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Smizik: Littlefield Should Sit Tight

There's an odd column by Bob Smizik in the Post-Gazette today.

At this time a year ago, Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield already had traded for first baseman Sean Casey ($7 million) and signed reliever Roberto Hernandez ($2 million). He was days away from making it the merriest Christmas ever for washed-up Joe Randa ($4 million) and a week or so from making it the happiest of New Year's for well-over-the-hill Jeromy Burnitz ($6 million).

Amazingly, those moves were almost universally hailed by Pirates partisans.

They were? Maybe we're the exception, but most of the community here, and many posters as message boards and other Pirates blogs, were upset about most of those acquisitions. We were especially upset about the Burnitz and Randa signings, which were the two that turned out to be the worst. I'm sure there were lots of more casual fans who liked the signings, but approval of the moves was "almost universal"? Even in Smizik's own paper, fans were upset about the Burnitz signing.

Q. Do you view the signing of Jeromy Burnitz as an upgrade in right field for the Bucs?

It seems like Craig Wilson has posted equal or better numbers than Burnitz when healthy...

Chris Buell of Shadyside, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: ...I received a ton of mail after the initial Burnitz article, and I can tell you most of it was in your vein, Chris. Readers wanted to know why the Pirates felt moved to acquire Burnitz when Wilson already was here.


Q. Dejan, what happened to the Pirates' commitment to going with young players and letting them grow together into a contender?

If they sign Burnitz, they will have added two players 37 years old and another almost 32. While these signings are an improvement over past four-month rentals, it once again shows the Pirates refuse to follow the method used by successful low-to-medium payroll teams.

After Dave Littlefield makes his usual poor deadline trades in July, will we again hear that the Pirates will build through youth. Frankly, I'm not surprised. I think the Pirates are afraid to level with the fans that, in order to get good, they will have to endure another year or two of sub-.500 baseball.

Fred Orlansky of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: ...Before I answer your question, please allow me to say this: What surprised me the most about the mail sent this way in the past 24 hours has been the general objection to the Pirates spending as much money as they did on these players.

Italics mine. More:

Q. Dejan, do you think the signing of Joe Randa is a good one for the Pirates? While it gives Jose Bautista another year in the minors to develop and fine-tune his game, I am worried it might retard the development of Freddy Sanchez.

Frankly, I am not a big fan of the Randa signing because he doesn't have the pop needed to make a significant impact and his defense is comparable to Sanchez's. Sanchez finished off the year strong at the plate and played remarkably good defense.

I just don't see what Randa's signing does other than allow Dave Littlefield to say, "See, we're putting more money in the team!"

Judd Fuoto of Fairfax, Va.

All of this is from one Q+A.

My point is this: not only were these acquisitions bad because Littlefield chose the wrong type of players (that is, 30-somethings who'd only be with the Pirates for a year), they were also bad because Littlefield just chose crappy players. Smizik rightly blames Littlefield for the first error, but lets him off the hook for the second.

The part of the article I disagree with most, though, is this:

Baseball is awash in money, and that includes the Pirates...

When the Toronto Blue Jays presented a seven-year, $126 million contract to outfielder Vernon Wells last week it all but closed the door on the Pirates becoming a successful franchise. This deal means teams such as the Pirates will be little more than minor-league clubs for the big spenders.

Wow, is this wrong. If baseball is "awash in cash," why shouldn't the Pirates be expected to pony up to keep a talented young player? If they have so much money now, why shouldn't they use it to keep a player like Wells?

If salaries are spiralling out of control, as Smizik believes, shouldn't we acknowledge that part of the reason they're spiralling out of control is because of the small-market Royals, who signed Gil Meche to arguably the most insane contract of the offseason, and also signed Octavio Dotel and took on salary during the season when trading for Odalis Perez?

Obviously, this isn't to suggest that the Pirates should sign Gil Meche. This is to say that, when the opportunity to make a wise investment comes along, they should be expected to take it. Salaries are rising because teams have money. The Pirates have money. So what's the problem?

Finally, the comparison Smizik makes between Wells and Jason Bay later in the article is a case of apples and oranges. Bay won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2009 season, by which point he will be 31 and will probably have already peaked. The fact that the Pirates will be able to keep Bay, an immensely productive player, until the likely end of his peak shows that the system is actually working pretty well for small market teams. Wells, by contrast, is younger and more likely to age well.