Analysis: Littlefield's low-risk style netted low rewards
Dave Littlefield talks on the cell phone against the left field fence during spring training last year at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Littlefield was fired yesterday as the Pirates' general manager, a position he had held since July 2001.
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When Bob Nutting spoke of creating a "culture of success" for the Pirates on the day he fired Dave Littlefield, it might have struck some as laughable.
The Pirates a success?
After 15 years of failure?
Who could blame anyone for disbelief of such a statement, especially when ownership still must hold up its end by increasing payroll to the level of the team's revenue peers?
At the same time, Nutting's words, as well as his firm tone when he said, "I am going to do everything in my power to make this team a winner," were unmistakably bold.
And that, in and of itself, might have best defined the decision he made yesterday that could alter the organization to the core.
Critics tend to focus on high-profile trades when evaluating any general manager, but those make up only a fraction of the job. That is doubly true when overseeing a low-spending franchise that must outsmart and outhustle the competition with the fatter wallets.
It takes boldness.
And the Pirates displayed little of that trait under Littlefield.
As one employee in baseball operations put it yesterday, "We need a winner. We need someone who wants to win, who's not afraid to win."
Start with the trades ...
Successful teams in the Pirates' spending range make a habit of buying low, selling high. Players are dealt at peak value, usually as they approach their free-agency years, in exchange for a bounty of prospects. That restocks the system and, eventually, pays off much more than the departed player could.
Littlefield made two such deals -- Todd Ritchie for Kip Wells and Josh Fogg, and Brian Giles for Jason Bay and Oliver Perez -- and, no coincidence, they still rank among his best.
But those came early in his tenure and never again.
Was it a lack of confidence that his scouts would identify the right prospects?
Was it concern about public backlash for moving a popular player?
Littlefield's other trademark regarding trades was his propensity to ask for absurdly high returns.
A National League executive recently told the tale of calling Littlefield last winter to inquire about center fielder Chris Duffy. Littlefield asked for "the moon," the executive recalled, and talks halted. A few weeks later, Littlefield phoned back, this time with a lesser request, and the executive replied that he no longer trusted that Littlefield was negotiating in good faith.
The tactic sometimes worked, though: Littlefield tested the patience of Atlanta's front office for six months in discussing the Adam LaRoche-Mike Gonzalez trade, and that has turned out quite well.
The absence of boldness also applied to amateur acquisitions.
One of Littlefield's first moves in 2001 was to replace scouting director Mickey White, a brash type who had three fine drafts, with Ed Creech, a former co-worker in the Montreal system. The Pirates' drafts under Creech emphasized safe picks, college players whose potentials are easier to project. A glaring exception was 2005 first-rounder Andrew McCutchen, a raw high school player who, by no coincidence, is the system's only star-caliber talent.
This year, Littlefield and Creech bypassed highly touted Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters with the No. 4 pick because agent Scott Boras was thought to be seeking a $10 million signing bonus, three times Major League Baseball's recommendation for that slot.
The money was there, but the Pirates' baseball staff told ownership they would prefer Clemson reliever Danny Moskos. He was signed to the slot recommendation -- to the penny -- while Baltimore, which took Wieters at No. 5, called Boras' bluff and brought his bonus down to $6 million.
The Orioles were hailed by their fan base for taking the risk, while the Pirates earned a figurative pat from the commissioner.
The North American scouting system as a whole is seen as insufficient, particularly because of a minimal presence in key regions such as Georgia, California and Texas.
"We have one scout for Georgia and the Carolinas, and the Braves have 20," one team executive said. "We're getting killed there, and there's no reason for it."
Littlefield was late in setting up Latin American scouting operations, waiting until 2003 to hire Rene Gayo as director. Even then, Gayo's pool of money to sign players was not considered competitive, and a rare setting in which the Pirates could compete evenly with the New York Yankees was being wasted.
Largely as a result of those no-ambition, no-depth drafts, the Pirates' minor leagues are all but void of impact talent, particularly at the lower levels, just as they were when Littlefield arrived. Baseball America ranked the organization 19th in the sport in the spring, but that was before 2006 first-rounder Brad Lincoln had major elbow surgery. McCutchen, Steve Pearce and Neil Walker are the only universally projected major-league starters.
Was money an issue?
Immediately upon arrival, Littlefield installed a strict scale for major-league players with less than three years, and he strayed little even after Bay, Perez and Zach Duke had excellent seasons, a practice that rankled players throughout the organization.
The team was frugal, too, in other capacities, also with no obvious benefit. That ranged from keeping players in the minors an extra day or two to save on major-league salary to the extreme of sending former catcher J.R. House a bill for $19,000 to pay for shoulder surgery after he was hurt in the Pirates' employ.
One agent said yesterday, "You never had the feeling that Dave cared about the players, and people in our business knew that. I'm glad to have his number out of my Rolodex."
The contradiction, of course, was that Littlefield would part with huge sums for veteran free agents such as Jeromy Burnitz ($6.7 million), Joe Randa ($4 million), Roberto Hernandez ($2.75 million) and Tony Armas ($3.5 million). In the case of all but Hernandez, no other team was bidding for those players' services.
Small wonder that, on the final day of the 2006 season, Burnitz approached Littlefield in the clubhouse to shake his hand and say, "Dave, I can't thank you enough."
Littlefield's last trade fell into that category, too. It came July 31, when he phoned the San Francisco Giants the morning of the deadline and offered to pick up all $13.5 million left on Matt Morris' contract. No other team offered half that much money.
Nutting approved that deal, but he said yesterday, "I have to trust my baseball people. That was the move Dave wanted to make."
Littlefield always was professional, well versed, and had an impeccable work ethic, often going from sunrise past midnight.
But that poise never translated into boldness, either.
He was overly cautious in all assessments, famously predicting on the day No. 1 overall pick Bryan Bullington was drafted that he could be a "No. 3 starter." He was careful never to set specific goals for the Pirates, always using vague terms such as "improvement" so nothing could come back to haunt him.
Above all, perhaps, through all those years of losing, he never once publicly displayed a sliver of frustration, something that might have sent a signal of accountability.
That might be why Nutting, while underscoring that his new general manager must be "an excellent talent evaluator above all else," also stressed the intangibles.
"What we need is to have everyone believing in what we're doing, the moves we're making," he said. "There has to be a positive mindset, a winning mindset."
First Published September 8, 2007 12:00 am