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Monday, January 30 2023 @ 08:33 am UTC
Payroll (mis)Management ó Littlefield v. Bonifay   
by Wilbur Miller

WITH Dave Littlefield becoming almost universally vilified for his non-existent ability to evaluate talent, his claim to being a better (or less atrocious) General Manager than Cam Bonifay is entirely based on the notion that he hasnít saddled the team with bad contracts. I donít think this is a valid argument.

Bonifay was notorious for four contracts: Meares, Bell, Young and Kendall. But has Littlefield really done so much better?

To start with Meares ó this was by far the stupidest of Bonifayís contracts, based on the facts at the time of signing. (How can a veteran player be worth $1.5M on the open market one day, and then be worth $15M a month later?) But Meares cost the Bucs less than what Littlefield wasted on Casey/Randa/Burnitz, and the Bucs got a big chunk of Mearesí salary back through insurance. Big edge to Bonifay here.

Bell was a disaster, but he cost $9M. Thatís roughly what Littlefield wasted on Armas, Simon II, Stynes, Santiago and Mondesi. Very small edge to Littlefield, just because Bell was Bell.

Youngís contract was bad, but was it much worse than Jack Wilsonís? Insofar as I recall, Young signed for $24M. But Jackís two contracts running from 2005-09 total $29M for one of Major League Baseballís weakest hitters. Arguably heís a better player than Young was due to his glove, but itís not a huge advantage. Good-field, no-hit shortstops arenít hard to find. Small edge to Littlefield here.

Kendallís contract was the biggest waste of money. Thatís only because of the thumb injury, though. Pirate fans forget just what an elite player he was even after the ankle dislocation. He posted a 125 OPS+ the year after the ankle at a premium defensive position. Thatís a huge thing. The contract probably would have been a burden the last couple years, but Kendall probably would have made below his market value during the first several years had it not been for the thumb. Meanwhile, Bayís contract may end pretty badly. If a recent Baseball Prospectus article is correct in opining that Bayís poor season is the result of lost bat speed, the Pirates may be paying $13.25M in 2008-09 for an average leftfielder. Big advantage for Littlefield here due to the way Kendallís deal turned out, but maybe not as much as youíd think. Thatís especially true if you take into account Gilesí contract. Giles signed a bad deal with the Indians that gave Bonifay the leverage to sign him to an extension at a below market salary. That in turn made it easier for Littlefield to trade him for Bay. So if you include Bonifayís good payroll management with Giles, the edge isnít so great here.

Littlefieldís edge decreases even further when you take Ramirez into account. Littlefield signed him to an extension that, while perfectly reasonable based on his talent, nevertheless required the Pirates to dump him. The bulk of the blame for that fiscal mismanagement has to go to McClatchy, but Dejan Kovacevicís writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has made it clear that Littlefield does play a role in projecting future payroll needs. He has to share in the blame for the debacle at least a little.

Admittedly, when you take inflation into account Littlefieldís edge increases. Still, I donít see where itís all that great, certainly nowhere near enough to account for his terrible record in talent acquisition. Bonifay wasnít so good in that area, but he was way, way better than Littlefield.

And even more importantly, what good has Littlefieldís supposedly superior payroll management done us, the fans? Exactly how many good players has the savings heís generated allowed him to bring in? All weíve gotten out of it is Casey, Randa, and Burnitz. It doesnít make me the slightest bit happier to know that Littlefield has done a great job of lining the ownersí pockets. And itís been made crystal clear that the payroll savings Littlefield achieves will never go toward the on-field product as long as the Nuttings own the team. So when it comes to Littlefieldís supposed skill at avoiding bad contracts, frankly my dears, I donít give a damn.

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