Hurdle’s Law vs Murphy’s Law—Fighting for the Future of the Pirates

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Pending a physical, the Pirates have agreed to a 2-year, $14 million contract with free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. This winter, in addition to Liriano, the Pirates have added catcher Russell Martin (2-years, $17 million) and retained pitcher Jason Grilli (2-years, $6.75 million negotiated with Grilli’s agent Gary Sheffield. Yes. That Gary Sheffield.) These moves follow last spring’s acquisition of A.J. Burnett from the Yankees and the summer trade for Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros. During the 2012 season, they also received cheap and talented youngsters Travis Snider from the Blue Jays and Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins.

Liriano’s acquisition mirrors the Pirates’ trade for Burnett. Liriano is a superiorly talented underachiever whose results will benefit from the National League and the big Pirates’ park. Looking at the club on the whole, the Pirates have a batch of young players that they’re in the process of surrounding with veterans who have playoff experience and have played for well-run, winning organizations.

The Pirates collapsed in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012; endured rightful public indignation at their assistant GM Kyle Stark implementing ridiculous physical and mental training techniques for their minor leaguers; and struggled to shake the hapless image that has been their albatross for two decades. The entire front office from team president Frank Coonelly to GM Neal Huntington to Stark were said to be in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the conclusion of 2012 and still aren’t completely secure, but owner Bob Nutting retained all three, staying the course along with manager Clint Hurdle and trying—not putting forth the pretense of trying, but actually trying—to win by spending some money.

They haven’t simply taken on onerous contracts of other clubs either, nor have they drastically overpaid in terms of years/dollars to get veteran help. The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees for low level non-prospects while paying a third of Burnett’s $16.5 million salary in 2012 and will pay half in 2013. They got Rodriguez from the Astros for three nondescript minor leaguers and are paying $8.5 million of his $13 million salary. Now with Liriano, the rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, James McDonald and as early as 2013, Gerrit Cole, the Pirates can compete. Andrew McCutchen is a true all-around star and MVP candidate; Pedro Alvarez has tremendous power; and with Sanchez, Martin, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, they’ll score enough to support that starting rotation. In the weakened National League Central—with only the Reds substantially better on paper—and the extra Wild Card, there’s an opening for the Pirates.

The front office is constantly on the precipice of doing something stupid and are discussing trading closer Joel Hanrahan. What they get for him and whom they use to replace him should be planned before pulling any trigger and I wonder whether Hanrahan’s pending free agency after 2013 is more of a catalyst to this talk than any potential return or concerns about the righty’s effectiveness. I would not trade Hanrahan unless there are extenuating circumstances or the offer is too lucrative to turn down. They’re going to need him.

As always, there’s a dubious nature surrounding the Pirates’ plans and intentions and much of their rise has been due to a vast number of high draft picks and not overwhelming wisdom from the front office. But in spite of the collateral stories and questioning glances, there’s much to be enthusiastic about in Pittsburgh and it’s not Sidney Crosby (if the NHL ever plays again) or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s McCutchen, Cole and the other youngsters the Pirates have developed along with their shiny new veterans. Players are no longer shunning the Pirates or going to Pittsburgh because they have nowhere else to go. Given the team’s reputation around baseball as a wasteland where young players run out the clock to free agency and veterans go for a final job, that new perception is not a small thing.

There’s still that hovering feeling of Murphy’s Law that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, particularly because of the still shaky status of the front office and the owner’s blindness to the harsh and exhausting realities of being a baseball player. It’s highly possible that Nutting’s expectations will outweigh what the team can accomplish and he’ll let his displeasure be known early if the team isn’t markedly better immediately. At that point, changes might be made in the front office.

Even with the looming dysfunction, they have enough talent to rise from the ashes of their 2011-2012 stumbles, use them as learning experiences, and contend for seven months rather than four. Murphy’s Law says that the Pirates will remain the Pirates, but that’s being counteracted by Hurdle’s Law—the law that dictates not taking crap and not making excuses.

They have the talent to win. And they just might.

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How Are Super-Long Contracts Good For Sports?

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Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed matching 13-year contracts with the Minnesota Wild reportedly worth a total of $196 million. This follows Sidney Crosby’s contract with the Penguins for 12-years at $104.4 million. Crosby is just getting over serious concussion problems which would presumably make the contract uninsurable. This madness appeared to begin with the Islanders’ retrospectively idiotic 15-year, $67.5 million contract they gave to Rick DiPietro in 2006 for which they’ve gotten absolutely nothing mostly due to injuries.

I’m not well-versed enough in hockey to be able to judge the wisdom of the matching deals the Wild just game to Parise and Suter, but as sports has tried to rein in salaries in a multitude of ways with caps, edicts and punishments, teams have found creative ways to circumvent those caps or to delay them from maturing. One of those methods has been to give contracts that, for athletes, are giant rolls of the dice.

Parise is 28, Suter is 27. Basically the Wild will be paying these players until they’re 41 and 40. For every Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios who maintain production until they’re 40 and beyond, there’s an Eric Lindros, Pat LaFontaine and Chris Pronger who have their careers shortened due to head injuries; there’s a Peter Forsberg who had to retire from the NHL at 34 to play in the less violent Swedish league and made a brief comeback to the NHL and retired again at 37; there’s a Cam Neely whose degenerative hip condition forced him to retire at 30.

Baseball has taken to this contractual trend. In recent years Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, CC Sabathia and Joe Mauer have signed deals of 7 years and beyond. Alex Rodriguez is the perfect example of an elite player whose skills are eroding but will be paid as an elite player for another five years after this one. It’s risky with position players and deranged with pitchers. Teams have it in mind that they’re probably going to be paying their players for a year or two in which they can’t play, but that doesn’t help them when it happens; when the inevitable decline occurs.

The concept of offering more years to spread the money out makes sense, but of course it developed that the players wanted high annual salaries and the 7-10 year deals.

It’s one thing to give that contract to someone working for Apple. If they’re creating salable products that will last, it makes sense. The likelihood of a debilitating injury or condition to a person who’s not using his bodily skills to achieve his mandate are extremely small. But for an athlete? Paying them until they’re in their late-30s and early-40s is financial suicide especially in the era of PED testing and scrutiny.

Eventually those contracts—not the players but the contracts—are marketable and movable because the deals are winding down and they can be traded for another overpaid, underperforming player so the process can be started all over again.

The Rays are a club that has been pointed to as a paragon of fiscal sanity and fearlessness in trading players in their prime to restock the farm system. But it’s not a great example. Functioning in a unique vacuum, the Rays’ circumstances of having little money to work with; not much of a media and fan presence haranguing them to do certain things; that they have an owner and GM who trust one another and are completely on the same page; and have had success doing what they’re doing to validate when they choose to trade a Matt Garza for prospects gives them freedom that a Brian Cashman doesn’t have; that Theo Epstein didn’t have with the Red Sox.

Recently a “talent evaluator” from a club other than the Mets supposedly suggested that the team should consider trading R.A. Dickey while he’s at his “high value”.

The Mets are in contention; Dickey is a remarkable story; he’s a fan attraction; and he’s pitching brilliantly.

Trade him? Really? How’s that going to be explained and what could they possibly get to make it worth the fallout?

It’s remarkably easy to be Mr. Fearless when you’re little more than a voice in the woods giving advice to the actual decisionmakers. It’s the GMs and assistant GMs who have an owner hanging over them and saying, “we have to keep X player because the fans come specifically to see him and he makes us a lot of gate money”; or to have the ignorant, agenda-driven media following editorial orders and stoking fan response to sell newspapers, attract callers and beget webhits.

Making courageous statements from the sideline isn’t the same thing as having to answer for them when they’re implemented. A decision might be the right one and it could take 3-5 years to be accurately gauged. By then the GM who made the move might’ve been fired long ago.

The intention for the salary constraints was to prevent the larger clubs with more money from swallowing up the smaller clubs who didn’t have the means to compete, but teams and executives are constantly looking for solutions and loopholes to beat the system. That’s what Scott Boras is currently doing with the draconian draft rules that are cutting into a chunk of his business.

Bet that he’ll come up with a way to beat that system.

Bet that teams are thinking of ways to get their hands on players who aren’t willing to adhere to those draft rules.

The intentions of the caps and limits were reasonable, but that doesn’t mean they’re wise.

The Wild got their men and they’ll have them until they’re old. Only time will tell whether today’s splash will have been worth it. Logic and history says that the answer is no.

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