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As I alluded to in my most recent article, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been so terrible for so long that even when they want to bring in free agents that could potentially help reverse the team’s plight, the players don’t want to come here. It’s a Catch-22 of baseball boobery. As obvious as this seems, I doubt the Pirates actually expected this response; I believe they stubbornly assumed they could run a team however they liked, and then immediately flip a switch, and mid-range free agents would find Pittsburgh just as desirable as any other MLB franchise. Clearly not the case.
Image credit janeheller
Which brings us to the A.J. Burnett trainwreck that is unfolding before our eyes. For some unexplained reason, Burnett never included the Pirates as one of the teams on his “do not trade” list during his last contract extension with the Yankees. As I write this at 6AM on Sunday morning, Burnett is not yet a Pirate- the deal seems hung up on the Pirates’ unwillingness to part with platoon OF Garrett Jones. Regardless of whether Jones ends up in Pinstripes, at this point, my *guess* is that Burnett will be a Pirate by the start of Spring Training: The Yankees appear desperate to unload him and as much of his contract albatross as they can, while the Pirates suddenly seem desperate to add another SP, despite having all offseason to do so.
These negotiations uncomfortably showcase the overall failure of GM Neal Huntington and club President Frank Coonelly’s tenures, and baldly exemplify the team’s TOTAL lack of direction. Consider any of the following:
1. At the start of the offseason, the Pirates let SP Paul Maholm walk for absolutely nothing, refusing to pick up his 2 contract option years, because they deemed them too expensive. Not only were the option years worth about what Burnett is making now per season, but the Pirates themselves agreed to the amounts when they negotiated the original extension with Maholm!
2. Over the past 3 seasons, A.J. Burnett has the highest ERA in baseball among SP who have made at least 90 starts. He’s 35, making $10MM+ over each of the next 3 seasons, and has a well-documented attitude to boot. If these aren’t warning flags, I don’t know what are. This potentially could be worse than former GM Dave Littlefield’s Matt Morris mistake, which helped get the GM fired.
3. Maholm (105 ERA+) was by far the better pitcher last season, and is 5 years younger than Burnett (86 ERA+). For a team that’s supposed to be rebuilding with youth, Neal Huntington has spent his entire offseason acquiring guys well on the wrong side of 30.
Which brings me to the Pirates’ ”internal options.” Over the past 4 years, both Huntington and Coonelly have puffed their chests about building up the “depth” of the entire Pirates’ minor league system. They’ve made unpopular trades to build up this “depth”, and they’ve now had their hand in 4 full drafts to reinforce this “depth.” So where’s the depth?
4. The Pirates wasted $11,000,000 on 2 years of subpar, 33-year old SS Clint Barmes, because there were no internal options.
5. The Pirates wasted $4,000,000-7,500,000 (option year) on 36-year old C Rod Barajas, because there were no internal options.
6. The Pirates TRIED to pay 36-year old 1B Derrek Lee between $5,000,000-7,000,000, because they felt there were no internal options. They’re now working out 36-yeard old 1B Dmitri Young for the same reason, despite 1B being the easiest position on the diamond to find young power bats. And by the way, Young hasn’t played a MLB game since 2008…so the Pirates have that going for them.
7. In Huntington’s only potentially good free agent acquisition of the offseaon, they signed 33-year old SP Erik Bedard, because there were no internal options. They continue to pursue A.J. Burnett because there are no internal options, despite Huntington and Coonelly always emphasizing the importance of building up starting pitching depth.
8. The remainder of their rotation as it now stands- Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, Kevin Correia- consists entirely of players brought in from other organizations via trade (Morton, Karstens, McDonald), or signed as free agents (Correia). Huntington has yet to have 1 starting pitcher he drafted pitch meaningful innings for the Pirates.
9. The same can be said for the Pirates’ bullpen. In fact, the only homegrown arm currently projected to come north with the team in spring- RP Tony Watson- was a Dave Littlefield draftee in 2007.
The two best bats the Pirates have; Image credit tumblr
10. And despite Littlefield being the worst GM in recent MLB history (though Huntington is surely giving him a run for his money), until Pedro Alvarez wakes up and slims down, the Pirates’ two best regulars- CF Andrew McCutchen and 2B Neil Walker- are both Dave Littlefield draftees.
11. Out of the players projected to start in the field for the Pirates, 3 are Littlefield draftees (OF Alex Presley), while only 1 was picked during Huntington’s tenure (Alvarez).
12. Despite their apparent willingness to spend MILLIONS on aging, unproductive veterans, the Pirates have spent the entire offseason blackballing star OF Andrew McCutchen on a contract extension, as I wrote about here and here and here and here.
This team is terribly managed. Despite allusions to the contrary, the Pirates have little to no depth in the upper levels of their minor league system. (In fact, the Bucs’ best upper level prospect- OF Starling Marte- was once again a Dave Littlefield draftee. For a GM regarded as a terrible talent evaluator, Neal Huntington sure does seem to have his hands full trying to match Littlefield’s “success.”)
Further, the club clearly makes moves that directly contradict their supposed direction. They’ve spent the offseason stocking the roster with old, declining veterans, yet gush frequently about the team’s youth movement. They let younger, productive players like Maholm and C Ryan Doumit walk for nothing, only to turn around and sign expensive retreads in their stead.
Some wonder whether the timing of this most recent indulgence (prior to Burnett, the Pirates attempted to give both Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt paydays in the $10,000,000 range, only to be rebuffed) came from Major League Baseball starting to put heat on the Nutting ownership for yet another league-low payroll. Obviously, it’s only speculation at this point, but the timing certainly is interesting.
Regardless, this team is a trainwreck, and we’re about to see the results of it for 6 months straight.
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