Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Use Your lllusion

A long time ago, during the first off-season that WHYGAVS existed (nearly three years!), I wrote this:

... Dave Littlefield set out in the offseason with the goal of building a team that wouldn't actually compete, but instead appear to be improved enough to get the average, typical Pirate fan interested in the team. He doesn't care what I think, I'll probably be at games next year no matter what. He probably doesn't care what most of you readers think, because let's face it, if you live in Pittsburgh and take the time to read Pirates blogs in the offseason you're probably going to games next year as well. If you don't live in Pittsburgh, you probably aren't going to the games either. His goal this offseason was to reach the typical late March-early August Pirate fan whose ears perk up every spring for baseball, then get disillusioned by the time the Steelers break camp, the ones who won't come to games if the team isn't playing well.
That was written after Littlefield had acquired Sean Casey, Joe Randa, and Jeromy Burnitz. Through the course of the piece, I actually gave Littlefield too much credit and attributed "minimal improvement" to the 2006 Pirates thanks to his signings. In reality, Casey, Randa, and Burnitz offered no improvement over the players the team already had. Littlefield rode a wave of hype around big-name, low talent signings and an energized crowd of Pittsburghers to probably an extra season of employment. That was what Littlfield did. It's what he was good at.

This off-season, we find out who Neal Huntington really is. In his first year as GM, he made a lot of strides towards rebuilding the team from the bottom up, but as a result the Pirates' team that took the field in September of this year was awful. There were a lot of reasons for that awfulness. It was partly because the pitching staff strugged all year (and by "struggled" I mean, "was the worst pitching staff in either league). It was partly because the young players that Huntington acquired in trades for the two best offensive players on the team were over their heads or injured or both. And it was partly because Huntington inherited a giant mess from Dave Littlefield in the first place and cleaning up giant messes take time.

Regardless of the reason, the Pirates, as configured right now, are probably going to suck next year. I'm not going to say they're going to lose 100 games, because it takes a special type of suck to lose 100 games (see: 2008 Washington Nationals). I think this team is better than they played in September for a number of reasons. As noted yesterday by Charlie, the pitching staff should be much improved next season. It's also likely that guys like Moss and LaRoche, who both hit pretty poorly in their short time with the Pirates, will hit better next year. It's even possible that one (or more!) of those two or Steve Pearce will break out and actually give some support to Adam LaRoche, Nate McLouth, and Ryan Doumit in the middle of the lineup.

The question is what Huntington does about this team. The front office (or, at least, Frank Coonelly) has said that they have money and they're willing to spend it on the Pirates. That's great. What, exactly, is an extra $15 million in payroll going to do for the 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates? In all likelihood, fifteen million dollars spent on this team how the fans want to see the money spent is going to do exactly what it did for the 2006 Pirates. That's to say that in the best case scenario, it will take us from a 67 win team to a 72 win team. Money is not a cure-all.

We're going to learn a lot about Huntington this winter. In his first year, he did a nice job of building pitching depth (Barthamaier, Karstens, Ohlendorf, McCutchen, even Dumatrait to an extent) in an organization that was alarmingly low on that commodity while building up a base of talent (adding Alvarez, Tabata, Morris, some high upside picks like Grossman, Miller, and Freeman, and yes, even Andy LaRoche) that vastly expanded on what was already in place (McCutchen and, uh, Walker? Lincoln?). If you look back to a post Charlie did in January examining how Andrew Friedman set about rebuilding the Rays, it's a pretty similar pattern.

The line that a GM like Huntington has to walk is a very thin one. Leaving a terrible team on the field is bound to rile up the fans and angry fans is what eventually gets general managers fired on teams like the Pirates. Bob Nutting practically admitted as much when he said that the fallout from the Danny Moskos pick was heavily considered in Dave Littlefield's firing. But focusing purely on the team on the field and ignoring the farm system makes you Dave Littlefield. So what's Huntington going to do?

Trying to frame an answer to that question is what's been hanging this post up all day. Huntington's job is at a key crossroads right now. I don't want to say that trading Jason Bay and Xavier Nady and drafting Pedro Alvarez is easy, but making deals with desperate Dodger and Yankee teams and recognizing Alvarez's talent is not high on the difficulty scale, despite what Littlefield made us believe. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not demeaning what Huntington did in his first year at all. It's just that without big chips like Bay and Nady to move, his job gets harder. Trade McLouth or Doumit? It'd be stupid not to think about it if someone makes a huge offer, but the public outcry would be insane over that kind of move. And what about the mandated pay increase? I'd much rather see that money go into another $9 million draft class and Latin American signings, but acquiring a starter to take pressure off of the young arms in the rotation or a short-stop to play in the hole created by a Jack Wilson trade be a bad thing? What's his off-season focus for the Pirates going to be on? Beefing up the offense or beefing up the terrible defense that's killed his pitching staff? Just when is he planning on this minor league talent being ready? When does he want to contend? I honestly don't know the answer to any of these questions, but I think that we're going to know a lot more by April.

We're going to learn a lot more about Huntington this winter than we have in the past 12 months, I think.