“The problem with evaluating the present is that sometimes you need events in the future to occur to properly determine the past.” — a wise philosopher…me
While the Pirates were under the stewardship of John Russell from 2008 to 2010, I frequently made jokes about his lifeless, robotic nature. I coined the nickname “Johnny Five” for him, in reference to the robot from the 80’s movie Short Circuit.
In fact, towards the end of his reign, I took a day off from work to go kayaking on the rivers Downtown. As I was coming up from the Clemente Bridge and walking on Federal Street, I passed by John Russell as he was entering the Players Entrance door. I thought to myself, “he’s probably going in to get his servos oiled up”.
Shortly thereafter Russell was fired and Clint Hurdle was hired to be the next manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hurdle has injected his enthusiasm, love of the game, and down-home folksy nature into the team and organization. This has resulted in a vastly different attitude surrounding the team and, whether it is a direct by-product or not, an improved record from the 67, 62, and 57 wins turned in by Russell from 2008 to 2010.
Looking back on it now, with the benefit of all that has transpired with this organization in the past year and a half since Hurdle was hired, it is fairly clear to me about one thing:
John Russell was never meant to succeed.
Russell was a loyal “baseball man” brought on to polish the brass on the Titanic as Neal Huntington did what needed to be done to this franchise for many years. Huntington gutted this franchise down to the studs and rebuilt from the bottom up. The Russell Years were meant to sift through the detritus left behind from the Littlefield Era and see if anything was salvageable. The on-field product was secondary to the goal of trading any asset not nailed down to the floor on Federal Street and rebuild the minors with high-end talent through the draft.
The trades of 2008 and 2009, much maligned in many corners of the blogosphere, were meant to “hold the fort” and provide Russell with some semblance of a major league roster. Unfortunately, the perfect storm of suck occured and resulted in the complete and total collapse of Brandon Moss/Andy Laroche/Lastings Milledge/Aki Iwamura/Charlie Morton at the same time. Never were any of these players meant to be long-term building blocks; rather, it was hoped they would be short term 1-3 year pieces to hold the fort until talent could be procured and developed in the minors.
The only true long-term/building block player obtained during Russell’s tenure (in my opinion) was Jose Tabata. The team obviously liked enough of what they saw to sign him to a long-term contract last year, which at this point does not seem like it will work out as well as hoped. (However, in reference to the opening quote, perhaps the benefit of time will allow us in 2015 to sing the praises of such a wise signing of Tabata). Even Huntington’s best heist so far, James McDonald for Octavio Dotel, did not have the trappings of a long-term cornerstone at the time. McDonald’s breakout this year obviously re-frames that discussion.
I hate using the term “yes man” because it emasculates John Russell in a manner that isn’t entirely true. However, it was pretty clear that the on-field alignments were not always in Russell’s complete control. Exhibit One being the bizarre outfield alignment shifts that resulted in Nyjer Morgan’s defensive WAR going through the roof and making him a far more valuable player on paper than in real life.
Pirate management and ownership did not want to invest capital into the major league product during Russell’s tenure. It would be equivalent to getting a fantastic sound system for a AMC Pacer. Rather, it was decided (whether explicitly explained to Russell behind closed doors or not) that the Pittsburgh Pirates were going to put an inferior product out there on the field, so try your best to not have the train on fire when you pull into the station.
Unfortunately in 2010, the train was on fire, derailed, wiped out the station, and caused an environmental disaster. It was in the fall of 2010 that the front office decided that even if 2011 was going to be a transitional year from talent-sifting to contention hopes, they needed to hire a higher grade of manager. Enter Clint Hurdle.
He has changed the dynamic of the team and become the media face of the franchise, something that the reticent and media-averse Russell was not equipped (or hired) to do. Although the first 100 games of 2011 were an unexpected surprise, the team was never intended to be a true contender.
However, the increased attendance and interest in the Pirates imbued hope amongt the front office folk that the team could finally be ready to have capital invested in the major league product. Huntington himself has said that the talent procurement phase of prospects is over — even if it will continue to be added during the draft and some shrewd trades. The fall of 2011 saw the free agent additions of Bedard, Barmes, and Barajas. The winter of 2012 saw the trade for AJ Burnett, albeit with some monies kicked in by the Yankees, which signaled that a higher standard was going to be expected in 2012. On the surface, none of those 4 looked like world beater moves, but it added a huge veteran presence to a team that is now no longer a “young group of kids”.
You can’t have an entire team of young prospects. The leadership and veteran experience is just not there to draw upon. The 2012 team has a great blend of older players, younger players, and mid-career vets that did not exist with Russell’s teams. Add in the fact that all of the four players mentioned above have been on winning teams at some point in their careers. The Jason Bay/Jack Wilson/Nate McLouth/Freddy Sanchez group could not the say the same thing. Now these vets have been in pennant races, lived the battles, and can pass that on to players like James McDonald and Andrew McCutchen.
My crystal ball is on the fritz, so I can’t tell you if the 2012 Pirates will be contenders all year or not, but I do know that this team is better equipped than any team since probably 1999 to break this cursed Streak that hangs over this franchise. Additions will need to be made through trades to bolster the hitters (and maybe even the pitching staff), but as it stands right now this is a team that can contend in a turbulent NL Central.
So John, if you’re reading this in preparation for tonight’s Orioles game as bench coach for Buck Showalter, I forgive you for being a lifeless animatronic robot of a manager. You were given an impossible task and handled it as well as could be reasonably hoped.