by Stephen Zielinski
The upshot: Insomuch as Littlefield’s team-building strategy for the 2006 season comes to rely upon free agent acquisitions and if the free agents he signs this winter wholly or partially undermine the youth movement the Pirates’ implemented during the 2005 season, it is to that extent that Littlefield will have merely promised to go dumpster diving once again in the passage quoted above.
Will he dumpster dive this winter? Will we fans watch while history repeats itself? Will Littlefield settle for crappy and washed up veterans? Will the Pirates run another Stynes onto the field next year instead of Ty Wigginton or, better still, Freddy Sanchez? Will he replace Jody Gerut and Nate McLouth with Jeremy Burnitz or Sean Green? I expect moves just like these. I might be a pessimist, though. Still, Littlefield would make sign free agents like these in order avoid creating another sub-70 win fiasco during the 2006 season, the year in which the Pirates host the All Star game.
I have just interpreted Littlefield’s intentions with respect to the 2005 Hot Stove Season. I have also identified some of the known constraints and revealed motives of the organization. Finally, I have noted Littlefield’s ambivalence with respect to the free agent market. Bearing in mind these features of the Pirates’ situation, I believe I can specify a test for the team. It is my hope that the results of this test would express the team’s strategy and goals to its fans.
The test: This winter or during the upcoming season, the Pirates must trade for a prospect or two who plays an everyday position and who possesses a relatively high-ceiling. By high-ceiling prospect I mean to refer to a player who would be rated a B or better when using John Sickels rating system. These are players who might become stars and who probably would be Major League regulars during a part of their careers.
My test reflects a number of facts and conditions discussed above. It reflects the kind of demand a rational fan would make of a Major League Baseball team he or she rooted for: The demand would be to root for a contender, for a team that attempted to maximize its winning percentage while also working within a set of reasonable budget constraints. To meet this demand with a fair effort, the McClatchy partnership and David Littlefield would need to reject a risk avoidance strategy like the ‘Drive for 75.’ The test also reflects the fact that the Pirates must acquire a few additional impact players if the team is to contend during any season in the near future (that is, any time over the next six years). Finally, it assumes that the McClatchy Pirates simply cannot afford to acquire the talent the team needs in the free agent market, except in those rare cases when the free agent market is glutted by high quality free agents. Briefly put, the Pirates need at least two impact players to round out their squad. They would preferably be lefthanded power hitters who played a corner infield or outfield position, the kind of players the Pirates have failed to draft and develop during McClatchy’s tenure. If the Pirates fail to trade for players such as these and if Littlefield plies his newly acquired financial wherewithal to sign a few middling or worse free agent time servers, then Pirates fans, rational or otherwise, should expect to root for another ‘Drive for 75’ juggernaut next season and for each season over an indefinite future term. Littlefield can only confirm this desultory expectation if he manages to trade for players like Sean Green or Aubrey Huff or if he were to sign players like Jeremy Burnitz or the aforementioned Stynes, Simon and Mondesi this winter. Unfortunate acquisitions such as these would not contribute in much at all to a Pirate contender, now or in the near future. They might enable the Pirates to win 81 or more games next season. Unfortunately, besting the McClatchy Line is just no longer good enough. The McClatchy partnership must do much better if it means to redeem itself in the eyes of the team’s fans.
Why now? Why must Littlefield make his move this winter? With the recent promotion of so many (nearly every one) of the organization’s better prospects and given the relatively short-term each will have with the team before they reach their free agency years, the opportunity for the McClatchy partnership and Dave Littlefield to replace their ‘Drive for 75’ strategy with an aggressive effort to win a championship is now at hand. Indeed, the moment to act decisively and with purpose may have already passed the team by while the McClatchy partnership toyed with the hopes of the people who built PNC Park for the team. Success in baseball only comes in intermittently — if it comes at all — for resource-poor teams like the Pirates [on this point, compare Jonah Keri’s The Success Cycle and Derek Zumstag’s reply Success Cycles Revisited at Baseball Prospectus.com]. They need to act when the opportunity presented itself. In short, Littlefield should have begun to prepare for this opportune moment years ago. He instead chose to toss away quality players and prospects while receiving chump change or less in return.
To bring a long article to an end: The ‘Drive for 75’ era will not have died in 2005 if Littlefield and the Pirates fail my test, if, that is, the McClatchy partnership refuses to risk some of its profits by committing the team to win big in the near future. Pirates’ fans will have a good idea of what their future holds in a few short months.