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Why I'm Inclined to Give John Russell a Break

A couple days ago in one of the gamethreads, we were discussing John Russell's tactical decisions -- batting 0-for-3vas second, leaving starting pitchers in the game too long, and so on. I've noticed these things but haven't commented on them too much because, at this point, they just don't matter that much and are merely a minor annoyance.

Until a couple years ago, Rowdy used to start each year predicting that the Pirates would finish .500 because the tendency of all teams is to regress to the mean, or something like that. The powerful will be brought to their knees. The meek will inherit the earth. That kind of thing. 

There may have been layers of irony to that argument that I didn't get then and still don't understand, but for now, let's assume we can take it at face value. There are clearly a lot of problems with it, like the fact that the Pirates have had 15 losing seasons in a row, or that any argument that suggests that the 2008 Giants have anywhere near the same chances of finishing .500 as the 2008 Red Sox is kind of absurd on its face.

But I'm beginning to understand some aspects of what Rowdy was saying. It's true that a bad team's chances of finishing .500 purely accidentally are, if not exactly good, then not miniscule either. 15 consecutive losing seasons simply should not happen. The Rockies wound up in the World Series last year. The Marlins won 78 games in 2006 with a team that was younger than the Altoona Curve. The Royals won 83 games in 2003 but lost 100 or more in both 2002 and 2004. Young players develop. Veterans turn in career years. Things happen. That's why we play the games.

One problem was that Rowdy was making that argument about the Pirates. Dave Littlefield and Jim Tracy simply could not be counted on to take advantage of even the meager opportunities that presented themselves.

Take the Freddy Sanchez controversy in 2006. In the offseason, the Pirates had signed veteran Joe Randa to a $4 million deal to play third ahead of Sanchez. Now, let's forget for a second that Sanchez, a reasonably effective and reasonably young player, was about 800 times more likely than Randa to break out and provide the sort of season a team like the Pirates needs to have a few of to have a chance at topping .500. Randa got injured in early May and had a .559 OPS when he headed to the DL. Sanchez, who was already hitting .327 in a reserve role at the time, stepped in and continued his hot hitting. In spite of this, Littlefield was still unwilling to name Sanchez the starting third baseman as of May 26, when Sanchez was hitting .341/.378/.530.

How the hell is a team as talent-strapped as the Pirates supposed to win 81 games with someone like Littlefield at the helm? Forget looking gift horses in the mouth; the only reason Littlefield didn't do that was that he wasn't even interested in gift horses.  

Not that being smarter than Littlefield and Tracy makes anyone a good evaluator of baseball talent, but -- how many at bats do you think Nate McLouth would have this season if those two were still in charge? How many would Ryan Doumit have? And how many more games would the Pirates have lost as a result? You can quibble with some choices Russell has made with regard to bullpen usage, or Rivas, but he's gotten the big things right. And if he keeps doing that, a lot more people are going to adopt Rowdy's theory. Even if the drafting and developing doesn't get better -- and I think it will -- the Pirates will eventually have a freak .500 season, just by not botching the big decisions.