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Stripped-down Pirates nearing historic futility

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It is not an urban myth. Bill Virdon has seen it happen. The Pittsburgh Pirates have had winning seasons. Virdon was a stellar center fielder for 11 seasons with the Pirates. That included the memorable upset of the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series.
Virdon managed the club for two seasons, producing a division-winner in 1972. In recent years, he has held a variety of roles with the organization ranging from bench coach to instructor. Young Pirates players marvel at the strength of Virdon's grip and his vitality at age 78. Virdon serves as a connection to an increasingly distant history of success. The Pirates steam toward their 17th consecutive losing season, which would be a record for a North American professional team. They currently share the record of 16 consecutive losing seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies of 1933-48. "Sixteen in a row, that's amazing," Virdon said before pausing. "That's not amazing. It's horse (manure)." And it is going to continue for a while. By design, the Pirates face several more lean seasons. With six veterans-for-prospects trades in June and July, the management group of powerful club president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington has stripped the franchise down to the start-over stage. Of the 17 players who appeared on opening day 2008 — the first game of the Coonelly-Huntington era — only two remain in the organization: catcher Ryan Doumit and injured righthander Tyler Yates. It's risky business, but in Huntington's view it beats staying with the failed status quo. "It's not like we're breaking up the '27 Yankees," Huntington said. That is true, but the Pirates could be re-creating the 1962 New York Mets if their baseball judgments are shown to be not sound. Previous general managers Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield tried the slap-on-a-bandage approach. They'd bring in a few veterans to plug in with kids and hope for the best.
"It's not like we're breaking up the '27 Yankees."
Pirates GM Neal Huntington
That produced the occasional 75-win season, most recently in 2003, but no real signs of progress. Coonelly and Huntington decided the only way to make a great leap forward was to raze the franchise. Thus, the trades, designed to bring in a flood of young talent. In the last two seasons, the Pirates have traded 14 players, including seven potential free agents, and received 26 players. The club had control of the 14 traded players for about 22 combined seasons. The Pirates have control of the 26 obtained players for about 151 seasons. That gives the Pirates more time to do what they must to survive: develop their own talent. They can use free agency only to add a few needed pieces if the club is ready to contend. The core must come from within the organization. "These aren't easy moves to make," Huntington said. "However, the goal here is to build a winning organization. You have to put emotion aside, as difficult as that may be, when you have the chance to better the talent in the organization. We feel like we're building something here." It will take a few years to determine whether Huntington is correct. The unknown in all of this is whether the Pirates made good decisions on the newly acquired players. In the Huntington era, the Pirates have brought in proven, high-quality talent-evaluators such as Keith Champion and Larry Corrigan. The ultimate authority rests with Coonelly and Huntington. It bears repeating that Coonelly came into this job after serving as a lawyer in the commissioner's office, and Huntington's star had waned with the Cleveland organization before he joined the Pirates. So far, the results have been mixed. In last season's trades, the Pirates acquired a promising young outfielder, Jose Tabata, from the New York Yankees but look like the loser in the three-way deal that included outfielder Manny Ramirez going from Boston to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Pirates picked up outfielder Brandon Moss and reliever Craig Hansen in the deal, and both have been disapointments. Righthander Tim Alderson, obtained from San Francisco in the deal for second baseman Freddy Sanchez, is the centerpiece of the players obtained in the last two months. Alderson, who fits the physical profile of a power pitcher, is in Double A at age 20. Through 13 starts at that level, Alderson was 7-1 with a 3.33 ERA and only 15 walks in 78 1/3 innings. "We need to break the cycle of losing," Huntington said. "We need to break the cycle of being in a situation where we're making trades every year. We have the pieces in place to build something." It will take more time as the young players go through growing pains together, and the club sorts out whom to keep and whom to dump. Not every player will arrive at the same time, if at all. And what if the Pirates miss on most of these players? What if there are more suspects than prospects? The franchise could be thrown so far back that the 28 consecutive losing seasons of Oregon State football would enter the discussion. "If it doesn't turn around, I get fired," Huntington said. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Coonelly and Huntington have taken the risks necessary to turn around the dead-in-the-water franchise. The question now is whether they were smart about this. The Pirates' future hinges on the answer.
Tagged: Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, Phillies, Pirates, Giants, Manny Ramirez, Freddy Sanchez, Ryan Doumit, Brandon Moss

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