Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Tuesday Pirates Rant™ - Okay, so it’s not Tuesday...

...but yesterday, I was too baffled by what transpired on Trade Deadline Day to actually comment. But a day later, I’m pissed enough to form sentences.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has one of the crustier, more curmudgeonly columnists I’ve ever read. His name is Bob Smizik. Basically, his schtick is “so-and-so stinks.” That’s about all he has to offer. I gave up on Dave Littlefield and the current ownership a long time ago, but half the time Smizik’s columns are so crusty that I get annoyed by him and almost start defending this awful regime. Well...needless to say, I’m not disagreeing with him at the moment.

Heading into this year’s trade deadline, the Pirates had three highly sought-after commodities: veteran relievers. Salomon Torres (who was last seen filing a grievance against the Pirates for getting him to sign a discounted contract by lying to him and saying they’d use one of his baseball compounds in the Dominican Republic), Damaso Marte (who stinks as a closer but as a LOOGY—Lefty One-Out Guy—he’s just about the best in the business, as his current 1.38 ERA would suggest), and Shawn Chacon (who still stinks but has put together a pretty decent year).

How sought-after are veteran relievers at the moment? Well, the esteemed Scott Linebrink (3.79 ERA) was traded by the Padres to Milwaukee for THREE pretty strong minor league pitchers. Octavio Dotel (3.91 ERA, 4 blown saves in 15 chances) was traded to the Braves for a pretty highly-touted minor league starter. So surely Torres (5.00 ERA this year, but ERA’s of 2.64, 2.76, and 3.28 the last three seasons), Marte (1.38), and Chacon (3.78) could get something of value. Maybe Chacon—whose obtaining at least year’s deadline I ranted™ and raved about ad nauseum—could bring something of value in return? With an even remotely competent GM, I’d have been downright optimistic. You trade guys at their highest value, and these three guys will never ever ever have a higher value.

So what happened? Littlefield kept all three of them. His defense?

Littlefield explained that he did not feel compelled to trade pitchers because all except Chacon, who can be a free agent this offseason, have their rights owned by the team through 2009.

"The important thing is that people are interested in our players," Littlefield said.
Yes, that’s the important thing. Not, you know, actually building for the future. He actually thinks the Pirates are like one player away from being a really good team.

That player? Matt Morris, apparently. Here’s what Jayson Stark had to say:
The Giants' brass was sitting around its suite Tuesday morning, bemoaning the fact that it had no decent deals cooking whatsoever. And then, out of the blue, it happened. The Pirates called. And wanted Matt Morris. His 7.94 ERA since mid-June? Not a problem. That $9.5 million he's owed next year (not counting his $1 million 2009 buyout)? Not a problem. And so they swooped in and finished off a deal for Morris minutes before the deadline -- for a legit prospect (Rajai Davis), a second prospect to be chosen from an agreed-upon list and absolutely zero money changing hands. Well, it didn't take long. For the next two hours, after people around baseball learned of this deal, they couldn't stop calling, e-mailing and texting reactions that could probably be summed up with three succinct words: WHAT THE BX!GRZFDQ!!!!! Don't get us wrong here. We love Matt Morris. Terrific guy. Has had a wonderful career. Should be a fine mentor to those young Pirates starters. But the Giants were just about begging teams to take Morris and offering to chomp big chunks of his money if they had to. Then this team going nowhere dropped out of the sky and took the man and the money. What a country. "That move," said one incredulous front-office man, "is so far out of left field, it's in the Monongahela."
Maybe Littlefield should be commended for actually getting the Pirates some attention from Stark. I doubt he’s had a word to say about this pitiful franchise since last year’s trading deadline, when Littlefield was universally mocked for asking for too hilariously much in return for his craptastic players. On even a mediocre team, this wouldn’t be a terrible deal—Rajai Davis is not a “legit prospect”. He’s 27, and though he’s fast, he has no idea how to run bases, and he’s not particularly amazing in the field. Morris is better at pitching—even way past his prime—than Davis is at playing outfield, and besides...the Pirates aren’t players on the free agent market because players don’t want to play for them. If you trade for a guy and MAKE him come to Pittsburgh, hey...maybe that’s just the way you have to do things. However...
a) Matt Morris has sucked for most of the last two years and is still owed over $16 million.

b) Matt Morris is now the highest-paid player in franchise history. That’s horrid on so many different levels.

c) Littlefield outbid himself for Morris.

d) Littlefield passed on possibly the most talented guy in this year’s draft because his agent is Scott Boras, and he’d be too expensive to sign. But throwing $16 million at the feet of an over-the-hill pitcher, six years past his prime, is somehow okay.
The only reason this trade isn’t one of Littlefield’s worst moves ever is that he’s Dave Littlefield. It’s hard to one up yourself when you’ve...
1) Traded Aramis Ramirez for pennies on the dollar.

2) Traded Chris Young (currently 9-3 with a 1.82 ERA, an all-star with the Padres) for reliever Matt Herges...who was released a couple months later.

3) Traded Leo Nunez (currently 1-0 with a 0.90 ERA in two starts for the Royals...oh, and he’s only 23 years old) for Benito Santiago...who was released a couple months later.

4) Lost 5 prospects in the 2003 Rule 5 Draft because you had to leave room on the 40-man roster for the likes of Raul Mondesi.

5) Passed on a Kip-Wells-for-Ryan-Howard deal a couple years ago because “Howard strikes out too much.” In case you didn’t notice, Ryan Howard’s hit 87 HR’s in the last two seasons, while Wells has gone 6-18 with the Pirates, Rangers, and Cardinals.
Yeah, somehow this move doesn’t even make its way into Littlefield’s Top 5 (nor did his spending $17.5 million on Joe Randa, Jeromy Burnitz, and Sean Casey in 2006). So why am I even angry??

That brings us back to Bob Smizik. When I’m agreeing with 100% of the words coming out of Smizik’s mouth (or typewriter), something’s seriously wrong. But I was almost tempted to paste his entire column.
By making this trade, general manager Dave Littlefield has accomplished the seemingly impossible. He made the Pirates a buyer instead of a seller at the trading deadline. Perhaps, Littlefield missed the part where the Pirates lost 13 of their first 15 after the All-Star Game and went from a team with a glimmer of hope to one careening toward another 90-loss season.

It's a move that reeks of desperation and of Littlefield, who has yet to produce a winning season in six years, making a final attempt to keep his job, which is widely believed to be in jeopardy.

What's particularly scary is that in acquiring such a contract, Littlefield clearly had to get permission from owner Bob Nutting and that such permission was forthcoming.

It again brings into question, as have so many other moves in the past, whether anyone in the Pirates' organization knows what they're doing.

For example: The deal comes two days after Leo Nunez made a second consecutive strong start for the Kansas City Royals. In 10 innings, in his first two major-league starts, Nunez has allowed one earned run.

Nunez is a prime example of the player personnel decisions of the Littlefield era. In December of 2004, the Pirates traded Nunez to Kansas City, although he was registering upwards of 95 mph on the radar gun while pitching in the low minors. They dealt him for Benito Santiago, a veteran catcher who was so far past his prime that the Pirates released him May 8. He never played for another major-league team.

In other words, the Pirates were dead wrong in their evaluation of Santiago and dead wrong in their evaluation of Nunez.

In an organization still trying to develop pitchers who are 26 and 27 years old, like Bryan Bullington and Van Benschoten, Nunez is only 23.

Morris will be 33 in eight days, and the Pirates see him as a veteran presence to stabilize an otherwise young rotation. In theory, that sounds great. In practice, particularly when the veteran is having trouble getting batters out, it doesn't necessarily work.

In 2005, the Pirates added Mark Redman, a veteran starter, to the rotation and paid him $4.5 million. That was the same year the career of Oliver Perez began a downward plunge that did not stop until he left the organization. This isn't to suggest Redman was responsible for the decline of Perez. It is only to show veteran presence is vastly overrated.

Even if Morris reverses this recent career decline, the wisdom of such a trade must come into question. His salary next season will be $9.5 million, but it could go slightly higher as it did this season. That would represent about 20 percent of the team's payroll. It is not considered a wise policy to pay that high a percentage of the payroll to one player, regardless of the size of the payroll.

But the 2008 payroll does not figure to be a problem Littlefield will have to face.
I agree with everything but the last sentence. If ownership approved the trade, then what makes anybody think that they don’t totally support what Littlefield is doing here? My initial thought on seeing this trade was, “Good...that should be the final nail in Littlefield’s coffin.” But now I’m not so sure.

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