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All The Right (Non) Moves

As the clock turned to 4:01 PM on July 31st, one minute past the MLB deadline to make non-waiver trades, the Pirates had a much different look to them than they did just one week prior.

Some of it good, some of it bad.
Seven days earlier, the player formerly known as Lyle Overbay was rotting at first base, hands too slow to catch up to the fastball, feet too sluggish to get to the ball hit in the hole, and the corner outfield platoon, consisting of Matt Diaz, Garrett Jones, Xavier Paul and Steven Pearce, had combined for a total of 78 RBI and 12 homeruns.
Still, the Pirates were in first place in the N.L. Central, fractions of a percentage point above the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers.
My, oh my, what a difference a week can make.
Overbay has since been designated for assignment, replaced by Derrek Lee, and the outfield platoon has been augmented with Ryan Ludwick, who will get the majority of the at bats while management waits for Jose Tabata and Alex Presley to return, at which point Ludwick will likely become the fourth outfielder.
Oh, and at the time this was written, the Pirates had fallen back below .500, losers of eight of their past nine, 11 of their previous 14.
But still within reach of the division at the deadline, General Manager Neal Huntington’s trades made the team only marginally better. He swung two major moves (by the Pirates standards), shipping single-A first baseman Aaron Baker to the Baltimore Orioles for Lee, and acquiring Ludwick from the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later. Had this been 2008 (when Ludwick hit 37 homeruns, drove in 113 runs and had a .966 OPS) or 2009 (when Lee had 35 homeruns, 111 RBI and a .972 OPS), their additions would have been more than enough to make the Pirates the favorite to win the N.L. Central.
But regardless of Lee’s two-homerun debut at PNC Park, at 36 years old, he and the 33-year-old Ludwick are passed-their-prime veterans who offer only a slight improvement over those they replaced. Lee’s offensive line prior to the trade was a .246 avg./.302 OBP/.404 SLG; Ludwick’s was .238/.301/.373.  In comparison, Overbay’s line was .227/.300/.349, and the combined numbers of Diaz, Jones, Paul and Pearce were .248/.302/.366.
Hardly the type of upgrades that will provide a push towards the playoffs.
When it comes to one’s opinion on Huntington and the rest of the front office’s performance over the past four years, there aren’t many fence-straddlers. You are either fully behind their plan, or you despise it. You either understand why they were forced to trade veterans like Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson and Jason Bay for prospects, or you are convinced they did so with tongue in cheek, pocketing the money they successfully saved on payroll.
The moves made at the trade deadline this season will surely bring with them the same varying reactions. There is likely a collection of those who believe the lack of big-time acquisitions (not the inept offense and regressed pitching) is what has led to the Pirates limping into August and what will ultimately prevent them from reaching the post-season for the first time in nearly two decades.
But those beliefs are unwarranted.
While Huntington’s moves might not have significantly helped the Pirates in 2011, he saved the seasons in 2012 and beyond. And perhaps more importantly, the moves made showed that the front office has finally backed up their talk and earned the trust of the fanbase.
Because for years Frank Coonelly and Bob Nutting had promised that if the crowds showed up, and the opportunity presented itself, they would take on added payroll.
But for years they failed to put that into action as they cut payroll without adding major league talent.
Until now.
In acquiring Lee and Ludwick, the Pirates added approximately $5 million to their books for 2011, and they did so without giving up major league talent or sacrificing legitimate prospects. In releasing Overbay, they ate the remainder of his one-year, $5 million salary and admitted their mistake.
Winning was finally put ahead of profit.
As Huntington has said numerous times over the past month, he will not “mortgage the Pirates future” at the hands of winning now. And with each additional game the Pirates fall back of first place, his words seem more logical. It would seem foolish now had they included Starling Marte in a trade for Carlos Beltran. It would have been ridiculous to part ways with Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia for Hunter Pence (all of whom would have been included to match the package the Phillies shipped to Houston for the former Astros right fielder).
The truth is, amidst the “Bucco Fever” that took over the city, Huntington assessed the state of the franchise quietly from his North Shore office and knew the odds were stacked against them this season. He made calculated moves that cost the franchise little, both in the present and the future, and assumed miniscule risk.
He chose not to throw away several years of rebuilding for a one-season run at contention. Despite what many think, and proven by the team’s recent play, he made the right choice.
The Pirates achieved the unthinkable so far this year, staying above .500 for 39 straight days. With 50-plus games to go, the season is far from being decided, and another improbable run could still result in them winning the division.
But if they fail to make the post-season, or even to finish above .500, take comfort in the fact that the future was not risked for the present.
Take comfort in the fact that the front office finally backed up their words with their checkbook.
They might not be the team to beat in the N.L. Central in 2011, but thanks to the trades Huntington didn’t make, and ownership finally showing they are committed to winning, there is reason to believe the Pirates will have a chance to win in the years to come.

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