Bob Smizik: Pirates lack commitment to winning

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The comments by Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting on the January day he was introduced as the team's principal owner were memorable not so much for what he said but how he said it. Nutting was asked about what appeared to be a serious lack of commitment to victory within the Pirates' organization.

Considering the team's 14 consecutive losing seasons, it was a fair question. Nutting didn't view it that way. He was taken aback and responded with indignation.

"Questioning my commitment or my family's commitment to winning, I think that's completely inappropriate.

"I will say this: I am absolutely committed to having the team win."

With the San Diego Padres, who were tied for first in the National League West before losing, 4-1, to the Pirates last night, in town, it seems a proper time to question the precise depth of Nutting's commitment. It's easy to talk about a commitment to winning. Everyone wants to win. Losing stinks. But actually reinforcing the desire to win with concrete action -- such as spending money and making tough decisions -- well, that's another matter.

It's not as if Nutting just came on the scene the day he was introduced as principal owner. He had been making major financial decisions for several years and doubtlessly was involved with the financially motivated giveaway of Aramis Ramirez, the best hitter the Pirates have developed since Barry Bonds, to the Chicago Cubs in July 2003.

If Nutting is interested in seeing what a real commitment to victory is, he should look to the Padres. Not too long ago, the Padres resembled the Pirates. In 2002 and 2003, they lost 194 games. At no time in their 14 years of defeat did the Pirates lose that many games in two consecutive seasons.

But the Padres didn't retrench. They spent. After losing 98 games in 2004, they increased their payroll from $55.4 million to $69.9 million. That's a commitment of deed, not word.

By spending money, the Padres improved their product. They went from 64 wins in 2003 to 85 in 2004. In 2005 and 2006, they won the National League West Division championship.

Although the Padres had been successful under general manager Kevin Towers, advancing to the World Series in 1998, in April 2005 San Diego ownership brought in Sandy Alderson to oversee baseball operations. Alderson, one of the most respected executives in the sport, was general manager of the Oakland Athletics when that team went to three consecutive World Series from 1988-90.

A man of Alderson's stature -- he had been serving as executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball -- did not come cheaply. But the Padres' commitment to victory was more than verbal. Ownership was willing to pay what it took to bring Alderson aboard.

Interestingly, a significant deficiency in the Pirates' operation is someone with a strong baseball background over general manager Dave Littlefield. CEO Kevin McClatchy fills that role and, despite being in ownership since 1996, he is a novice in baseball operations.

But why pay two salaries when you only have to pay one?

In the past offseason, the Padres needed to add to their starting rotation. They might have gone with a promising minor-leaguer. They didn't. Instead, they signed Greg Maddux, one of the greatest pitchers of the past 30 years and an automatic Hall of Famer five years after he retires.

Maddux is 41 and well past his greatness. But pitchers of his quality don't come cheap. He signed for $10 million. That's the kind of commitment the Pirates can't comprehend.

With Maddux signed, the Padres had one more open spot in their rotation. They signed David Wells, who is 44, to a $3 million contract.

At their ages, Maddux, who is 4-3, and Wells, who is 2-3 after taking the loss last night, were gambles. But they are gambles teams with a true commitment to winning must be willing to take.

The Padres' starter tonight will be Chris Young, who is 5-3 with a 2.70 ERA. His career record is 31-17. At 28, he's a nice pitcher to have. And the Pirates once had him. Littlefield traded him to Montreal in December 2002 for a reliever, Matt Herges, who was cut before the end of spring training.

Although Littlefield's almost six-year resume is filled with serious mistakes in player evaluation, none ranks higher than his casual trading of Young, who last season was sixth in the National League in earned run average, first in opponent's batting average and second in opponent's on-base percentage.

In some organizations, the many blunders of Littlefield would long ago have cost him his job. But those would be organizations with a serious commitment to winning.


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