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Dejan Kovacevic on Moneyball

Dejan Kovacevic ends his new Q+A with more talk about Moneyball, now that's he has finally read the frigging book. (If you've got ten minutes to kill, check out this Q+A, in which Kovacevic pontificated at length without having done the obvious background research that a large chunk of his readership had done, and my response here.)

Kovacevic writes, "I wonder how those of you who have read this book feel the Pirates measure up by the Moneyball standard, and I would like to hear from you on the subject."

Moneyball has caused many overzealous young writers, myself included, to say, think and write some very stupid things, so let me say first that I think Billy Beane is a very good GM, but he makes mistakes just like any other. He makes bad trades sometimes, he hands out bad contracts sometimes, and there have been times when he has probably not relied on his scouts enough. Many of Beane's critics are also right that he benefited greatly from luck and from talent that was acquired by a previous administration. (Of course, this is true of nearly every successful GM, and Beane also deserves a heap of credit for developing that talent.)

I've blogged the Pirates for a little over a year. Many things the Pirates have done recently have annoyed me so much that it has been hard to put them into perspective, which has caused me to do things like get really angry about the Pirates' losses of, say, Frank Brooks and Duaner Sanchez. These losses were symptoms of bigger problems, not really the problems themselves.

Still, Kovacevic's request to his readers (including me) to compare the Pirates to "the Moneyball standard" is like the Freak Gasoline Fight Accident scene in Zoolander. I've got a craving right now, but I'm only going to use Nicoderm CQ, honest...

No, screw it. Look, comparing Dave Littlefield's program to Billy Beane's is like comparing Sean Connery's "Suck it, Trebek" character to Ken Jennings.

The Pirates sometimes toss out little pieces of candy to their Moneyball fans - arguing in an arbitration hearing that Jack Wilson needed to improve his plate discipline, for example, and using some kind of Trojan-Horse-infested computer program to determine that Tike Redman should hit third in their batting order. But small, meaningless gestures based on numbers are not enough without an understanding of those numbers or a plan for how to use them.

Beyond all the computers and spreadsheets and jigamawhirls, the most important lesson the Pirates could have learned from the A's was that small-market teams won't succeed without a core of very good, cheap young players. Beane did an excellent job finding complementary players, but the secrets of his success really were Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Eric Chavez, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada.

Now that all those players except Chavez are gone, Beane is trying to do exactly the same thing again, signing Rich Harden and Bobby Crosby to cheap contracts and hoping Dan Haren, Daric Barton, Nick Swisher and others come through the way that initial group of players did. Small market teams can only hope to be competitive by developing their own players because those players have to work for less than they'd get on the open market for many years. And once a player reaches free agency, he's enough of a known quantity that the market is relatively efficient, so big money mostly rules. There's very little the Pirates or A's can do on the free agent market to counteract the Yankees signing Gary Sheffield.

The Pirates are interested in young players, of course - they've played plenty of them in the past few years. But the Pirates seem to like these players mostly because they are cheap, not because of the competitive advantage they represent. When the Pirates have been able to get veteran free agents on the cheap, they've played them above young players like Craig Wilson, who had some star potential. They've also tossed away a number of young players with upside for almost literally no reason; predictably, some of them haven't panned out (like Brooks), but others have (Bronson Arroyo, Chris Young) or are on the verge of doing so (Chris Shelton). A number of others, like Leo Nunez, may end up haunting the Pirates a few years from now.

Beane has used unusual methods to try to find stars in the draft, and he's had mixed results, but a number of his draftees have already turned into stars or might one day do so. Littlefield has mostly used the draft not to find star talent, but to find youngsters who might one day turn into the sorts of players who are usually cheaply available anyway. Littlefield has avoided risk in the draft, and the result is that there are few prospects - of any kind - left in the Pirates' system who weren't chosen by the Cam Bonifay administration. Again, small market teams can't succeed without young stars, and the Pirates' recent drafting and developing ensures that those young stars are unlikely to come through the farm system any time soon.

Finally, Beane was successful because he had a core of talent that arrived at the big league level at around the same time. The Littlefield Pirates haven't demonstrated that they have any plan for when they want to be able to compete. Jason Bay is a great player to have, and Littlefield deserves some credit for trading for him, but now that Bay is here, what should the Pirates do with him? He'll be in Pittsburgh three or four more years after this one, and then he'll likely be gone.

For the last several years, the Pirates have tried to rely on cheap youngsters while avoiding bottoming out, which has left them with approximately the same weird mix of okay young players and crappy, pointless veterans in every season. Their recent history has resembled the plot of a magical realist novel: the details change, but the cycle is the same, and in the end, time hardly matters. Brian Giles leaves after his crappy supporting cast fails to get the Pirates to the playoffs; Jason Bay leaves after his crappy supporting cast fails to get the Pirates to the playoffs; and then, if we're very lucky, the same thing will happen to Andrew McCutchen.

I've seen no evidence that the Pirates have a plan to break this cycle - except, that is, for the atrocious state of the lower levels of the farm system, which indicates that there could be far worse times ahead, and that's hardly a point in Littlefield's favor. At any rate, the Pirates are unlikely to get to the playoffs any time soon; if they do, it'll probably be in 2007 or so, following a rather nice influx of talent to Pittsburgh from the Bonifay administration, and before the farm system dries up completely. In 2007, the Pirates have some small chance of winning a weak division and being swept in the first round by some vastly superior team, like the Dodgers or Braves. But even that chance seems remote. And it's really, really doubtful that it'll happen for several years after that. Littlefield hasn't come close to putting an A's type of core together to make the Pirates a really competitive team; in fact, he's hardly even tried.

That's it. Sure, there's the numbers and all the stuff about exploiting inefficiencies and judging the market and staying ahead of the competition. That stuff's important, and the Pirates would be better off if they used those things. But you've got to walk before you can run, and right now, I'd settle for a plan, a realistic timetable, and a core of potential stars in the minors. Those are the biggest things separating the Pirates from the "Moneyball standard."