by Wilbur T. Miller
THOSE words were spoken by an anonymous Pirate official when Dave Littlefield traded away Jason Kendall. With the contracts of Kendall, Kevin Young, Derek Bell and Pat Meares off the books, Dave was finally going to get the chance to remake the Pirates in his own image. So it came about that Dave labored to build a team that fulfilled his vision. And when his labors were done, Dave rested and looked upon what he had wrought...and hit the panic button.
Littlefield’s template for a baseball team is familiar by now, as the Pirates over the last several years have changed little, except the names. Hitters who are utterly clueless about the strike zone, hacking their way to the lowest reaches of the offensive stats. Poor fielding. Rampant mental errors on the bases and in the field. Overrated, injury-prone young pitchers. A deteriorating farm system. A bizarre aversion to hitters with power and pitchers who miss bats. Continued support for a scouting director with a long record of poor drafting. Baseball’s least productive international scouting. All of this has produced a team that, once again, will be out of the running not only for the post-season, but for the treasured run at .500, by the All-Star break, just like every single one of Littlefield’s previous teams.
Nothing could provide a clearer illustration of Littlefield’s complete lack of aptitude for his job than the team’s bullpen. For years, despite the team’s horrific offensive woes, Littlefield has focused almost exclusively on the bullpen. The Pirates currently have no fewer than seventeen relievers on the 40-man roster, if you count Shane Youman and Josh Shortslef, two minor league starters who simply lack the talent to reach the majors as anything other than LOOGYs. By contrast, the Brewers have ten relievers on their 40-man roster. Of the Pirates’ seventeen, nine have been acquired in just the last two years, as Littlefield has frantically added to the bullpen as if he was fine-tuning a World Series contender. And what has this produced? The Pirates currently rank 15th in the NL in bullpen ERA at an unsightly 4.99, just 0.02 ahead of last-place Houston. The team’s relievers have been so unreliable that Jim Tracy is jeopardizing the health of his best young reliever, Matt Capps, because he simply doesn’t trust most of the others. This is the fruit of Littlefield’s most intensive labors.
Faced with yet another dismal season, Littlefield has been much more animated in the past in trying to make adjustments. It’s not surprising — he has only one year remaining on his contract and next year the team will be in a position to tie the all-time record for most consecutive losing seasons. Nobody knows for sure whether new principal owner Bob Nutting has any intention of living up to his claims that there will be accountability, but if he’s the least bit serious about introducing this foreign concept to the Pirates, Littlefield’s job has to be on the line.
Predictably, however, Littlefield’s panic has been limited to...you guessed it...the bullpen. Relievers get called up and then disappear before anybody figures out who they are. Juan Perez got canned after 3.1 IP. Brian Rogers lasted a whopping two innings, Dan Kolb three, Josh Sharpless four and a third. Marty McLeary got a long look: 7.2 IP. Now Littlefield is bringing back John Wasdin, who managed to allow an average of one homerun every three innings pitched to AAA hitters during a lengthy rehab assignment. Of course, the other options aren’t good. Sharpless is getting hammered in AAA, Perez has an ERA of 6.53, Youman 5.11. Romulo Sanchez and Dave Davidson are both pitching poorly in AA. Seventeen relievers on the 40-man roster and the best Littlefield can do is recall Wayback Wasdin.
Of course, two years from now it won’t matter. All or nearly all of these guys will be gone and probably forgotten. But the worst of Littlefield’s panic-stricken moves will still be haunting the team. Instead of selecting somebody with the potential to be an above-average everyday player — of which several were available, not all of them Scott Boras clients — Littlefield used the fourth pick in the draft on a reliever whom he believes will be ready for the majors soon. You know, just like Bryan Bullington. In his panic to address the team’s collapsing bullpen, he passed up a chance to address a far more damaging flaw: the team’s lack of a major league lineup.
Littlefield’s desperation to save his job seems to have left him operating entirely on blind instinct. Things aren’t going well? Do something about the bullpen! The Pirates, owners over the last several years of baseball’s most consistently woeful offense, have only fifteen hitters on the 40-man roster, just two more than the number on the active roster and two fewer than the number of relievers. Actually, they have only one “extra” hitter on the 40-man roster, because Nyjer Morgan is out until late in the year with an injury. Meanwhile, they have four regulars who are the worst offensively, or close to it, at their positions. Their bench is so bad that they’ve had to go at various times with Don Kelly, who couldn’t even hit in AAA last year; Brad Eldred, who’s hit .109 in the majors this year; Nate McLouth, who’s hitting .224; and Rajai Davis, for whom Tracy has so little regard that he got zero starts while spending the last six weeks of 2006 in the majors. There’s simply nowhere else to turn, outside of waiver wire pickup Josh Phelps. He made a big impression by striking out looking twice with runners on base in a close game in his Pirate debut.
It’s hard to say exactly why Littlefield retains his myopic focus on the bullpen. Maybe it’s a deer-in-the-headlights reaction to impending doom. Maybe he really believes that he can find the magic formula for winning without scoring any runs. Either is a sign of desperation. The only thing that can be said for sure is that, the worse things get, the more adamantly he ignores the team’s biggest, long-term problems and fixates on smaller, short-term ones that he seems to think might save his job. With Littlefield operating without even the semblance of rationality, there’s little left to do but wait to see whether Nutting can recognize a chicken running around with its head cut off when he sees one.