Monday, January 14, 2008

It ain't easy

I'm a bit late to the blog party today, but both Charlie and Vlad have been comparing Neal Huntington's current task to the one that faced Dayton Moore when he took over the Royals in May of 2006. I'm really happy these guys went and did this because when the first, "Why isn't Huntington doing anything" rumblings started, my dad suggested taking a look at what other small market GMs did in their first year and how Huntington's first three months of work compared to that. I haven't had the time for that type of undertaking, but I'd strongly suggest you read both Charlie and Vlad's posts before moving along.

The first key thing to note is Vlad's initial point: in less than two years, Dayton Moore has turned over 28 guys on KC's 40-man roster. That's some serious work. Charlie counters that it's not really a fair comparison because KC's major league roster when Moore took over was much worse than what we have right now in Pittsburgh. He's right, too. What always intrigued me about Dave Littlefield was that he was actually quite good at not being noticed. Since winning requires risk-taking, it always seemed like his goal was to avoid risks and thus avoid abject failure. When I tell people I'm a Pirate fan the reaction generally isn't, "Oh, man, that's too bad. They really suck," it's "They still exist?" That was always the Littlefield plan: gather together a group of guys good enough to win 63 games and hope that maybe someday the other 18 necessary to get above .500 would take care of themselves. The Pirates, with the exception of 2001, have been just good enough to be ignored for 15 years. There's no comparison between these Pirates and the Phillies of the 40s and 50s that set the franchise futility record, because those Phillies' teams sucked. They were consistently the worst team in the National League. They were so bad they changed their name to the Blue Jays for two years (seriously). The Pirates, by comparison, are just mediocre.

To be honest, I think that puts Huntington in a tougher place than the one Moore was in when he took his job in KC. Moore went crazy dumping players off of his major league roster, doing anything he could to purge the organization of the practical joke of a baseball team that had been wearing a Royals uniform for the past few years and no one in Kansas City batted an eye. In Pittsburgh, Huntington almost immediately got rid of what he could (Kata, Izturis, Phelps) and then immediately got stuck at an impasse. Because the perception exists that there is some talent on the Pirates' roster, Huntington has no choice but to tread a little more carefully. Remember the rumor about non-tendering Xavier Nady? Pirate fans, myself included, got all up in arms over that notion and it disappeared pretty quickly. But why did we really do that? If you assume that Huntington has tried like hell to trade Nady since the season ended (and I think he has) and that no one wants an injury-ridden player that has been historically unable to hit lefties righties, that considers a season with an .807 OPS a breakout, and that doesn't play first base or either corner outfield spot (the easiest positions to field on the diamond) particularly well, then what's Nady still doing on our roster? Every at-bat he takes that Ryan Doumit or Steve Pearce don't take in 2008 feels like a small loss for the Pirates to me, even though I was one of the people arguing that non-tendering him would be crazy and even though the two of them might not match Nady's production in 2008.

That creates an interesting dilemma for Huntington. Whether we, as diehard baseball fans, like it or not, public perception is a big part of being a GM. Imagine the reception in Pittsburgh if Huntington came in to town and made the changes he's made to this point coupled with non-tendering Xavier Nady. There would already be a public outcry for his head. The clock would be ticking after a 95 loss season, and Huntington would only be one draft and maybe one Jason Bay trade closer to replenishing the system. In short, people would be publicly calling for Coonelly to ax him despite the fact that he'd have done nothing to harm the long-term prospects of the franchise, which is what should be his only concern. Dave Littlefield was kind of a magician and every year the 70-win Pirates and their tantalizing promise in the form of Zach Duke or Jason Bay or someone else was his prestige. Any attempt to clean up his mess has to first start with shattering the illusion he created, and that makes the Pirates' job probably the toughest one Neal Huntington could've taken.