Centre Daily Times: State College Should Reconsider Affiliation With Pirates

Wow, does State College's Centre Daily Times seem angry. I don't blame them, but still, it seems like they bring out a new pitchfork every week.

Player Development Contracts last either two or four years, and less than a month after a successful 2006, Greenberg announced a four-year agreement with the Pirates...

While the Cardinals packed their equipment for Western New York, Curve Baseball officials greeted their new affiliation with glee...

[Spikes and Altoona Curve managing partner Chuck] Greenberg went as far as saying the Spikes would have extended the PDC beyond 2010 if Major League Baseball rules permitted such an arrangement.

Luckily, baseball doesn’t, and Curve Baseball still has two long years to assess its relationship with the Pirates in State College.

This article is all unfocused anger--it blames Greenberg for signing on with a franchise that has "spent the last 16 years rebuilding," then unflatteringly compares the Pirates' current management team to its former one by pointing out that the Altoona Curve "set attendance records by fielding playoff teams from 2003-2006" under Dave Littlefield's management. (2003-2006 was right in the heart of this 16-year "rebuilding" process, wasn't it?)

The writer also faults the Pirates for not winning at the major league level and therefore failing to prove to State College fans that Spikes prospects "eventually play in significant major-league games," but he doesn't seem to care that Littlefield's methods--the ones that produced those awesome records at Altoona--were a direct cause of the team's failures at the big-league level. If your team sees winning at the minor league level as an important goal, you'll do what Littlefield did: promote players conservatively and draft low-upside college players. You probably won't win at the big-league level, though, because your crafty pitchers and tools-free hitters will hit a wall in the high minors.

At least Greenberg gets it right:

Greenberg blamed the Spikes’ woes on poor drafts and signings by the previous front office, which coincidentally, helped the Double- A Altoona Curve set attendance records by fielding playoff teams from 2003-06.

“It’s the first year of the new regime,” Greenberg said. “There were some very poor drafts that preceded it. The draft this year appears to be strong, the signings from Latin America appear to be strong and there’s every reason to be very upbeat about the quality of players we are going to have in the future.”

 

Bingo. 

After years of being Mr. Too Negative, this post will probably again get me branded an "apologist" (as if it's Frank Coonelly's fault the PIrates have a losing record this season or something), but it needs to be said: Dave Littlefield stunk at his job. Anytime a situation like the State College debacle happens in the next couple of years, a useful time-saving device is to simply assume it's Dave Littlefield's fault, because Dave Littlefield stunk at his job. I don't mean to absolve the new management of blame for the dumb things they do, but Dave Littlefield stunk at his job. It would be hard to overstate this, and you underestimate the degree to which Dave Littlefield stunk at his job at your own peril. It's going to take the new guys several years to air out the stench.

To change metaphors for a second, Littlefield left a number of little land mines when he was fired and, inevitably, Coonelly and Neal Huntington are going to step in some of them. The problem, in this case, is that some aspects of fielding competitive minor league teams (especially low-level minor league teams) and of building a healthy franchise are at odds with one another.

One would think that any major league executive would be far more concerned with the latter, but Littlefield was that rare executive who was more concerned with letting Jon Benick or Tom Hagan or whomever beat up on younger players than with developing prospects. If you want your minor league teams to have winning records, it's really not that hard to do: you just draft a bunch of college players, promote them slowly, and fill in the gaps with over-aged minor league free agents.

Unfortunately, for competent executives, the point of the minor leagues is to develop prospects. The State College debacle is the result of a sort of collision: many of its players were acquired by an incompetent management team who didn't care much about developing prospects, but this year's Spikes were actually assembled by what appear to be competent executives, who rightly think that the role of the minor leagues is to sort through players who may eventually help in the majors.

Littlefield, who thought so little about the long-term future of the team that he acquired Matt Morris rather than ponying up for real prospects in the 2007 draft, probably could not have cared less in 2007 that there weren't going to be any prospects on the 2008 State College team. No big deal--he'd just pick a bunch of low-ceiling college players in the draft and then sign Randy Ruiz or whomever to fill out the lineup. And it would have been fine. And it would have gotten the Pirates absolutely nowhere.

There is, of course, a riskier but far healthier way to put up good records in the minors: by acquiring actual, talented, age-appropriate prospects. That wasn't going to happen at State College this year, at least not to the degree required to build a good team. Littlefield saw to that. Next year, Littlefield's habits will matter less in State College; in 2010 they won't matter at all. We'll see if the Spikes are still putting up a .200 record then.

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