It all started when I went to Bodega with Jonny Raymond, bought some pretty swell kicks while Jonny purchased the Orioles "Fuck Face" t-shirt (which for some reason is blue). We then stopped at our friendly neighborhood Boloco for some burritos that, according to Jonny, are bland and tasteless and will never live up to the standards that California has set. Jonny himself has a hard time living up to the standards that California weather has set, and he would not stop bitching about the single-digit degree temperature outside.
While enjoying our hot wraps, Jon received a telephone call from a friend back home, who broke him the news about the aforementioned Mike Dunleavy trade. Jonny went into an ecstatic giggling fit, similar to the one he went into on Saturday night upon showing a bunch of inebriated people the Reading Rainbow theme song at five in the morning. I laughed at the concept of the NBA, told him I was happy for him, and glumly said I wished Dave Littlefield would do something.
Well, I got home at about 4:30, sat down at my computer, and opened Internet Explorer. My homepage on I.E. is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website, and lo and behold, the leading story was: PIRATES ON THE VERGE OF LANDING LAROCHE.
Over the next few hours, I anxiously clung to my computer, waiting to hear further details. Who were the other players to be involved, if any? What new and creative way would Dave Littlefield find to screw up this seemingly done deal? It became an event almost worthy of liveblogging.
As it turned out, the full trade ended up with the Pirates receiving Adam LaRoche and minor leaguer Jamie Romak, with Mike Gonzalez and stud Brent Lillibridge heading to Atlanta. I had intended to do some sort of blog outlining the pros and cons of each aspect of the deal for the Pirates, and I signed on to Blogger to see that Jonny had basically done the same thing for his team's trade. We've got the mojo working, or something.
We'll start with the PROS.
Acquiring Adam LaRoche:
- First and foremost, Adam LaRoche gives the Pirates something they have not had in a long time, that being a left-handed hitter who can hit the baseball over the fence on a consistent basis. Since Brian Giles, the team has had absolutely nothing in the way of left-handed bats, which quickly became the team's most painful and glaring need (and there are a lot of those on a team that hasn't had a winning season since I was six years old). LaRoche hits home runs, draws his fair share of walks, and still hits for a decent average. There is nothing not to like about his offensive profile apart from the fact that he whiffs a ton.
- LaRoche is still relatively young, entering his age-27 season, and relatively cheap, entering his first year of arbitration. We'll be getting him just coming into his prime, and it's not hard to envision signing him to a long-term deal if all goes well this season.
- PNC Park is built for Adam LaRoche, whose hit chart shows him to be a pull hitter, though not quite a dead-pull hitter. The Clemente porch will do him some favors. It'll also turn some homers into doubles, but those aren't exactly bad, either.
- The trickle-down effect: just having a hitter of LaRoche's caliber in the lineup automatically strengthens the rest of an offense that has been among the worst in baseball over the past few years. For one thing, it gives the team at least a little bit of lefty-righty alternation so opposing managers will have to burn more relievers. For another thing, it gives Jason Bay some semblance of protection, which he has never had since coming over to the Pirates. It bumps a hitter who's not so good from the lineup. At this point, the leading victim appears to be Jose Castillo. Logically, this strengthens the whole lineup, although Jim Tracy will still attempt to sabotage it by inexplicably batting Jack Wilson second all year long. Finally, it also gives Tracy a lot more options as far as the bench is concerned, if guys like Castillo and Ryan Doumit are available to pinch-hit instead of Pointless and Stepson.
- By all accounts, Adam LaRoche is capable of playing first base like he isn't physically handicapped, something Pirates fans have not been able to witness since the Kevin Young era.
Trading Mike Gonzalez:
- Gonzalez is turning 29 this season, and has yet to prove he can be reliable, health-wise. He still hasn't been able to get very far over the 50-inning hump in the Major Leagues due to various maladies.
- The Pirates have so many relief pitchers it's absurd. Relief pitching is far and away the deepest part of the organization. A closer is worthless without leads to protect, and you won't have leads to protect if you don't score runs. Thus, a closer is the last thing a team like the Pirates should be worrying about, especially when they have four potential closers lined up to replace him, and Adam LaRoche figures to help a lot with the whole run-scoring thing.
- Really, the 9th inning was getting kind of boring. Let's see some Mike Williams-esque life-shortening techniques again.
Trading Brent Lillibridge:
- To be honest there really is nothing good about losing Lillibridge, except for the fact that, like most minor league players, he's far from a sure thing, and middle infield is one of the few positions where the Pirates do have at least a little depth. The Bucs still have Brian Bixler, and although I like Lillibridge a lot better, they have a very similar profile.
Acquiring Jamie Romak:
- Romak is exactly the kind of player the Pirates have shunned during the Dave Littlefield administration, especially with Ed Creech at the helm of the scouting department. He can hit home runs and draw a walk, two aspects at which the Pirates suck at throughout the organization, but he's probably average at best defensively and strikes out a ton, two things that tend to deter the Pirates brain trust.
- He'll be 21 this season, and most likely playing at high-A Lynchburg. That's not a bad timetable to be on, especially when you take into account the fact that Nyjer Morgan is turning 27 this summer and has yet to play above AA yet is still considered a prospect by people within the organization.
- He's Canadian.
Now, the CONS
Acquiring Adam LaRoche:
- He's a little older than some people would like, mostly proponents of the Oakland A's train of thought where established Major Leaguers are traded for high ceiling AAA and AA guys who are just about to make it to the bigs. As I'll explain later, though, this strategy would not work well given the Pirates' current situation.
- We'd like to see him do it again before we proclaim him the savior of baseball in Pittsburgh. His .915 OPS with the Braves last year was his second-highest EVER in professional baseball, his .561 slugging percentage his career best by nearly fifty points. Hitters do mature as they get older and more experienced, but there's a chance (albeit slight) that LaRoche's outstanding 2006 was a fluke, and he'll be merely pretty good. Which would still be a huge improvement, but somewhat of a disappointment considering what the Pirates have had to give up.
- The lefty-righty thing I mentioned earlier does mean games against Tony La Russa will be that much more unbearable to watch.
Trading Mike Gonzalez
- Gonzo is lights out, period. The guy has a 2.37 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 155 2/3 career innings. By definition, he was the best closer in baseball last year, as his save conversion rate was a perfect 100%.
- The Pirates are certainly not lacking in candidates to replace Gonzalez as the 9th-inning guy, but it seems the most likely will be Salomon Torres, which in my opinion would be a horrible underutilization of the guy. Over the last three seasons, Sal has proven to be the most durable, consistent reliever in baseball. He and his rubber arm thrive when asked to pitch nearly every day. To limit him to 60-70 appearances would be a huge waste. One of the kids - Bayliss, Sharpless, Capps - could probably get the job done just as efficiently, and Bayliss and Sharpless have more prototypical closer "stuff" and K rates.
Trading Brent Lillibridge
- Where do I begin? Lillibridge has surpassed even local hero and first-round draft pick Neil Walker to move into the top 3 on some Pirates top 10 prospects lists. He's steadily risen through the ranks of the system, primed to make his AA debut next year after just a season and a half in the pros. He does pretty much everything well: he hits (.289/.391/.467 in 644 minor league at-bats, despite an extremely mediocre short-season debut in 2005) he walks (.400+ OBP in 200+ AB stints with Hickory and Lynchburg in 2006), he steals at a reasonable clip (53/66 between Hickory and Lynchburg), and he plays solid defense. He even started flashing the power a little bit this season. Profiles very similarly to another Braves middle infielder, Rafael Furcal. PECOTA creamed itself over this guy, and I can't blame them.
- On a personal note, I road tripped to State College/Altoona in early September for games 3 and 4 of the Eastern League semifinals between the Altoona Curve and the Akron Aeros. Since Blair County Ballpark was about to shut down for the winter, there was a crazy clearance sale on all Curve murchandise, and I bought a generic Curve t-shirt and had it customised with Lillibridge's name and number. At the time, Lillibridge had technically been added to the Curve roster, but he was there primarily just to get an up close and personal look at the level of competition in AA. As such, he didn't even get into a game, but I purchased the shirt in preparation for the 2007 season. After game 4, my companions and I decided on a whim to check out the players' parking lot. I was wearing the Lillibridge shirt, and who should be one of the few players to bother stopping to chat with us than the kid himself. His eyes lit up when I turned around and showed him his name on the shirt, and he signed my scorebook. I don't exactly feel stupid for buying the shirt now, especially since absolutely no one saw this coming, but it is certainly very disheartening. Every time I really, really get behind a Pirates prospect, something bad always seems to happen.
Acquiring Jamie Romak
- The main downside to Romak is that he's right-handed, and the Pirates could still use a few lefty-hitting prospects sprinkled throughout the system here and there. He also strikes out a ton. It's a little early to be writing him off as the next Brad Eldred, but he's the type of player who could struggle as pitching becomes more advanced in the higher levels of the minors.
- He's not Brent Lillibridge.
As much as I despise the man, I do have to say that in all honestly, Dave Littlefield did a pretty nice job to pull this one out. Going into the season without having acquired Brian O'Neill's mythical "Lefty McThump" would have been an unmitigated disaster. Going into the season having had to settle for another aging stopgap like Geoff Jenkins would have been pretty close, given the sour taste still in the fan base's mouth from the Jeromy Burnitz experience. Getting a hitter like LaRoche was absolutely imperative for just about all aspects of the Pittsburgh Pirates, both on the field and off.
I also have to admit that I'm impressed with DL's ability to compromise in this situation. It seemed like the trade would never get consummated because of the haggling over what extra player the Bucs should throw in, with the names of Paul Maholm, Chris Duffy, and Jose Castillo all being bandied about. Littlefield was hesitant to give up two Major Leaguers for one Major Leaguer, and rightly so, I think (although Castillo would not have been such a great loss).
People have complained about Littlefield's hesitancy to part with players with significant Major League playing time, but I do think that in this situation, he was absolutely right, misguided though his intentions may be. At this point, the Pirates farm system is just about completely barren apart from Andrew McCutchen and Brad Lincoln (who, as a Pirates pitching prospect, is still liable to have his arm fall off any day now) and maybe Neil Walker if he can get his shit together. This is more indicative of the horrendous drafting under Ed Creech than anything, but the fact remains that the Mickey White draftees (White was demoted, then resigned in 2002) are all just reaching the bigs now, namely the starting pitchers, and there is nothing coming down the line behind them.
If the Pirates are going to win again any time soon, what they're going to do it with is, for the most part, already there. The Pirates roster is loaded with 23-29 year olds currently in or just about to enter their prime. With next to nothing in the way of internal help for the forseeable future, the Bucs essentially have about a three year window in which to do something positive. This why I firmly believe that having players who can contribute at the Major League level right now is of the utmost importance, and why it was worth Dave Littlefield playing hardball, even with players as mediocre as Paul Maholm or Chris Duffy.
Taken purely out of context, I would say that Gonzalez and Maholm or Duffy for LaRoche would be pretty fair. But the Pirates don't have immediate adequate replacements for either of those guys, and can't afford to wait until they do come along (although the case could be made that the team could have made do in center field with some wacky combination of Nate McLouth and Jose Bautista or whoever else for a year and a half until McCutchen is ready).
So, as much as I hate giving up Brent Lillibridge, it seems like a noble sacrifice on the part of Dave Littlefield. Granted, the Pirates, being the stupendous talent evaluators that they are, probably value Lillibridge a whole lot less than the rest of everyone else who's ever watched a baseball game. But I think Littlefield really did do an admirable job to draw John Schuerzholtz's attention away from the big league guys and to dangle someone as tantalizing as Lillibridge in order to get it done. Not only that, but he made sure the Pirates came away with something else, and not the typical crappy, short-lived middle reliver that the Pirates almost always get as a "throw-in." The deal as a whole represents the sort of outside-the-box thinking that Littlefield has never, ever shown himself to be able to do throughout his tenure.
My final evaluation of this trade is that the Pirates are now set up better for the long run, since the "long run" in their case is only the next two or three years. This is the first time people have legitimate cause for optimism going into the season in a long time, and you need to look no further than the fact that there will be practically no veteran stopgaps on this team. For the first time in just about forever, almost every major contributor is going to be here for the long haul.
And of course, since I can't make a post involving Dave Littlefield without some sort of negativity, I discovered a pretty amazing blurb about Jamie Romak while doing some research when I first heard his name this afternoon.
From the London (Ontario) Free Press story about Romak getting drafted in 2003:
I was afraid Pittsburgh would step up because they'd shown the most interest. I was so happy to go to Atlanta.
Yeah, yeah, it's funny that he didn't want to go to the Pirates because the Pirates suck, and he was probably just spinning his own situation positively anyway like any player would, blah blah blah. That's all well and good, but I want to point out the part where it says the Pirates had shown the most interest in him prior to the draft.
For those of you unfamiliar with Dave Littlefield's tactics, if he sets his eye on a player, he is not going to rest until he gets him. Littlefield originally wanted Xavier Nady instead of Jason Bay in the Brian Giles deal, but Kevin Towers wouldn't budge (thank God). Three years later, Dave finally ended up with his man. Another example is when Littlefield was saved from himself by the Cubs outbidding the Pirates for Jeromy Burnitz prior to the 2005 season. One offseason later, Littlefield was hellbent on getting Jeromy to play for his team, and did not stop until he had done so. Dave apparently never forgot about Jamie Romak, either.
And now, I bid you farewell and good night.