Smizik: Blame Pirates' lack of talent on the suits

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As the losses mount, so does the frustration. The fans are angry. As bad as the Pirates have been since 1992, the hope never totally fades. Consequently, even though there should be no expectations, there are. As the disappointment increases so does the finger-pointing. Fans are lashing out in all directions to place blame.

Chris in Ohio writes: "For me it seems to be the batting coach isn't doing the job."

Barry on AOL asks: "Could you comment on the input of the coaching staff as a contributing factor to their continuing woes? For example, the baserunning looks like a Chinese fire drill."

Timothy in Baltimore says: "It amazes me that no one seems to point any finger at the hitting coach. Tracy has made many exceptional blunders in his management role as well."

And on and on it goes.

The problem with the Pirates is not batting coach Jeff Manto. Nor is it pitching coach Jim Colborn. It's not even manager Jim Tracy, although his blunder Saturday in a loss to Arizona was inexcusable. Here's the problem with the Pirates, and it hasn't changed for 15 years.

Not enough good players.

Neither coaches nor managers can change that.

Let's talk about Manto. For starters, the fact he had an undistinguished major-league career -- a .230 lifetime batting average in 713 at-bats -- is not an issue. Charley Lau, regarded by many as baseball's greatest batting coach, was a .255 lifetime hitter. Rudy Jaramillo, the highly regarded batting coach of the Texas Rangers, never got out of the minors.

It is not necessary to be great at something to teach it well. In fact, greatness can be a hindrance to a teacher. By most accounts, Manto is a good teacher and a tireless worker. He was the hitting coach last season when Freddy Sanchez won the batting title and when Ronny Paulino hit .310. A hitting coach can help, but he can't work wonders. Manto is not the reason the Pirates are hitting poorly this season any more than he was the reason Sanchez won the batting title last season.

Colborn had a respectable major-league career. He was 83-88, mostly as a starter, with a lifetime ERA 3.80. Some want to place the blame for the poor seasons of Paul Maholm and Zach Duke on Colborn. The blame rests with Maholm and Duke, just as the success for the very good seasons of Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell rests with Gorzelanny and Snell.

As for the complaint about baserunning, it's horrendous throughout baseball. Eric Byrnes of the Diamondbacks, for example, tried to steal third Sunday against the Pirates with no outs -- as wrong-headed a play as could be imagined. Players from all teams recklessly try to go from second to third on grounders in front of them to the shortstop, which is an absolute no-no. But they do it. Coaches can talk baserunning all day, but when the players are on the bases, they are mostly on their own. There's no accounting for such stupidity, but it is baseball-wide, not just with the Pirates.

As for Tracy, there's no explaining his decision to bring mop-up man Marty McLeary, since dispatched to the minors, into a base-loaded situation to face Tony Clark Saturday when the more dependable Damaso Marte was available. It was an absolute brain cramp on Tracy's part. But such blunders are rare with Tracy. Of course, he makes mistakes. All managers -- all people -- make mistakes on the job. But the manager is not the problem with the Pirates. Considering Tracy is the fourth consecutive losing manager -- with Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon coming before him -- it should be obvious to everyone the problem is somewhere else.

As stated, the Pirates' trouble is not enough good players. The fault for that rests with the people above Tracy and his coaches. It rests with general manager Dave Littlefield and his staff and with the ownership group of Bob Nutting and Kevin McClatchy.

Littlefield is approaching his sixth anniversary as GM, and with little to show. The team's two most recent seasons are the worst in his tenure. Littlefield and his staff have consistently misevaluated players and misspent money.

It's hard to acquire big-time players who can make a difference. But it shouldn't be that hard to acquire competent reserves, who might help win a game or two. Clark, for example, is a past-his-prime slugger for the Diamondbacks, but still a dangerous hitter coming off the bench. His salary for the past three seasons has averaged less than $1 million. Why can't the Pirates, whose bench is awful, get players like Clark?

Ownership lacks the vision and the funding to put a successful team on the field. It either can't or won't sign the free agents who could make a difference, as Jeff Suppan, who the Pirates courted, might for the Milwaukee Brewers. Rather than putting Littlefield's feet to the fire, ownership seems positively delighted with his performance.

Looking for reasons for 14, going on 15, years of defeat? Forget the guys in the uniforms, look at the guys in the suits.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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