This used to be the best time of year to be a Pirates fan. It’s sad I know, but it was one of several unpleasant facts I’d come to accept with being a passionate supporter of a team about to tie the record for professional sports futlity. While former GM Dave Littlefield never had a cohesive plan for building a competitive team, he was a master at tweaking the major league roster just enough every winter to renew optimism. In hindsight, it was kind of like buying some new painting to put inside a house with a leaky roof and crumbling foundation. They didn’t do much to help the bigger problems, but man for a couple weeks at least it was pretty to look at them.
Never was this phenomenon more apparent than during the 2006 off-season. It was then that Littlefield bid against himself and brought in Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa and Sean Casey for somewhere around $15 million. There was a collective buzz among us Pirates fans leading up to that season, that our team now possessed the talent to challenge for the NL Central. In reality, we were so wrapped up in the fact that our team was finally spending money, that we neglected to realize that Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey and Joe Randa weren’t any, you know, good.
It didn’t take long for the hammer to fall, either. For me it happened while listening to the final innings of a demoralizing opening series sweep in Milwaukee. The game was fading away late as the Pirates managed one final last gasp rally. With two outs and a couple men on base, one of the “big three” (it’s fitting that I can’t remember which one) strode to the plate. He did something like ground out to first base on two pitches, not even staying in the batter’s box long enough to draw out the tension. The absurdity of my January optimism was never more embarrassing than in that instant.
That said, it didn’t stop me from making bizarre pop culture analogies last year, in my excitement over the Pirates trading for Adam LaRoche. While he provided much needed left-handed power, and drove in almost as many runs as Casey/Burnitz/Randa combined, he was still just Adam LaRoche. The team’s record did improve, though. In 2006, the Pirates won 67 games. With LaRoche in the fold in 2007, they won 68.
As the date for pitchers and catchers reporting gets closer and closer this year though, I’m finding myself mired in pessimism about the Pirates chances in 2008. No, I haven’t learned my lesson from years past about assigning unrealistic hopes on mediocre talent. Instead, it’s the Pirates management that’s changed. New GM Neal Huntington has eschewed his predecessor’s penchant for the short fix deal, opting instead to hold onto his current crop of players and his cash.
It could be argued, quite easily in fact, that the Pirates are in worse shape now than on the last day of the season. While Salomon Torres was a bust as closer, he was a steady, reliable reliever long before that and his absence weakens an already mediocre bullpen. The bench too is thinner with the departures of Josh Phelps and Matt Kata. While neither were world beaters, both were solid players who provided some power depth, something that isn’t exactly an overflowing commodity in Pittsburgh’s dugout.
At some point this season, when it becomes apparent-and it will-that the Pirates are doomed for another losing campaign, I suppose it’s possible I’ll look back at this time with disappointment. As silly as they’ve made me look the January’s of hope at least gave me a few weeks out of the year where I was happy to be a Pirates fan. However, I’m trying to be optimistic in a new way this year.
Huntington’s lack of roster turnover seems to point to a larger plan. In an ideal world, I think he would have traded away Jason Bay this off-season for a bevy of younger, cheaper players. Unfortunately, Bay was coming off the worst year of his career, and his trade value was never lower. Instead of pulling the trigger for the sake of change, Huntington held on to Bay with the hopes his performance would turn around this season and he could fetch something worthwhile on the trade market. And while Huntington didn’t exactly horde his available money this winter (he made contract offers to Chad Durbin and Luis Vizcaino), he didn’t panic and blow cash overpaying the market either. Apparently, he thought the money was better spent on things like drafting, development, and perhaps a free agent next year that might actually help the team.
Saving money? Not trading players at their lowest value? Maybe it doesn’t make for headlines and certainly doesn’t create much optimism about the upcoming season. What it does seem to indicate is that for once, management isn’t looking to build a team that can win 85 games one year, but an organization that can regularly compete for division championships. Maybe that’s too much to read into an offseason of inactivity. But maybe it’s finally about patching the foundation instead of buying paintings.