May 2, 2006
A week ago on Sunday I was trading IM's back and forth with my friend Dan Quon, and Ty Wigginton's name came up. He's cooled off in the week since we've talked, but even after a fairly slow week, he's hitting .281/.323/.607 for the Devil Rays entering Monday's play. Is he in over his head right now? Absolutely--clearly, he's not going to slug .600 or anywhere close to that for the remainder of the year. That said, there were signs that he was a better hitter than what we saw with the Pirates. The first thing that jumps off the page is the pronounced difference between his stats before and after his demotion to Triple-A Indianapolis.
Ron Shandler, in his excellent Baseball Forecaster, pointed out that Wigginton was exceptionally unlucky over the first half of the season, with a 19% hit rate on balls in play. Wigginton's playing time was sporadic, as he first split time with Bobby Hill and then Freddy Sanchez, who was given the job when Wigginton went to Indy. Finally, the power he showed with Indy and upon his return also was apparent in previous seasons, when he slugged .487 in 312 at-bats with the Mets in 2004, as Dan mentioned. He's 28 now, so he's in his peak years, and as a college draftee, has had less time at the professional level to develop. Going forward, if he were to play regularly the rest of the year, it's reasonable to expect him to slug .475 or better, which should translate into some bankable fantasy stats.
Will he get that playing time? That's a tougher question. Aubrey Huff is making good progress from his knee injury and almost certainly will play every day as soon as he can. Even if Wigginton is out-hitting him, Huff is the one making the big dollars that the Rays want to trade away this summer, so they need to do whatever they can to showcase him. Huff doesn't necessarily have to play third base, nor does Wigginton for that matter. Huff could move back to right field, where Damon Hollins and Russell Branyan are getting most of the time. Wigginton will play some second base until Jorge Cantu returns from the DL, and he'll get some time possibly in a platoon role with Travis Lee at first base. Rocco Baldelli's return complicates matters, especially if Baldelli can't play center field right away when he comes back. In such a scenario, Baldelli would DH, Jonny Gomes would go to right field, locking in Huff at third. Overall, barring another significant Devil Ray injury, Wigginton's playing time could go down to two to four starts per week.
Did the Pirates err by letting Wigginton go? Yes, but probably not on the same colossal level as losing Chris Shelton to the Tigers in the Rule 5 draft before the 2004 season or letting Bronson Arroyo get claimed on waivers in 2003. Hey, those were understandable--it's not as if they could expose the great Jeff D'Amico (or even the not-so-great Jeff D'Amico) on waivers rather than exposing Shelton or Arroyo. Looking at the Pirates' options, when they cut Wigginton, their top options were Sanchez and Jose Bautista, whom the Pirates traded back for after they lost him in the same Rule 5 draft that they lost Shelton. While it's possible to quibble with the talent evaluations between Sanchez and Wigginton, at least one could argue with a straight face that Sanchez is/was a better long-term option for a team in the Pirates' position.
Of course, that's not what the Pirates were thinking at all. No, they went out and signed Joe Randa to take over the job, under the guise of making the Pirates more competitive this year. Unfortunately, that's all this is--a guise. Set aside what Randa is doing so far, or even what you had projected for him. Even if Randa matches his career-best years and has a mid-.800 OPS, how many more wins is that worth over Wigginton, Sanchez or even Bautista? At best, one or two. Factor in that he's 36 years old and thus has no future value, and that the Pirates are far more than a win or two away from competing, and this is the type of signing that keeps losing teams losing. Making matters worse, when Randa missed a game with a foot injury on that Sunday, instead of Sanchez starting at third base, it was proven veteran cipher Jose Hernandez getting the nod. In what universe is that a good decision when you're in the Pirates' situation?
This is hardly an isolated situation for the Bucs under the leadership of GM David Littlefield. Beyond losing Shelton and Arroyo and signing Randa, there have been no shortage of questionable Littlefield decisions. The unifying trend is that they all smack of the mentality that the Bucs aspire to win 75-80 games, and if they do that everything will be just fine. Trading for Sean Casey (and the hefty salary he has in the final year of his deal), while signing Jeromy Burnitz, effectively buried Craig Wilson. Wilson has plenty of flaws in his game, but once again, he could be a better hitter than either Casey or Burnitz possibly, and at the very best, those two outperform him by no more than the extra margin in winning one or two games.
Littlefield was hired to be the GM by the Pirates in midseason 2001. We'll give him a pass for that year, but since then the team has gone 286-360, and declined three years in a row. In addition to the missteps above, Littlefield's first major trade was to hand away Aramis Ramirez (and Kenny Lofton, and cash) to the Cubs for Jose Hernandez (there's that name again), Mike Bruback and a player to be named later, which ended up being Bobby Hill. That certainly didn't work out. One point in Littlefield's favor is the Brian Giles trade--not only did Jason Bay exceed expectations, but the Pirates got one great year out of Oliver Perez, with the potential still remaining for future big seasons.
Nonetheless, Littlefield's job should be on the line, but instead, he just got a contract extension. Part of the reason given for his extension are the acquisitions of Casey, Burnitz and Randa. How does this happen? Follow the money. The Pirates make money with Littlefield making the on-field decisions--gobs of it. After revenue sharing payments, they made a profit well over $20 million. So Littlefield can keep acquiring these mid-tier at-best veterans and say, "Hey, we're trying to build a winner, and we went out and spent money on Jeromy Burnitz and other proven veterans. We should be competitive this year. But it's just too hard to win in these market conditions." Many Pirate fans will eat it all up, the owner won't care because he's making the most of that surplus after revenue sharing, and the cycle will repeat.
It may be depressing to be a Marlins fan after their recent offseason fire sale, but I'd rather be a fan of them and their roller coaster of changing fortunes, where they have an honest plan in place to improve significantly in the future. I just don't see that ray of hope with the Pirates, not in their current iteration.