08 September 2007

Pirates GM Littlefield (Finally) Fired

Well, it's about damn time.

Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager David Littlefield was fired yesterday. He had held the job since mid-July of 2001, and though it was hoped that he would help to turn around a franchise that had not had a winning season since 1992, reality turned out to be quite a bit harsher than hope.

Littlefield's predecessor, Cam Bonifay, had essentially run the franchise into the ground by mid 2001, or long before that if you asked most Pirates fans, and Littlefield was expected to "turn things around", "build from within", "develop young talent", "win some games"...very little of which actually happened. Littlefield entered the job in 2001 with the deck already stacked against him. He had the albatross contracts of not one or two, but several aging, underproductive, overpaid players to deal with. Kevin Young, Pat Meares, Derek Bell, Todd Ritchie...and he got little or nothing for most of these guys in trade or free agency compensation.

Hard to blame him too much for that, given how worthless these players generally were, and Bell and Meares were done after 2001 anyway, but even the trades he made didn't seem to make much sense at the time. One of his first moves, at the 2001 trading deadline, was to get rid of John Vander Wal, a 35-year old backup OF/1B forced into a starting job and making almost $2 million the Pirates couldn't afford to pay him, and Jason Schmidt, who was a decent starting pitcher about to become expensve as a free agent. These two went to the Giants for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. Schmidt, of course, promptly became one of the best pitchers in the National League, whereas Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong continued to be, well, Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong.

Terry Mulholland, an aging, replacement level relief pitcher having a decent season, was sent to the Dodgers for Mike Fetters, an aging, replacement level relief pitcher having a lousy year, plus a non-prospect. Mike Williams, another such commodity, was sent to Houston for Tony McKnight, who was young and cheap but got overworked and never again pitched in the majors after 2001. Williams, it should be noted, was brought back as a free agent in 2002, making twice as much money as he had in 2001, and was again traded in mid-2003, this time to the Phillies. Granted, he had an ERA of 6.27 at the time, but all they got for him was a minor leaguer named Frank Brooks, who had an occasional cup of coffee in the majors but never got to stick around long enough to finish his danish.

In the 2001-02 off-season, having promised to "build from within" Littlefield apparently decided that the best way to do this was to sign a whole bunch of retread free agent relief pitchers, who would then theoretically be "within" the Pirates organization and therefore count towards that goal. From the end of December 2001 to March of 2002, Littlefield signed Salomon Torres, Mike Williams, Scott Service, Al Reyes, Brian Boehringer, Wayne Gomes, Ron Villone, Joe Roa and Brian Meadows. All of these guys cost them something, and several of them never even pitched for the team before being released, and of those who did, only Torres had pitched effectively over the long term for Pittsburgh, and the others yielded little or nothing in trade.

Even those who could have fetched a marginal prospect were inexplicably allowed to continue pitching for the Bucs and were then lost to free agency, and this was generally true throughout Littlefield's tenure in the Steel City. Julian Tavarez, Matt Stairs, Reggie Sanders, Mike Lincoln, Daryle Ward, Joe Table, Rick White and others were signed as free agents and allowed to leave as free agents, despite demonstrating that they had some value in trade for Pirates teams that were going absolutely nowhere in the last several years.

Not that everyone was allowed to leave as a free agent. There were some trades made, and some of those proved worthwhile, at least for a time. Dave Williams was traded for Sean Casey and cash, and even though Casey was no great shakes, he was soon sent away for a minor league pitcher who might actually have a future, whereas Williams basically fell apart. They sent Rob Mackowiak, a sub-mediocre utility player, to the White Sox for Damaso Marte, who's been a pretty decent relief pitcher for them the last two seasons.

There were a few solid trades. They managed to get Freddy Sanchez and Mike Gonzalez from the Red Sox for two months worth of Jeff Suppan. Gonzalez was a good relief pitcher for them for a few years and then netted them Adam LaRoche in trade, and of course Freddy Sanchez won a batting title and led the NL in doubles last season and has been an All-Star twice. When Brian Giles was getting too expensive, he was traded to San Diego for Oliver Perez and Jason Bay, the 2005 NL Rookie of the year and a two-time All-Star. Those two probably complete the very short list of "good" trades that Littlefield made during his tenure in Pittsburgh.

Craig Wilson, who was declining rapidly in value, was traded to the Yankees for Shawn Chacon, who took his time at it but eventually became a useful pitcher again, while Wilson bounced around and looks washed up at age 30. After the 2001 season, when Todd Ritchie got too expensive, they shipped him and a minor leaguer to the White Sox for Kip Wells, Sean Lowe, and Josh Fogg. Wells was both decent and cheap for two years before injuries and arbitration made him lousy and expensive at the same time, and Fogg, if not particularly good, was neither terrible nor pricey, at least for a while. (Meanwhile, Ritchie promptly fell apart and was out of baseball by the end of 2004.) The Kris Benson trade netted them Jose Batista, their current regular thirdbaseman, Ty Wigginton, who could have been a regular something if they'd given him a shot, and a minor leaguer. Not a bad return for an injury-prone, sub-LAIM pitcher making $6 million in his walk year.

But for every good move, it seems there were about five bad ones. They lost Bronson Arroyo, Dave Ross, Chris Young, Ty Wigginton, Duaner Sanchez, Gary Matthews and others, all of whom have gone on to have notable success elsewhere, either by getting little in trade or by waiving or releasing them outright. Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez and CASH, which the Pirates can hardly spare, were sent to the Cubs for Matt Bruback, Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill, who was later flipped to the Padres for a non-prospect minor leaguer.

Jason Kendall is now generally thought of as a waste of a roster spot, but in the winter of 2004, he was a 30-year old catcher with a career .306/.387/.418 batting line who stole bases and played good defense. Nevertheless, all Littlefield got for him, due mostly to his exhorbitant contract, was Mark Redman, Arthur Rhodes, and some money, though probably not as much as he sent along with Kendall. A year later, Redman was flipped for a couple of prospects you've probably never heard of and Rhodes was traded for Matt Lawton. And Lawton, when he was having a decent year that should have netted them some kind of prospect at the trading deadline, only got them Jody Gerut, an injury-prone retread from the Cleveland organization.

The last several years have seen the Pirates employ a maddeningly long list of has-beens and won't-be-anymores, like Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey, Joe Randa, Jose Hernandez, Daryle Ward, Benito Santiago, Mark Redman, Joe Table, Chris Stynes, Raul Mondesi, Jeff Reboulet, Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs, Pokey Reese, and Jeff D'Amico, just to name a few. For a team that was supposed to "let the kids play" that's an awful lot of guys on the wrong side of 30, some on the wrong side of 35.

Even the players the Pirates developed themselves have turned out to be disappointments. The Pat Meares signing, which, to be fair, was not Littlefield's work, was widely ridiculed at the time, and I'm sure Littlefield was glad to be rid of him when his contract expired at the end of the 2001 season. But his successor, Jack Wilson, has been at if for seven seasons, is making more money than Mears ever did, and his #1 comparable player, according to Bill James' Similarity Scores, is (wait for it...) Pat Meares.

The current roster, with a few exceptions, does not have a lot of bright spots. Freddy Sanchez can hit for average, but has no power or speed and is not a good defensive 2B. Jason Bay is an excellent talent having an off year. It gets pretty thin after that. Xavier Nady and Adam LaRoche would be effective role players on a championship team, but are little more than stop-gaps on this one. Chris Duffy is already 27 and has proven that he can steal bases but can't get onto them in the first place. Nate McLouth may be in the same boat, except that he's only 25. Jose Bautista has aver 1000 major league plate appearances and a career .241/.329/.398 batting line. He's 26, and might get better, but will probably never be an All-Star. Catcher Ronny Paulino hit .310 last year but had a below average OPS because he doesn't walk and has no power. Jack Wilson ain't gonna get any better than he is right now, which is pretty bad to begin with.

What they do have is a trio of cheap and solid young starting pitchers. Tom Gorzellany, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm could form the core of a rotation that's both win- and cost- effective for years to come, and Matt Capps can close the few games they'll actually win for something close to the major league minimum for at least another year or two. They'll all get more expensive as they enter arbitration, but should still be manageable for a while, especially with all the money the Pirates must get from revenue sharing. That's a lot more than some teams can say. Young catcher/OF Ryan Doumit might be something special, but at 26, it's time to start proving it. After that's it's mostly question marks.

The top tiers of their farm system , with a few exception, don't have many pitchers who strike batters out with much consistency, which does not bode well for thir long-term success. Keith Law and others have outlined already how Littlefield's failure to effectively stock the farm system was ultimately his undoing, so I won't rehash all of that in this space, but there are two quick ways of looking at the situation to get a sense of how dismal his efforts have been.

1) The best players the Pirates have drafted on Littlefield's watch are Maholm and Gorzellany (1st and 2nd round, 2003), and maybe Matt Capps (7th round, 2002). In the meantime, they could have had Prince Fielder, Scott Kazmir, BJ Upton, Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels, Nick Swisher, Matt Cain, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francoeur, Jeff Francis, David Bush, Jesse Crain, Brian McCann and/or lots of others who've had more success in the majors than the best the Pirates have to show for their trouble. And those names are all just from the 2002 draft.

B) The Pirates #1 draft pick in 2002, Brian Bullington, is struggling to get to and stay in the majors. His minor league record is unimpressive at best. He walks too many and strikes out too few and has trouble staying healthy...and he's starting for the Pirates on Tuesday.

In short, it's been a long, strange trip with Littlefield at the helm for the Bucs, but most Pirates fans are probably glad to see someone else get a chance to Captain this once proud ship.

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