Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Revising The Pirates, 2001-2004

I’ve been thinking recently about the Pirates’ recent decision to pick Neil Walker in the first round of last week’s draft. It made sense, but only for two reasons.

1) The Pirates are cheap, and they didn’t want to pay for Florida State SS Stephen Drew.
2) The Pirates spent their previous six first round picks on pitchers, and were essentially forced to pick a position player this year, in a draft rich in college pitching.

Prior to the 2002 draft, the Pirates had spent their previous four first round draft choices (Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett and Jon VanBenschoten) on pitchers. Burnett and VanBenschoten were hot prospects in the minors at the time, and the Pirates had also acquired underrated prospect Ian Oquendo/Snell in the 2000 draft. They also had a number of interesting young arms at or close to the big league level. They had very few impact hitters in the minors. And yet they chose to draft pitcher Bryan Bullington, a low-risk, low-reward prospect, instead of high-upside high school shortstop B.J. Upton. Then in 2003, they drafted even lower-risk, lower-upside pitcher Paul Maholm instead of Michael Aubrey, the best college hitter in the country. Upton and Aubrey are now tremendous prospects in the Devil Rays and Indians systems, respectively, and Bullington and Maholm are still mediocre. Since the Pirates had spent all those picks on low-upside pitchers instead of the best hitters in the draft, the Pirates almost had to draft a position player this year, even though the best available college pitcher, Jered Weaver, was still on the board when they drafted.

This unfortunate situation has led me to imagine a new recent history of the Pirates, one not hampered by the risk-averse, ‘win now, occasionally’ strategies of general manager Dave Littlefield and owner Kevin McClatchy. What follows is a depth chart of players who might be in the Pirates system had the Pirates spent the last three years building toward the future like they should have. If the Pirates made a trade that appeared at the time to counter the goal of building a contender in the future, I’m going to pretend that trade didn’t happen. I’m also going to assume that the Pirates aren’t cheap (even if they aren’t rich), and that the Aramis Ramirez trade, which was a pure salary dump, didn’t happen. I will also imagine that the Pirates used their last three first round picks on the highest-upside players available, that they didn’t needlessly get crapped on in the 2003 Rule 5 draft, and that they didn’t lose a number of young players to waivers before that while protecting replacement-level talent.

I’d also like to point out that this isn’t just hindsight; I’m just reimagining things as I, and most informed fans, wanted them to occur at the time. In 2002, Littlefield traded Damaso Marte for Matt Guerrier. Guerrier didn’t work out and Marte has been great for the White Sox, but it looked like a good, long-viewed trade at the time, so I won’t pretend that the Pirates still have Marte. I will imagine, for example, that the Pirates still have 3B Kody Kirkland, since Kirkland was traded in the original Randall Simon deal. Trading young talent for mediocre veterans like Simon has not been a good idea for the Pirates for some time, so that trade was a mistake. Smart fans knew it just as well then as they do now.

Listed below are players the Pirates could very easily have in their system now who could conceivably help them in 2005 and beyond. Players acquired by Littlefield are listed in italics. Players passed over or dumped by Littlefield are listed in bold.

CATCHER
Jason Kendall
J.R. House
Ryan Doumit

House was hitting very well at AAA Nashville before a recent injury. Doumit has been great at AA Altoona. Kendall is still one of the best catchers in the majors, although his gargantuan contract remains a problem.

FIRST BASE
Craig Wilson
Michael Aubrey
Brad Eldred
Walter Young

Wilson is clearly a legitimate 30-HR player whose development was probably stunted by the Pirates’ unwillingness to let him play regularly and find an everyday position. Aubrey has been fantastic at Class A+ Kinston for the Indians. So far, Eldred looks like an inspired pick by Littlefield. Young was waived by the Pirates and claimed by the Orioles.

SECOND BASE
Jose Castillo

Castillo and Bobby Hill currently share the Pirates’ second base job.

SHORTSTOP
Jack Wilson
Freddy Sanchez
B.J. Upton

Sanchez acquired for both Jeff Suppan and Scott Sauerbeck and he hasn’t played yet, so that trade hasn’t worked out well so far, but the trade (or something like it) was still the right move. B.J. Upton is one of the best prospects anywhere, and he’s currently in the Devil Rays’ system.

THIRD BASE
Aramis Ramirez
Jose Bautista
Kody Kirkland

Now you see, this… this isn’t good. The Pirates traded Ramirez, a flawed but very talented player, to dump his salary a year and a half after they signed him to a reasonable $9 million contract. Jose Bautista was lost in the Rule 5 draft. Kirkland was one of the players traded for Randall Simon. None of these losses are excuseable.

LEFT FIELD
Jason Bay

Bay was acquired in the Brian Giles trade. Littlefield got a lot of talent for Giles, and he should have, since Giles was and continues to be one of the best players in baseball.

CENTER FIELD
Rob Mackowiak
Tony Alvarez
Nathan McLouth
Chris Duffy

Littlefield didn’t acquire any of these guys, but he hasn’t lost them either. He has, however, decided that Alvarez isn’t ever going to see the light of day. McLouth and Duffy are putting up strikingly similar numbers at Altoona.

RIGHT FIELD
J.J. Davis
Chris Shelton

Again, this isn’t good. Despite going berzerk on AAA pitching last year, Davis is still there, nursing one of those imaginary rehab injuries. Shelton, who has excellent power and on-base potential, was needlessly lost in the Rule 5 draft.

STARTING PITCHERS
Kip Wells
Oliver Perez
Jon Van Benschoten
Sean Burnett
Jered Weaver
Ian Snell
Cory Stewart
Zach Duke
Bronson Arroyo
Dave Williams
Ryan Vogelsong
Tom Gorzelanny
Bobby Bradley
Jonathan Albaladejo
Chris Young

More Littlefield acquisitions here. Perez and Stewart were acquired in the Giles trade. Wells came, along with Josh Fogg, in a great trade for Todd Ritchie. Vogelsong was acquired with Armando Rios for Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal. That trade balances the Wells/Ritchie deal; trading Schmidt for young talent was a good idea, but Vogelsong's performances have been less than inspiring. Tom Gorzelanny was the Pirates’ second-round pick in 2003, and he’s pitching well at Class A Hickory. Chris Young probably wouldn’t have helped, but he was pointlessly lost in a trade for veteran Matt Herges, who definitely never helped.

RELIEVERS
John Grabow
Mike Johnston
Mike Gonzalez
Frank Brooks
Duaner Sanchez
Josh Fogg
Jeff Bennett

Littlefield tried but failed to get rid of Frank Brooks in the Rule 5 draft, but he succeeded in pushing Jeff Bennett out of the organization. Bennett’s now pitching well for Milwaukee. Sanchez, a fireballer who was originally acquired for Mike Fetters, was lost on waivers and is now contributing from the 'pen for the Dodgers. Fogg was acquired with Wells in the Ritchie trade; he’s probably never going to cut it as a starter, but he might pitch well if converted to relief.

With all this in mind, let’s look at a hypothetical Pirates team for, say, 2007.

C J.R. House
1B Michael Aubrey
2B Jose Castillo
SS B.J. Upton
3B Aramis Ramirez
LF Chris Shelton
CF Jason Bay
RF Craig Wilson

C Ryan Doumit
IF Freddy Sanchez
IF Jose Bautista
OF J.J. Davis
OF Nathan McLouth

SP Oliver Perez
SP Jered Weaver
SP Jon Van Benschoten
SP Kip Wells
SP Sean Burnett

RP Ian Snell
RP Cory Stewart
RP Mike Gonzalez
RP John Grabow
RP Mike Johnston
RP Jeff Bennett
RP Duaner Sanchez

That’s a really talented team. There are guys with very high upsides at every position, and more guys with high upsides to take the places of the ones that don’t work out (including lots of pitchers, since There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect and all). This lineup doesn’t even take into account anything the hypothetical Pirates might have gotten after the first rounds of the 2002-2004 drafts, or anyone they might draft after 2004. The only guys on the team who’d be terribly expensive by 2007 are Ramirez, Wilson and Wells. This is an affordable team.

There is no reason the Pirates couldn’t have had all these guys if they had a general manager and owner who really cared about transforming the team into a contender, and they’ve wouldn’t have had to break the bank, either.

Precious few of these guys were acquired by Littlefield – most of the really high-upside guys were either passed over in the draft or are holdovers from the Cam Bonifay-Mickey White regime. Of the tactically sound trades (leaving aside the question of whether or not the trades were actually smart and considering only that they were made with the right goal in mind, that of building for the future) that Littlefield did make, only one, the Wells deal, has really worked out well. The jury is still out on the Giles and Suppan deals. The rest (Vogelsong, Guerrier) were okay gambles that turned out poorly. In addition, the Littlefield-McClatchy drafts have added very little to the farm system, and Littlefield has traded, waived, or Rule 5’d much of what was there already. The Pirates have not had a good team at the major league level in a dozen years, so none of these young players were lost in order to help the team in a pennant run.

In most cases, it’s debatable whether the veterans acquired or protected at those young players’ expense have helped the Pirates at all, in the short-term or in the long-term. Here are just a few examples. The presence of Randall Simon, who swings like Ron Jeremy and runs like him too, only made the Pirates worse and has probably stunted the developments of Craig Wilson and J.J. Davis. Matt Herges, acquired for Chris Young, never played in a game for the Pirates. Mike Lincoln, on the 40-man roster last November while Shelton and Bautista were left unprotected, was later cut and has not played for the Pirates since.

The Littlefield-McClatchy administration has not only failed to build a winner at the major league level, they’ve actively hampered the Pirates’ likelihood of building one in the future. If the Pirates had built their team in even a moderately intelligent way over the past three years – by keeping young talent, trading veterans where appropriate and drafting high-upside players – they’d likely have the best farm system of any organization, and they’d have a team that would be very likely to go to the playoffs and compete for a championship in the next few years. Very little inspiration would have been required to make these moves – they were simply what was right for the team at the time, and Littlefield could easily have ridden the team’s high draft choices and some surprisingly good drafts (particularly in 2000 and 2001) by the Bonifay administration straight to the playoffs. Instead, due to a number of moves that looked as shortsighted and self-defeating then as they do now, the Pirates’ mediocrity will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

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