Is LaRoche trade enough to save Littlefield's job?
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The Adam LaRoche-for-Mike Gonzalez trade will be remembered as the Pirates' best trade of the Dave Littlefield era.
Please no wise cracks about how that isn't saying much.
Not when the Pirates actually made a significant move to improve after doing nothing all winter.
This has the look of a superb deal. By getting LaRoche, the Pirates added a much-needed left-handed power bat to baseball's worst offense. With a lineup including batting champion Freddy Sanchez, two-time All-Star Jason Bay and LaRoche, who had 32 home runs and 90 RBIs for the Atlanta Braves last season, the team's young starting pitchers no longer should feel the need to throw shutouts just to have a chance to win. Sure, it hurts to give up Gonzalez, a young left-hander who appears to have the mentality -- not to mention the powerful arm and filthy stuff -- it takes to be a successful closer for the long haul. But the Pirates weren't going to create many save situations with their offense as it was. They had to make a bold attempt to get better. Losing Gonzalez will be a small price to pay if LaRoche takes advantage of PNC Park's short right-field porch and his power numbers continue to grow.
Credit goes to Littlefield -- typically meek at the trading table -- for showing unprecedented nerve.
This isn't a salary dump like so many of Littlefield's other moves. Luck also isn't involved the way it was in his two other successful trades. In 2003, he wanted Xavier Nady from San Diego for Brian Giles before settling for Bay, a much better player. A month earlier in '03, Littlefield sent Gonzalez and Scott Sauerbeck to Boston for reliever Brandon Lyon only to see the deal nullified -- thankfully -- when Lyon showed up with a bad arm. In a revised deal, the Pirates traded Lyon and Jeff Suppan to the Red Sox for Gonzalez and Sanchez.
No, this trade was strictly a smart baseball move by Littlefield.
But it does come with a legitimate question:
Will it be enough to save Littlefield's job?
As fair as it is to blame horrendous ownership for the Pirates' futility, there's no question it will be Littlefield who goes if the team has a 15th consecutive losing season or even has a poor start in April.
That seems especially true now that there's a new sheriff in town. Last week, Robert Nutting announced he was taking over as principal owner from Kevin McClatchy. Nutting figures to be a lot quicker to deflect blame if his coming-out news conference is any indication. He hadn't faced the public for five minutes before he went on record as saying any questioning of his or his family's commitment to winning is "completely inappropriate."
You won't read or hear a more arrogant statement from a sports figure all year.
That doesn't mean Littlefield shouldn't be squirming, though.
"It's essential that the team improves its on-field performance," Nutting said.
Does that sound like a man who is going to accept the same 7-19 April as last season?
This will be Littlefield's sixth full season on the job. There's no arguing that he took over a laughable team in 2001 after the ineffective McClatchy finally found the strength to fire Cam Bonifay at midseason. The Pirates were burdened with wasteful long-term contracts and would lose 100 games in that first season in PNC Park. But there's also no arguing that Littlefield has done little so far to improve the team's record. His subsequent teams lost 89, 87, 89, 95 and 95 games.
Any other franchise would have fired Littlefield long ago.
McClatchy -- presumably with Nutting's OK -- gave Littlefield a one-year contract extension through '08 on opening day last season.
Only the Pirates.
It's hard to imagine Nutting being as patient as McClatchy, especially now that much of the anger from the team's long-suffering fans will be directed at him.
That means LaRoche had better hit a lot of home runs into the Allegheny River. Actually, just to be safe, he probably shouldn't wait until the Pirates get to PNC Park to start hitting those long flies. It would be better if he hit a few in the Pirates' season-opening trip to Houston and Cincinnati.
It also means the Pirates' young starters had better stay healthy and increase their victory totals. Littlefield's job security is tied squarely to Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny. If only their prized arms came with guarantees. Duke and Maholm regressed last season. And wasn't it just two years ago that some dreamers thought Oliver Perez was going to be the next Sandy Koufax?
And it means Salomon Torres must take over as closer from Gonzalez. Torres did well in the role late last season when the Pirates were buried in the standings and the pressure was minimal. Let's see how he does early in this one.
If everything breaks right -- absolutely everything -- this might finally be the year the Pirates break .500.
If not, Littlefield will be long gone and the team's next general manager will reap the benefits of his terrific trade for LaRoche.
First Published January 19, 2007 12:00 am