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August 26, 2010

Changing Speeds

Hindsight is 81-81

by Ken Funck

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I guess I must have slept through 2007, because my memory of that year is apparently pretty fuzzy.  According to a recent Associated Press report, the Pittsburgh Pirates that summer were loaded with talented young position players, some of them future All-Stars, whose clear destiny to bring winning baseball back to western Pennsylvania was undermined by a group of front-office pinchpennies.  According to a number of former players quoted in the AP report, if only the miserly, besuited scrooges who run the franchise had merely picked up the phone and called in an order for some veteran pitching, instead of going all Gordon Gekko on the workforce and breaking up a sure winner for no better reason than to line their pockets in the short term, the Pirates’ long string of losing seasons would certainly have ended.

And here’s me, remembering the 2007 Pirates as a team of mediocre young-ish veterans soon to enter free agency and earn salaries far beyond their likely worth.  Little did I know that the Buccos were littered with stars, or as the AP put it, “a roster that included current or future All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Matt Capps, Nate McLouth and (Jose) Bautista.”   An extremely impressive list, obviously, which doesn’t even include solid major-leaguers Adam LaRoche, Xavier Nady and Nyjer Morgan, all of whom were cruelly jettisoned before the flowering of a Steel City renaissance could be achieved.

Together, the eight position players shown above earned 16.3 WARP in 2007, 18.7 WARP in 2008 (when Jose Bautista and Bay were heartlessly traded) and a whopping 23.0 WARP in 2009 (when Sanchez, Wilson and McLouth were summarily sent packing).  This year, the star octet has plummeted to 6.7 WARP, 4.6 of it due to the alien inhabiting Bautista’s body—but why worry about that, when the team had a chance to maybe, possibly win somewhere in the neighborhood of six more games with the bat last year than they had in 2007 if they had merely kept this peerless talent in Pittsburgh?  Doing so would have raised their win total from, say, 68 to 74—leaving the Pirates a mere eight additional pitching wins short of breaking the magical .500 barrier.

It must have been either willful negligence or rampant greed on the part of Pirates management not to see that this was a core on which a winning franchise could be built.  So why would they dismantle it?  Here’s how team president Frank Coonelly explained it, no doubt rubbing his cold, clammy hands together: “We traded aging, veteran players who were approaching free agency for younger players … who were not arbitration-eligible.  We had to completely overturn a veteran roster that was unproductive and losing 95 games a year.”  I’m sure Henry Potter said something similar when he snatched the Bedford Falls bank and tried to buy out the Building and Loan.  Aging players?  As the AP notes with editorial incredulity, no starter on that team was older than 29 (though it’s a mystery why most of those players have cratered this year).  Moreover, as the position players from those clubs will gladly attest, it was merely the lack of veteran pitching which kept that Pittsburgh squad from a date with destiny.

“We had a great team on the field,” Bautista says of the 2007 Pirates, who ranked 12thin the NL in runs scored, 15thin Defensive Efficiency and 14thin Equivalent Base Running Runs.  “We felt like we could have benefited from improving our pitching staff.  They went with rookies on the pitching staff and that wasn’t necessarily a recipe for success.  We thought that we could have benefited from getting a couple of good veterans, proven major-league starting pitchers.  They didn’t feel the need to go out and spend that money.  For whatever reason, they decided not to and we lost a lot of games.”

Who can can argue with that?  As a small market club, the Pirates obviously couldn’t have afforded to sign a Zito-class veteran starter in the 2006-07 offseason, but somewhat more affordable veteran options like Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, Gil Meche and Randy Wolf were available.  Signing veteran free-agent starters is the most cost-effective and foolproof way to vault small-market teams into contention—if you don’t believe me, just ask the Royals, or more appropriately the Brewers.  Milwaukee’s homegrown batting talent might even be a shade better than that of the 2007 Pirates—please don’t flame me for that—but without veteran free agent starters like Suppan, Wolf and Braden Looper, where would they be? 

Thank you, former Pirates, for bringing to our attention the most egregiously heartless dispersal of great talent in the history of Pennsylvania baseball—at least Connie Mack had the decency to let his star-studded teams win before selling them off.  I’ll be sure to pay closer attention the next time a small-market team trades off its aging players to start a massive (and long overdue) rebuilding program, to make certain that the ingredients necessary to win—apparently, mediocre batting and bad defense and baserunning—aren’t already there.

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

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