I wasn’t going to post on this article published earlier this week by Dejan Kovacevic, but Charlie made a great post about it at Bucs Dugout and then Wilbur Miller followed it up with a great comment. Their two points in tandem jogged my memory a bit and it gives me an opportunity to talk about something I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time.
What both Charlie and Wilbur reminded me of was a Sports Illustrated column written by Joe Posnanski about two months ago in which he discussed the plight of the Royals with Bill James, who grew up a Royals fan. You should read the whole thing, if you’ve got the time, but what really resonated with me was James’ point that teams like the Pirates and Royals and Reds have failed so consistently over the past fifteen years because they’re terrified of doing anything that might be perceived as “amateur,” given the small-market reputations of the franchises.
In baseball, he thinks the pursuit of professionalism has made teams like the Kansas City Royals second-class. The Royals don’t have enough money to compete the same way as the Red Sox, Angels or Tigers. A short boxer cannot win using the outside jab. A quarterback with a weak arm will not win by throwing deep. A 5-foot-10 basketball player cannot make it to the NBA with a back-to-the-basket game. The one sure way that the Royals will lose is by using the same blueprint as the New York Yankees.
That perfectly encapsulates the Littlefield/McClatchy era for me. Decisions were repeatedly made that were counterproductive to making the Pirates successful in the long-term because they made the team seem more “professional.” Each trade that was made was made for “Major League ready” players, because that made each trade seem less like fire sales, which are “amateur.”
Think back to the winter of 2004. Jason Kendall was coming off of a season in which he’d put up a .399 OBP and while his skills were clearly dwindling a bit and he was obviously owed too much money, he was still pretty clearly a useful player for the Pirates. The Pirates, though, were looking to deal Kendall because a team like the Pirates just couldn’t afford to pay a player like Kendall $10 million. Instead of agreeing to bite the bullet on a large chunk of Kendall’s contract and shipping him off for some minor-league types, Kendall was traded to Oakland in what was essentially a payroll swap. The Pirates took Mark Redman, a pitcher in his third year of arbitration, Arthur Rhodes, a reliever making $3.7 million, in exchange for Kendall and about $5 million. Two “Major League ready” players instead of prospects. Rhodes was then immediately swapped to Cleveland for Matt Lawton, who in turn played well for the Pirates for 100 games and was traded to Chicago for Jody Gerut.
The saga doesn’t end there, though. Redman was terrible for the Pirates and traded to Kansas City for the Jonah “The Accelerant” Bayliss and someone named Chad Blackwell. So the Pirates’ long-term return on Kendall was essentially Bayliss and Gerut’s massive knee brace. Meanwhile, the Cubs fell out of contention and immediately flipped Lawton to the Yankees for Justin Berg, at the time a 20-year old pitcher for the Yankees New York/Penn League affiliate. Berg is now 25 and used his sinker to pitch his way to Chicago bullpen at the end of this season, where he followed up a nice Triple-A showing with a good performance in his September call-up.
Littlefield’s insistence on “Major League ready” returns for both Kendall and Lawton was borne out of a need to do things “professionally.” As a result, the Cubs ended up with a more useful long-term return on that series of deals than the Pirates did. That one trade was hardly a trend; almost every single one of Littlefield’s major trades culminated in “Major League ready” players as the main return, with varying success.
Huntington, in contrast, has gutted his Major League roster with seven major trades in two seasons (Nady/Marte, Bay, McLouth, Morgan, Wilson/Snell, Sanchez, and Grabow/Gorzelanny). In at the very least four of those trades, the main return was a player well below the Major League level (Tabata for Nady, Hernandez for McLouth, and Alderson for Sanchez — I also think you can also argue that the Pirates saw Morris as the main return in the Bay trade and the three pitchers as the main return in the Wilson trade, but I’ll play it close to the vest here). As a reward for attempting to restock the farm system Huntington is reviled by a large part of the Pirates’ fan base and the Pirates are a national punchline on Saturday Night Live.
During the Littlefield era, people would find out that I was a Pirate fan and response, “Really? I wasn’t sure the Pirates still existed.” Now, the response is, “How can you still cheer for a team that always trades away all of its best players?” That’s Huntington couldn’t care less about projecting a facade of “professionalism,” and he’s instead focused on rebuilding the Pirates the best way he sees fit. There are still a lot of questions to be answered and until the Pirates start competing Huntington hasn’t actually accomplished anything, but all told I certainly prefer his approach to the prior one.