by Wilbur Miller
DAVE Littlefield’s desperation to save his job by trying to avert another 95-loss season reached new heights as he traded for the expensive and declining Matt Morris to shore up the Pirates’ rotation. The stunning part was that Littlefield agreed to pick up all of Morris’ hefty salary. If they don’t exercise their 2009 option, the Pirates will be on the hook for a minimum of more than $15M over the next year and two months. With two expensive shortstops, both among MLB’s weakest hitters, already under contract — assuming the Pirates exercise Cesar Izturis’ option, which seems highly likely given Jim Tracy’s affection for his former LA out machine — the Pirates have gone well over their projected payroll and probably eliminated any semblance of financial flexibility for the near future.
The trade immediately drew significant attention around MLB. Brian Sabean — who must feel like Jim Hendry did when the Pirates dropped Aramis Ramirez in his lap — seemed bemused in recounting how two contending teams had shown interest in Morris but refused to pick up enough of his salary. According to Jayson Stark, MLB offices were abuzz with astonishment that the National League’s worst team was behaving as if it was in a pennant race. Of course, the Pirates are in a different kind of race: a race to win just enough games to allow management to put a good face on the season, to continue maintaining that, despite the endless losing, things are right on track and the fans can look forward to continued improvement...and, of course, to allow Dave Littlefield to remain as GM.
The foolishness of the trade can be recounted in many different ways. There’s no need to go into the fact that Morris is just a #4 starter, or that his strikeout rate has declined for six straight seasons, or that better pitchers like Ian Snell and Paul Maholm have losing records due to the Pirates’ pathetic offense, or any other indicators that this is a marginal improvement that involves very high risk. Littlefield’s own statements stand against him. As Pirate fans have clamored for the team to sign a premium talent in the free agent market, Littlefield has frequently cautioned that it’s a bad idea to tie up a large percentage of the team’s payroll in one player. Now, in his panic to save his job, he’s committed roughly a quarter of the team’s payroll to a declining #4 starter.
Worst of all, though, is the potential hidden meaning in this trade. It had to be approved by the infamously cheap principal owner, Bob Nutting. Aside from revealing Nutting’s poor grasp of the game, it shows that he’s buying into Littlefield’s failed formula of selling out any hope of success in favor of minimal, and usually illusory, short-term improvements. Even worse, it may indicate that he expects to retain Littlefield beyond this season. The one cause for hope that Pirate fans have now is that Nutting may, by design or accident, bring in a competent baseball man as CEO, which would surely spell the end of Littlefield’s reign of error. If, however, Nutting is going along with Littlefield’s strategies, which have failed over and over again, it’s less likely that he’ll be interested in somebody who’ll run the Pirates like a major league baseball team.