A plea for sanity while discussing the McLouth trade

When I got home on Wednesday, I sat down, turned on my TV, and opened up my computer. In it was an e-mail from the FanHouse thread, timestamped just minutes before I sat down. I couldn’t really process the words in it. “Nate McLouth traded to the Braves.” The link was to the PG and Dejan’s blog. I quickly processed that it was not a joke. I threw up a quick post with the same link here while more e-mails about the terms of the trade poured in and my gchat started popping, both with people asking me if the deal was real and with FanHousers asking me if I wanted the post on the deal.

While I was frantically typing, I was trying to process the deal at the same time. Three things quickly popped into my mind above the rest. The first was that I wasn’t completely in love with the return. The value of all three players is obvious, but there is certainly room for debate, especially over a prospect like Gorkys Hernandez. The second was that regardless of what I thought of the return on the trade, Neal Huntington did not have similar doubts. All I’ve asked for years is a GM with the balls to pull the trigger on a move like this; attempting to sell high on a player that doesn’t have to be traded because the minor leagues have to be rebuilt, regardless of how the fans will see this move. The third thing, which was actually the first thought that entered my mind when I read the e-mail, was, “Wow. People are going to be piiiiiissed.”

I’ve gotten a couple angry e-mails about this trade. I expected that. I was invited to two separate, “The Pirates’ front office sucks with vigor hitherto unseen” Facebook groups. I expected that. I read some blog entries tearing the trade apart. Expected that, too. What I didn’t expect? An absolutely uninformed hit-job by the Post-Gazette’s editorial board. If you haven’t read it yet, save yourself the trouble and the fury that will likely ensue. It calls the trade a salary dump and panders to the PBC commentariat. It’s not just poorly researched, it’s unreasearched and worse, its thoughtless. It’s inflammatory, and it ends with a clumsy, unfunny, and unoriginal Mark Cuban joke.

This blog entry is not a direct response to that. It is, instead, an alternative to the thought process that leads to the conclusion reached not just by the PG’s editorial board, but by thousands upon thousands of Pirate fans. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, I’m simply trying to explain what I believe is happening and why I’m on board with it. I’m probably starting at the wrong place here because more than 75% of the votes in the poll on this very site indicate a favorable reaction to the trade, which is certainly skewed from the general population. Regardless, everything has to start somewhere.

The first question to ask yourself when evaluating this trade should be, “What would Dave Littlefield have done?” Littlefield, if you’ll remember, spent the better part of his seven seasons on the job here doing everything in his power to finish .500. That includes, but is not limited do, moving funds from the draft and Latin America into overpriced, long-shot free agents, holding on to players with limited value past their peak value to the team rather than trading them for prospects, and trading almost all of his trade chips for spare part “Major League ready” veterans instead of building blocks. He was the most destructive force that a small-market team like the Pirates with a limited budget could have ever encountered. A small market baseball team must be managed like a chess game. Each move that’s made has to be made with ten other moves in mind. Each move must be constantly building towards something greater.

Littlefield was the antithesis of this. Each move he made was made with only the present in mind with everything building towards RIGHT NOW. Ryan Howard might help the Pirates down the road, but Ty Wigginton will help us RIGHT NOW. Freddy Sanchez might be a good hitter down the road, but Joe Randa will help us RIGHT NOW. Would the man that spent his entire career attempting to finish .500 RIGHT NOW have ever traded his best player, a player signed for three years, for three prospects when the team was just four games below .500? Never in a million years.

Dave Littlefield was bad at his job because he refused to accept the restraints placed on him by Major League Baseball’s economy. The Yankees can rebuild through free agency. The Pirates cannot. Littlefield got lucky in the late winter of 2003 and signed three steals on the free agency market in Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders, and Jeff Suppan that were only available because of some minor collusion that went on that winter. He then spent the next four off-seasons trying to replicate that feat with Jeromy Burnitz, Chris Stynes, Raul Mondesi, and Joe Randa while trying to find similar magic through trades with Sean Casey and Matt Morris.

If you’re one of the people clamoring for the Pirates to spend more money, what do you expect that money to be spent on? Because a team in the Pirates’ situation is going to spend that money on the players Dave Littlefield acquired. Littlefield’s problem wasn’t that he was bad at acquiring players, it’s that he wanted to acquire those players in the first place. This off-season, where the Pirates were spurned in nearly every inquisition they made about free agents, wasn’t a sign of the Pirates being unwilling to spend. It was a sign of the Pirates not being a destination on everybody’s radar. Do you know where Jeromy Burnitz played after Pittsburgh? Or Chris Stynes? How many seasons did Mondesi spend in the league after the partial season he spent with the Bucs? Where’s Joe Randa? How much did Neal Huntington have to pay Matt Morris to just go away? The only people willing to come to Pittsburgh right now are the people with nowhere else to turn. You want the Bucs to open up the checkbook? I’m sorry, but we tried that already. It didn’t work.

Perhaps the most maddening accusation being thrown around in regards to this trade is that it was a “salary dump.” Make no mistake; if the Pittsburgh Pirates can’t afford Nate McLouth’s three-year, $15 million contract, we might as well all pack our bags and go home now. It was a good contract and an affordable one, and that goes without mentioning the signing bonus paid up front. This trade was all about restocking the farm system, even at the cost of the Major League team’s current best player. I understand frustrated fans calling the trade a salary dump, but for the editorial board of a major newspaper, and one with a very good sports department at that, to make such a baseless accusation is exactly what newspapers accuse bloggers of doing all the time. It’s ridiculous, and it does nothing except add fuel to the fire of the fans that already thought that way, even though it’s far from the truth

There is plenty of room for debate about the Huntington/Coonelly management team. Are they properly evaluating their assets and their returns when they’re making these trades? Are they interested in the right sort of player to rebuild this organization? Is their strict player-development team the best way to bring future assets through the minors? Do they have a blueprint right now beyond acquiring as much talent as possible? These are all interesting questions that I don’t know the answers to. This front office has a plan and that puts them light-years ahead of the previous front office, but all plans aren’t good plans. This is what our discussion should be focused on, whether it’s here, on a message board, at water coolers, or in the newspaper. But throwing up your hands, calling the trade a salary dump, and saying, “Things just never change for the Pirates,” is lazy and thoughtless. It doesn’t get anyone anywhere and it needs to stop.

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.