Commentary

Pirates 'clean house' in a very big way

Flurry of moves over the past year have given Pittsburgh's roster a major overhaul

Originally Published: August 3, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Will the last member of the Pirates' 2008 Opening Day lineup still in Pittsburgh please turn out the PNC Park lights?

That honor belongs to catcher Ryan Doumit, the only one of nine players who took the field for manager John Russell on April 1, 2008, in Atlanta who did not wake up today as a member of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mariners, Braves, Blue Jays or Giants.

Doumit must feel a little like the guy who's stranded halfway up the mountain during an Everest expedition. In a raging snowstorm. Without a Sherpa.

It's tough to maintain a cheery outlook while playing for a team that's headed for its 17th straight losing season and has the pole position on an 18th. "They're the laughingstock of baseball right now," former Pirates reliever Sean Burnett told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week. "They've gotten rid of everybody."

Those comments are particularly cutting given that the Pirates recently traded Burnett to the Washington Nationals, who have a 33-72 record, rank 25th in baseball in attendance, lost general manager Jim Bowden to a Latin American scouting scandal in May and have since made human sacrifices of pitching coach Randy St. Claire and manager Manny Acta.

"When Sean was traded, he went out of his way to thank the Pirates for sticking with him when he was rehabilitating from several serious injuries," said Pirates president Frank Coonelly. "He thanked us for giving him an opportunity when others might not have. So I was both surprised and disappointed to hear his comments."

Burnett's opinion notwithstanding, the massive turnover might not be a bad thing for a franchise that posted a 67-95 record and finished 30½ games out of first place in the NL Central in 2008.

In a span of two non-waiver trade deadlines, the Pirates packed off All-Stars (Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez), fan favorites (Nate McLouth, Jack Wilson and Nyjer Morgan), bench pieces (Eric Hinske and Jose Bautista), underachievers (Adam LaRoche, Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell) and useful bullpen arms (Damaso Marte and John Grabow).

They traded away 16 players with about 28 years of contractual control remaining for 29 players with almost 170 years of contractual control. We know this because they actually made a spreadsheet with all the details.

Now that the transactional dust has settled, Doumit and pitchers Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Matt Capps and Evan Meek are the only 25-man-roster holdovers from 2008. And the Pirates' makeover is eliciting the inevitable potshots from scouts who can't resist poking fun at general manager Neal Huntington's Amherst pedigree and Coonelly's former role as a lead lawyer for Major League Baseball.

"What's Neal trying to do there -- build a Division III team in his own image?" said a scout for an NL club.

Conversely, some front-office people credit Huntington and Coonelly for acting boldly to reshape a team that had no chance of contending for a postseason spot. In past years the Pirates had been criticized for using the "lipstick on a pig" approach and taking half measures, like signing Sean Casey and Joe Randa to short-term contracts. Not these Pirates.

"Only time will tell whether they got the right players, and perhaps Neal should have been a little less cocky in some of his statements, but it needed to be done," said an NL executive. "Once they traded away Bay and [Xavier] Nady last year, with all the free agents, they needed to clean house."

The "cocky" part refers to Huntington's contention that he wasn't exactly breaking up a juggernaut, but he repeated that observation in a post-trade-deadline interview with ESPN.com. Call the Pirates' flurry of activity an overhaul, an extreme makeover or one step backward in advance of two steps forward. Just don't call it a fire sale.

"Part of me regrets having said this, but it's not like we broke up the '27 Yankees," Huntington said. "We broke up a team that's averaged 93 losses since 2000. 'Fire sale' implies San Diego or Florida coming off a playoff-type year and just dumping everybody. It implies that you're breaking something very good apart. I think the reality is we've taken players we were going to lose through free agency and turned them into multiple players that we can fill in and build around.

"We've flooded this system with talent, and that's the only way for teams in our environment to survive. We would have loved nothing more than to keep most or all of those players, but it just didn't make business sense for us."

Ownership slammed

You could argue that the Pirates might win a few more games with Bay, Sanchez and McLouth still in the lineup. But aren't they in better shape than, say, the Royals, who generally stood pat with a team that's 41-63 and has a run differential of minus-114?

The hard part for Pirates management is saying "trust us," when so many recent examples of hope have so quickly turned to despair. Remember Jim Tracy, the guy who flopped as Pittsburgh's manager? He's posted a 40-19 record since replacing Clint Hurdle in Colorado and reinvented himself as the Wizard of the Rockies.

Remember the 2007 season, when Gorzelanny and Snell, both young starters, were All-Star candidates and the foundation of a revamped Pittsburgh staff? They fell out of favor for different reasons and were packed off to new cities during last week's flurry of trades.

It's the seeming inconsistencies that nag. The Pirates say they had to move players who were closing in on free agency, but they traded McLouth to Atlanta for three young players in June less than four months after signing him to a $15.75 million contract extension.

The new Pittsburgh regime has stressed building through scouting and player development, and last year the Pirates bucked the organizational trend toward "signability" picks and selected Vanderbilt third baseman (and Scott Boras advisee) Pedro Alvarez with their top choice in the June draft.

After some contentious twists and turns, the Pirates signed Alvarez to a major league contract worth $6.355 million. He's hitting .264 with 21 homers and 76 RBIs between Class A Lynchburg and Double-A Altoona.

This year the Pirates elicited some quizzical looks when they used the fourth overall pick on Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez, a nice player who was generally considered a late-first-round talent. It looked like a replay of 2001, when the Pirates selected Ball State pitcher Bryan Bullington a spot ahead of B.J. Upton, or 2007, when they selected Clemson pitcher Daniel Moskos ahead of Matt Wieters.

The Pirates, naturally, don't see it that way. Coonelly insists the Pirates would have drafted San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg or North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley if they'd had the opportunity. After that, the Pirates considered the first round a grab bag, and believed that Sanchez was better than a late-first-round selection.

"We liked Sanchez a lot -- more than some others, probably," Coonelly said. "We think he can be a very good and potentially All-Star catcher. We believe in the bat, and we believe in the person and the leadership skills he brings. Was it signability? No. It was the player we wanted."

Much of the discontent over the Pirates' latest rebuild has been directed at owner Bob Nutting, who has been vilified by fans for pocketing MLB's revenue-sharing money and foisting an inferior product on the ticket-buying public. If anything, Coonelly and Huntington say Nutting has been slammed unfairly, giving his unflagging support for their long-term vision.

Coonelly expects the Pirates to rank among the top five in MLB in spending on amateur draft bonuses for the second straight year. The team has tripled its spending on Latin American bonuses from less than a million in 2007 to $3 million last year. Management hopes those investments will significantly upgrade a farm system that was rated the 18th-best in the game by Baseball America this year, after three straight years at No. 25.

"This is the plan that Neal and I have implemented, and we're very fortunate to have an owner in Bob who understands the vision we have," Coonelly said. "He's willing to take the unfortunate public backlash which is often directed at owners when you're making baseball decisions that have to be made to put a team in position to win. Bob has supported us even though he knew, and we knew, that he would bear the brunt of any criticism."

Calling all prospects

The other prominent criticism is that the Pirates have failed to acquire many high-ceiling prospects in trades, although the perception changed a bit last week when they added pitcher Tim Alderson, the Giants' No. 3 prospect, in the Sanchez deal.

Former No. 1 pick Jeff Clement, acquired from Seattle in the Snell-Wilson trade, has subpar skills behind the plate and flopped in a 66-game audition with Seattle in 2008. But the Pirates are going to try him at first base and hope his bat can carry him to the majors.

Pitcher Charlie Morton, acquired from Atlanta in the McLouth trade, has a live arm and a reputation as "soft." And outfielder Gorkys Hernandez is a tremendous defender but has no idea how to use his speed at the plate. Hernandez has a .286 OBP for Double-A Altoona and swings more like a slugger than a top-of-the-order catalyst.

Pitcher Hunter Strickland, acquired from Boston in the LaRoche deal, threw a combined no-hitter in his first start for Class A West Virginia. Fellow righty Bryan Morris, who came over from the Dodgers in the Bay trade last summer, was recently suspended for "unprofessional conduct" after an on-field blowup in the Carolina League. This is how it works with prospects: Some hit, some miss, and some are terminal works in progress.

Rookie outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who hit three homers against Washington on Saturday, is certainly a dynamic player, and the Pirates think Alvarez and former Yankees outfield prospect Jose Tabata could both be in the majors by mid-2010. In the meantime, the revamped rotation of Duke, Maholm, Morton, Ross Ohlendorf and Kevin Hart will be interesting to watch over the next two months.

Yes, it's been a while since Pittsburgh fans have had reason to cheer. Consider that Phillies prospect Kyle Drabek -- who was deemed too promising for the team to give up in a Roy Halladay trade -- was four years old when his father, Doug, won 15 games and threw 256 innings for Pittsburgh's last winning team in 1992.

For what it's worth, not all of Pittsburgh's expatriates believe the Pirates are an industry joke for their recent roster overhaul. Both Bay and Sanchez understood where Pittsburgh management was coming from in executing its game plan. They just hope it's not another 17 years before the city sees another winner.

Sanchez, 31, became a huge fan favorite after beating out Miguel Cabrera to win the 2006 National League batting title. That's what he'll remember most from his four and a half seasons as a Pirate.

"I loved the city of Pittsburgh," Sanchez said. "I loved going to the ballpark every day and playing for those fans. They'll always have a special place in my heart for the support they showed after I won that batting title.

"That's a baseball town in my eyes. I hope all the trades work out, because they deserve a winner there. I'm sure it's hard for them right now, but I'll always be watching to see how they're doing."

Sanchez will be watching from the West Coast with empathy and a straight face. The process of building a winner in Pittsburgh has been painful, protracted and more difficult than anyone could have imagined. It's anything but a laughing matter.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer