Marte, RHP Diego Moreno, RHP Ramon Aguero - are considered pretty nice prospects, while others like 3B Eric Avila, LHP Eliecer Navarro, 3B Elevys Gonzalez, OF Rogelio Noris, SS Yhonathan Barrios and C Ramon Cabrero are in the lower levels and progressing.

Remember that it takes a while for Latino talent to surface; the kids are signed generally between 16-18 years old. Gayo's more recent work in that market is still several years from leaving its mark.

So the Littlefield verdict? Meh. He did have a few hits, and did a little better in Latin America than probably given credit for. But all in all, he amassed too many misses and too little talent, leaving Frank Coonelly and gang a massive make-over that they're probably a couple of seasons from completing.

It is an interesting contrast. The Littlefield era was marked by an obvious bend toward the major league product, and that's where the money went, into free agents rather than the organization. The current FO is redirecting the team's financial resources into building a minor league system that will eventually feed and replenish the MLB nine.

One produced a system that put consistently mediocre teams on the field in Pittsburgh; the other a system that produced MLB 100-loss campaigns but minor league championships. Building from the bottom-up is a five or six year project, so the Pirate FO is still in the middle of the process, and it's hard to evaluate just where they're at competitively at this point.

We're beginning to see some results; the pitching from the AA level and down is deep, and Indy, which was gutted of talent over the past two seasons, is quietly starting to reload with Coonelly/Huntington draft picks. This isn't the year quite yet, but in 2012, the turn-around should begin.


WilliamJPellas said...

Your article reminds me of something my brother likes to say: "I'm one of the few people who DIDN'T think Dave Littlefield was a complete idiot". You hit the nail on the head: under his watch, the Pirates put what few resources they had (or were willing to spend) toward the big league product---what I like to call "the team on the field in the here and now". The result was just as you describe: consistent mediocrity, though the Pirates were rarely terrible during that time.

The current regime, in contrast, spends almost everything it has on the minor league system, or at least, it did so until this current offseason, when it allocated some modest but real resources to making some moderate free agent improvements.

Too bad we can't get something somewhere in the middle between these two extremes.

In retrospect, I think it's fair to say that Littlefield was a bit better at his job than he is often given credit for, if only inasmuch as he seemed to put about as "good" a team on the field as was realistically possible given the almost total lack of resources under which he labored. In other words, the Pirates were about what you would expect them to be if they tried to get the best players they could get on the cheap without simultaneously loading up the minor league system. I wonder how things might have turned out for Littlefield had McClatchy had the brains to spend on the minor league system the way Bob Nutting is doing. Not that Nutting and Co are great---not even close. But their vision is certainly the more realistic of the two and the one with the higher ceiling, even though I still maintain that they did a gross disservice by doing as drastic and sudden a teardown as they did.

Please note, too, in keeping with my brother's comment, it is telling that the Pirates' best player at the moment is a Littlefield draft choice (McCutchen) and so is Neil Walker. Thus, exactly half of the four young guns who came up last season were NOT the product of the current regime, though of course it's still fairly early in the Nutting-Coonelly-Huntington Era. Add in Rudy Owens---who will almost certainly be the next current minor league starting pitcher to contribute anything at PNC---and Brad Lincoln, who might yet pan out, and it's absolutely striking how much of the Pirates' upper minor league system is STILL top-heavy with Littlefield players. How much of that is to Littlefield's credit and how much is an indictment of the current suits might make for an interesting discussion.

Ron Ieraci said...

Well, Wil, the system still has some Littlefield guys for two reasons. One is the time; three years is just too short a time to move draft picks to the top, except for the elite.

The other is that I think the FO meant to cover the gap between the upper and lower levels with prospects from other deals, and they've not been so hot at that.

Tim Alderson, Bryan Morris, all the waiver wire guys, were supposed to be in Indy waiting for the Huntington crop to arrive, and the FO just flat out missed on their evaluations.

Some were just high risk, low cost, high reward rolls of the dice; others had AAAA written all over them. C'est la vie, that's why they're prospects.

As far as the game plans, the old FO and current probably, and this is just a guess, had about the same resources, but just chose to divvy them up differently.

If I were running the team, I'd probably have broken it up a little less radically.

In the FOs defense, the pitching they inherited ended up awful, and that search may have colored their draft day decisions. Heck, if Perez, Snell, Duke, Gorzo and Maholm had lived up to their hype, Pittsburgh baseball would be a healthy animal now.

Still, I'd have a little more college in the draft mix and looked for a little more upside to the FAs on the MLB side.