05/17/2002 10:30 pm ET
Littlefield rebuilding the Bucs
New GM has team headed in the right direction
By Jim Molony / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- When Dave Littlefield took over as Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates 10 months ago and talked of the team's goal of reaching the World Series, we listened politely and kept our doubts private.
When Littlefield dealt Todd Ritchie, the team's best pitcher in 2001, to the Chicago White Sox during the meetings we weren't sure we believed him when Littlefield said the deal was good for the Pirates in the long run.
But as the season passed the quarter pole Friday the Pirates have been one of the surprising teams in baseball and a lot of the credit for the improvement should go to Littlefield. One-hundred game losers a year ago, the Pirates are 19-21 after their 7-4 loss to the Astros Friday and have been at or near the top of the National League Central Division since the season began. The team didn't win its 19th game until June 10 last year.
"We are pleased with the record, especially coming off the tough year (62-100) we had last year. A lot of people feel good about it, particularly the players. I'm not sure the (win-loss) numbers add up (compared to the team stats). We still are pleased but at the same time we realize we've got a long way to go to get to where we want to be."
The Pirates have ranked at or near the bottom of the league in hitting -- the team batting average was only .227 entering Friday night's game against Houston -- and have been winning as a result of strong pitching, solid defense and better execution than last year. They have also been a good in the clutch, another characteristic that was lacking in the 2001 Pirates. The Pirates are 10-4 in one-run games and 3-1 in two-run contests.
"If I say it was expected it would sound cocky, and you're always uncertain," Littlefield said. "I guess I haven't been really shocked by things that have happened. But we still have a long way to go."
The Pirates, however, appear to be on the right track thanks to Littlefield.
"I really was fortunate in the time that I spent with the Marlins, Dave Dombrowski was named President of the club, and Dave came to give me plenty of responsibility," he said. "It enabled me to do things GMs do. I had a general sense of the calendar the normal GMs have, I got to look at transactions, what to anticipate in things that come up in the position. It was about as similar as you can get without having the job. Dave without a doubt had a big influence in how I learned this position."
Littlefield learned his craft well at Dombrowski's side and like Dombrowski came to learn one great fundamental lesson: Pitching is the cornerstone of a winning team.
"When you look at the history of the game and talking to a lot of experienced baseball people in the past, that seems to be a common thread on championship teams," Littlefield said. "Almost every one of them had strong pitching, particularly starting pitching. We came off a season where we lost 100 games and we were down near the bottom in ERA and fielding defense, so when you look at how you're going to attack all those issues and try to improve all of them with the resources we had and the lack of flexibility in the payroll I really thought we'd have to go out and look for help to improve those areas.
"Starting pitching is the hardest thing to find because you need five of them. We were looking to see if we could maneuver ourself to improve our starting pitching in an unconventional way."
Unconventional now, but at the time other adjectives were used. Littlefield chuckles at the thought today and though he knew the trade was a good one he never anticipated the three players he received would prove to be such significant performers on this year's team.
"For a guy who says he needs pitching and trades off his best guy in Todd Ritchie, it didn't seem to make sense but we needed not only quality, we needed bodies," Littlefield said.
The three pitchers the Pirates received from the White Sox -- Josh Fogg, Kip Wells and Sean Lowe -- have combined for 11 of the team's 19 victories.
Trading Ritchie, who is making $3.53 million this year, for three guys who are being paid a combined $1.425 million this year was a savings that Littlefield shrewdly used to sign free agent closer Mike Williams to a two-year, $5.5 million contract with a club option for a third year. Williams has been spectacular, converting 14-of-14 save opportunities and forging a 0.60 ERA.
Littlefield's other moves have been textbook examples on how to wheel and deal in a small market environment. He sold Gary Matthews Jr. to the Mets and signed other six-year free agents that other clubs have overlooked, including Ron Villone and Brian Boehringer. Villone, a lefty, and Boehringer, a right-hander, have been instrumental in the Pirate start.
Littlefield plucked second baseman Pokey Reese from the free agent market and also re-signed reliever Josias Manzanillo, who is expected to come off the disabled list in a couple of weeks.
None of the moves could be characterized as blockbuster, but each had a purpose in Littlefield's plan and are helping to lay the foundation for what should be a better tomorrow for the Pirate organization.
"You don't go from losing 100 games to the World Series in one year," Littlefield said. "You have to plan and you have to execute that plan. We're just getting started."
Anyone that learned from Dombrowski can be expected to have a healthy appreciation for scouting and development. Littlefield is no exception. He brought in the highly-respected Ed Creech as Director of Scouting and Brian Graham as Director of Player Development.
Littlefield would like to see the Pirates, who have rushed prospects to the majors in the past, slow things down a bit and stress fundamentals at every level of the minors but particularly in the lower levels.
"We're in a situation where we need players, but when you have really good players (in the minors), they will tell you when it's their time," he said. "I would rather be conservative in the beginning on players as to where they go. In time, if they're really good, they're going to dominate. And you're going to say, 'Hey, we've got to get this guy to the next level.' It's going to be a no-brainer. It's just rare in my experience where we run into a situation where we're holding back players."
The emphasis on scouting and development fits in nicely in Littlefield's grow-your-own philosophy. Younger players are less costly and usually less risky than free agents. The Pirate payroll is $42.3 million, down 26 percent from last year. The average salary is $1.459 million.
"It (the emphasis on scouting and development) is a more efficient way to get things done in the market we're in," he said. "There's no doubt I believe we can be competitive in this market in this ballpark. I expect it to be a few years away. Right now my analysis is at the upper levels, though we have a few players we don't have a lot that are going to help us in Pittsburgh for the next year or so.
"We have prospects in (Class) A ball, proably more pitchers than position players. I do feel about fairly good about what I've been seeing and what I've been told we've got in A ball. I think one area that will probably help us is having the first pick in the June draft and the first pick in the 50 rounds. We hired Ed Creech as our scouting director and that has meant a significant change. With his experience and performance in the past he'll do a real fine job for us."
"There's limited flexibility as to improving your payroll and your roster. I'm not oing to be able to do all the things I'd like to so I've got to pick and choose my spots."
So far it looks like Littlefield is batting 1.000.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com based in Houston. He can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.