Bob Smizik writes about Chris Young, Bronson Arroyo, Leo Nunez and Roberto Novoa. Theirs are stories that need to be told, but Smizik doesn't tell them very well.
On Arroyo: "[The Pirates] gave Arroyo, who was a highly regarded prospect, ample opportunity and he never took advantage of it. In parts of three seasons with the Pirates, he was 9-14 and gave no hint of what was to come."
In parts of three seasons with the Pirates, that's almost true, but it doesn't come close to telling the whole story.
In 2000, when Arroyo was 23, he put up an 8-2 record and a 3.65 ERA in 88.2 innings at Class AAA Nashville. In spite of these superficially strong statistics, he had no business playing for the Pirates at that point - he only struck out 52 batters at Nashville, so his strikeout rate was quite low, an indication that he needed more time to develop. But he ended up pitching 71.2 innings for the Pirates that year anyway, and the results were predictable: he got bombed, putting up a 6.40 ERA.
Arroyo split 2001 between Nashville and Pittsburgh. His ERA went up a bit at Nashville, but his strikeout and K/BB rates were much better, indicating improvement. In Pittsburgh, his strikeout rate was a bit lower than it had been in 2000, but his walk rate dropped too, and he lopped 1.3 runs off his ERA.
Arroyo spent most of 2002 at Nashville, where he was downright good, posting 116 strikeouts, 28 walks and an ERA below 3. He didn't play much at Pittsburgh that year, but again, he knocked more than a run off the previous year's ERA when he did (although it was a small sample, and his strikeout and walk rates were about what they had been in 2000).
Arroyo's record wasn't completely consistent, but the general trend was one of marked improvement. The reason why Arroyo may have looked like a failed prospect at the time was that he was called up well before he should have been. In reality, he was already a productive big league pitcher in the season before the Pirates let him go, and a 25 year-old who puts up the numbers Arroyo did at AAA in 2002 deserves a spot on a roster, especially the roster of a bad team. It is also worth pointing out that when the Pirates let him go, Arroyo was two years younger than Ryan Vogelsong is now, and Vogelsong continues to get chances with the Pirates even though his performance record is not as strong as Arroyo's was. Dave Littlefield really screwed up in letting Arroyo go.
Elsewhere, Smizik rightly calls the Pirates out for losing Chris Young for the veteran Matt Herges, and for having so many former farmhands on other major league teams but failing to get anything from their own top draft picks. The Young move offers an unfortunate bit of history that the Pirates recently repeated. At the time of the trade, Young had posted great numbers at Class A Hickory, but his status as a prospect was widely doubted because he was old for his level and because he relied too much on a small number of pitches. Young's subsequent rise through the minors and success in the big leagues (in a small sample, I know) shows that There Is No Such Thing As Not A Pitching Prospect (TINSTANAPP). Just as you can't rely on a successful Class A pitcher to eventually help you in the big leagues, it's probably unwise to discount successful Class A starters on the basis of things they might improve later anyway, like secondary pitches and velocity. But that's exactly what the Pirates did with Leo Nunez, who, like Young, was mowing down hitters at Hickory but having trouble with secondary pitches when he was traded for a crappy veteran. The kicker, though, is that Nunez' stuff was probably better than Young's was at the time, and unlike Young, Nunez was not old for his league.
Anyway, Smizik fails to mention the real reason why it was dumb to dump Arroyo, Young and Nunez: the Pirates were not contending when those players were lost. Any transaction a team makes must be judged from within the context of what that team is trying to achieve. For example, if the Red Sox were to trade a pitching prospect for a veteran, and then they didn't get anything from the veteran while the prospect ended up helping another team a few years later, that would be a shame for the Red Sox. But it would not necessarily indicate a major error in judgment. It might just have been a good gamble that didn't work out. As Smizik points out, "Bad trades and ill-advised personnel decisions are part of baseball. They happen to all teams." If a bad trade happens every so often, that isn't the end of the world. But all trades should come within the context of a plan. Dave Littlefield doesn't have one, or if he does, it isn't any good.
Unlike the Red Sox, the Pirates need talented young players to succeed, and unlike the Sox, the Pirates aren't perennial contenders in need of immediate help at the big league level. That's what's so galling about the losses of Arroyo, Young, Nunez, Chris Shelton, Duaner Sanchez, Walter Young, and others - not only was there no immediate need for the mediocrities for whom those prospects were lost (Herges, Benito Santiago, Mike Lincoln, Abraham Nunez, Mark Corey, Jim Mann, Raul Mondesi, Randall Simon and others), but the Pirates also had and continue to have a pressing need for young players. Not only will young players help them build for the future, but they're also cheap, and the Pirates simply don't (or won't) have the resources to reach the playoffs without a core of players performing much better than their salaries.