Bob Smizik: Littlefield reveals his desperation
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Don't call the Pirates cheap. Don't you dare.
You can, however, continue to call them clueless.
With the acquisition yesterday of starting pitcher Matt Morris from the San Francisco Giants, the Pirates told the world they are willing to spend big-time money. Even if it's on the wrong player.
Morris, a one-time ace with the St. Louis Cardinals, will be the highest-paid player in team history, bringing with him a contract that pays him about $10 million this year and next. He is expected to start this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds.
The Giants, a last-place team like the Pirates, were so eager to unload Morris' contract all they asked in return were Rajai Davis and a player to be named. Davis projects as a fourth outfielder, at best. The player to be named will be a minor-leaguer. The Pirates will be responsible for all of Morris' contract, which, including this year's prorated salary of $3.66 million, next year's salary and various bonuses, will come to $15.7 million.
Manager Jim Tracy spoke enthusiastically of Morris, describing his track record as "pretty impressive" and calling him a "workhorse."
What else was he going to say?
Although Morris is 7-7 with a 4.35 earned run average, he has been on the wrong side of awful for more than a month. In his past eight starts, he has pitched 451/3 innings and allowed 80 hits while compiling an ERA of 7.94. With those numbers, Morris will fit comfortably into the spot in the rotation previously held by Zach Duke and John Van Benschoten.
Nor is it just his recent starts that make the acquisition of Morris questionable. Dating back to the second half of the 2005 season, Morris is 21-30 with a 4.85 ERA.
By making this trade, general manager Dave Littlefield has accomplished the seemingly impossible. He made the Pirates a buyer instead of a seller at the trading deadline. Perhaps, Littlefield missed the part where the Pirates lost 13 of their first 15 after the All-Star Game and went from a team with a glimmer of hope to one careening toward another 90-loss season.
It's a move that reeks of desperation and of Littlefield, who has yet to produce a winning season in six years, making a final attempt to keep his job, which is widely believed to be in jeopardy.
What's particularly scary is that in acquiring such a contract, Littlefield clearly had to get permission from owner Bob Nutting and that such permission was forthcoming.
It again brings into question, as have so many other moves in the past, whether anyone in the Pirates' organization knows what they're doing.
For example: The deal comes two days after Leo Nunez made a second consecutive strong start for the Kansas City Royals. In 10 innings, in his first two major-league starts, Nunez has allowed one earned run.
Nunez is a prime example of the player personnel decisions of the Littlefield era. In December of 2004, the Pirates traded Nunez to Kansas City, although he was registering upwards of 95 mph on the radar gun while pitching in the low minors. They dealt him for Benito Santiago, a veteran catcher who was so far past his prime that the Pirates released him May 8. He never played for another major-league team.
In other words, the Pirates were dead wrong in their evaluation of Santiago and dead wrong in their evaluation of Nunez.
In an organization still trying to develop pitchers who are 26 and 27 years old, like Bryan Bullington and Van Benschoten, Nunez is only 23.
Morris will be 33 in eight days, and the Pirates see him as a veteran presence to stabilize an otherwise young rotation. In theory, that sounds great. In practice, particularly when the veteran is having trouble getting batters out, it doesn't necessarily work.
In 2005, the Pirates added Mark Redman, a veteran starter, to the rotation and paid him $4.5 million. That was the same year the career of Oliver Perez began a downward plunge that did not stop until he left the organization. This isn't to suggest Redman was responsible for the decline of Perez. It is only to show veteran presence is vastly overrated.
Even if Morris reverses this recent career decline, the wisdom of such a trade must come into question. His salary next season will be $9.5 million, but it could go slightly higher as it did this season. That would represent about 20 percent of the team's payroll. It is not considered a wise policy to pay that high a percentage of the payroll to one player, regardless of the size of the payroll.
But the 2008 payroll does not figure to be a problem Littlefield will have to face.
First Published July 31, 2007 11:25 pm