Learning from the past

When the Jason Bay trade was made more than four months ago, there were some people that immediately hated the trade because trading away another established baseball player for minor leaguers or less established players signified another rebuilding period and that the Pirates were still nowhere near contending, even after sixteen years of losing. As Andy LaRoche flamed out, people started to hate the trade more and more. In the Q&A at the Post-Gazette today, the first question asks about the Pirates’ recent aim of trading for prospects and whether or not that’s a good idea in this market. Dejan uses the question to reanalyze the Jason Bay trade, saying that making the trade crossed a bridge for the Pirates into rebuilding territory that they can’t go back over and that he doesn’t think it was a bridge that needed to be crossed. Charlie has already written a response in defense of the Bay trade and it’s very good.

I don’t have a lot to add to many of the points that Charlie made (you should read all of the relevant points in the Q&A and Charlie’s whole post before diving in to this one), especially about viewing the Bay trade in hindsight, the market value of prospects vs. their value to the Pirates, and other stuff along those lines. I do have a bit to add about the perception of the 2008 team and how that colors the view of the Bay trade, and so that’s what I’m going to go into depth in here.  Most of the e-mail I’ve gotten or opinions I’ve read that strongly disliked the Bay trade made arguments along the lines of, “The hitting was finally coming around last year and the pitching would’ve been much better if Snell and Gorzelanny didn’t suck! If we could’ve just kept that team together, we really had something going!” For Bay to be of much value to the Pirates under his contract (which takes him through 2009), this sentiment has to be true. This line of thinking also truly underestimates how bad the Pirates were in 2008.

Let’s first look at the pitching staff. In 2007, with Snell and Gorzelanny completely healthy and having breakout years, they gave up 846 runs. In 2008, with the biggest difference in the staff being that Snell and Gorzelanny sucked, they gave up 886. So if we look at the 2009 team and assume that we get Snell and Gorzo back in top form, let’s start at 846 runs. Now we move to Maholm. In 2008, he improved his VORP by about 30 runs over his 2007 season. If we assume he can do that again, back of the envelope math knocks the run total down to 816. Now we’ve got a contingent of Yankee pitchers replacing John Van Benschoten, Matt Morris, and Yoslan Herrera. Those three pitchers were nearly 40 runs below replacement combined. If we assume that despite poor big league track records (Karstens and Ohlendorf) or no track record at all (McCutchen), the three Yankee pitchers can approximately replace those three pitchers with replacement level pitching, then we’ll make a quick and dirty estimate that the Pirates will allow 775 runs next year, having made the Xavier Nady trade. This assumes the bullpen will be a complete wash, which it won’t be without Damaso Marte in it, and that three starting pitchers match their career best years all at once. It is unabashedly optimistic, but we’ll go with it.

The offense, though, only scored 735, so we’re still not a .500 team. But if we’re not making the Jason Bay trade, so we need to adjust the team’s run total a bit. The quickest way to guesstimate that effect is look at LaRoche’s VORP with the Pirates (-16.2) and Bay’s with the Red Sox (14.5) and take the difference. That difference is about 30, so we’re at 765 runs. That’s tantalizingly close to 775, but we have to account for Xavier Nady being traded. That leaves us with Steve Pearce, Nyjer Morgan, Andrew McCutchen, and whatever coffee-grind free agent the club can sign to replace Nady. If we’re extremely optimistic and assume that Pearce breaks out, we can say he’s worth ten runs less than Nady was in his career year last year. So we’re assuming that Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit match their huge years exactly and that Steve Pearce somehow puts up a VORP of 20, but we’ve got the Pirates at 755 runs.

It’s likely that my math there made a sabermetrician somewhere vomit. It’s not intended to be predictive or precise or perfect, so please don’t take it that way. It was simply meant to show that even in a best case scenario for the Pirates next year, they’d be lucky to reach .500 with Jason Bay and they’d still be losing Bay, LaRoche, and Wilson all in short order. I just don’t see anything about the Pirates in 2008 that was close to respectability and I don’t see think that would’ve changed much in 2009, even with Jason Bay.

Not trading Bay would’ve been an attempt to preserve something that wasn’t really there. Think back to the “Freak Show” team in 1997. The biggest mistake the Pirates made with that team was assuming that that nearly winning the division with a few prospects and a bunch of schlubs meant that they were close to contending. Over the next couple of years, they tried to make small tweaks to a bad roster and they gave contracts and extensions to guys that didn’t deserve them. Beyond that, Littlefield’s entire approach was predicated on selling the fans on claims that meant nothing (does, “Hey, we’ve improved our record three years in a row!” or “Hey! We were over .500 in our last 104 games!” ring a bell?), splashing some money around on guys the fans might have heard of, and winning 67-75 games. It was just enough to create an illusion of competition. Keeping Jason Bay would’ve done nothing but extend the illusion.

Pat Lackey

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.