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One Step Back, Two Steps Back January 10, 2006   
by Wilbur Miller

We can all rest easy now: Kevin McClatchy has declared Dave Littlefield’s off-season acquisitions a success. Littlefield, according to McClatchy, more than fulfilled his mission to acquire two bats. He acquired three: Victor Santos, Damaso Marte and Roberto Hernandez…er, no, they all own bats, but McClatchy was probably referring to Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa. Various articles are already referring to these players as “solidifying” the middle of a batting order that ranked at or near the bottom in nearly everything in 2005. “Solidifying” is the word I keep seeing. It seems carefully chosen to avoid use of the more relevant word: “improving.” Is there a reason we don’t see the latter word? Let’s try directly addressing the question that seems to be escaping scrutiny elsewhere.

The following figures compare what the Pirates got out of the 4-6 spots in the batting order in 2005, compared to what Burnitz, Casey and Randa did in 2005 projected over 162 games:

Cleanup Spot 2005
OBP: .361
Slugging: .437
HR: 19
RBI: 93

Burnitz 2005
OBP: .322
Slugging: .435
HR: 24
RBI: 88

Fifth Spot 2005
OBP: .307
Slugging: .388
HR: 16
RBI: 94

Casey 2005
OBP: .371
Slugging: .423
HR: 11
RBI: 69

Sixth Spot 2005
OBP: .345
Slugging: .488
HR: 25
RBI: 99

Randa 2005
OBP: .335
Slugging: .452
HR: 18
RBI: 73

Just eyeballing these numbers, does anybody really think this is an improvement? Except for Casey’s OBP — which is limited in usefulness due to his extreme lack of speed — there’s either no improvement or a downgrade across the board. No wonder Doug Strange acknowledged recently that the Pirates aren’t ready to contend yet.

And consider some other factors. The Pirates’ 2005 figures were compiled by a motley, ever-changing assortment of players during a disastrous, transitional season. Those numbers were produced primarily by Daryle “Where’d My Power Go?” Ward; the departed Ty Wigginton; Craig Wilson, who was recovering from two hand injuries; Jose Castillo, who was moved up in the lineup out of desperation; Rob Mackowiak, a utility player who was out of place hitting in the middle of the order; and rookies Brad Eldred and Ryan Doumit, who were struggling to get acclimated to the majors. Not only that, but the ragtag group that produced better numbers in 2005 than Burnitz, Casey and Randa was much younger than the newly “solidified” middle of the order, especially the ones who are still around. Meanwhile, Randa is 36 and showed signs of decline before and after a bounceback first half in 2005 that was partly due to Great American Ballpark. Burnitz is 37 and clearly declining. Casey is 31, has never been in very good shape, is prone to nagging injuries, and has had only one good year in the last four. As a group, these three are far more likely to decline than improve.

Of course, the backup spin — for fans who actually follow the game — is that these are just one-year fill-ins until…uh, until when? Until Jose Bautista and Brad Eldred are ready to take over? Well, this is another topic that I don’t intend to address in depth here, except to say that Bautista and Eldred simply aren’t that highly regarded, at least not as having the kind of potential to give the Pirates the impact hitters they need. In fact, I’ll make a prediction here: neither will ever be in the Pirates’ opening day lineup. And right field? There isn’t even a putative heir, as the Pirates clearly don’t regard Nate McLouth as a potential successor. Burnitz is just serving as a placeholder for next year’s version of Sanders, Mondesi, Lawton and Burnitz.

The more fundamental question, though, is, When will the one-year rentals stop and the winning begin? Dave Littlefield said after ownership stated it would increase the payroll that the team would finally be able to acquire players who’d be more than just one-year stopgaps. Evidently, that statement is no longer operative. The team is now in its fourth straight season of one-year stopgaps. Why are there no other alternatives? Where is it written that the Pirates can only sign players for one year, or can’t trade for players with more than one year left on their contracts, or can’t trade for young players who aren’t eligible for free agency? Littlefield spent several years claiming that he’d be able to trade pitching prospects for hitters. Where are those hitters? What’s stopping the Pirates from doing what the Brewers are doing?

Burnitz, Casey and Randa are just part of a never-ending shell game. “Wait ‘til next year,” should be the team’s permanent slogan. Next year these guys will just be replaced by their own doppelgangers. If the Pirates really had any inkling of how to go about putting together a good team, there’s no reason to wait any longer. They can’t spend their way out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into. The help from the minors that they’ve been touting has already arrived in the form of Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Doumit and Chris Duffy. There are still other prospects who are nearly there — Eldred, Bautista, McLouth, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and a few others — but they’re the sort of young talent that most teams in baseball can boast. They’re not impact players and they’re not going to change the team’s fortunes fundamentally. They’re not the sort of players that you acquire stopgaps to wait for. If Burnitz, Casey and Randa are the best the Pirates can do now, they’re the best the Pirates are going to be able to do next year, and the year after, and the year after that. The teeny weeny light at the end of the tunnel is moving at the same speed as the Pirates.

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