One of the biggest debates among Pirate fans this off-season has centered on whether the team should be aggressive in the free agent market. My stance has been that it would provide little help, so why bother. The team is at least a few years away from being competitive, so why not wait until we have developed a good group of players before searching for that last piece. In December, I examined what it would take to build a contender through free agency. Let’s just say it was unrealistic.
Here’s an excerpt from a post Charlie wrote last week:
In the past, I’ve been dismissive of the idea of dropping real cash on veteran free agents, and I probably will be again. Just so I’m clear here: generally, I don’t think the Pirates should waste their money or future on expensive free agents, and I don’t think the Pirates should, at this stage, sign any free agent who jeopardizes their future in any way: by blocking an interesting youngster, by preventing them from spending lavishly on the draft or Latin America, or by causing them to have to pay the free agent while he’s declining and the rest of the team is very promising. But I think this market provides the Pirates a special opportunity to pursue legitimately good players without doing any of those things.
This is a smart way to look at free agency, and it is a thought process I agree with. But the question on my mind today is this. Does signing a player simply to improve the 2009 team hurt the future of the franchise? For example, if the Pirates hypothetically signed Manny Ramirez for a couple million and put him in left field instead of Nyjer Morgan, would it be counterproductive? He would not be blocking a young player, he would not destroy the budget and it would not be a long-term commitment. He would probably improve the team’s record by about five wins, getting us to 70 or 75 wins. That would make the season a little more bearable, and may even attract some additional fans to come down to PNC Park. It would also give the Pirates a lower draft pick, which hurts a team that is attempting to restock a lousy farm system. It would not make us a playoff contender. If you are not going to win, is there value in losing big?
About a month ago, Shawn at Squawking Baseball asked if the Pirates were losing on purpose for this very reason. (Pat commented on the post at the time.) He made a great point about the team’s usage of Luis Rivas:
Consider: this past spring, Dan Fox introduced a defensive metric on Baseball Prospectus that rated Luis Rivas as one of the worst defensive middle infielders in the last fifty years. Weeks later, Fox was hired by the Pirates. And yet Rivas played over 400 innings at second or short for the Pirates last year, with predictable results.
I should probably make something clear. I do not root for the Pirates to lose. I cannot do that. There is no better feeling than watching the team win a game, and that is exactly what I hope for every time I sit down to watch a game. In addition, I do not think Pirate management is purposely trying to lose. They made some mistakes when constructing the bench last season, and when Jack Wilson was injured, suddenly Rivas and Brian Bixler were our best options at short.
But wouldn’t it make sense to cut some corners in a year when contending seems improbable? Wouldn’t it make sense to sign Craig Monroe to provide outfield depth when someone like Adam Dunn is still out there? Dunn would be more fun to watch during the season, but management shoud not be worried about that. They should only be focused on creating a championship team. I’m not sure I know the answer. I know that if I were in charge of a major league team, I probably would not have the courage to purposely punt a season in order to acquire a valuable draft pick the following year. Then again, one must be bold to rebuild an organization that is in the Pirates’ situation.
When it comes to the draft, Baseball is a much different beast when compared to the other three major sports. Losing on purpose makes little sense since the difference between the 1st pick, the 5th pick, and even the 10th pick is often negligible. In the other sports having a top 3 or 5 pick can make a huge difference in terms of talent, posistion skill and maturation. The Pirates are living proof that having a great draft spot means nothing, and the true mettle of a team is what kind of gems a team unearths in the later rounds. On that note I believe there were a few players in free-agency that the Pirates could have pursued at a very steep discount, which at that price, would not have been counter-productive.