On the Pirates: How soon is now?
Andrew McCutchen received the traditional shaving cream pie to the face in the moments after he went 2 for 4 with three runs scored and a stolen base in his major league debut Thursday at PNC Park.
A stadium worker removes the Nate McLouth banner hanging outside PNC Park Thursday -- a day after the trade.
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HOUSTON -- In the aftermath of the Nate McLouth trade, one that will reverberate with the Pirates for years, here are three significant lessons that could be learned by Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington, the two men running the franchise, from the overwhelmingly negative reaction of the players and public:
1. Players do not see themselves as interchangeable pieces.
Although management has made clear -- and acted upon -- its willingness to keep anyone available via trade, sending away McLouth was, as reliever John Grabow described it, "very different" because, as he put it, "you saw the Jason Bay and other ones coming, but Nate was supposed to be part of the core, the future."
That "core" message was stated in bold terms by management when McLouth, starter Paul Maholm and catcher Ryan Doumit were signed to extensions this past winter.
The team uses an internal slogan -- "Pride. Passion. Pittsburgh Pirates" -- one that is emblazoned on the clubhouse wall at PNC Park. And, to the credit of manager John Russell, he and his staff have engendered a strikingly intense loyalty from their players. But the gap created by this trade between the players and upper management will not be easily bridged.
Players take the field for a grueling 162 games, pretty much every day, and they do not care about Class A prospects, Dominican facilities or even $6 million draft picks. They need to know that what they are doing is more meaningful than killing time for a 19-year-old in Lynchburg.
2. A finish line must be drawn.
It is not enough to say, as Huntington reiterated this week, that no one is untouchable. At some point, though maybe not now, the players -- as well as the manager and his staff -- will need to know that the carpet will not keep getting yanked out on an annual basis.
Surely, the argument that Coonelly and Huntington make that mediocrity is unacceptable has great merit: Even with quality starting pitching, these Pirates have appeared no threat to erupt into a contender in 2009, with or without McLouth. Still, when a vital piece -- again, part of the declared "core" -- is removed, it creates the sense that the cycle never will end, that even Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and others could be peddled for Class A talent because it promises a better return down the road.
Coonelly and Huntington have stated that they do not favor creating a "window," as baseball people often call it, wherein they envision a limited time to compete with a specific group. But constant turnover means no group will contend.
3. It is always about the money.
In Pittsburgh, as it relates to the Pirates, the topic of money always is at the forefront, even though upper management seemed taken aback by that aspect of the public's reaction.
Most fans, by all accounts, will not believe that the Pirates are doing -- or spending -- all that they can to win until they see evidence at the major league level. Signing Alvarez was important, as will be another strong draft in the coming week and, possibly, the signing of elite Dominican prospect Miguel Angel Sano. But every time a player such as McLouth leaves -- or Adam LaRoche, Jack Wilson and Grabow later this summer -- the charge will be cheapness.
And, so long as the Milwaukee Brewers, based in a market two-thirds the size of Pittsburgh, spend $80 million on major league payroll while the Pirates spend $51 million, the Pirates' front office will not be able to firmly defend the charge.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the McLouth trade is the power that is left behind, especially in the outfield. The three starters -- Nyjer Morgan, McCutchen and Brandon Moss -- have one combined home run this season, and newcomer McCutchen had four for Class AAA Indianapolis before his promotion.
That is a far, far cry from the power the Pirates boasted in their outfield early last summer, the best in Major League Baseball with Jason Bay, McLouth and Xavier Nady. And McLouth, in particular, stood out in that he was that rare center fielder with pop.
It was quite the asset, but it might be gone for a long time.
McCutchen's power, if it develops, will not translate nearly as well to PNC Park as McLouth's because the place is much friendlier to left-handed hitters. Moss displays power in batting practice but seldom in games and, when he does, it is to left-center, deepest part of PNC. Among prospects, Jose Tabata has some power but remains unknown. And Gorkys Hernandez, the Class AA prospect in the McLouth trade, profiles like Morgan.
Consider this, too: If LaRoche is traded this summer, the Pirates will be left with only the switch-hitting Doumit for power from the left side. That would put them right back where they were for most of the Dave Littlefield era in that critical area.
Lynchburg, the Pirates' Class A affiliate, inadvertently has set up a promotional series that looks perfectly timed with the mood of the fan base in Pittsburgh.
On July 17, the Hillcats will give away an Aramis Ramirez bobblehead.
On Aug. 14, they will give away McLouth.
Insert obligatory one-liner here.
Be sure that the message was received when the Pirates acquired Class AAA starter Charlie Morton in the McLouth trade. He immediately found a spot on management's depth chart above anyone currently in Indianapolis, and he soon should leap above at least one in Pittsburgh.
Expect that to affect Snell and Gorzelanny the most.
Snell will need to pitch well, beginning this afternoon at Minute Maid Park, to keep his place in the rotation. If not, when Morton arrives as expected within the month, he will bump Snell to the bullpen. Or, Snell could be traded.
Gorzelanny, despite being effective in relief to the point Russell has used him in situations where he clearly does not trust others, still sounds destined to return to Indianapolis to resume starting. But that might get him blocked, so a trade is a possibility there, too, especially given the hot market for major-league ready starters in Class AAA.
Perhaps the most poignant quote from McLouth in his time with the Pirates, one that resonates especially this weekend, came after the final home game last season.
He was speaking of luring more of Pittsburgh's most rabid sports fans to PNC Park ...
"There's nothing I want more than what the Penguins have, to have those people on our side, to have other teams fear coming here," he said Sept. 21. "And that might look impossible now, but there was a time not that long ago at Mellon Arena when you could walk up and get a center-ice seat. Look at it now. ... That's what I want here, in our place. But that's up to us."
First Published June 7, 2009 12:00 am