Prior to the 2006 season, there was speculation that the Pirates would hire Jim Leyland as their new manager. The team had fired manager Lloyd McClendon near the end of the previous season, and Leyland was known to be interested in returning to the dugout. However, he ended up with Detroit, and Dave Littlefield chose Jim Tracy to lead the Bucs. Many fans were upset with the team for failing to pursue Leyland, and the anger grew as the Tigers reached the World Series in his first season. Meanwhile, Tracy led the Pirates to a 67-95 finish, good for fifth place in the National League Central.
Most pointed to Leyland as being the difference between the 2005 Tigers (71-91) and the 2006 version (95-67, World Series appearance). Some even claimed that the Pirates could have had similar success with Leyland steering the ship. While I would agree that Leyland is a superior manager to Tracy, he was not the most significant difference between the two franchises.
The most significant difference was the talent. The 2006 Tigers had a team ERA of 3.84, tops in Major League Baseball. The team also had a .777 OPS, 11th in the league. The argument can be made that Leyland and his staff had some influence over those statistics, but the reality is that the players were the ones that performed. The Pirates were going to lose 90+ games each of the past two seasons, regardless of who was filling out the lineup card.
That brings us to 2008. Yesterday, the Pirates introduced John Russell as their new manager. It will be Russell’s first opportunity to manage at the Major League level, and some are criticizing the hire due to his lack of experience. These skeptics would have preferred someone with a pedigree, someone that has proven that he can be successful managing at the highest level. They saw it as a cost-cutting maneuver, one that reeks of the McClatchy era that we have grown so accustomed. That assumption might be correct. But is that really a bad thing?
The Pirates are not going to be good in 2008. If the current core is kept together, there is a chance to be mediocre. If we assume that Neal Huntington will begin dealing veterans for prospects in an attempt to rebuild, it might be an extremely long season. Why should the team pay top dollar for an established manager just to potentially win 70 games instead of 67? That is how the Pirates have operated for many years (see Burnitz, Armas, Morris, etc.), and it is something that we hope will be changing with the new regime. Management should be cutting costs, they should be playing for the future, and they should not be concerned with the performance of the team in 2008.
Russell has had success managing in the minor leagues and is respected for his work with young players. I know it sounds suspiciously like a punch line that we have heard repeatedly for 15 years, but the Pirates should be treated like a AAAA team in the next season or two. The main concern should be the motivation and development of younger players. Huntington will have the important task: adding as much talent as possible to the minor league system. Russell’s responsibilities are trivial in comparison.