Parsing the Pirates' streak

Yes, today everyone's talking about the Pirates. Not only Howard Bryant, but Dejan Kovacevic and Joe Posnanski, too!
Kovacevic provides all the gory details you could ever want. Posnanski observes that even as the Pirates have set a record with 17 straight losing seasons, they can't really touch the Phillies' long run of futility that lasted for nearly three decades (as Posnanski also notes, the Royals have actually lost more games than the Pirates during these last 17 seasons).

Kovacevic is concerned mostly with the Pirates:

    About half the active roster is new to Pittsburgh this season, which might explain several players yesterday being unaware of the streak being extended, including losing pitcher Daniel McCutchen.
    "The guys in here, all we can account for is the past three or four years at the most," veteran closer Matt Capps said. "But it's not acceptable to any of us, and I don't think it's acceptable to management or the coaching staff, either."


    Huntington long has answered all questions about the streak, but he has stressed to his employees that it should be ignored.

    "The people who work for the Pirates shouldn't focus one ounce of energy on the losing streak," Huntington said. "Our focus isn't on getting to 82 wins one time to get this monkey off our backs. To win 82 with a group of players on the down side of their prime or leaving through free agency with nothing coming behind them in the farm system ... OK, we break the streak, but we put ourselves in a position to start another one."

Most of those 17 seasons are meaningless to everyone except the fans. The new owner, the new general manager, the players ... none of them were around for the great majority of the streak, and so none of them should be held accountable for it. Those 17 seasons do have lessons to teach, but those lessons would be exactly the same if the Pirates had mixed a couple of winning records into those 17 years. While the organization is going to have trouble scoring runs for the foreseeable future, I believe the Pirates will get close to .500 in 2011. Beyond that, no one can say.

    There have only been 20 streaks in baseball history where a team finished below .500 for 10 or more seasons in a row -- and a quarter of those have come in the last decade. And those five long losing streaks streaks don't even include the Royals, whose quirky 2003 season interrupted 14 losing years, or the Reds, who are one year away from a 10-year losing steak of their own.
    So what's happening here? Yes, absolutely, all through baseball history there have been bad teams that stayed bad. There were a number of bad teams in the 1970s -- Montreal, San Diego, Milwaukee, California, Cleveland and Philadelphia all had a sizable stretch of losing seasons. The Mets, Kansas City A's and Boston Red Sox were bad for most of the 1960s. The Pirates and Reds were terrible in the '50s, and the St. Louis Browns, White Sox and the two teams in Philadelphia stunk up the '40s.

    The difference is that there seem to be more losers now -- maybe because there are more teams. Whatever the reason, it's ironic because baseball czar Bud Selig likes to believe he's the "hope and belief" commissioner. Yes, he will talk often about how it's his truest mission to make sure that every fan in baseball should have hope and belief on Opening Day. He has expanded the playoffs. He brought out the wild card. He pushed for more revenue sharing. He has tried to bully teams into a slotting system in the draft.


    The truth is, there just aren't as many ways for a Pittsburgh or Kansas City or Cincinnati to turn things around. They can't compete for the best players in free agency -- and what's worse is that because they can't compete for the Sabathias and Teixeiras and Beltrans, it becomes tempting to overpay for second-tier free agents like Jose Guillen or Danys Baez or Jeff Suppan. Those kinds of mistakes can devastate a small-revenue team. The draft is a pretty expensive spin of the roulette wheel*. The richer teams spend more scouting and signing players all over the world. For those small-revenue teams, the walls are always closing in.

    * The Pirates have had 10 top-10 picks in the First-Year Player Draft since this streak began -- six of them in the top five. These top-10 picks have included Bryan Bullington, Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, John Van Benschoten and Brad Lincoln. That, in a nutshell, is how you have losing seasons for 17 straight years. The closest thing to a success story was when then took Kris Benson with the No. 1 overall pick -- he won 43 games, lost 49 and was traded to the Mets.

The Pirates have drafted poorly. Or unluckily. It works out the same. But there are two things dragging the poor teams upward.
One is the draft, which might seem expensive but -- as study after study has proved -- is actually a relatively inexpensive way to acquire talent. Granted, that only works when the poor teams are willing to pay the market rate for the talent, and are good or lucky. But the draft does help, some.

The second is the pressure on the richer teams to win, right now. It's that pressure that leads the Yankees to trade four young players for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, that leads the Phillies to trade four young players for Cliff Lee. If you're poor and losing and you make one of those deals every year or two, eventually you may well be poor and winning. At least for a while.

There have always been rich teams and poor teams, and rich teams have always won more games than poor teams. Despite Czar Bud's best efforts, I don't see that changing anytime soon.