Friday, July 31, 2009

Cargo Cult Moneyball?

In re: Jack's post below, I think I see the twilight of the current Pirates squad similarly: Tentative hope that the minor league prospects they've gathered in exchange for basically all of their experienced major league talent will amount to something in a few seasons; some wistfulness at seeing stalwarts like Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson go; a sense that the big-league Bucs themselves are going to be excruciating to watch for a couple years while they send in the Bixlers and, presumably, hope that the economic clime depresses the going rate for a veteran free agent middle infielder. (I mean, by all accounts their current starting second baseman, and I mean this with all possible respect to Delwyn Young, isn't actually a second baseman.)

One of the depressing-er things about following the Pirates through years like this one and last is that for about the last two-thirds of the season the only news about the team worth following are the kinds of roster transactions that fans of good teams only have to subsist on during the offseason. (Go Steelers signing Heath Miller to a contract extension wooooo!) You end up having to root for the team's front office executive and a network of coaches, scouts and other talent evaluators whose number and roles you only dimly understand, since their evaluation of the talent of various prospects completely trumps anything that the actual team is doing; not fun.

I had this whole thing ready comparing Pirates GM Neal Huntington's current enterprise to Richard Feynman's concept of "cargo cult science", a good stretchy analogy (it's at least been extended to software engineering too, awfully aptly in my experience) for organizations mimicking the superficial appearance of a process without understanding or applying the principles that actually make that process work. In this case, the process would have been that of trading away all the current veteran players for prospects in order to enrich the minor-league system and organically produce a talented, young big league team around say 2011. But I think Huntington and his people get the process. What I actually worry about, especially because "his people" apparently are basically the same network of scouts and talent evaluators in place under the previous, objectively terrible management team, is that the Pirates organization doesn't have the chops to select and develop players well enough for this plan to work. So I'm thinking that Pirates Reboot 2K9 is less like a cargo cult building an airfield and possibly more like, say, an Eastern Bloc state circa 1970 producing consumer goods. I guess there's still the possibility that the team's ownership is acting cheaply and in bad faith but that wouldn't be any fun to contemplate at all. In the here and now, meanwhile, the Pirates' series this weekend against the Washington Nationals -- who are in even laster place than last-place Pittsburgh -- should help clarify whether or not the best roster you can buy for $30 million is the worst in Major League Baseball. I see ominous signs of a 2006 repeat.

Incidentally, you can add John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny to the list of present or past major leaguers in the Pirates organization who have been traded since the article Jack linked to went up. Those who don't recognize those names at all can continue to wonder why we care in the first place...


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