Dave’s Gone, but How Much was REALLY His Fault?

[Cory’s note: Be sure to check out Tony’s work at The Confluence of the Three Rivers and The Steel Tradition, MVN’s Penguins and Steelers coverage, respectively.]
Thanks to Cory and Randy for allowing me to get back up on the Buccos’ soapbox for this post.
I’ll be the first one to admit, I was screaming for Dave Littlefield’s head not even two years after he was hired as the Pirates’ General Manager. By that time, in 2003, the Bucs’ string of losing seasons had reached double digits. I was screaming just about as loud as I was for Lloyd McClendon’s head.
But now that both McClendon and Littlefield are gone, and the losing streak will soon reach 15 years, I took some time to take a couple steps back to reflect.
Was Dave Littlefield that horrible of a General Manager, or is he now looking for a new job because he was handcuffed for six years ??
Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear; I’m not saying Littlefield should have been retained, I’m just throwing this out as a discussion topic.
First and foremost, let’s all not lose focus on the economics of baseball, combined with the penny pinching ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and how that ruined any chances the Pirates had to consistently win on an annual basis even before Spring Training began.
Major League Baseball can work in small market cities, if you run your franchise efficiently. The popular franchises to look at are Minnesota and Oakland. Well yes, that may be true, but Oakland sure as hell had to let Zito, Mulder, and Hudson go to free agency and/or trades, didn’t they ?? The franchise I look at nowadays is Milwaukee. Look at their starting lineup and see how many of their starters are homegrown as draft picks. Damn near the whole lot of position players; Fielder, Weeks, Hardy, Braun, Jenkins, Hall, and Hart. The only current starting position player not drafted by the Brewers is Johnny Estrada.
The Pirates used to have some decent homegrown players. Jason Kendall was a good catcher, although he turned into a singles hitter. Aramis Ramirez, although a very mediocre fielder, was blossoming into the power-hitting third baseman the Pirates still are looking for to this day. But the Bucs gave Kendall a $60 million contract, soon realized that he was eating a huge chunk of their self-imposed salary cap, and tried for two years to trade him, finally doing so in ’04 for Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes, who were gone themselves soon after. The Ramirez trade of ’03 was a cash dump with a capital “D”, quite possibly the low point for the Bucs since Francisco Cabrera’s slap hit in the ’92 NLCS Game 7. The Bucs got a bucket of warm spit in that deal.
The Pirates had to trade Kendall, and Ramirez, and Giles, and Schmidt. That’s why, in my view, it’s so difficult to give Dave Littlefield an honest assessment. Because, to be fair, we have no idea what restrictions were ever imposed on Littlefield by the Nuttings and/or McClatchy.
The Pirates haven’t had a top tier free agent come to Pittsburgh in a long, long time. Part of that certainly is attributed to the fact that no one realistically wants to go to a team that is a perennial loser. But the other part without a doubt is that there is no way that Pirates ownership was going to be offering prospective free agents close to the money that other teams could easily afford.
Was that Dave Littlefield’s fault ?? Maybe, maybe not.
The Pirates’ record in the MLB draft has been absolutely horrible. Nearly a yearly visit to Dr. James Andrews for Tommy John surgery for a top Pirates draft pick pitcher. Year after year of passing up now-MLB regulars in lieu of failed prospects. Completely ignoring any scouting in Latin America. This past draft, the real possibility that the Bucs purposely passed on the top prospects in the entire draft in order to not pay the multi-million dollar signing bonuses that those players would demand.
Was that Dave Littlefield’s fault ?? Overall, yes he was responsible, and the overall draft results still should have been much better. But if ownership dictates beforehand that the top prospects be passed over, how many of those draft picks really make the big club anyway ??
There were certainly the blunders though.
The 2003 MLB Rule 5 draft was one of the worst sets of transactions that I can ever remember as a baseball fan. Losing Chris Shelton, Rich Thompson, Jeff Bennett, Frank Brooks, and Jose Bautista with the first five picks of the draft made Littlefield the laughing stock of MLB.
The one aspect of Littlefield’s tenure that I cannot cut him any slack over is in reference to the trades and the player releases that happened during his watch. Yes, there have been some quite good trades. Bay/Perez for Giles looks great now, although it looks like the Pirates gave up on Perez too soon. The trade for both Sanchez and Gonzalez in ’03 from Boston was a good one as well.
But boy, were there the bad ones. MLB Trade Rumors has a comprehensive list of some of the worst trades. Jason Schmidt to the Giants for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. Chris Young, now one of the better arms in the National League with the Padres, was traded for Matt Herges, who didn’t even make the team out of spring training the following year. We already talked about the Ramirez trade for a bag of balls. Trading Gary Matthews, Jr. for cash. Releasing Bronson Arroyo.
Moreover, it became clear that Littlefield had lost any credibility with his General Manager colleagues. He became notorious for asking way too much in his trade negotiations, it had been widely reported at nearly every trade deadline and every winter meeting.
And so, the Pirates housecleaning continues. By the time this year’s winter meetings commence, they should have a new President, a new General Manager, and maybe a new Manager.
Dave Littlefield’s track record left little doubt that he did not deserve to be retained as the Pirates GM.
But unless Bob Nutting, or perhaps Kevin McClatchy, ever have revelations, let the cat out of the bag and tell Pirate fans just how tight the leash was around Littlefield’s neck for his various transactions, in my view anyway, the book on his tenure will never be quite closed.
Until we ever find that out, as the Tootsie Pop commercial used to say, “the world may never know.”

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3 Responses to “Dave’s Gone, but How Much was REALLY His Fault?”

  1. Cory Humes Says:

    Well put Tony, and thanks for chiming in. You’re always welcome at the Lumber Co.
    The discussions I had this afternoon and this evening all went the same direction as your post. Dave Littlefield probably wasn’t a very good GM. But at the same time, he isn’t the only one at fault. The guys over him — ownership, McClatch — and the guys under him — namely Creech and Graham — weren’t exactly the strongest supporting cast in the history of baseball.
    Getting rid of Littlefield was unavoidable, but it certainly shouldn’t make us believe that all’s well in Pirateland. Whomever is brought on as CEO/president will have his work cut out for him — same as the new GM. And Nutting, too.
    The Pirates will probably have to spend a little more, invest a little better and exercise a little patience. Moving on from DL was necessary, but it didn’t all of a sudden right the Pirate ship.

  2. Paul B. Says:

    Tony you left out one of DL’s worst moves. Not hiring Jim Leyland. Back in the early 90’s the Pirates announced they would not be able to compete with big market teams $. It took me all of five minutes to figure out the needed avenue for continued success. Invest heavy in the minors, trade players for prospects. We did the opposite. Traded Alou for zane Smith. We cut scouting 75%.Buffalo’s minor league team gave us the boot for lack of prospects and the money that should have been put into minors was used to prop up ML team. A joke I heard as a child went something like this,There are three white people on the continent of Africa, One missionary and two pirate scouts. It may have racist undertones, but it also made a good point about the Bucco’s tenacity when it came to looking for talent. May we return to those days of wisdom.

  3. sludgeworm Says:

    I agree whole heartedly. When Legendary Lloyd got fired there was dancing in the street,then Tracy wins the same number of games it appeared as though the manager was not the problem. I like to use this analogy, if my boss gives me a turd to polish, no matter how good I am at polishing, it’s still a turd.Littlefield made a number of bad moves but there is a veritable cornucopia of problems that need addressed.The past is etched in stone,but the future is unwritten…


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