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McClendon and Littlefield on Going Young

Dejan Kovacevic's article about what the Pirates should do with Chris Duffy and Ryan Doumit gives me an excuse to talk about what a youth movement shouldn't mean.

The Pirates' lineup last night -- with center fielder Chris Duffy leading off and Ryan Doumit behind the plate -- was sure to delight that faction of the team's followers pushing to see the roster go all young, all the time.

But management made clear yesterday it has no intent of adopting such an approach this season, no matter how far the team sinks in the standings...

Littlefield and McClendon were adamant the Pirates are not holding back prospects because of veterans in their path. Rather, they maintained, they want to be certain the young players' individual development is not stunted by setbacks from starting regularly.

"It's not about being cautious," Littlefield said. "We're not cautious with Zach Duke. He's shown us he has the ability to be a regular performer, and that's what he is. In other cases, we're not as confident yet they can handle it. There's a misperception that you can just throw young guys out there for a couple months. Very rarely is that the case. Most young guys come along gradually and benefit from it."

McClendon pointed to examples around baseball, past and present, where prospects have been damaged by excessive duty upon being promoted to the majors.

Did anyone else read that last sentence and do a double-take? "Where prospects have been damaged" really should be "Where he says prospects have been damaged." When a prospect fails, the reasons why he has failed are usually debatable. Rarely is there an open and shut case that a prospect has been overexposed, and anyway I think the issue of overexposure is a red herring here. Also, as far as I can tell, there is not much solid evidence to support the notion that players benefit from sitting on big-league benches rather than playing every day. I can't prove McClendon is wrong about that, but I don't think he can prove he's right, and I'm perplexed by the notion that a player somehow gets better at playing baseball by not playing baseball. And anyway, I think this too is a red herring. More on that in a second, but first, another quote from Dave Littlefield:

"We're always eager to play the kids, and we can certainly understand where people in this market are eager to see them," general manager Dave Littlefield said. "But we have to make sure that how much we play them is appropriate with what they can handle."

This quote, in isolation, seems perfectly reasonable to me, much more reasonable than the view that the Pirates should "go all young, all the time." The problem is not really that the Pirates don't play enough rookies or that they play too few. The real problem is that they don't do a good job identifying who the real talents are and who the role players are.

I will have no objection if the Pirates decide to use Chris Duffy in a reserve role. He is not an impressive hitter, and he's already 25; his main asset is his defense, which means he's not likely to be more than a fourth outfielder even at his peak.

I was, however, pretty upset that the Pirates used Craig Wilson as a part-time player for three years. Wilson was younger than Duffy when he reached the bigs and was very impressive in 2000 for Class AAA Nashville.

Similarly, I'll be upset if the Pirates continue to use Ryan Doumit and Ian Snell (who actually starts today) in part-time or bullpen roles, because the Pirates should recognize that they're both better prospects than Duffy and because of the current construction of the team.

Both players are younger than Duffy and have stronger performance records relative to their positions. Also, Doumit runs out of options at the end of the year and there's another catching prospect at AAA, so the Pirates need to figure out what he can do. And the performance improvement Snell theoretically represents over someone else in the bullpen right now is marginal. A more permanent rotation spot will likely open for him soon; the Pirates' willingness to use him as a starter today indicates that they may trust him as a starter once Mark Redman, Kip Wells or Josh Fogg gets traded.

McClendon, from the block quote above: "There's a misperception that you can just throw young guys out there for a couple months. Very rarely is that the case."

No, actually, that's often the case. It happens all the time. In fact, it happens with the Pirates all the time - it happened with Jimmy Anderson, it happened with Tike Redman, and so on. The real problem with those guys was not that they were young, but that they shouldn't have been identified as good prospects in the first place. Neither had terribly distinguished minor league records, and yet they were thrown into major roles with the Pirates anyway. Only Redman had much success, and only briefly.

I think the Pirates need to build a core of good young players to succeed, so they have to give chances to young players. But I don't think that a player can be part of that core just because he's young. The Pirates need to do a better job telling the difference between the Tike Redmans and the Craig Wilsons, or between the Jimmy Andersons and Ian Snells - and they need to do so before the Redmans and Andersons wreak more havoc on their team.

There's nothing wrong with Tike Redman - he's a perfectly decent backup - as long as you don't want him to start for you. Duffy is, like Redman, likely just a backup. Doumit and Snell could be more. The Pirates need to take better gambles. They won't always pay off - it's certainly possible that Doumit and Snell will flame out - but they'll have a better chance of succeeding. This issue shouldn't be about rookies versus veterans, really (although the Pirates aren't ever going to succeed if they play only veterans). Instead, it's about picking the right players based the situation of the team and, especially, on those players' talent.