By Stephen Zielinski
Every so often I’ll write a few pertinent — or useless — comments for the Front Page. It keeps me out of trouble. This is the third of the series:
Littlefield sets us straight — sorta...
We recently had the opportunity to read a few incoherent musings originating on Federal Street:
“It’s not a situation where we’re going to just deal for prospects year after year,” Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield says. “We want to win some more games. Yet, at this point, it hasn’t been proven to me that we’ve got a championship club. We’re walking that tightrope.
‘We want to win some more games,’ Littlefield notifies us. We won’t just trade Mesa for prospects because ‘[w]e want to win....’ Win more games... More games than we won in the past... At least 73 games in 2005...
To accomplish this audacious goal, Littlefield is prepared to keep graying vets like Mesa on the squad…except when they defy the GM and manager as Benito Santiago did when he refused his rehab assignment. He wants us to know that the Pirates will not trade their veterans for prospects because trading them for prospects might upset the quest for 73 or more wins. We won’t have another April 2005 this season if he can help it! If the prospect of winning more games sounds too good to be true, it is...too good to predict a feasible future we Pirate fans might have in 2005! It’s false because Littlefield seemingly believes the 2005 Pirates team has won the few games that it has mostly because of Mesa, that he would be unable to replace Mesa with anyone now on the roster or that the Pirates would wholly collapse if he were to trade away Mesa. Is he thinking soundly? No.
First of all, teams win games when they outscore their opponents. A decent closer is a helpful and, perhaps, necessary condition for winning games. It is not a sufficient condition. But winning generally requires a more complex mix of players than an able closer.
Second, Mesa can be replaced by Gonzalez or Torres. The helpful or necessary condition can be met without Mesa.
Third, the fortunes of the team — its propensity to win — mostly rise and fall with the production of its hitters, not with Mesa’s contribution to the effort. Thus, acquiring more hitting — offensive production — is a necessary condition for this Pirates team if it means to win games at a greater rate than it won last year and has so far this year. Strong starting pitching has also recently helped the Pirates play respectable baseball, as Studes demonstrates here.
My conclusion: Keeping Mesa in Pittsburgh instead of trading him for a valuable prospect provides more evidence that Littlefield is still hewing to the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy.
How greedy can we fans hope to be?
By the way, how many games does Littlefield want to win this year? As of 5.13.2005, the day I began this article, I would reckon he wants to win 60 games (15 + 60 = 75 wins for 2005). In order to reach that lofty goal, the team would need to win at a .465 rate for the rest of the year.
In the quote given above, Littlefield also noted that: ‘[A]t this point, it hasn’t been proven to me that we’ve got a championship club.’ My first thought when I read this: He must be joking? Who actually asserts that this year’s team is a championship contending club? Who, we might also wonder, needs their meds? No sane fan believes that if the Pirates were to acquire a Bonds or Ramirez or another superstar they would then contend for the NL Central championship in 2005. No one believes the Cardinals will fall far enough that the Pirates might surpass them in the standings. We would confront that improbable possibility only if the Cardinals team contracted the plague or their plane crashed into a mountain. At this point of the season and given the very harsh time they had in April, I would wager that most Pirate fans would be very happy indeed if the team could avoid embarrassing the city over the course of the season. Their greatest hopes now appear to be that they would have a team that managed to go 81-81 for the year. That record might be sufficient to finish second in a diminished NL Central division. It would also provide a cause for Pirate fans to celebrate since an 81-81 record would mean the franchise would not break the all-time ML record for consecutive loosing seasons. Yet, it’s not good enough.... It’s not championship contending material.
So, why would the Pirates refuse trade for prospects every year?
The Pirates won’t trade major league or major league ready talent for prospects every year because the organization wants to win about 75 games every year, as I argued a few weeks ago. Yet, accumulating first round draft choices and trading for prospects might provide the only feasible strategy for an organization like the Pirates if it ever wants to contend for a championship, as Wilbur Miller argued a few days ago. Ironic as it might seem, the effort ‘to win more games’ every season might be sufficient to insure that the Pirates will break the all-time ML record for consecutive loosing seasons. By constantly deferring building for a future championship run in order to ‘more games’ in the near term, the McClatchy partnership is walking a road that ends in baseball’s hall of shame. This is why the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy is a recipe for failure.
The more things change...
It’s not as though the ‘win more games’ instead of trading vets for prospects preference is a new direction for the Pirates. After all, the Benson and Keppinger for Wigginton, Peterson and Bautista trade reflected the utter complacency of the organization. It did so because, as we now know, the McClatchy partnership can reasonably expect to make a profit just by sending a modestly talented team onto the field. That’s the result the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy is meant to guarantee. The Kendall for Redman and Rhodes trade was cut from the same cloth.
We thus owe a hearty thank you to Dejan Kovacevic for greatly disturbing the smug expectations floating around Federal Street with his ‘Pirates' profit is there, but where is it going?,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 1, 2005 and ‘McClatchy disputes claims he is pocketing profits,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 3, 2005 articles. While Dejan’s articles might not motivate the McClatchy partnership to properly capitalize the team and to seek to win a championship, as we fans might hope they do, they have paid off in one rather delicious way: We have McClatchy publicly stating that he and his partnership have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the Pirates and yet have no intention of profiting from their investment, for how else might we interpret his assertion that he ‘...didn’t like the insinuation that [he] was taking money out of the team and sticking it in [his] pocket....’
The ‘Drive for 75’ strategy works well only when the fans support the team, and support it even when the McClatchy partnership pursues mediocrity on the field. To put the point into different terms, we might say that the complacency of the McClatchy partnership needs the fans to provide an enabling condition for the team. That is the role the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy allocates to us! The role: The acceptance of their sad fate.
We could read the following about Ian ‘No-Hit’ Snell in a recent Paul Meyer article: ‘There are people in the Pirates’ front office — and some major-league scouts — who believe Ian Snell’s long-range major-league niche will be in the bullpen.’