by Wilbur Miller
One of the more popular topics among Pirate fans in recent years has been the quality of the job done by General Manager Dave Littlefield. Thanks to the team’s continued poor play, this subject probably generates less controversy than it once did, but there still remains a segment of the team’s shrinking fan base that considers Littlefield to be at least an adequate GM. Well, as one unnamed member of the organization said after Littlefield traded Jason Kendall, “This is Dave’s team now.” Since it’s finally “Dave’s team,” it must also be a good point at which to judge Dave’s performance.
The principal evaluation method employed by most of Littlefield’s supporters has been to look at individual transactions and declare that he’s had some good and some bad, and therefore he’s fair overall. The trade for Jason Bay invariably gets mentioned (with Oliver Perez’ name increasingly being omitted), along with other transactions such as the signings of Reggie Sanders and Jeff Suppan.
This approach has more problems than I can list here, so two major ones will have to suffice. First, a GM makes hundreds of personnel decisions over the course of a season. It’s impossible to account for more than the most visible ones, yet minor moves can have a significant impact, to say nothing of decisions that rarely if ever get examined by most fans, such as hiring a scouting director. It’s also impossible to examine the moves that DID NOT happen, because fans have no way of knowing, for instance, what trades a GM turned down, or what moves he could have made had he tried. Second, no GM makes all good or all bad moves. It’s easy to point out a few good and a few bad moves and conclude that a GM is somewhere around average. Cam Bonifay acquired Brian Giles in a deal that was every bit as good as the trade that netted Bay, particularly since Bonifay gave up only a situational reliever, while Littlefield gave up a premium hitter. Bonifay also signed Aramis Ramirez, traded for Jack Wilson, and drafted Zach Duke, to name just a few moves. Yet no Pirate fan would seriously argue that Bonifay was anything other than a disaster.
So how to judge Littlefield’s administration? I’ve always believed the simplest and most accurate measure is his record, which, of course, is putrid. He’s never come closer to .500 than 12 games. But some fans don’t seem satisfied with that approach, maybe because it seems too simple. So here’s another.
Nobody can dispute that the basic function of a GM is to acquire talent. So why not simply examine the current roster to see how much talent Littlefield has brought to it? Rather than parsing individual transactions, it makes more sense simply to look at the talent he’s acquired for the team. That way, we effectively account for the moves that WEREN’T made, as well as for non-player decisions such as hiring scouting and coaching staffs. As a reference point, we can also look at the players on the team for whom Littlefield was not responsible.
The following is a list of the players currently on the roster whom Littlefield inherited, including players currently on the disabled list or rehab. I’ve put an asterisk by the names of the ones who are likely to be around after this year unless they are traded or otherwise lost. Given that this year’s team is very unlikely to be in contention, these are the players who represent a real value to the organization.
Of course, Mike Gonzalez and Damaso Marte went elsewhere in the interim. Gonzalez only left the organization for a few days as part of a very bad, and thankfully aborted, trade, while Marte was lost with no value acquired in return.
And here are the current roster members acquired by Littlefield:
Which group would you rather have? Which group do you think compares better to other teams? If you look forward to next year, the “inheritance” group includes the starting middle infield, possibly two-fifths of a rotation, two good lefty relievers, three catchers who should in some combination leave the Pirates decent to good at that position, and two outfielders who probably will become fourth outfielders at some point. The group acquired by Littlefield includes the team’s star player, two good righty relievers, a possible starting pitcher, a talented pitcher who appears unlikely at this stage to get himself straightened out, a very good utility player, and two easily replaceable pitchers.
The two groups are probably somewhere close to being balanced, but this changes if you consider the players Littlefield inherited who are currently playing significant roles elsewhere:
The point here is not to bemoan the loss of all these players. The point is that, if you take these players, add them to the players whom Littlefield inherited who are currently on the team, and compare the result to the players Littlefield added to the team, the talent added by Littlefield compares very, very unfavorably to what he inherited from the much-despised Cam Bonifay. The unavoidable fact is that Littlefield has significantly REDUCED the organization’s talent level.
Of course, the inevitable objection to this analysis is that Littlefield hasn’t had enough time yet. In other words, “This isn’t really Dave’s team yet.” And that’s nonsense. Try going to www.baseball-reference.com and looking at the 2001 entries for a few teams at random. Most major league teams change radically over the course of five years. Or take the Brewers as an example. They’re probably the most closely comparable franchise to the Pirates in terms of their available resources, as well as being one that had an on-field history very similar to that of the Pirates from the early 1990s until just last year. Here are the current Brewers who were not with the Milwaukee organization when Littlefield became the Pirates’ GM:
Jorge De la Rosa
In case you aren’t inclined to count, that’s all but five players on the Brewers’ 25-man roster. In those five years, the Brewers have gone from 94 losses to a .500 record, with the potential of contending this year or next. What have the Pirates accomplished in that time? How does the Brewers’ list compare to the list of Littlefield’s acquisitions? The contrast is striking. The Brewers had a very bad team that got an extensive, and so far successful, makeover. The Pirates had a very bad team that has undergone only modest changes, with relatively little talent added in the past five years.
There’s simply no way to escape the conclusion that Littlefield has failed miserably at the fundamental function of a GM. He’s presided over a net loss of talent from an organization that didn’t have enough to begin with. His grade as a GM can’t be anything other than a straight “F.”