By Wilbur Miller
After six years of being bystanders at events reserved for fans of major league teams, Pirate fans have suddenly been thrust into the real world of major league baseball. Their team actually made a deadline deal that didn’t involve a fungible AAA reliever or an injured outfielder. Well, OK, it did involve an injured outfielder, but this at least is an extremely interesting one. If the internet traffic is anything to go by, most Pirate fans hated the deal, but that’s to be expected when established players are traded for unknown quantities.
Personally, I don’t think GM Neal Huntington got enough—I think one of the pitchers needed to have a higher ceiling than the three he obtained. None of us really knows, though, what this trade will look like in two years, much less further down the road. I can’t add anything useful to the scouting reports and blogger opinions that fans are digging up on the web. Yes, Jose Tabata is an extremely high-risk player with a lot of upside and numerous red flags. Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens look to me like middle relievers, but they’ll get their shots at the rotation. Daniel McCutchen looks like he has a little more chance of being a successful major league starter, but he may have to wait until next year to get his shot.
What’s more interesting right now is to look at the trade from the standpoint of where the Pirates are as an organization. To assess it properly, you have to look back a year or so to see what the trade says about where Huntington and CEO Frank Coonelly think the organization is headed.
Roughly a year ago, Coonelly and Huntington took over an organization that was not only an abject failure, but one that had a peculiar mix of talent. Most teams, after finishing near the bottom of the standings for many years, have at least pretty good farm systems and a more or less random mixture of limited major league talent. The Pirates’ new management, however, took over a team that was built for the short term. It had a number of decent to good position players who were all in their prime years already, together with a small number of young pitchers who were overrated as a group, with only a couple—Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny—who had significant ceilings. The farm system, after six years of neglect, was almost completely barren. The structure of the team was similar to a franchise that has decided to expend all its resources on one or two shots at winning it all. The difference, of course, was that the Pirates weren't built to win it all, they were built to make a low-cost run at .500, and even then the talent level was so low that everything would have to go right for the McClatchy/Littlefield aim-low strategy to succeed. And, with many of their key players set to leave after 2009, they had only two years to do it. After that, the deluge.
As we all know, Coonelly and Huntington chose not to “blow it up.” They instead waited to see whether the team could get itself close enough to contention so that a couple of mid-season moves might put it over the top. In many ways the team now looks much better than it has for years, although it was six games under .500 at the time of the trade. Any realistic assessment of the organization, though, had to be much bleaker than that.
The Pirates went into the season effectively in the position of being completely dependent on Snell and Gorzelanny to anchor the pitching staff. It’s one thing to do that with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in their primes, but Snell and Gorzelanny aren’t on that level, as we now know. They may rebound or they may not, but their collapse, along with the utterly predictable failure of Matt Morris and the injury to Phil Dumatrait, has exposed a desperate situation. As fans we’re all well aware of how awful the major league pitching has been. Huntington, however, has to assess the entire organization and what he undoubtedly sees is a complete absence of answers. There is exactly one pitcher, Brad Lincoln, in the entire farm system who has a realistic chance to be a good major league starter. A team that expects to build through its farm system needs 10-15 guys like that to have any hope of producing the pitching it’s going to need. The situation with relievers isn’t much better, either. And there is exactly one high-ceiling hitting prospect, so the team not only lacks trade chips other than veterans, but will need to acquire position players as well as pitchers from elsewhere in the future. Most fans don’t worry about what the team will look like in 2010, but Huntington has to. He’s facing the possibility, likelihood really, of a string of 100-loss seasons reminiscent of the hapless Pirate teams of the early and mid 1950s.
What’s significant about this trade is the break it represents from the model that Huntington inherited from his incompetent predecessor. What he’s found out this year, both from the collapse of the major league pitching and the poor performances of many of the team’s already-dubious prospects throughout the farm system, is that the Pirates can’t finesse the post-2009 talent vacuum. He and Coonelly both have stated many times that they’re not aiming at just reaching .500, but at building an organization that will be competitive over the long term. This is the first tangible sign that they meant it.
It’s easy to ridicule Huntington’s statement that the trade was needed to add organizational depth, as if he’s more concerned about having minor league than major league players, but it’s missing the point. The situation, particularly with pitching, is so bad that he had no choice but to start adding whatever talent he could get to the upper level staffs. This probably explains, too, why he chose not to keep his veterans and get the draft picks when they leave. They need pitchers at the upper levels, not at State College. If you want to know what the result would be if Huntington were to hold off addressing these problems, just check out this year’s Altoona Curve. That team would be your 2010 Pirates. Imagine how good a 47-58 AA team would be two years later in the majors.
Whether Huntington made the right move remains to be seen. What we can say for sure now, though, is that he’s broken from the failed Dave Littlefield strategy of clinging to a losing roster as if it was the 1927 Yankees and trying to tweak it around the edges with penny ante moves. This is the first time in this millennium that the Pirates have made a difficult decision that was aimed at improving the team on the field. By itself, that shows things are different now.