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The Scott Rolen Deal: No Thank You

Forgive me for being a bit late to comment on this article by Dejan Kovacevic, but I just saw it.

 Ten Ways to Reboot the Pirates in 2010: 1. Spend.

Sign Rick Ankiel or any free agent -- Nick Johnson? Mark DeRosa? Xavier Nady for a second tour? -- who might bring some pop to the lineup.

Make a trade for a quality player, regardless of cost.

The Pirates' current $23 million roster -- which projects to $28 million with raises -- has to represent the low point. There is no rule that says a team building from within must be a catastrophe at the major league level until the prospects arrive. Provided that acquisitions do not block key players -- signing, say, a center fielder would be absurd -- the only reason not to fill other holes would be to create more leftover money.

When Cincinnati recently traded for Scott Rolen and his $11 million salary after being miles out of contention, many in baseball scoffed. But the Reds went 25-11 with Rolen, and their many youngsters might have their development aided by his presence.

I'm not opposed to spending a bit of money on a player like Nick Johnson. But, as ever, it amazes me how little people have learned from the Pirates' recent experience. 

First: the idea that the Rolen trade represents a good model for the Pirates is just beyond belief. Rolen has had a great career and all, but he has now whined his way out of three of the four organizations he's played for. (In fairness, his manager in Philadelphia, Larry Bowa, was hated by everyone, but still.) The idea that he, of all people, would be the sort of veteran player whose mere "presence" aids the development of youngsters is stunning to me. The Reds' ERA did improve after he arrived, and his superior defense probably did help out with that somewhat, but that's hardly a reason to make crazy trades for veterans if you otherwise should be recharging.

If Kovacevic is simply saying that Rolen helped the Reds with his play on the field helped the Reds' young pitchers, that's one thing. But his use of the word "presence" suggests that that's not what he's saying, espec ially since he didn't mention the pitching staff.

Has there ever been any sort of empirical data that shows that the addition of veteran players helps young players? I don't know of one, and while I can't prove it isn't true, it's fair to note that every team has veterans, and so it's quite easy to credit a veteran for his "presence" every time a team plays surprisingly well.

The flipside is that, if you want to, you can blame them and their "presence" when things go wrong. Of course, that would seem mean-spirited and stupid, wouldn't it? Of course it would. And yet it's every bit as logical as suggesting that the mere "presence" of veterans helps.

The best we can do if we're looking at the effect a player has is to look at how he played on the field. Mere "presence" doesn't seem to matter much, and Pirates fans should know that as well as anybody. How many more wins did Matt Morris' "presence" bring? How about Doug Mientkiewicz's? Or Jose Mesa's? Or Jeromy Burnitz's? Or Joe Randa's? Or Eric Hinske's? Just the other day Kovacevic implied that Hinske was a part of the "awful atmosphere" that surrounded the Pirates in 2009. And yet he was one of the Bucs' biggest veteran additions the previous offseason.

To be fair, I'm sure Kovacevic doesn't believe we should acquire these veterans indiscriminately; perhaps he means that there are some veterans who add something with their presence, and others who don't. But then why focus on a well-known whiner like Rolen (who, after all, pretty much did exactly what Hinske did by begging out of Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Toronto) or an alleged PED user like Rick Ankiel? Or, for that matter, a guy like Nady who's probably a perfectly nice guy but who has already spent a considerable amount of time in PNC Park, apparently without dropping any of that magic veteran pixie dust on the place?

There may, of course, be times that veteran "presence" does help. But even if that's true, no one ever seems to know what they are beforehand. The gift of veteran "presence" is one that only seems to appear after the fact, and then it appears completely randomly, such that a perpetual malcontent like Rolen all of a sudden becomes a savior for no other reasons than that 1) his new team happened to play well following a trade and 2) he's old. In Pittsburgh, we've had veteran after veteran, and none of them have brought anything extra to the team other than what they've done on the field. At least nothing we've seen. So why should we make this same mistake again?

The Rolen trade, in particular, was insane. The Reds traded a very good starting pitching prospect (Zach Stewart), a potentially functional young reliever (Josh Roenicke) and a very talented, if extremely frustrating, young third baseman (Edwin Encarnacion) to get him. In terms of value, this would be a little like if the Pirates traded Rudy Owens, Eric Hacker and Lastings Milledge--for a player who's old and expensive and will be gone after 2010. A potential crowd-pleaser, perhaps, but utterly bonkers in terms of the goals of the franchise.

So when someone says that the Pirates, who are two years from contending in the best of circumstances, should "trade for a quality player, regardless of cost" and points to the Scott Rolen deal as an example of what the Bucs should do, I have to ask: Really?

Kovacevic does have a point that there's no reason the Pirates shouldn't sign a veteran or two this offseason--if the right opportunity presents itself. But jeez, let's at least agree on some some basic tenets here. The point of having youngsters on a 62-win team is not to trade for aging free-agents-to-be. And veteran "presence" isn't going to matter without talent to back it up--just ask the 2007 Pirates. Or the 2006 Pirates. Or the 2004 Pirates. And so on.