Losing count: Pirates’ awful run sets record

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PITTSBURGH (AP)—They said the losing had to stop, and it didn’t. They said the familiar pattern of a player getting good and then getting gone would stop, and it didn’t.

Instead, the losing didn’t slow down for the Pittsburgh Pirates, it increased. The players kept leaving en masse. Attendance dipped yet again.

CubsPiratesBaseball
WHEN WILL IT END—Pittsburgh Pirates fans Ben Samson, left, and Iliya Udler, of Pittsburgh, hold signs at the end of another Pirates loss, 4-2 to the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park Sept. 7.

Flip the calendar, shuffle the roster—they’re still the same old Pirates.

Just two of the eight starting position players projected at the start of spring training was in place when the season ended, but it made no difference.

The Pirates are the franchise that sets the standard for losing in American pro sports, and they certainly kept up the pace during a dismal 99-loss season in which the roster kept changing but not much else did.

Just days after team president Frank Coonelly said of his own club, “We expect this team, this year, to win,” the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Barely a week after the Pirates angered their shrinking fan base by trading their most popular player, Nate McLouth, mere months after giving him a contract extension, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

Yes, welcome to what’s jokingly being referred to as the City of Champions—and the Pirates. They didn’t win many games, but the Pirates certainly provided a lot of laughs.

Jay Leno made fun of them—in two different time slots. “Saturday Night Live” parodied them in a skit in which the Pirates mythically won the World Series (30 years after they last accomplished it). During the G-20 summit, a fan waded through an anarchists’ rally with a sign protesting the Pirates’ record-breaking 17th consecutive losing season. Former Pirates pitcher Sean Burnett called them the “laughingstock” of baseball.

Yuk, yuk, yuk. The Pirates’ only problem was their latest bumbling act of a season was real, and their 62-99 record during the second worst of the 17 straight losing seasons illustrates how far they still must go to stop being an all-too-convenient punch line.

Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Nyjer Morgan? Gone. John Grabow, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny? Gone. McLouth, Burnett and Adam LaRoche? Gone, too, all in deals that brought only prospects—some promising, some marginal—in return.

Neal Huntington, the ever-optimistic general manager who has few financial resources to work with other than a competitive draft day budget, acknowledges 2010 and 2011 could be tough, too.

This season was bad enough, with a late-season stretch of 23 losses in 26 games, no player with more than 64 RBIs (Andy LaRoche), no pitcher with more than 11 wins (Ross Ohlendorf and Zach Duke) and a closer (Matt Capps) with a 5.80 ERA and 8 losses.

For the second year in a row, the Pirates collapsed after their roster was gutted by trade deadline deals; a year ago, they dropped 41 of their final 60, this time it 46 of the final 65 (including 27 of the final 36). Their 22-58 road record was their worst since the NL adopted a 162-game season in 1962.

Manager John Russell (129-194 in two seasons) is repeatedly praised by management for his calm, never-get-rattled approach, but some players said he is virtually noncommunicative for long stretches. Others are unhappy that Russell constantly refuses to argue close calls, creating the impression the players are on their own—and that the Pirates are a team that can be pushed around.

Russell and Huntington are unsigned past next season, but Huntington said 2009 can be blamed on him, even though owner Bob Nutting has shown no signs of being willing to spend the money necessary to field a competitive team.

“People are shocked we didn’t make staff changes because we lost 90-plus games again this year; it’s the era of human sacrifice, someone has to go if the team doesn’t win,” Huntington said. “Well, the reality is the losses this year are on me. We took the veteran players on this group and we put a group of young players out there and it is not fair to evaluate this staff based on wins and losses.”

Russell had a similar view.

“Take away the wins and losses—which you can’t, because that’s what we’re about—I think some guys made some good strides,” he said.

There were glimmers of hope. Andrew McCutchen (.286, 12 homers, 54 RBIs) played every day but one after McLouth left and looks like a fixture in center field. Garrett Jones, a 28-year-old minor league free agent, hit .293 with 21 homers and 44 RBIs in half a season. Ohlendorf (11-10, 3.92) was a good pitcher on a bad team. Rookie right-hander Jesse Chavez pitched in 73 games, most of them effectively. Charlie Morton (5-9, 4.55) showed flashes after being dealt by Atlanta.

Starting next season, the Pirates are counting on their waiting-in-the-wings minor leaguers—third baseman Pedro Alvarez, outfielder Jose Tabata, right-hander Brad Lincoln—to start arriving. However, no franchise bats 1.000 with its prospects, and the Pirates have little room for failure by their few top prospects.

They would appear to have millions to spend on talent beyond the estimated $28 million already committed to their current players, yet Huntington said that while it’s possible the Pirates might sign multiple free agents, there’s a chance they won’t sign any.

“As tough as it is to acknowledge during a 90-plus loss season, we are going in the right direction,” Huntington said. “On paper, it certainly feels like we took a step back…But 2009 was great growth year, though we realize fans don’t know that. It is going to show itself at the major league level in terms of wins and losses as we move forward.”

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