Dejan Kovacevic points out that the combined salaries of the Pirates' 2008 Opening Day starting lineup--Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche, Xavier Nady, Ryan Doumit, Jose Bautista, and Jack Wilson--will be about $46 million this year. That's not at all cheap for eight players, particularly when one takes into account the substantial amount of cash the Mets will owe Bay after 2010.
Not only are these guys expensive, they're also collectively pretty bad. Let's imagine the Pirates had somehow managed to keep all of them in 2010. Bay is still a very good hitter (even if he gives back a bunch of runs defensively), and McLouth is functional, but after that the lineup contains four huge injury risks in Sanchez, Nady, Doumit and Wilson, a first baseman who never hits before July, and a utilityman playing third. Other than Bay and LaRoche, who did his usual second-half thing after joining the Braves for the stretch run, all these players took steps backward in their careers after being traded--McLouth's offensive production slowed a bit, Bautista hit decently but was consigned to the bench role he probably always should've had, and Sanchez, Nady and Wilson all went down with injuries.
Neal Huntington was sitting on a time bomb when he arrived. Most of the Bucs' hitters were about to enter their decline phase, and while not all have actually declined, the group as a whole shows why it's dangerous to depend on players who are older than 30. Three of these players (Sanchez, Nady, Wilson) completely fell apart after being traded.
Meanwhile, in return for the seven of these players who were dealt (plus Ian Snell and Damaso Marte), the Pirates got two intriguing members of their current starting rotation (Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf), their starting third baseman (Andy LaRoche), their starting shortstop (Ronny Cedeno), their likely starting first baseman (Jeff Clement), a top prospect (Jose Tabata), one of their better minor league starting pitchers (Tim Alderson), a decent back-of-the-rotation option (Dan McCutchen), a reserve outfielder (Brandon Moss), and a bunch of interesting minor league arms (Bryan Morris, Brett Lorin, Nathan Adcock, Aaron Pribanic, Hunter Strickland).
Not all those players are future superstars, but I'd much rather have the long list of new guys than the expensive and injury-prone bunch of old guys--and even that assumes that the Pirates could still have them all if they wanted. In the case of Bay, who's easily the best player the Bucs traded, that's almost certainly not true. Taken as a whole, Neal Huntington's rebuild looks like a clear, unambiguous positive right now. It's debatable whether he received as much as he could have for some of the players he traded, but it should be obvious at this point that he was right to trade them.
If he'd kept them, and we assume for the sake of argument that Sanchez, Nady and Wilson had still gotten hurt (which of course might not have happened, but then Bay, for example, might not have stayed healthy either), the Pirates still would have fallen apart down the stretch in 2009, with no middle infield and no rotation. And then the Bucs would have had a mess of an offseason, with so many players demanding more money or just skipping off to other teams. The organization Dave Littlefield left behind was designed to self-destruct after 2009, and it's much to Huntington's credit that he's stopped that from happening.