Sunday, March 30, 2008

The long and winding road

Let's start this one at the beginning. Since it's the day before the season starts, the PG is launching all kinds of articles off like crazy about the baseball season. The one that you HAVE to read is Dejan's piece about the new management team's blueprint. It's articles like this one that make you appreciate just what a good beat writer he is.

Anyways, the whole thing starts out based on the premise that the Pirates are contending in late May (I have NO idea where I've heard something like that before). In that unlikely scenario, how does it effect the blueprint that Coonelly and Huntington have laid down for the future of this club? That question just provides the framework for DK to dig into what these guys are really trying to accomplish and how they're going about doing it. There are two key quotes in this article along those lines. One of them isn't even from someone in the Pirates' organization:

"We don't want to sit in the middle, going in neither direction," Beane said at the time.

Billy Beane is, with that quote, describing why he traded his best pitcher and best hitter this off-season for lots of prospects. I've said similar things in the past: trying to rebuild while trying to stay respectable at the major league level is almost an impossible thing to do. That brings us to quote #2:

"We're not going to have the system be as deep as we need it to be as quickly as we want. We know that," Coonelly said. "If we moved Snell or Gorzelanny or Capps, the players people wanted in the types of deals we wanted to make, we could accelerate that process. That's a fact. And that would not be the most illogical step for this team to take."

But ...

"We decided against it because, one, it is not financially necessary to do so. Two, we think we can infuse talent to the group we have even as we continually look for right trades that can bring prospects. Three, we want to give this team a chance to contend, to win. We think these players and our fans deserve it."

Now, there are a ton of reasons for the Pirates to not have moved Gorzelanny, Snell, or Capps this off-season. As pointed out by Dejan in the article, in a system mostly devoid of upper level pitching prospects the Pirates would be trying to acquire guys in the very mold of the guys they were trading. Snell and Gorzo have certainly not maximized their trade value at this early point in their careers and trading them wouldn't bring a king's ransom to the Pirates the way that Haren did for Beane. Since they'll be under contract for the forseeable future in Pittsburgh, it's not even ludicrous to suggest that they could form with Pearce, McCutchen, and Walker as the core of a respectable Pirate team somewhere down the road if Huntington can make good trades with guys like Bay and LaRoche. But not trading them because they're trying to infuse the group they have now with talent? That makes me nervous.

There are a ton of great things said by and about Coonelly and Huntington and even Bob Nutting in this article. They make it very clear that 82 wins is not a goal or a destination, but a necessary hurdle on the way to contending. I like that. It seems pretty obvious to me that they all know they have their work cut out for them if they're ever going to be turn the Pirates into something respectable. I think they've handled the Bay situation as well as possible with the cards dealt to them last year. It's clear that Coonelly and Huntington are very bright guys and that Nutting is taking this team a lot more personally right now than we could've ever expected. Still, I get the feeling that they might not know what they've gotten themselves into.

That's not to imply that I know how to turn a moribund baseball franchise around better than these guys do. That's simply me talking from the experience of having watched this team struggle for as long as I can remember. I've paid more attention to the Pirates than any sane person should for in the three years I've written this blog, I've read countless books about baseball, I've studied how other teams have managed to turn themselves around and how we might copy them. That doesn't make me an expert by any means. But I can tell you that Doug Melvin took over the Brewers in sad shape after the 2002 season, he didn't have a winning team until 2007 and he won't make the playoffs until 2008 at the earliest. Mark Shapiro took over the Indians the year before Melvin took over the Brewers and they didn't make the playoffs until last year. Dave Dombrowski took four seasons until the Tigers broke through, including one of the worst years in baseball history. Dan O'Dowd was in Colorado for eight years before stumbling into success. Some guys, like Josh Byrnes in Arizona, have had quicker turnarounds, but they were also dealt better hands. When it comes to hands being dealt, Huntington and Coonelly have pulled in the worst one possible. The road from where the Pirates are now to success is not a short one, and if Coonelly and Huntington think that there's a chance that it might be, they're going to be in for a very rude surprise.