GM Littlefield out after another lost Pirates season

Updated: September 8, 2007, 1:59 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- In the end, the biggest disappointment to Dave Littlefield was he left the Pittsburgh Pirates in the same place they were when he arrived in mid-2001 -- last place.

Littlefield, like nearly all executives, was judged on won-lost record, and the Pirates' 442-581 record and .432 winning percentage in his six-plus seasons as general manager weren't nearly good enough.

Littlefield was fired Friday after the franchise showed negligible progress on the field and not nearly enough in its farm system. Director of player development Brian Graham will serve as the interim general manager until Littlefield's replacement is found, after a team president is hired.

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"I think there'll be some sentiment for Tony LaCava, a well-regarded Pittsburgh native who works as a scout for Toronto. Dan Evans doesn't appear to be in the mix with Houston, but I think he's another viable candidate. And Brian Graham, who's handling the job on an interim basis, is also well thought of in the business. There's three names, for starters."
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"It's going to be an interesting offseason around here," shortstop Jack Wilson said.

Littlefield's firing came with three weeks left in the season and the Pirates in their customary last place slot in the NL Central at 61-79. They were three losses from a 15th consecutive losing season, one off the major league record.

"After spending the past eight months analyzing how this organization runs, it is clear to me from a baseball standpoint that this was an important move, the correct move and the right thing for the organization," said board chairman Bob Nutting, who became the controlling owner in January. "I'm not satisfied with the overall progress and performance."

No decision on the status of Littlefield or second-year manager Jim Tracy had been expected until after the season. Managing general partner Kevin McClatchy, who has run the day-to-day operations since 1996, is resigning when the season ends. His successor, who will have the title of president, is expected to evaluate Littlefield and Tracy.

Littlefield was under contract for 2008 and expected to return until being called by Nutting on Friday morning.

"In these jobs, you don't take anything for granted," Littlefield told The Associated Press. "There's been a change in the CEO and the ownership group and we have not won for an extended period, so not much surprises you. That's ownership's prerogative."

Tracy, also under contract for next year, was disappointed the man who hired him in October 2005 was let go.

"It's tough," said Tracy, who has a 128-174 record with Pittsburgh. "It's real tough. He's more than a friend to me. You hate to see people as passionate as Dave and who work as hard as they do at their craft lose their job. But decisions get made."

Tracy predicted Littlefield, the former top assistant to Tigers chief Dave Dombrowski when the two worked for the Marlins, will quickly find another job.

"I certainly want to stay in baseball but, where that takes me, I'm not sure," Littlefield said.

Littlefield succeeded Cam Bonifay midway through a 100-loss season in 2001 and was expected to make major changes in a franchise that had regressed badly since winning three division titles in the early 1990s.

But the 47-year-old Littlefield's efforts to rebuild the low-budget Pirates failed, and the team never had fewer than 87 losses or finished higher than fourth. The Pirates were 139 games below .500 during his tenure and were 67-95 each of the last two full seasons.

The 2006 season was marked by a 13-game losing streak and this season's team lost 14 of 16 after the All-Star break.

The Pirates almost always had one of the majors' four lowest payrolls during Littlefield's stay, but he would not use that -- or the lack of money put into Latin America or Asian player procurement -- as an excuse for losing.

"Commissioner (Bud) Selig has identified it as an issue in major league baseball, the discrepancy in resources, but the fact is I had a good job, we did some good things but we just weren't able to achieve what wanted ... with the urgency that is needed," Littlefield said.

Nutting emphasized the Pirates would not hire a president-general manager and will fill both jobs separately.

While Littlefield stressed in 2001 he would build from within, that go-with-the-kids philosophy repeatedly got sidetracked by poor choices or injuries. The Pirates frequently drafted pitchers in the first round only to have them develop arm problems -- Bryan Bullington, Brad Lincoln, John Van Benschoten -- or passed up better prospects for money reasons, such as catcher Matt Weiters in this June draft.

Many of Littlefield's moves seemed dictated by money, either that the Pirates didn't have or declined to spend. He traded run-producing third baseman Aramis Ramirez to the Cubs in 2003 so they wouldn't have to pay him the rest of his contract, a deal Littlefield told colleagues he despised making.

"Kevin has explained the reason the trade was done," Littlefield said. "I work for ownership, and I do what I have to do to accomplish the task. Those are things you have to live with, are part of the job."

Littlefield got mileage out of bargain-priced players -- Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs, Kenny Lofton, Jeff Suppan -- and made some excellent trades for Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche. But there were some curious player decisions, too, such as the signings of retreads Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz a year ago for a combined $10 million.

Padres All-Star pitcher Chris Young was given $1 million-plus by the Pirates to pass up the rest of his college basketball career, then was dealt away in late 2002 for reliever Matt Herges. Herges was promptly cut during spring training.

Littlefield's failure to protect some top prospects and keep marginal ones led the Pirates to lose five of the top six picks in the 2005 winter-meeting draft, resulting in audible laughter in the New Orleans hotel meeting room.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press