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August 14, 2003

"This is Our Fault"

The McClatchy Ownership as Team Builder, a History

by Steven Goldman

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In the July 25 edition of Transaction Analysis, Chris Kahrl critiqued the trade of reliever Mike Williams from the Pirates to the Phillies:

There are other cranky topics, particularly the re-failure to acquire talent for Mike Williams in this year's Williams deal. Certainly, if it reflected any new appreciation for the interchangeability of closers beyond the top few personalities in the field, that would be nifty, but instead, it seems that people (appropriately) don't take Williams particularly seriously as a commodity, so the Pirates got things bad both ways, in terms of plugging in a replacement-level talent in the job, enriching him, and then not enriching themselves when the time came to deal him.

Kahrl's analysis could be applied to the entire trading history of the Pirates franchise, a three-handed process in which the hometown GM extends a good player with one hand, accepts his return with the another, and pinches his nose shut with the third (see Part Two for the nearly complete cavalcade of Pittsburgh trading misfires). The top 10 list of best trades in the history of the franchise remains virgin territory, while the worst-10 list provides for an overstuffed buffet of empty calorie choices.

This article is a compendium of self-inflicted wounds suffered since the acquisition of the franchise by Kevin McClatchy. After the institution of the amateur draft in 1965 democratized (at least on paper) talent acquisition, a broken franchise, particularly an impoverished broken franchise, could right itself through a combination of smart trading, free-agent signings, and the rewards offered to losing teams by the draft. Over a long span lasting at least since the waning days of Barry Bonds as a Buc, the Pirates have consistently failed at all three.

OUR FAULT I: 7/31/2003

The non-waiver trading deadline has passed and Brian Giles remains a prisoner of Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, with the recent deletions of Jeff Suppan, Aramis Ramirez, Scott Sauerbeck, and finally(!) Kevin Young, the latest Pirates rebuilding program is underway. The term "rebuilding" is, however, something of a misnomer; to rebuild something, it has to have been built in the first place. In fact, Pittsburgh has never emerged from the reconstruction program which began with the Bonds departure more than a decade ago. In a few weeks, the Pirates will complete their 11th consecutive losing season.

Steeltown's baseball malaise has frequently been blamed on poverty, and though "we can't compete economically" has long been the reflexive cry of incompetent baseball ownership, the recent saga of Pirates' ownership gives some credence to their claims. When the Galbreath family put the club up for sale in 1986, no single local owner could be found, and it took a kind of trusteeship of local corporations, individuals, and the municipal government (which underwrote a $20 million loan to the team) to keep the team in Pittsburgh. Kevin McClatchy, the current owner, came not from Pennsylvania but Sacramento, Calif., when the franchise again needed a savior in 1995.

Still, as has been repeatedly demonstrated by teams from the A's--spending little and winning a lot--to the Orioles--spending millions for mediocrity--in running baseball teams The Plan is as important as the budget. Certainly worries over money have played a significant part in Pittsburgh's lemming-like march to the second division, but far more important has been the absence of The Plan. The Pirates' lack of cash and direction is analogous to the four-packs-a-day smoker who died when he accidentally wandered into the jungle and fell into a pool of quicksand: the cigarettes were going to kill him eventually, but it was his failure to carry a map that was the more immediate threat. "This is our fault," McClatchy said in a recent interview. He was right.

OUR FAULT II: McCLATCHY'S BROOM

McClatchy's ownership group bought the Pirates on Valentine's Day, 1996 after the team went up for sale the previous year. Within six months, the club was stripped to its undershorts as McClatchy sought to reduce costs, jumpstart a moribund franchise, and, perhaps, put his own stamp on the team.

This was, in itself, not a bad idea; the Pirates were a last-place team, and they clearly lacked the parts to rise much higher. Execution, however, was sorely lacking. The team's permanent mooring in the harbor of mediocrity can be traced to this moment, when the club's established talent was liquidated for little or no return.

McClatchy got half of the trade-vets-for-prospects equation right, but it was only the first half. The owner's key misstep was not ruling yea or nay on any particular trade, but rather a failure to evaluate his front office talent. In purchasing the ballclub, McClatchy chose to retain the services of general manager Cam Bonifay. Bonifay had been running the club without distinction since taking over for the stricken Ted Simmons in 1993, and though Bonifay's biggest free agent peccadilloes were still in the future, his lack of perception would immediately evidence itself in the series of deals executed from midseason 1996 to spring 1997.

The first deal in the series was a good one. Before McClatchy was officially on board, the Pirates had inexplicably signed pitcher Danny Darwin, a 40-year-old righty coming off a 3-10, 7.45 ERA season. He had pitched surprisingly well. A week before the trade deadline he was sent to the Astros in exchange for pitcher Rich Loiselle. Loiselle would contribute a good season as the team's closer before arm problems rapidly ended his effectiveness.

As William Jennings Bryan was once heard to remark, after Darwin it was all downhill. From July 1996 until Spring Training, 1997, the Pirates disposed of Darrell May, Denny Neagle, Charlie Hayes, Dave Clark, Orlando Merced, Carlos Garcia, Dan Plesac, Nelson Liriano, Jay Bell, Jeff King, Steve Parris, Trey Beamon, and Angelo Encarnacion.

In return, the Pirates received Ron Wright Jason Schmidt, Chris Corn, Carl South, Jose Silva, Jose Pett, Brandon Cromer, Mike Halperin, Abraham Nunez, Craig Wilson, Joe Randa, Jeff Granger, Jeff Martin, Jeff Wallace, Mark Smith, and Hal Garrett.

As should be obvious in looking at those two lists, the Pirates didn't get much for their players. Some of this was simply bad luck, as was the case with first baseman Ron Wright. Wright looked like a coming power hitter until chronic injuries stalled his career. In other cases, the Pirates could not consolidate their gains. Righty starter Jason Schmidt never was much more than an average starter with the Pirates, but his ability was such that he was still greatly coveted by other teams. In July, 2001, the Pirates dealt him to the Giants in exchange for outfielder Armando Rios and pitcher Ryan Vogelsong. It was another unequal exchange, especially since Schmidt blossomed as soon as he got away from Pittsburgh. Third baseman Joe Randa spent 1997 with the Pirates and registered an .817 OPS. He was exposed in that winter's expansion draft, was selected by Arizona, and has gone to have a viable career.

The roster had now been vacated with little return, leaving the Pirates with little talent to put on the field. The 1996-1997 transactions set the pattern for the next several years, and trading inequity remained a consistent problem through the denouement of Bonifay's tenure.

OUR FAULT III: 1997 STRETCH

Late August, 1997 found the Pirates with a .500 record and a chance to win an extremely weak division. Leader Houston was just 2.5 games ahead with a mediocre record of 70-65. Befitting a team just breaking even on the field, the Pirates had an average pitching staff and an offense a shade below average. The main problem was an inoffensive outfield led by 21-year-old Jose Guillen, a phenom not doing much phenominating. Seeking a boost to push the team into the playoffs, the Pirates made two moves. On Aug. 9 they sent pitcher Hal Garrett to the Dodgers in exchange for journeyman first baseman Eddie Williams. On Aug. 30 they ventured a player to be named later and reeled in Shawon Dunston.

Starting shortstop Kevin Polcovich was a decent player that year, but Dunston, a B- or C-level offensive player whom every other club in the majors would look upon as an outfielder as soon as that off-season, was plugged in at short. Dunston was terrific though, hitting .394 with five home runs in one of those magical Cesar Cedeno-in-St. Louis stretch runs. Unlike Cedeno's 1985 outburst, Dunston's hot streak did not pay off; only 11-14 in September, Pittsburgh finished five games behind Houston.

OUR FAULT IV: AMATEUR DRAFT INTERLUDE, 1997-1998

Exacerbating the problem of rebuilding the Pirates throughout this period was the almost total failure of the club to profit from the amateur draft. The Pirates could not build from within because there was no within. The first-round picks listed below are merely emblematic; few late (or even second-round) "finds" hide behind them. It's difficult to build from within when there is no within. Barry Bonds (1985) is, of course, the exception that proves the rule:

1978: Brad Garnett, 1B; Gerry Aubin, OF (second pick from Dodgers for signing Terry Forster)
1979: No pick due to FA signing of Lee Lacy (Dodgers took Steve Howe with the pick)
1980: Rich Renteria, SS (choice from Angels for losing Bruce Kison; Pirates' actual pick went to the Mets for signing Andy Hassler. The Mets took Billy Beane.)
1981: Jim Winn, P
1982: Sammy Khalifa, SS
1983: Ron DeLucchi, OF
1984: Kevin Andersh, P
1985: Barry Bonds, OF
1986: Jeff King, 3B
1987: Mark Merchant, OF
1988: Austin Manahan, SS
1989: Willie Greene, SS
1990: Kurt Miller, P
1991: Jon Farrell, OF
1992: Jason Kendall, C
1993: Charles Peterson, OF
1994: Mark Farris, SS
1995: Chad Hermansen, SS
1996: Kris Benson, P
1997: J.J. Davis, OF
1998: Clint Johnson, P

If you've seen any of these fellows lately, please call their mothers. It's been years and they're worried sick.

Coming soon: Part Two, Operation Shutdown and Other Tender Memories

Steven Goldman writes The Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com, where he waxes snarky about the adventures of the New York Yankees, plus almost anyone and anything else that comes to mind. Steve's book on the early career of Casey Stengel will be published by Brasseys Inc. in 2004. Questions, comments, or your late grandpa's diary entries about the time he struck out Hans Wagner in 1903 welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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