Cards at Bucs: Ian Snell & Four Days of Hell

There is blood in the water already for the sinking Pittsburgh Pirates, observes columnist Will Horton in his preview of the short two-game mid-week road series for the St. Louis Cardinals.

No team in the game has given up more runs than the Pittsburgh Pirates: 127 in 21 games, or more than six runs per nine innings. Tuesday night's 3-2 win broke a streak of losses, and an inglorious string of games giving up 10 runs or more. At this early rate, they're on pace to give up a cool thousand runs, which would be by far the most in franchise history as the Pirates – only the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys, a staggeringly generous team, can compete.

The horrifying aspect of this start for the Pirates is that there are no aces in the hole, no knights on white steeds ready to charge up from Triple-A. The help is already here. But only one of them is actually helping.

The Pirates' pitching foundation, and hopes for contention in the near future, is built upon four young starters – left-handers Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny, and power righty Ian Snell. So far this season Snell has been the only rock in the rotation, while his mates have taken turns getting rocked. This led the writers at Bucs Dugout to coin the title phrase of this article, a worrisome depiction of the season unfolding. Snell has as many wins in four starts as his partners do in 16, and has nearly as many quality starts as his rotation mates combined.

The term "quality start" is a loaded one here, implying as it does a "good enough" effort that gives one's team an equal chance of winning ballgames. This implication carries with it an assumption of other factors that have been long missing in the city by three rivers: namely, a league-average offense and a serviceable bullpen. However, those may be finally clicking into place, thanks to the emergence of a couple of young players in center fielder Nate McLouth and closer Matt Capps, and to the mild resurgence of the once-heralded and still-young Jason Bay.

And so the weight of expectation falls again on the young shoulders and elbows of the starters. New manager John Russell, quoted at pirates.scout.com, has already thrown down the gauntlet:

"I don't see any reason why our pitching shouldn't keep us in most games. The young guys have talent, and now it's a matter of being more consistent from one outing to the next. If they keep improving the way I think they can, then it should mean good things for us."

The new manager brought with him, as all new Pirates managers do, a mandate to change the losing culture around there. The new manager reported an optimistic, energetic group coming out of Spring Training. The new manager didn't go so far as to stand up on his desk and bellow "O Captain, My Captain," nor did he predict so much as a winning season, but Mr. Russell was not hired to be a reckless man. He was hired to his first major league managing gig to be a steadying man, a keen-eyed observer, and a patient instructor. It will take patience, and then some, to complete his tenure, let alone his mission.

This is a mission that exhausted Jim Leyland (right) to the point that he walked away from his next two jobs in quick succession and nearly ended his career for good. This mission has been a career-ender for its recent managers: nice guy Gene Lamont, fiery motivator Lloyd McClendon, stern disciplinarian Jim Tracy. (Leyland has not turned a blind eye to this fate, casting a lifeline to Lamont and McClendon, who both now serve as coaches in the Detroit organization. Presumably Tracy was left to drown with his pride.)

This is also a mission that has claimed its second general manager, as Dave Littlefield joins Cam Bonifay in the graveyard of executives who helmed this disaster.

For the past sixteen years, the Pittsburgh franchise has been running a clinic on how not to compete as a small-market franchise. They have not invested heavily in international scouting or in drafting high-ceiling draft picks. Their high-round draft picks have either flamed out or faded away. Their managers of player acquisitions have never been committed to long-term building or thinking, and have built rosters with the small-minded goal of achieving a face-saving mediocrity rather than trying to develop a competitive core.

The mystifying acquisition of Matt Morris – and the leaden entirety of his $13 million dollar contract – from San Francisco at last year's trading deadline is a perfect example of this small-minded thinking. (It pains to use Morris, one of the kindest men Cardinal Nation has known, as our posterchild of a bad baseball decision.)

The trade, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, was not motivated by dreams of contention: the Pirates were a hefty 14.5 games back … in the NL Central … at the time. Nor was it made to improve the team in the long term: Morris is clearly on the tail end of his career. So why acquire this little-sought-after player and simultaneously make him the highest-paid Pirate in team history? Because he was there for the taking, and the money was there for the spending.

A similar motivation once led a man in search of a white whale. That man, like Littlefield, fell overboard in the process, leaving wrack and ruin behind with little thought of who would be left to pick up the pieces.



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