The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What’s the Prognosis, Doctor?

When the Dave Littlefield era mercifully came to an end two summers ago, everyone agreed the organization was a mess. Talent evaluation had failed, player development had failed, and a poor major league club was backed up with a barren minor league system. Other than Andrew McCutcheon, not a single impact player was on the horizon. New team president Frank Coonley and GM Neil Huntington started to rebuild, a four-letter word in Pittsburgh, where rebuilding commenced in 1993 and has never ceased. Nonetheless, disgust with Littlefield opened a window – the fan base could swallow a little directed action.

Unfortunately, Huntington – a man who, in the comically bad Torres trade and the unceremonial dump of Jose Bautista, not to mention his intemperate remarks about Snell, has shown a clear willingness to act based on emotion and pride* - misunderstood what he had. Recognizing that the minors were devoid of talent, Huntington determined that the major league club represented little more than trade bait for a restocking the farm system. As a result, when the outfield in 2008 coalesced into the best in baseball, he didn’t spend a moment thinking about how to build on that; he saw players to be traded, and now that outfield is all gone.

But the 2008 team wasn’t very good, despite that outfield, right? Actually, the 2008 team was – as I said at the time, in various online fora – two mediocre pitchers away from 85 wins. Last year I mined all sorts of game-by-game results to show that the combination of Matt Morris, Tom Gorzelanny, and the awful revolving cast of AAA callups were responsible for more than 2 dozen games in which the Pirates had almost literally no chance to win – games in which the starter gave up 5 or more runs by the 5th inning, often leaving early and severely overtaxing a bullpen that, at the back end, was as good as any in baseball. This year I don’t need to do that to make my point, because this year, with the same 3 core starters (Maholm, Duke, & Snell), plus two mediocre pitchers, the team’s runs allowed total has gone from a breathtaking 884 runs in 2008 to a projected 714 in 2009. Meanwhile, the 2008 offense was on pace, before the Bay trade, to score 800 runs. 800 runs scored plus 714 runs allowed projects to a season win total of 90.

90. Can you comprehend that, Pittsburgh?

Now, all things are never equal, and you can’t simply assume that the April-July of Bay, Nady, and McLouth could be duplicated by Bay, McLouth, and Morgan. But I think it shows, pretty clearly, just how close the Pirates actually were. I would argue that, with only 2 changes made, the Pirates would be in or near first place, several games above .500, right now, and without having mortgaged their future.

Change 1: Don’t trade Bay, obviously. In terms of PNC Park impact, you put Bay in RF, keep the dynamic Morgan/McLouth/McCutcheon LF/CF combo (I don’t even care if they trade McLouth). No Bryan Morris, but that’s a maybe for 2012, not something I’m putting too much weight on. Craig Hansen has had no impact on the team, and at best is a replaceable bullpen piece. But then there’s Andy LaRoche, which brings us to…

Change 2: Sign a free agent 3B in the offseason. Now this is the tricky part. There were not a lot of decent FA 3Bs last year – Joe Crede, Jerry Hairston, Mike Lamb, and Ty Wigginton are the cream of the crop, which is pretty crappy cream. But neither Hairston nor, particularly, Crede would represent much of a step down from LaRoche, nor would they have cost much money, nor would either be blocking Pedro Alvarez or, I suppose, Neil Walker.

With those two changes, the Pirates are a much better team in 2009 – statistically, they would almost certainly be in first place (Bay is worth at least 10 runs so far over Moss, and we’ll call 3B a wash; that would put our Runs Scored/Runs Allowed ratio at 345/330, which is better than anyone in the NL Central has shown). And they are no worse down the road, except possibly in 2012 or 2013 when Morris is scheduled to arrive.

Most important, if the Pirates were winning this year (and if they hadn’t traded Bay last year), PNC Park would be packed. Easily averaging over 20k/game (that’s what they did in 1997, at 3 Rivers). Increasing revenues before the magic year of 2011. Completely changing the perception of them around baseball. Even if Bay leaves after 2009 (and, in this economy, I bet he’d take a hometown discount for a suddenly-contending Pirates), 2010 represents at worst a step backwards, and 2011 a fulfillment of 2009’s promise.

Instead, it’s wait ‘til next year year after that (maybe). And all because Neil Huntington saw a sprained ankle and decided to shoot the horse.

* in the Torres trade he evidently decided that a player who had clashed with previous management must be a problem, and traded a closer-grade pitcher on a good contract for the proverbial bag of balls; in the Bautista trade, he decided he’d rather have a mediocre player that he’d acquired than a mediocre player he’d inherited – not indefensible, but not exactly shrewd

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