Defending the Pirates’ Indefensible House Cleaning

Editor’s note: Pulling No Punches is on vacation this week (and hopefully being fed grapes on a deserted island), so we brought in special correspondent and baseball nerd extraordinaire Matt Belenky for an op-ed defending the Pirates’ drastic trade deadline moves.

How do you salvage a sinking ship?

Pittsburgh Pirates general managers have been hopelessly bailing water for nearly two decades. The media scrutiny and fan abuse that comes with the job description is daunting, but being the general manager of the Pirates just might be the most difficult gig in professional sports.

Since Barry Bonds’ huffy departure from the Buccos in 1992, the Steelers have made it to three Super Bowls (winning two), and the Penguins have lifted two Stanley Cups, while the Pirates haven’t posted a single winning season.

Seventeen straight years of utter futility and irrelevance. How can one team be so putrid in a City of Champions?

Management, management, management.

Previous Pirates GMs have waded in the calm waters of mediocrity, appeasing fans by keeping around under-performing household names. Is it nice to hang on to a gutsy, outgoing player like Jason Kendall? Sure, it sedates your disgruntled fanbase in the short term, but by over-spending on marginal talents like Kendall, Jason Schmidt and Mike Williams, the Pirates let their minor league organization fall into disarray in the early decade rush to put a “competitive team” on the new PNC Park grass.

Thoughout the 2000s, the organization tried to fit square pegs in round roles: Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Jeremy Burnitz, Sean Casey…the list of aging, bargain bin veterans that were crammed into the roster under the guise of “competitiveness” is long and shameful. The names on the backs of the jerseys in the Pirates’ team shop may have been familiar, but the influx of geezers didn’t produce a better baseball team on the field.

Over the course of every grueling 162 game season, the same problem has haunted the Pirates for 17 years: a shortage of elite prospects in the minors.

Old Pirates GMs may have sung the same song (like the smash hit “We’re Building for the Future”) but Huntington’s philosophy is much different. He has traded away aging players for several strong prospects and young-ish major league-ready players.

By trading Xavier Nady to the Yankees, Huntington snagged a number of promising prospects, including pitcher Jeff Karstens. But the real gem of the deal was outfielder Jose Tabata, who at 20 was the second highest rated prospect in the Yankees’ organization and is currently progressing very well in the minors. In tandem with Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates have a dynamic outfield core for the future.

But this year the true unloading of the Pirates began: McLouth, Grabow, Gorzelanny, Wilson, Snell, and Sanchez – all snatched from the billboards and media guides and shooed across the Clemente Bridge. But it would have been unrealistic and ultimately fruitless for the Pirates to keep these players around anyway. Sanchez, Wilson, and Grabow were set to become free agents at the end of the season and wanted money the Pirates couldn’t afford to pay them.

The last trade of all, the Sanchez deal, was seen by many Pirates fans as the final twist of the knife. In reality, it was Huntington’s brightest move. For proof, just look at what the other side is saying about the trade.

San Fransisco Giants online message board patrons and media members alike were in a frenzy when they found out they gave up 20-year-old pitching prospect Tim Alderson. The righty was rated as the number four prospect in the Giants organization, which speaks volumes considering their rotation features two young Cy Young candidates: Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Huntington is rebuilding the right way by trading players at their peak value for multiple prospects so that the minor league system becomes loaded with prime talent.

The target year for the Pirates to be – brace yourself for it – competitive is 2011. After the recent purge, which admittedly will hurt the feelings of young fans, the organization has been replenished with a core group of cheap prospects with high ceilings: Alderson, Tabata, Hernandez, Sanchez, and Milledge (and don’t forget Clemente McCutchen) For once, scout’s honor, the Pirates have built a foundation for the future without any dead weight.

So how do you salvage a sinking ship?

You don’t. You blow it up and build a leaner, meaner ship from the bottom up.

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