— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Wednesday, August 06, 2003
If I Were a GM (ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum)
Is this the Littlefield I carried? Is this the Brian Giles at play?
If I were a GM,
(with no apologies to "Fiddler on the Roof")
The buzzword in Pittsburgh is "financial flexibility," which appears to be a euphemism for "get rid of high-priced contracts." Reportedly, commissioner Bud Selig recently cited the Pirates for being out of compliance with major league baseball?s debt/equity ratio requirements, which in turn led to a mandate from owner Kevin McClatchy to GM Dave Littlefield to slash payroll. Aramis Ramirez ? due $6 million in 2004 ? was the first to go. Jason Kendall - owed $42 million on his long-term deal, with $8.5 million next year - and Brian Giles - entering the last year of a deal that will also pay him $8.5 million - are likely to be next. Kris Benson ? carrying a $6.1 million salary in 2004 ? would likely already have been gone had he not gone on the DL with a shoulder injury, amid reports that Benson wanted to be disabled to avoid a trade to a city to which his wife did not want to go.
I don?t doubt that the debt/equity ratio problem is well-known throughout MLB. Littlefield?s deal with the Cubs in which he got back significantly less than full value for Ramirez and Kenny Lofton, and the reported deal with San Diego in which the Pirates will get back very little for Kendall and Giles (and which is reportedly being held up because the Padres want the Bucs to kick in more money to pay Kendall?s contract), are signs that other ML teams know exactly what the Pirates are up against. Littlefield has a tough job, but I think there are some things that he can do both to give the Bucs some additional flexibility and to keep a potentially competitive core in place for 2004. If I were the GM, here?s what I?d try to do:
1. Move Kendall for whatever it takes ? even if that?s no more than a low-level minor leaguer.
Kendall?s contract is the longest-term drag on the Pirates? finances. At this stage of his career, while Kendall is still an above-average player, it?s pretty clear that he?s a step or two below the elite level that he appeared to be moving toward before the ankle injury and thumb problems arrested his development. He?s basically the same high-OBP, low-power player that he was when he first came up, and he?s showing no signs of regaining the power stroke that he had before the injuries. He?s not likely to return value in performance for the money he?s going to make. My #1 priority would be to get out from under as much of that deal as I could. I wouldn?t go looking for a significant return in terms of players ? the primary goal would be to find a team willing to assume as much of the remainder of the contract as I could find. Even if I had to pay half of it, that?s still saving $4-5 million a season. Maybe I?m overly optimistic, but I think I could find "someone" who?d make a deal on that basis.
2. Don?t trade Giles without an overwhelming offer.
Giles is the one high-salaried player who is likely to return something close to his full value during the remainder of his contract. The Pirates can afford to carry his salary if they move Kendall, even if the payroll goes down to $35 million in 2004. For that reason, the Bucs don?t need to be anxious to move Giles, and I definitely would "de-link" the Giles and Kendall contracts, because that move artificially deflates Giles?s value with no long-term benefit to the team. If San Diego really wanted Giles, for example, I wouldn?t consider a deal that didn?t include both Sean Burroughs and Jake Peavy.
3. Move out the marginal veterans.
Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs and Randall Simon have little long-term value to the Pirates, and they are taking playing time away from prospects who would be making less and who have more value to the team down the road. It?s time to see what I can get for them.
4. Trust my own prospects.
Jason Bay didn?t hit AA for the first time until age 23. By that age, Tony Alvarez had a season and a half of AA experience, posting an .836 OPS in a tough ballpark for hitters (Altoona). This year, while Bay is posting better numbers in AAA than is Alvarez, Alvarez isn?t exactly posting Mendoza-line numbers, and Alvarez (who is 15 months younger than Bay) has been ahead of Bay at comparable ages throughout their careers. I don?t see any strong reason to favor Bay over Alvarez other than current performance; Alvarez?s history is better, and I think he?s at least a good a candidate as Bay to have major league success.
JJ Davis and Xavier Nady are almost exactly the same age. It took JJ a while to develop, but he finally had a breakthrough season at age 23 in Altoona last year, and has continued his power development this year, slugging .532 at Nashville. Nady was drafted out of college and thus has less time in the minors than does Davis. His power numbers at Portland last year weren?t nearly as good as Davis?s are this year, although he was a year younger at the level. It?s not easy to get a read on the comparison between the two, since all of Nady?s minor league career except for his half-season at AAA was played in the hitter-friendly California League, but they appear to have very similar skill sets and very similar talent levels.
So what?s the fascination with Bay and Nady? There has been a lot of disparagement of both Alvarez and Davis within the organization, and neither has been a strong candidate for a callup at any point this year (in fact, Alvarez was on the restricted list earlier this season amid reports of personal issues within the organization). But neither Bay nor Nady has demonstrated that either is likely to be substantially better on the field than Alvarez or Davis, and I don?t see the need to bring them into the organization. Move the marginal vets, give their time to Alvarez and Davis, and hold off pulling the trigger on a Giles deal until and unless someone is offered (like Burroughs and Peavy) that provides talent that doesn?t already exist near the top of the organization.
I would take the same approach that Minnesota did a couple of years ago. Minnesota had some guys ? Mientkiewicz, Kielty, Hunter, Mohr, Jones ? who didn?t appear to be superstar level prospects but who all had some skills. The Twins chose to let them play at the major league level, largely for the same financial reasons that the Pirates are facing now, and they developed into a pretty good team. The Pirates need to get all of their nearly-ready major-league prospects ? Alvarez and Davis and Jose Castillo and now Freddy Sanchez ? up to the big club and give them a chance to earn their spurs. I?d also trust those guys, and not hedge with veteran stopgaps. The only way I?d bring in a veteran ? like Minnesota did ? is to fill a need that can?t be met from within.
5. Level with the fans.
"We need to get our finances under control and reduce our debt to meet MLB requirements. We have a nucleus of good young players who need to play, and we think we?ll be better over the long term if we stop spending money on veteran stopgaps and trust in our own prospects, like Minnesota did three years ago. We can?t guarantee that the team will be competitive in ?x? years, but if you stick with us we think you?ll like what you see down the road."
It might be too late to do that now and keep the trust of the fans, but I?d keep trying to be honest about what I am doing and why I am doing it.
I don?t know if this will work ? but it has in my opinion a far better chance of working than just giving away the core of the team for a bunch of guys who aren?t a whole lot better than some of the players in the system now, in the name of "financial flexibility."