A lot of people are asking if the Pirates ever will win again. That's a foolish question. Of course, they'll win again.
But here's a question that is not foolish. Will the Pirates win in the foreseeable future?
There's reason to believe they won't.
Consider the three key components of the organization:
Ownership: There's a popular misconception about Kevin McClatchy, the team's CEO and managing general partner. He wants to win. He really does. He just does not have the financial wherewithal to make it happen. The Nutting family, which is believed to have controlling interest in the team, isn't as concerned with winning. They are more bottom-line oriented. They're happy, for all we can tell since they rarely speak publicly about the team, to take a nice profit out of the franchise every year and the won-loss record be damned.
With the team steaming toward a 100-loss season, there's little doubt a significant portion of the 11,000 season-ticket holders will flee. That, however, will not necessarily reduce profit. It will reduce payroll, which, in turn, reduces the quality of the team. Profit will be maintained because the team takes in an estimated $40 million or more annually from revenue sharing and MLB's central fund.
It's a sweet deal. Why spend excessively on payroll when there is a virtual guarantee of profit every year even if you don't?
Mark Cuban, who claims to want to buy the team, might never get a chance. Besides, who's to say baseball owners would want Cuban in their select brotherhood even if the team is put up for sale? For all the good he's done with the Dallas Mavericks, and in that respect he's owner-of-the-century, Cuban has been a notorious troublemaker in NBA circles. You think commissioner Bud Selig wants Cuban doing studies that prove umpires incompetent? Selig has enough trouble controlling the umpires without them being subject to the kind of public ridicule the brilliant Cuban is capable of creating.
Management: As was detailed in this space last week, general manager Dave Littlefield has a growing record of being a poor talent evaluator. Omitted because of space last week was his zany decision in 2003 to remove from the 40-man roster Duaner Sanchez, a reliever who threw in the mid 90s. That left Sanchez available on the waiver wire, where he was grabbed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. If Littlefield had kept Sanchez on the 40-man roster -- instead of such nobodies as Jason Boyd, Mark Corey and Corey Stewart -- he would not have had to pay Roberto Hernandez more than $2 million to be a right-handed setup man in the bullpen this season. He already would have had Sanchez, who is excelling with the New York Mets, in that role.
Let's also not forget that brilliant decision to trade for catcher Benito Santiago late in 2004. Santiago, it turned out, was so washed up he not only couldn't beat out such sub-journeymen as Humberto Cota and David Ross but no other team in baseball picked him up. The move, which netted the Pirates six games and 23 at-bats from Santiago, cost them at least $1 million and highly regarded pitching prospect Leo Nunez.
What is equally as troubling about Littlefield is his drafting record. It's beginning to look like the 2002 and 2003 drafts were average, at best, at a time when the Pirates needed them to be very good to excellent.
Players: It's beginning to look like Freddy Sanchez is a keeper, although he still has to prove himself over a full season. If he is, he joins Jack Wilson and Jose Castillo as good complimentary players. Other than Jason Bay, the Pirates do not have a star-quality player, one who can hit in the middle of the lineup.
Their hopes of finding such players are limited.
Craig Wilson is starting to not look like an option. He's looking more and more like a platoon player. He thrives on left-handed pitching but is considerably less successful against right-handers, who form the majority of the major-league pitching corps. For his career, his on-base percentage is about 70 points lower against right-handed pitching and his slugging percentage is about 90 points lower.
Wilson will be a free agent next season, and it's unlikely the Pirates would make a multi-year investment in a streaky platoon player who is only adequate defensively.
Ryan Doumit has a reputation as a good hitter but has not shown that to be the case in 95 major-league games, which is not a fair sampling. What isn't too early to tell about Doumit is that he has a disturbing record of injury. He missed large portions of three minor-league seasons because of injury, which is one of the reasons his catching is so inadequate, and has been on the disabled list this season.
Brad Eldred, who has immense power, still hasn't shown he can consistently hit major-league pitching. If he makes the Pirates in 2007, after missing most of this year because of injury, he'll by 27 by mid-season, awfully late to begin a major-league career.
Free agents of quality, of course, are out of the question. No player who has other options would commit himself to an organization where losing is almost guaranteed.
Fourteen years of losing and counting, with no end in sight.
Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1468.