Analysis: Lack of long view, innovation sunk Pirates from the start

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Freddy Sanchez's chase for the National League batting title excited fans, who flashed placards urging Sanchez on in the final three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds.

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It was a psycho summer for these 2006 Pirates, one that ranged from historic lows to heady highs. From being the butt of Jay Leno jokes to beating some of the National League's finest. From the booing of 22-year-old Zach Duke at the home opener to the thunderous chants for Freddy Sanchez at the season finale.

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And, somehow, it all pivoted on a game in which they did not participate.

It had been known for years that Pittsburgh would play host to Major League Baseball's 77th All-Star Game, and the Pirates' brass made the appropriate fuss in the buildup. As a result, ticket sales increased. As did payroll. As did management's understated but undeniable desire to win immediately to avoid national embarrassment.

It all backfired.

Big-time.

The baseball world descended on the city at the lowest point imaginable, with the Pirates owning the worst record in the sport at 30-60 and the local citizenry as angry as it had been during any of these 14 consecutive losing seasons.

Then, just after that break, a remarkable transformation began.

The chins picked up, the starting pitching improved, the key hits finally came and the Pirates would go 37-35 the rest of the way for their first winning second half since 1992.

What happened?

A top-to-bottom breakdown of the 120th season for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club:

Ownership

The ball began rolling downhill Oct. 1, 2005, the day Kevin McClatchy and the ownership group bought newspaper ads to trumpet a 25 percent boost in payroll, to $47 million.

Most anywhere else, that would blossom into a positive. In Pittsburgh, it would bring more of the same.

Rather than insist on general manager Dave Littlefield increasing investment in the team's developmental departments -- precisely how low-spending franchises succeed in baseball's imbalanced economics that the Pirates so often decry -- McClatchy issued a "challenge" to Littlefield to address needs at the major-league level.

The idea, as the team acknowledged, was to capitalize on the All-Star effect on attendance. Satisfied customers this year, the thinking went, would come back in 2007.

But, as so often happens with quick fixes in sports, the one-year rentals that were acquired -- Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa and Roberto Hernandez -- contributed little, muddied the team's direction by their mere presence and were traded or benched by midseason.

Ownership also continued to feel heat for its failure to discuss finances.

The Pirates received a revenue-sharing check for $25 million from other teams which, when added to other national money, meant they could cover their payroll without selling a single ticket at PNC Park. Still, despite widespread skepticism about whether the team was spending all it could, neither McClatchy nor the two men with greatest control of the Pirates' finances -- chairman Bob Nutting and his father, Ogden -- addressed the matter with any detail.

The reclusive Nuttings were nowhere to be seen, but McClatchy made his voice heard. He was the only person -- other than players -- at any level of the organization to speak candidly or passionately about the team's dismal start, when he said in late June that he was "extremely disappointed."

General manager

The bottom line for Littlefield this year was ... well, the bottom line.

When counting prorated salaries paid out to players who never had a realistic chance to figure in the Pirates' future -- Casey, Burnitz, Randa and Hernandez -- the final bill was $16.4 million. Or more than a third of the total $45 million that eventually was paid out.

That is money that, with a firmer long-range plan, could have been set aside to ensure that Sanchez, Mike Gonzalez and other core players heading toward arbitration can remain in Pittsburgh for a long time.

Or it could have been poured into a minor-league system bankrupt of prospects at the top two levels, perhaps by luring power-hitting types who failed to catch on elsewhere in a desperate attempt to address the organization's most glaring deficiency.

Or it could have gone into new frontiers in the Far East, Australia and even Europe, where more teams are testing the waters while the Pirates have yet to make a first foray.

Or, on a much more beaten path, the money could have gone to Latin America, a hotbed of talent where no team has been less aggressive over the past decade than the Pirates.

Put it this way: Randa was signed solely because management incorrectly pegged Sanchez as a utility player. If Randa's $4 million salary had been applied to Latin America, it might have tripled the amount that the team's highly experienced set of scouts could have spent there. As it is, the Pirates still are not a player for the most prominent prospects.

In general, Littlefield's risk-taking remained negligible. Innovation is a must when operating a low-spending team, but the Pirates continued to be content to play a game they cannot win by simply scanning free-agent lists and filling holes.

Littlefield's trades were more of the same -- salary dumps for middling prospects -- except for one potentially decent deal in getting Xavier Nady from the New York Mets for Hernandez and Oliver Perez. But there, too, another player was traded at his lowest possible value in Perez. Successful, low-spending teams are built by dealing players at peak value, even if it is unpopular.

Three areas where Littlefield merits credit: One is for acknowledging his mistakes by not forcing manager Jim Tracy to play Burnitz or Randa. Two is for again assembling a fine bullpen. The third, and most important, is for his yearlong commitment to the young rotation of Duke, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm. Nothing will benefit the Pirates more next year.

Manager

When Tracy gathered players into a Bradenton cafeteria in mid-February for his first speech as the Pirates' manager, he promised a change in the losing culture.

He also predicted, more tangibly, that he and his staff could help reverse the team's 13-28 record in one-run games the previous year.

Well ...

The Pirates would go 9-27 in that category in the first half, their 25 one-run losses by the Fourth of July the most in baseball history.

And that was only one element of all that beset Tracy.

He was blamed, fairly or not, for allowing pitching coach Jim Colborn to tinker with his young starters' mechanics, for defending Burnitz when fans noticed him dogging it on a grounder, for failing to support shortstop Jack Wilson in an argument with umpires in Houston, for turning Chris Duffy into a .194 hitter and essentially chasing him out of baseball, for sticking with the same lineup no matter how poorly it clicked, and for much more.

Most grating to the players and public, it seemed, was Tracy's pattern of crediting himself or his staff when things went well, but blaming the players when they went poorly. The most striking example was a May 23 loss in Phoenix, when he faulted Ryan Doumit -- playing first base for the second time in his life -- for failing to come up with a sharp grounder that decided the outcome.

Still, Tracy kept his cool. He never had a postgame tirade, he found a way to bring a fresh smile on days after difficult losses and, maybe most critical, stuck to a firm and impressively detailed vision for team-building.

And, through it all, he would cling to that awful one-run record like a life preserver, citing it repeatedly as evidence that they were on the cusp of some wild reversal of fortune.

He would be proven right.

In more ways than one.

From an individual standpoint, his fingerprints on the progress of young players were easy to detect: The starting pitchers became effective, partly by heeding Tracy and Colborn. Ronny Paulino was identified early on as the catcher of the future by Tracy and bench coach Jim Lett, even though upper management had him slotted as third-string. Jose Bautista, embraced by Tracy in the spring, showed promising power. Even Duffy would return to become exactly the type of leadoff hitter Tracy had sought.

From the team standpoint, the victories started becoming routine, even against elite opponents. And that record in one-run games: 15-4 after the break, best in baseball.

Tracy won over the clubhouse, too, by all accounts.

His crediting coaches and blaming players virtually vanished. When a reporter in San Diego asked Tracy last week about a trend that reflected well on the staff, Tracy's terse reply was: "It's about the players."

He also set the tone for a palpable team-first sentiment. Using an approach not practiced at any other level of management -- setting numerical goals for the players -- he kept them from drowning in the standings by isolating homestands, road trips and other small samples.

One veteran described the relationship between Tracy and the players as one of gradually finding common ground.

"Maybe he was used to having certain types of players from his time in Los Angeles, and he expected that right away here," the player said. "And we, on the other hand, were used to another manager and his ways. But I think he did a good job learning how to push our buttons, and we learned to appreciate the things he teaches."

The players

The first-half losing was tolerated about as well as it could be in the Pirates' clubhouse.

Probably too well.

One early July afternoon at New York's Shea Stadium, in a visitors' quarters barely focused on the event at hand, one older player groused, "There's some nice talent here. Nice people, too. But, sometimes, you know, it just doesn't work. ... Bad collection of dudes, man."

Funny thing is, it was essentially that same collection of dudes that turned it around at the break.

And this without the benefit of a single players-only meeting all year.

"I think we just got sick of it," Bay said. "When you've gotten beaten down so badly, you start to press, you start to take it almost personally. You know you're supposed to be better, and you've actually gotten worse. It's tough to take."

Reliever Matt Capps found inspiration when he went home to Atlanta over the break and was teased.

"People are telling me how the Pirates stink," he said. "I don't want to hear that. I knew better. And I made up my mind, for myself, to help change that."

The only way change would come is if the starting pitching were to dramatically improve, and it did. The rotation was 21-44 with a 5.53 ERA before the break, then 24-26 with a 4.07 ERA afterward. Snell became a 14-game winner. Duke and Maholm rediscovered peak form. Tom Gorzelanny's midseason addition helped, too.

The starters' surge, in turn, boosted an overtaxed bullpen. Gonzalez, wobbly early in his first year as a closer, wound up 24 for 24 in saves. Salomon Torres might have been baseball's best reliever in the second half. Capps extended an exemplary rookie season. John Grabow matured into a trustworthy late-innings contributor.

Young and able, the relief corps shaped into a long-term strength.

Some positional spots took substantive form, too.

Sanchez became a fixture and the Pirates' 25th batting champion despite wasting his April on the bench. Paulino was the surprise of the summer, handling the pitching staff well and batting .310. Duffy reached base at a Rickey Henderson clip, stole bases at will and sparkled in center field. Nady showed promise. Wilson performed roughly to expectations in the first year of a long contract extension. And Bay, of course, continued his ascent into the game's elite.

Only enigmatic second baseman Jose Castillo took a step backward, with a sluggish finish that left his future in doubt.

How did so many move in the same direction at the same time?

Some players tip their caps to Tracy -- "He's our leader, no question," one rookie said -- but the majority point to the mirror.

"I think we all kind of paused and said, 'Whoa, what were we doing in the first half?' " Duke said. "We knew we were better players than that, and we were right. And you'll see: What we went through this year, good and bad, is going to pay off."

TOMORROW: How the Pirates plan to approach 2007.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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