|Breath of Fresh Air Coming for Pirates|
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on March 11, 2010
As I mentioned in the official 2010 Pirates preview*, it's possible the Pirates are headed for their losingest season in their fantastically long current streak of losing seasons, and in fact possible the 2010 Pirates will be the worst Pirates team since the 1950s. The standard is 57-104 in Chuck Tanner's renowned final season in Pittsburgh, that glorious 1985 season that Pittsburghers still talk about today with reverential tones, making comments like, "Who the heck was Joe Orsulak? I was watching highlights of Mario Lemieux turning goalies inside out at the time." Since you asked, the worst record in (modern) Pirates history is 42-112 (.273), set by the 1952 club.
* Accept no substitutes, and don't be fooled by imitations.
The 2010 Pirates will not likely be that bad; they'd have to go the full 2003 Tigers and go 44-118, and let's face it, it's damn near impossible to lose 118 games when your schedule is chock full of NL Central. But they will not likely win 60 games.
The 1950s Pirates stunk, but they didn't randomly stink the way the 2000s Pirates did, year after year, by throwing piles of money away on pointless veteran after pointless veteran. No, Branch Rickey threw piles -- and I mean piles -- of money away on 18 year old kids. By the bucketloads. In the 1950s the Bonus Baby rule dictated that if you signed a kid for a significant sum of money -- basically, if you signed a good prospect -- you had to carry him on the major league roster for a year (or two) before you could send him to the minors. The theory was that this would discourage teams from signing more than one or two Bonus Babies each, for fear of crippling their major league rosters with players who couldn't (yet) play. That would drive down the bonuses, as demand would increase.
That was well and good, except that Branch Rickey -- and here there is a crucial lesson that Team Huntington must realize -- did not care how bad the major league team might get this year. He cared about one thing: Building a championship-caliber team, no matter how long it took to put it together. So the Pirates were very active signing every Bonus Baby they could reach, plus grabbing talented players out of the Rule V draft, like this Dominican guy named Clementine or Clandestine or Clemente or something they drafted off the Dodgers in 1954. He was only 20 years old then, but Branch Rickey did not care. The kid played most days, hit a heinous .255/.284/.382, and the 1955 Pirates were terrible, just like the 1953 Pirates and 1952 Pirates and 1956 Pirates.
The 1958 Pirates, not so much. They finished a strong second in the National League at 84-70. And in 1960 the Pittsburgh Pirates -- I know this is bizarre to even think about now -- were the world champions.
The point, as Herman Edwards would have you know, is to win. If you're the 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates, you can't win now. There's this thing called talent, and you don't have it. Not nearly enough of it to compete in the major leagues, or even the NL Central.
And, as Branch Rickey would definitely have you know, you will never, ever win without talent. If you have to suck right now, so be it, Branch would tell you. 54-108 isn't any different from 79-83 in the big scheme, or even the medium scheme. And that was the most egregious of Team Littlefield's myriad failings. It wasn't so much that Littlefield was fiscally incompetent or awful at evaluating talent, and it wasn't even so much that he just did not fundamentally grasp how to win baseball games. It was that the organization's goal was to go 83-81 this year. Year after year after year. And, you know, had Littlefield not been so spectacularly incompetent, they might have gotten there, randomly, one or two of those years.
But nothing would be different today if they had.
The 2010 Pirates are irrelevant. Truth be told, they've been irrelevant since at least 2007 or so. Wonderfully, Team Huntington seems to understand this concept, and its sister concept: Every move we make needs to be with an eye toward the 2013 Pirates, because that team could conceivably win, if we give it some talent to play with. As far as we know, it too will play in the NL Central, after all.
Team Huntington last year did what had been needing done for 15 years. Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche -- not a one of those guys had a chance of being an important player on the next good Pirates team. Keeping them around is wasting your money, your roster space and their time. My only regrets about the fire sale were two: one, that it didn't happen sooner, so the Pirates could have secured the #1 pick in this year's draft; and two, that they didn't unload Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. They still ought to do that, not only because both pitchers are hopelessly mediocre and always will be, but also because you never know when a guy's elbow is going to crumble; ask Joe Nathan. Those guys also will not be important members of the 2013 Pirates, and therefore their best value to the Pirates is as trade chips to bring back whatever young talent they might bring.
The same, obviously, is true of everyone the Pirates brought in this offseason, Octavio Dotel and Ryan Church and Akinori Iwamura. If any of those guys is on the Pirates' active roster come August 1 (as opposed to on the Disabled List or someone else's active roster,) Team Huntington has made a serious mistake. That or the NL Central turned out even worse than advertised, and at 60-68 or something the Pirates are still in contention.
The Pirates organization now features more interesting young players, at all levels, than it has since the late 1980s: Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez and Jeff Clement and Tony Sanchez and Brett Lorin and Lastings Milledge and Gorkys Hernandez and, if you squint real hard, Andy LaRoche and Tim Alderson. Those are guys with at least some tinge of superstar potential, and the Pirates are, finally, made acquiring them the organizational priority.
Team Huntington may fail. It seems like most management teams do, eventually. But they are trying to do what it takes to build a winning team, as opposed to merely a not-terrible team, and that's a breath of sweet, sweet fresh air to the 14 remaining Pirates fans who have spent the past 15 years breathing coal mine fumes.