Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pirates starting over... again

I hate to write it. You hate to read it. We hate to experience it... again, but the Pirates are wiping the slate clean and rebuilding. Its not the rebuilding that bugs me as so much as it is the people doing it. When you rebuild, you start with good young players. Guys that will still be around when the rebuilding is complete and you are contending for a championship. What bothers me is every year at this time, the Pirates trade away everyone of any value and you're basically starting from the ground each spring. Rome wasn't build in a day and the Pirates won't be built in one season.

Lets take 2003 for example. That year the Pirates looked pretty decent. They were much better than the 2001 team that finished with an embarrassing 100 loss season. They had two great hitters in the middle of the lineup, Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez. Pirates fans had heard about the greatness of Ramirez for years and how he was going to be one of the cornerstones of the franchise. In his first full season (2001) he had a big year with 34 HR and 112 RBI. The next year, his numbers dropped a bit due to injuries, but in 2003 he was right back to where he was. Management decided that with the team at 44-53 and 9.5 games out of first, nothing special was on the horizon and decided that they would trade away players. That's fine. Reggie Sanders was a 35 year old journeyman who was swinging a hot bat that year, plenty of teams would love to add him to their lineup for a post season push. Plus, he was playing with just a one year deal anyways. Kenny Lofton was another veteran having a solid year that could be traded for prospects. But instead of trading one of their older expendable players, they trade 25 year old Ramirez! The young cornerstone that you could build around. On July 22nd, 2003 the Pirates threw away a franchise player along with Kenny Lofton to the Cubs, a division rival, and in return received pitcher Matt Bruback (who never made it to the majors), 2B Bobby Hill (who was batting .167 in Triple A at the time) and SS Jose Hernandez who led the league in strikeouts. What a slap in the face. Not only did they trade away a critical piece to the rebuilding process, but they get the worst players the Cubs had in their organization.

So let's fast forward to 5 years later. The team is still bad, but its showing signs of improvement. A 25th round draft pick named Nate McLouth was a godsend. He could hit for contact, hit for power, he was fast, he was good in the field, he was the total package. They also had the X-Man, Xavier Nady showing that he could be counted on to be an everyday outfielder. Catcher Ryan Doumit surprised a lot of people with his power and is one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. Despite not winning a lot of games, this team had a pretty good offensive lineup. Nate McLouth, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady were statistically one of the best outfields in baseball in 2008. Add Doumit and 2006 batting champ Freddy Sanchez to that lineup and 5 out of the 8 position players are pretty good. Just imagine if they had kept Ramirez. I was legitimately interested in the Pirates again. They weren't winning, but they had an offense. Going into the next year, all they would need to focus on is pitching. However, that optimism was short lived. On July 25th 2008, Nady was traded to the Yankees for prospects. Six days later Bay was traded to the Red Sox for more prospects. Then the following year, McLouth is traded to the Braves for prospects. Yesterday, Freddy Sanchez was traded away for prospects. Well, so much for that offense that you could have built around. Now instead of having hitting and no pitching, they have no hitting or pitching.

The few die-hards that are still with the team will argue, "They need prospects.", "Bay's contract was up and they would never be able to afford him", "The farm system is a mess, they needed to do this". Actually no, they need to build a winner! The Pirates have had high draft positions for the last 16 years, if you can't mold high draft picks into big league ball players, why is taking someone else's (questionable) prospects and sticking them in your farm system going to make it better? You had good players on your team. They had something to build around. Trading Bay and getting pretty much nothing in return gives you nothing. Nothing on the big club and nothing in the minors. I will concede that right now, trading Nady and Marte looks like a pretty good deal for the Pirates and I think trading Morgan for Lastings Milledge was a good deal as well. But trading Bay and McLouth was a waste of talent. They traded Bay, their best player and franchise cornerstone, and didn't even get one of the Red Sox best prospects. The same goes for McLouth. The same went for Aramis Ramirez. Could you imagine if they spent the last 7 years just accumulating and holding onto the talent they had instead of "trading it away for prospects"? The Pirates will now attempt to "rebuild" off players that have little or no major league experience. Plus, let's say for instance that all these prospects they acquired do pan out and turn into stars. What evidence is there that would suggest the Pirates will sign them? Its an annual tradition in Pittsburgh to trade away All Stars for more prospects. Why will the Pirates hold onto these players when/if they become stars? They didn't hold onto the other prospects they had that turned into stars. Why will these group of prospects be any different?

To say I'm throwing in the towel because the Pirates traded Sanchez, Wilson and Snell yesterday would be ridiculous and wildly inaccurate. I gave up on this team 6 years ago when the franchise looked every Pirate fan in the eye, said "We don't really care how well this team plays. We just want your money" and traded Aramis Ramirez. Since then, I've cheered for the Pirates to lose 100+ games in hopes that if they get bad enough the die-hards that defend this franchise and their bad moves will turn against the owners, quit going to games and maybe, just maybe, force the owners to either sell the team or stop giving away good players. Albert Einstein described insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." The Pirates have been trading away established talent for prospects for 16 years. The result has always been the same... a losing season. Continuing to do that is, by definition, "insane". I may sound like a frustrated fan, but the truth is, I'm far worse. I'm a former fan that has lost hope in the team and is losing hope in the sport altogether.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How do you solve a problem like Maria-n?

On July 2nd, 2008, my wife picked up my buzzing cell phone as I had just received a text message. It was from my brother and he was cursing out unrestricted free agent Marian Hossa. I figured, "Oh well, I guess he left the Pens. I kind of figured that might happen." Maria continued to read the message saying that Hossa was on the Red Wings. My eyes were wide open with shock, "What?!". Hossa had turned his back on the Penguins for a team that almost everyone in the city hated. Hossa leaving was one thing, but going to the Red Wings was another. The city was outraged, while I was excited to have a top notch talent added to my team.

It made perfect sense. Even before Hossa was traded to the Penguins, he expressed a desire to play in Detroit. The Wings system and his style of play were a perfect fit and his good friend Tomas Kopecky was on the Wings as well. They signed him to a one year deal worth $7.45 mil. With Zetterberg and Franzen set to become free agents in the next off season, I kind of figured that Hossa was on the team for just this year and I was fine with that.

As the season started the addition of Marian Hossa proved to be big for the Wings as they were dealing with a Stanley Cup hangover and the usual dominant Detroit defense was sloppy, creating a lot of high scoring games. Hossa was up to the challenge as he bailed out the team on several occasions. He finished as the teams leading goal scorer with 40 goals (8 game winning) and was becoming a fan favorite. He did everything. He scored, he back checked, he even got into a fight with the Predators Ryan Suter at the Joe Louis Arena to chorus of cheers. The players, coaches and fans were embracing this player that passed up big money elsewhere to come to Detroit and try to win a Stanley Cup.

Despite his actions, Wings GM Ken Holland opened up the franchise checkbook and locked up, future captain, Henrik Zetterberg for life with a 12 year extension and power forward Johan Franzen with an 11 year extension. Fans were a little worried that with the salary cap, this would squeeze Hossa off the team, but Hossa said time and time again that he would be willing to take less to stay with this team and Holland said he would reach out to Marian with the best offer the team could make.

As the playoffs got underway, Hossa looked nothing like his regular season self and looked more like the poor playoff performer he was labeled before going to Pittsburgh. His defense was good, but his offense was non-existent. He scored just 2 goals in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs. Despite his absence on the score sheet, Detroit was able to make it to the Finals for the second straight season and play his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. In this championship round, Hossa went from being a playoff choker to a playoff joke. No one had more pressure on him in that series, but still he failed to score a single goal in the seven game series as his team lost by one goal in the final game. A crushing loss for the Wings, an even more crushing loss for him as he got to watch his old team hoist the Cup.

I felt bad for the guy. He passes up more money because he wants to win a championship so badly, comes to Detroit and falls just one game short and now his former team and fans gets to rub it in his face. There was always next year though. The team will be more focused, better defensively and will have their hunger back. Ken Holland offered Hossa a deal that would keep him a Red Wing for life. It was somewhere around $4 mil per year cap hit, which means he'd still make around $6 or $7 mil for the first 6 years of the deal, then it would trail off to lower the hit. At that point, he would either retire, get bought out or renegotiate a new deal. For a guy that has expressed such a strong desire to play in Detroit, it seemed like a no brainer. Then it happened. On July 1st, 2009, less than one year after he signed with the Wings, Hossa turns on his old team yet again and joins a team that his old team and fans would hate... the Chicago Blackhawks.

I don't get it. I don't get it from every point of view. I don't understand why he would leave the Wings, a team that he fit in with and came within one game of a championship with, to join the Blackhawks, a team that the Wings beat in 5 games without Datsyuk and Lidstrom. I don't understand it from the Blackhawks angle. They're a good young team with a lot of young superstars whose contracts will be up for renewal at the end of the the 09-10 season. They have their own version of Crosby and Malkin with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. With Hossa's contract on the books for 12 years, they risk losing these players along with a few other good young players. I don't get why Hossa would sign a lifetime deal with a franchise he's never played with before. Typically, if you sign a long term deal like this, you know what you're getting yourself into. In this situation, he doesn't know the city, the management, the coaches, the players, or the system. He could flop right out of the gate. Its a bizarre move for both Hossa and the Blackhawks and another tough loss for the Wings less than a month after suffering a tough loss in the Finals. No, Pens fans, the irony isn't lost on me.

Before July 1st, I said I would support and cheer for Hossa even if he left the Wings because I didn't want to be like the Pens fans were this past season with the hatred towards this nice, quiet, "shys away from confrontation" kind of guy. But blowing off the Wings, to sign with their rivals for just a little more cash... I can't do it. He could have signed with the Kings, Wild, Rangers, Sharks, Bruins, whomever. But the Blackhawks, nope. Can't do it. He's even making the same stupid mistakes this time around as well. When asked why he left Detroit, he said, "They have a chance to win the Cup". Hasn't he learned anything from what just happened to him this past season? Now he gets to play his spurned former team at least 6 times a year for the rest of his career. Will this guy ever learn? Now I along with other Wings fans can join Pens fans in bashing this mercenary that just keeps making one bad decision after another with his career.