AS the 2005 season enters its final stages, the Pirates are rapidly sinking toward what could be baseball’s worst won-loss record other than Kansas City. If there’s one certainty for Bucs’ fans, it’s that the spin, which is the only real talent the team’s management possesses, will come fast and furiously. We’ll hear all about how difficult it is to win games when a team is breaking in young players. The team’s unofficial slogan since the 100-loss fiasco of 2001 has been, “Young = Losing, Veteran = Winning.” But how much truth is there to the Bucco Mantra?
Think back to that 2001 season. The drumbeat began as soon as Dave Littlefield was hired as GM. “It’s hard to win when you have a lot of rookies,” we were told. “We’re not going to develop players at the major league level any more.” Littlefield and Lloyd McClendon have repeated this mantra countless times since then. Aided by an unquestioning Pittsburgh sports media, they’ve created the impression that rookies were the cause of that awful season, and that veteran players, whether they’re any good or not, provide some sort of cushion against the excessive losing that inevitably comes from playing young players
But did the young players really cause the 2001 disaster? The Pirates went into that season with a veteran team. They sent “shock waves” around MLB by acquiring Derek Bell to play RF. They handed an obviously incapacitated Pat Meares the 2B job. Craig Wilson was coming off a 33-HR season in AAA, yet he was given no opportunity to make the team in spring training, as the Pirates went with John Wehner instead. When the starting rotation was mostly wiped out by injuries, the team dragged in veterans like Omar Olivares, Ramon Martinez and Don Wengert to fill in.
With all those veterans, the team should have been insulated from having too terrible a season, right? Wrong. Bell and Meares hit a pathetic 173/287/288 and 211/244/304, respectively, while Meares played poorly in the field as well. Olivares, Martinez and Wengert combined to post a 7.43 ERA. Other veteran pitchers were just as bad, as Rich Loiselle and Marc Wilkins posted ERAs of 11.50 and 6.75, respectively. The poor contributions included supposed mainstays, as well. Jason Kendall, trying to play through a thumb injury, hit a career-worst .266. Kevin Young hit an anemic 232/310/399. Other than Brian Giles and John Vander Wal, no veteran had an even passable year with the bat.
Well, the youngsters must not have done any better, right? Wrong again. Wilson came up due to injuries and, in the rare moments when McClendon unchained him from the bench, hit a whopping 310/390/589. Rob Mackowiak, who was never even regarded as a prospect, hit 266/319/411. Jack Wilson, after an early demotion, started showing the brilliance at SS that later became routine for him, although he struggled with the bat. Aramis Ramirez, in his first full season, hit .300 with 34 HRs and 112 RBIs. Abe Nunez didn’t hit very well, but still easily outplayed Meares both offensively and defensively. Dave Williams posted by far the best ERA among the starters at 3.71. Damaso Marte and Mike Lincoln were among the most effective of the team’s relievers
The simple fact is that the young players weren’t the problem, they were virtually the only bright spots that year. And many of them, particularly Craig Wilson, Mackowiak and Williams, would never have gotten a chance but for injuries and complete collapses by veteran players. The team would not have done well with the younger players getting more playing time, but it would have been better than it was. The young players were not the problem.
Unfortunately, the same revisionist history is being made at PNC again this year. Littlefield and McClendon are already starting the same drumbeat, blaming the need to break in the youngsters for the team’s misfortunes. And it’s no more true now than it was in 2001.
This year, the team’s struggles began long before the rookies came along. Other than Ryan Doumit (excluding an early season cameo by Chris Duffy), none of the prominent rookies came up until Zach Duke got his first start on July 2. The Pirates by then had lost 14 of their previous 18. When Duffy got his first start on July 18, the team had lost 25 of 35.
In fact, other than Jason Bay, the rookies are nearly the only players to make any significant contributions in the second half. Zach Duke has saved a collapsing rotation, going 6-0 while veterans Mark Redman, Kip Wells and Josh Fogg have posted a disastrous 18-37 record. The only other bright spot in the rotation has been the still-inexperienced Williams, who’s gone 10-10. Duffy has hit .341 and given the team its best CF defense since Andy Van Slyke, replacing the weak bat and mistake-prone glove of Tike Redman. Doumit has recorded an .883 OPS since the All-Star break, compared to Humberto Cota’s .558. Brad Eldred has six HRs in about 100 ABs, compared to Daryle Ward’s zero in roughly 200. Freddy Sanchez hasn’t been impressive with the bat, but his .661 post-All Star OPS is still better than Mackowiak’s .619, and he’s played good defense at 3B. Ty Wigginton, by contrast, had four errors in his first four games after being recalled. Nevertheless, McClendon continues to waste excessive playing time on Redman, Ward and Mackowiak, claiming that he’s “just trying to win games.” The only players winning any games for him, other than Bay, are the youngsters that he continues to believe are less reliable than his precious veterans.
It’s true that the team’s youth-phobic mantra is right in one respect: Young players will struggle and will not lead the team to the promised land right away. Doumit went through a bad period shortly after coming up. Eldred is now struggling to make contact, and Duffy was showing signs of cooling off before he injured his hamstring. The fallacy, however, is the belief that veterans — or more specifically, the type of veterans the Pirates can afford and seem to find attractive — will contribute more even in the short term. This is the part of the equation that Littlefield and McClendon have never been able to grasp.
Whether reality has finally started to sink into the offices at PNC will become more apparent during the off-season. Kevin McClatchy has claimed that the payroll will increase for next season. Of course, he’s made many other claims that turned out to be false, but it’s conceivable that ownership will wish to make a big splash in a year in which the team is hosting the All-Star Game. The question is whether Littlefield will target one or two players who might really make a difference, such as a legitimate major league 3B. Or will he continue to dribble resources away to bring in the likes of Chris Stynes and Randall Simon, or cling pointlessly to players like Ward, Wigginton and both Redmans? Will the Pirates abandon the false mantra, or will they finally start to learn from their mistakes?