By Murray Chass

September 16, 2009

As the season dwindles down to a precious few weeks, attention is focused on remaining races – not that there are any – and the playoffs ahead. But pause for a moment in your excited anticipation and think of how Pittsburgh Pirates fans approach the post-season.

They may actually look forward to it eagerly because once they get beyond Oct. 4, the Pirates can’t lose any more games this year. They probably can’t make any more trades either because they have already traded everybody of value.

On second thought they have Andrew McCutchen (at right) on their roster, and if they traded Nyjer Morgan they can trade Andrew McCutchen.

Simply put, the Pirates are an embarrassment to Pittsburgh and an embarrassment to Major League Baseball. It’s not just that the Pirates are a poor team, a losing team, but they are an embarrassment because of the way they have become a worse team than they already were and how they are trying to hoodwink their fans.

The Pirates this year traded Nate McLouth, Morgan, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Eric Hinske, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow and Sean Burnett. You could almost put a team on the field with that lineup.

The team the Pirates were left with on the field has been far worse than that one would be, and that’s what prompts this mid-September look at this terrible team.

When the Pirates completed their roster cleansing July 30, they had a 43-58 record (.426) and were 11 ½ games from first place. Since then, through Monday’s games, they had a 12-29 record (.293) and had tumbled 28 ½ games from first.

In the interim they set a major league record by insuring their 17th successive losing season, but they were going to get that record with the players they traded away; it would just have taken them longer. 

If the Pirates incur losses in their last 20 games at the same rate they have lost since July 30, they will finish with a 60-102 record (.370), their worst record in the 17-season stretch and their second worst record since the early 1950s and the days of Vic Janowicz, the O’Brien twins Johnny and Eddie and Joe Garagiola.

At least those teams had Ralph Kiner, the perennial National League home run champion, who gave the fans a reason to go to Forbes Field. Why fans go to PNC Park is beyond me. For their last home stand, six games with the Cardinals and the Cubs, the Pirates drew a total of 105,000 fans.

To get 17,500 fans a game is remarkable. I would speculate that the fans went to the games because they had previously bought tickets, but why do Pittsburgh fans have to buy tickets in advance when there are plenty of seats available the day of a game? Maybe the fans go to games just to see PNC Park, the nicest new park in my opinion. Or maybe they just like baseball.

But do these Pirates play a credible game of baseball? Maybe it doesn’t matter. The Pirates of the early ‘50s didn’t play a credible game of baseball, but I frequently paid a dollar for a seat in the left field bleachers at Forbes Field nevertheless and not just for the chance to see Kiner hit a home run. I was not one of those fans who left after Kiner had batted for the last time. 

But today’s fans should not be so kind to the Pirates because management is cheating them and trying to fool them. Club executives justify the trades by saying they have to start over by accumulating good minor league prospects and building with them.

But what was Morgan (at left)? He was a rookie who showed he was ready to play in the majors. He was hitting .271 when he was traded, and he has hit .351 for Washington for a .307 season average.

They didn’t need to trade Morgan to make room in the outfield for McCutchen because McCutchen was already there and hitting .295 in his first month. They didn’t need to trade Morgan to get Lastings Milledge, another young outfielder, because they didn’t need Milledge, who in trials with the Mets and the Nationals had failed to demonstrate major league maturity.

“The bottom line for us is upside and potential,” general manager Neal Huntington said at the time he made the trade. “The two players we are getting in return are guys that we think can play quality roles for us as we return to winning baseball here in Pittsburgh. Both players, we feel, have the upside to be above-average Major League players, and that’s why the trade happened.”

The Pirates, however, already had those players in Morgan and Burnett. Trading them was bizarre judgment at best and poor judgment at worst.

The belief among officials of other clubs is that the Pirates traded Morgan because of his age. At 29, he is five years older than Milledge (below). The Pirates, though, shouldn’t be concerned about having a 35-year-old Morgan playing center field for them. They would have traded him well before they reached that juncture.

There is more. The Pirates traded their middle infield, Sanchez and Wilson, not to stockpile minor league talent but because Sanchez and Wilson, who had expressed a desire to stay in Pittsburgh, rejected woefully underpriced contract offers designed for effect.

The offers were designed (1) to show fans that the Pirates tried to sign Sanchez and Wilson and (2) to induce them to say no so that the Pirates could then justify trading them because they did not plan on exercising their contract options totaling $16.4 million for next year.

Perhaps the most striking figures are the payroll numbers. The Pirates opened the season with a $48.7 million payroll. They are closing it with a payroll (based on the Aug. 31 roster and disabled list) of $20 million. The players they traded during the season have salaries totaling $31 million.

Now for the kicker. The Pirates, one of the smallest revenue teams in the majors, received approximately $40 million in revenue sharing last year and most likely will get at least that much, despite the economy, for this year. One thing we know for sure. They aren’t spending the money to pay players.

Under the collective bargaining agreement, teams that receive money have to notify the commissioner’s office each April what they did with the money the previous year. “They’re going to have some explaining to do,” a baseball official said. “It’s going to be difficult for them absent some substantial moves between now and April.”

High-revenue teams don’t appreciate revenue recipients that don’t spend the money to improve themselves but pocket it instead. The commissioner’s office is supposed to monitor the spending to make sure teams use the money as they’re supposed to, but no team has ever been disciplined or even reprimanded for not using it correctly.

The Pirates might be a good place for the commissioner to start. It would be the best win for the fans all year.


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