Bob Smizik does this thing sometimes where he figures out that something's amiss, then goes horribly wrong when he tries to figure out what it is. Like in this column, in which he blamed the problems the Pirates were having finding a second baseman (before Freddy Sanchez was installed there) on the Bucs' 1999 decision to trade away the execrable Tony Womack. (I know I've mentioned that column before, but it's still funny.)
Anyway, this time, Smizik writes that there isn't any excitement about the Pirates this offseason:
Not a new front-office team or a new manager and coaching staff can energize the loyalists. The team that will take the field to open the season March 31 in Atlanta looks like the same old Pirates. It will be pretty much identical to the team that lost 94 times last year.
I agree. This is a problem. But then watch where Smizik goes with it:
The Pirates have not actually stood pat. They've made some personnel moves that give the team a slightly different look...
The bullpen has lost Shawn Chacon and Salomon Torres... Torres was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, a move that remains inexplicable.
It's true Torres had his worst year since returning to baseball in 2002 after a four-year retirement. His earned run average was up, his appearances were down. But if the Pirates are expecting LaRoche, Bay and Paulino to rebound, why not Torres, who has every bit as good or better track record...
The problem, to Smizik, isn't that the Pirates didn't make any trades that would lead to real progress toward building a team that can contend in the future. It's that they failed to retain (or clearly replace) B.P. Chacon, Salomon Torres, Josh Phelps and Matt Kata.
Just to take Kata as an example: Smizik points out that the Pirates would've had to take Kata to arbitration to keep him. There isn't a team in baseball stupid enough to take Matt Kata to arbitration. It simply shouldn't happen. He's a 25th man - a terrible hitter who teams sometimes keep around because he can sort of play several positions. Focusing on Kata's pinch-hitting stats last year, as Smizik does, is misleading in the extreme, since Kata hasn't posted higher than a .665 OPS for any major league team since 2003.
Chacon, Torres, and Phelps are all better than Kata, but not by much. Torres was terrible last year, is in his mid-30s, has had conditioning issues, and considered retirement after he was traded. Anything's possible, but the chances that he'll be worth the $3.5 million he'll be paid next year seem slim. Chacon is a bad pitcher. And Phelps hit well for the Bucs last year, but it was an extremely small sample, he doesn't have a position, and the Pirates have plenty of hitters to play the corners.
In short, none of these guys were necessary. And the timing of Smizik's column is ironic, since the Bucs just committed $4 to $5 million to building a new Dominican academy. That is far more important news than the revelation that we're not going to have Matt Kata back.
I have my own problems with the Pirates' offseason - the Bucs have big problems and have failed to take big steps to fix them - and I even had issues with the Torres trade, in that I argued that the Bucs might have gotten more for him if they'd waited longer. (Given that Torres considered retiring rather than play for the Brewers, I now think I was probably wrong about that.) But jeez, the absence of a couple of mediocre complementary players isn't a problem, and if the Pirates shouldn't have to overpay Matt Kata and Josh Phelps types every year in any case.
The bench was a vast wasteland for much of last season until two journeymen, Josh Phelps and Matt Kata, were added. Both became exceptional pinch-hitters...