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2006 Pittsburgh Pirates Team Review by Charlie Wilmoth

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Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout agreed to write a review of the Pirates season for us, so here's the second installment in the guest reviews. Charlie knows his stuff, so I'm happy to have him do the honors. Enjoy!

Another year, another disappointment: in 2006, the Pirates capped off their 14th consecutive losing season. BTBS asked me to write a wrap-up piece about the Pirates that analyzed what went wrong and what went right. It wasn't enough to simply write, "Almost everything, and almost nothing," so I had to elaborate.

What went wrong?

Well, let's see. The Pirates finished 28 games below .500. Their offense was worse than every team's except Tampa's. They flushed $15 million down the toilet on Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa and Sean Casey. They signed their shortstop, Jack Wilson, to a horrible $20 million contract before the season, and then Wilson showed up in camp bulkier and therefore less able to play good defense. (His inability to hit was not affected.) Jose Castillo's bat disappeared after May, and his defense was unexpectedly hideous - he finished dead last among qualifying second baseman in zone rating. Centerfielder Chris Duffy posted a .531 OPS in April and May, had a disagreement with the Pirates' coaches, then briefly quit baseball after being sent to Class AAA. Former ace Oliver Perez completely lost his 97-MPH heater, and he posted a 6.63 ERA for the Bucs before being traded. Kip Wells was either injured or awful most of the year. The Bucs capped off a hilariously awful trading deadline by dealing fan favorite Craig Wilson to the Yankees for Shawn "B.P." Chacon. The supposed strength of the Pirates organization is its starting pitching, but Chacon and minor league journeymen Marty McLeary and Shane Youman were all in the starting rotation in September. Meanwhile, two pitchers general manager Dave Littlefield cast away for literally nothing, Bronson Arroyo and Chris Young, finished fourth and sixth in the National League in ERA. The players on the Bucs' Class AA affiliate were older than the Florida Marlins. The Pirates had one player (shortstop Brent Lillibridge) among the eighty-plus members of Baseball America's minor league All-Star teams. It's been reported that the Pirates' ownership will lower payroll next year.

Other than that, everything went great.

What went right?

Well, you know, there are a couple ways to look at this. One is to do the obvious - to list the players who actually did well. For example, Freddy Sanchez won the job he always deserved after Randa tanked, and Sanchez rode his exceptional contact-making ability to the National League batting title, posting an .851 OPS along the way and playing terrific defense at third. Jason Bay was awesome as usual. Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Ronny Paulino, Jose Bautista and Matt Capps were all good in their first full seasons.

The bullpen in general was good, in fact - closer Mike Gonzalez was money the entire year despite battling control problems at the beginning of the season, and Salomon Torres was dominant in the second half while tying a Pirates record by appearing in 94 games on the year.

All that seems irrelevant, though. I know BTBS is "a sabermetrics blog," but it seems a little silly to obsess over Mike Gonzalez's RSAA here. If you're a Pirates fan, that stuff is fun but hardly important; if you're a fan of another team, that stuff is only relevant if you're salivating at the possibility of your team acquiring Gonzalez at the 2007 trading deadline, by which time the Bucs will have already tanked.

So let's back up here: so the Pirates had a decent bullpen. Who cares? You can massage the numbers however you like - the difference between a good season from Gonzalez and a mediocre one is, at most, a few games.

As much as "sabermetrics" have been credited for Billy Beane's success in Oakland, the major differences between the A's and the Pirates are really pretty simple. The primary goal of the A's is to win baseball games, and, therefore, to make money. The Pirates' primary goal is simply to make money, preferably as soon as possible. And thanks to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the less the Pirates spend on their teams, the more money they make through revenue sharing.

In the book Baseball Between the Numbers, the Baseball Prospectus authors show that, by yearly wins and losses, the Pirates were the most consistent team in the majors from 1993 to 2005 - more consistent than even the Braves, who won every AL East title there was to win during that time. In the last 13 years, the Pirates won an average of 69.4 games per year. In 2006, they won 67.

This is not an accident. The primary goal of the Pirates seems to be to avoid completely embarrassing themselves in any one season. If the Pirates' goal were to win a division title, or even to finish above .500, they would trade players like Gonzalez and Torres. Relievers are more fungible and less reliable than other players. Gonzalez and Torres are terrific pitchers who could potentially be difference-makers for a contending team, but it's unlikely that they'll be that good by the time the Pirates could potentially be competitive.

The Pirates, it seems, are fine with that. They aren't trying to win division titles in the future. If they were, do you think Littlefield would have had a job after the 2003 Rule 5 debacle? After he lost Arroyo, Young and Duaner Sanchez for nothing? After he acquired Randall Simon to block Craig Wilson - twice? After signing Raul Mondesi and Chris Stynes in 2004, and trading an actual prospect for Benito Santiago? After years of poor drafting and scouting? After dropping $15 million for Burnitz, Randa and Casey?

Not a chance. Instead, the Pirates are trying to avoid losing 100 games now, keeping as many people as possible coming through the turnstiles while collecting big money through revenue sharing. The Pirates organization is a perpetual mess as far as its baseball operations are concerned, but the management is just fine with that. The management's goals for the team are totally different from those of the fans.

In spite of that, fans keep coming up with reasons to find hope for a team that, almost by design, has none. In 1997, for example, it was a fluke year of semi-contention in a terrible division; in 2003 it was the cheapo signings of Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs and Jeff Suppan; and in 2005 it was the fact that the Pirates miraculously had a .500 record in mid-June.

In 2006, the Pirates were 30-60 at the All-Star break. After the break, they were 37-35. Several weeks before the season ended, an outbreak of hope occurred in the Pittsburgh media and on Pirates message boards. Surely, that sort of turnaround had to represent an improvement, didn't it?

Well, no. Here are the Pirates' runs scored and runs allowed before and after the break:

Scored Allowed
Before All-Star 411 474
After All-Star 279 323

There was no improvement in runs scored and allowed between the first half and the second. There were no meaningful overall improvements in other key indicators, either, such as OPS versus OPS against. The Pirates' pitching was better in the second half, but, thanks largely to disappearing acts by Jose Castillo and Jose Bautista, their hitting was much worse. As Bill James and others teach us, teams can't count on outperforming runs scored, runs allowed and the components thereof. Those aren't skills.

The Pirates, then, did not improve from the first half to the second. They just had better luck. Sadly, that won't stop tons of fans, and even some local journalists, from imagining that the Pirates' apparent second-half turnaround proves that there are better days ahead. The Pirates' ownership thrives on this sort of false hope.

The reality of the Pirates' situation is very simple, though, and considerably less rosy. The Pirates are built to win between 65 and 75 games. Barring a massive change of heart by the ownership or a sale of the team, they will continue to be built that way. If the Pirates somehow have a .500 season in the near future, it won't have been by design, and it won't last.

So the thing to hope for if you're a Pirate fan is for the ownership group led by Kevin McClatchy and the Nutting family to sell the team. Until then, what actually happens on the field is somewhat unimportant. "Sabermetrics" is definitely unimportant.

So, to return to the question of what went right this year, the most positive developments weren't directly baseball-related. One of them came on Opening Day, when actor Michael Keaton threw the first pitch, then criticized the Pirates' ownership in the press. As spring wore on, rumors continued to swirl about Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban buying the Pirates. Then, with the All-Star Game in town and the Bucs already 30 games below .500, the Pirates earned a ton of negative national press. During the season, a group called Irate Fans formed, sold hundreds of T-shirts with slogans criticizing the Pirates' ownership, staged events, drummed up lots of local press, and garnered tens of thousands of hits on their website. And on the last day of the season, Dave Littlefield was booed when he took to the field to address the fans. For the year, the Pirates' attendance was fourth worst in baseball.

It is highly unlikely that anything will change until this ownership group sells the team. If there's anything that fans can do to make that happen sooner rather than later, well, they're trying. There's a proud tradition of baseball in Pittsburgh, and the entire city will be better off once this ownership group stops tarnishing it.

Thanks once again to Charlie Wilmoth for writing this review. You can read Charlie's primary work at Bucs Dugout