Onwards and Sideways

Pittsburgh_Pirates3The Pirates are steamrolling towards the postseason, the only question is whether they can win the division and avoid the idiotic one-game wildcard playoff. Today they traded for Justin Morneau, who hasn’t played more than 135 games since 2008, has a below-average OBP, is 32 years old, clearly past his prime and a free agent at the end of the year. This means the Pirates are convinced Morneau can help them improve immediately.

It’s not that he’s a bad player, it’s that he plays first base and will take the spot of Garrett Jones, himself not a great player, also 32 years of age, but one who compares very favorably with Morneau.

Jones – .242BA/.300OBP/.424SLG
Morneau – .259BA/.315OBP/.426SLG

Morneau has hit four more home runs, but in 129 more at bats, and he is also slightly better defensively. Jones was also significantly better last season, which gives some hope that his numbers could improve before the end of the year. The Pirates gave up a decent fourth outfielder type in Alex Presley and a player to be named later, which is not a huge loss.

But I don’t get it. What is the point of trading away players if the team does not improve in the process? The move makes tremendous sense for Minnesota, they were losing Morneau at the end of the season anyway, why not pick up a couple players and save money in the process. The Pirates front-office mentality reeks of desperation, a decision borne from a season-long front row seat to a below-average offense and now overreacting with a trade that only hurts the team by costing them significantly more money in the short term (a huge issue for a small-market team) and weakening their ability to make moves down the line by dumping tradable assets for no positive return. Either that or the General Manager’s office likes to roll the dice based on gut feelings (yikes). Or worse, it’s an organization that doesn’t understand math.

In fairness, the Pirates can stick Jones in right field, so it’s not like they’re relegating Jones completely to the bench, but Presley (a young, inexpensive lefty) this season in the majors (in admittedly a very small sample size) has put up a .699 OPS. Nothing to stencil into a plaque at Cooperstown, but nothing awful, especially when compared to Jones and Morneau.

I’m not a big believer in team chemistry, I’d rather have a bunch of people who hate each other but are really good at baseball, but there’s always the risk that the trade backfires in ways that extend beyond the field. Why take the risk and make changes if the changes don’t make the team demonstrably better on paper?

The Pirates have had a great season. They’re making the playoffs for the first time in 20 years barring a plane crash and they’ve got as good a shot at winning the world series right now as any team in baseball, but the move today illustrates a mentality that portends a bleak long-term future for the franchise.

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