19to21: July 3, 2007
Pirates Stuck in Dry Dock
19 to 21
No, that’s not the number of years it’s been since the Pirates had a winning record, it’s...Baseball, Then and Now...
National League fans with good memories know that major league baseball used to be played in Western Pennsylvania… by two teams on the same field at the same time. That’s what happened 15 years ago today, when the Reds, behind the pitching of Jose Rijo, edged the Pirates and Jeff Robinson, 2-1. This defeat, however, was not indicative of the rest of the Pirates’ season. Pittsburgh would go on to win the 1992 National League East pennant with a 96-66 record… a mark the Pirates have yet to come anywhere near in the 14 years since then, and which they’re not going to approach this year, either. In fact, assuming the 2007 season plays out in a fashion that at this point seems inevitable, the Pirates will move within one (season) of tying a long-standing major league record for the most consecutive seasons without a winning record. Said record is currently held by the Pirates’ cross-state rivals, the Phillies, who went under .500 from 1933 to 1948. A total of 16 years. With the Pirates having been under .500 since 1993, and given their current 35-46 mark at the halfway point in the season, it’s safe to say they stand a good chance of extending their losing streak to 15 years… you really think they can play 11 games over .500 for the rest of the year? In fact, it’s hardly going out on a limb to speculate that they’ll make it 16 years in 2008.
It doesn’t take a psychic to figure out that the Pirates have, to put it politely, struggled ever since the 1993 season. It also doesn’t take a baseball expert to predict that, barring a veritable paradigm shift of some kind, the 2008 season is likely to bring more of the same (losing) on the banks of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. The team Pittsburgh is running out there in 2007 does not remind anyone of the 1927 Yankees (or even the 1992 Pirates), and, that’s not likely to change for next year, since the following starting lineup features just two players younger than 27, Paulino and Bautista, and they’re both 26. The Pirates aren’t just losing with young players, they’re losing with, in baseball terms, middle-aged players.
C Ronny Paulino
1B Adam LaRoche
SS Jack Wilson
LF Jason Bay
CF Chris Duffy
RF Xavier Nady
C Ryan Doumit (statistically, their back-up catcher is their best hitter)
INF Jose Castillo
OF Nate McLouth (the youngest position player they have – he’s 25 – everybody else is between 26 and 29)
There’s no sugar-coating this lineup, which is currently 14th in the National League in runs scored. The one legitimate star, Jason Bay, is hitting .262 and has an Adjusted OPS of 106. The big off-season pick-up, Adam LaRoche, is at 91. The 2006 batting champ, Freddy Sanchez, despite hitting .301, is at 88. Jack Wilson, his 2004 season to the contrary, is still Jack Wilson. Among the regulars, only Xavier Nady (.278/.330/.480) is really doing much (112 OPS+). And you know what? Outside of Bay’s slump, this shouldn’t come as any great shock. Outside of his 2006 season, LaRoche is an average hitter. Sanchez may be a .300 hitter, but he has little power (his career Isolated Power is a weak .106) and doesn’t walk (a career Isolated Discipline of a Baldelli-esque .037). So, if he isn’t hitting .344, he’s of little use. Wilson’s career OPS+ is 75… which is lower than his 80 mark for 2007. And the less said about Ronnie Paulino (OPS+ 66) and Chris Duffy, the better.
But then again, wasn’t the young starting pitching staff supposed to be the Saviors of Hgrubsttip (that’s Pittsburgh spelled backwards)? Weren’t the Young Guns -- Perez, Duke, Maholm, Snell and Gorzelanny – going to carry the Buccos at least back over .500? In your dreams, Jim Tracy. Oliver Perez is in New York where, after two horrid seasons, he’s pitching well again. Zach Duke, he of the 8-2, 1.81 record in 2005, is 3-7 with an ERA near 6 this year, having just landed on the DL with a elbow problem. Paul Maholm has already lost 11 games and has an ERA near 5. At least Snell and Gorzelanny have done well, although that only seems in keeping with the old adage that young pitchers will break your heart. And that’s almost entirely what the Pirates have been counting on. Young, inexpensive starting pitchers. All four mentioned are either 24 or 25. (Twenty-nine year-old Tony Armas, the de facto number five starter for most of the year, has an ERA around 9.) What about the bullpen? Last year’s closer, Mike Gonzalez, has gone to Atlanta, where he will reside on the DL for the next year after elbow surgery – the victim of one of those rare trades that was a flop for both teams. The Braves got a pitcher with a bad arm, and the Pirates got a first baseman who can’t hit very well.
And therein lies the rub for the Pirates. It’s not as though they haven’t had any talent for the last 15 years. The problem has been keeping that talent, a shortcoming that can be attributed to two causes – bad personnel decisions and a shortage of, shall we say, cash. In fact, the Pirates have been so impoverished for the last decade-and-a-half that they’re considering changing their nickname – bestowed after they pirated Lou Bierbauer from the Philadelphia Athletics after the 1890 season – to the Cutrates. Despite the fact that the Cutrates have a new stadium to take the place of Three Rivers, they’re still in the poor house. One reason is that said stadium, which is officially known as PNC Park (Poor National Castoffs), has the smallest seating capacity of any major league stadium built new in approximately 100 years. Worse yet, or maybe in conjunction with the size of PNC Park, the Pirates are 15th in the NL in attendance. Of course, 15 straight losing seasons does sort of put a damper on fan enthusiasm. So much so that what few Pirates fans there are tried to stage a walk-out in protest during this past weekend’s Nationals series. That didn’t work, either.
Pittsburgh has been undercapitalized since, well since they had to let Barry B*nds (as Bill Chuck calls him) and their ace, Doug Drabek, go through free agency after the 1992 season… an event that exactly matches their fall under .500. However, the problem has been marked by the loss of a lot more players than B*nds and Drabek. Without even mentioning them or Perez or Gonzalez, here’s a quick list of some of the better players the Pirates have shed through trades or free agency since the end of the 1992 season…
Danny Jackson (he went in the expansion draft)
An impressive list. But, is it any more impressive than this list?
If you guessed that this is a partial list of the players the Phillies divested themselves of between 1933 and 1948, you get a Gold Star. At the other end of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 60 years earlier, the Phillies and their fans were undergoing exactly the same scenario – an undercapitalized team that couldn’t hold on to its best players. The simple fact was that owner Gerry Nugent just didn’t have the financial resources to compete with the rest of the National League. Although there wasn’t any free agency at that time, the Phillies would trade off their top talent, usually for large sums of cash and a couple of inferior players, to keep the ship afloat financially.
It’s not as though teams haven’t been making bad personnel decisions since the Brooklyn Eckfords decided not to match the Philadelphia Athletics’ offer of $20 a week to Al Reach in 1865. The problem isn’t that the 1930s Phillies or the 2000s Pirates got rid of good players, it’s what they got in return. Generally, very little. For example, Drabek and B*nds left via free agency, and whomever the Pirates drafted in their places, well, they likely weren’t all-stars. More likely they drafted someone along the lines of pitcher Bryan Bullington, the very first pick in the 2002 draft. His major league career to date consists of four outs (and two runs given up) against the Reds on September 18, 2005.
Then there’s the Cutrates’ trading record. Ramirez AND Lofton went to the Cubs for Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill and Matt Bruback. Jason Schmidt brought Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong from the Giants. Lieber, Brant Brown (also form the Cubs). Loaiza was sent to the Rangers for Warren Morris and failed first rounder Todd Van Poppel. Bell was packaged with Jeff King (another number one pick who never really panned out) to go to Kansas City for Joe Randa, Jeff Granger, Jeff Wallace, Jeff Martin and Mutt and Jeff. As for Tim Wakefield, he was released, which is to say the Red Sox got 145 wins (and counting) and the Cutrates got nothing. You get the idea.
Somewhat earlier, on the other side of the state, Dolph Camilli brought Eddie Morgan and $45,000 to the Phillies from the Dodgers. And while the Cubs had to give up Kirby Higbe (plus two non-entities) to get Passeau, the Phillies later turned around and traded Higbe to the Dodgers for Vito Tamulis, Bill Crouch, Mickey Livingston and $100,000. And Klein, the future Hall of Famer, went to the Cubs for Ted Kleinhans, and over-the-hill Mark Koenig, Harvey Hendrick and $65,000. You get the idea.
As a result of these policies, the hope of either team keeping afloat in the NL… well, just forget it. And, unless the Pirates suddenly come up with new ownership or start taking lessons from Billy Beane or John Schuerholz, or start making better trades, or something, their streak looks like a good bet to run to 16 years as well.
-- John Shiffert