Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Pirates keep on rebuilding, and rebuilding, and rebuilding

There's been some uproar over the Pittsburgh Pirates' latest trades. For those who don't follow baseball that closely (and that usually includes me), the Pirates have traded away nearly all of their regular players from the past few seasons. It hasn't happened all this week; it's taken a few years. But the point is that they've traded away all of the players who have had any semblance of talent in favor of prospects or cheaper, less talented players.

There are voices of reason in the storm. I understand what they're saying: the Pirates, on the verge of their 18th straight losing season, weren't going to win with the players they had, so why not get something for them? I don't have a problem with that philosophy in the short term. But it's been the Pirates' management strategy for too long to trade away good players with big contracts for lesser, cheaper guys. They've made some terrible free-agent choices too, and their baseball draft picks haven't worked out. You don't have 17 straight seasons below .500 without everything coming together. But the last big-name player I remember the Pirates re-signing was Jason Kendall, and that was ten years ago.

The idea is that the front office is assembling a core of prospects that can contend two to three years from now. I've heard that before, when it was the Pirates' first five-year plan in the mid-1990s, and again a few years later. We've seen how well that has worked out. In order for this team to succeed, the players have to perform on the field, and management must be willing to compete financially for free agents. Pittsburgh isn't going to lure top pitchers with a sub .500 team at all the positions. What incentive is there for a top slugger to come to Pittsburgh if he's going to waste his best years on a terrible team? Management has to make a commitment to winning at all costs. I don't see that from the current ownership.

The Pirates don't have to look far for an example of how to rebuild a team. The Penguins were terrible in the early part of this decade. They were sellers at the trade deadline and fans had few reasons to go to the games. But the team got lucky with their high draft picks and won the Sidney Crosby draft lottery. The labor shutdown in 2004 also had much to do with the Penguins' success on and off the ice. But a few star players weren't enough to get the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row and a championship this year. It took skilled play on the ice, ownership that was willing to pay free agents, and management that made the right trades at the right time to surround the stars with role players.

Right now the Pirates appear to be working on the last item, albeit without the stars. We'll have to see if it works this time. It hasn't worked before and, like many Pirates fans, I'm tired of waiting. I haven't given up on the Pirates so much as I've just given up on baseball. Without a great home team to root for, I can't stay interested. I'd root for the Mets, but somehow that thought is even more depressing. I'll just check out the Steelers training camp reports instead.

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