The Pirates' plan looked and sounded good seven years ago, but hindsight tells us it failed. Miserably.
Go back to 2004 and 2005, when the Curve were stocked with good young prospects who were expected to be Pittsburgh's cornerstones of the future.
That core group of players included Jose Bautista, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Nate McLouth, Chris Duffy, Brad Eldred, Rajai Davis, Ronny Paulino and Matt Capps. They enjoyed great individual success in the minor leagues, and the thinking at the time was that if they learned how to win and make playoff appearances in the minors, the positive vibes and solid play someday would carry over to Pittsburgh.
Mirror file photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Brad Eldred (left) and Tony Beasley joke around prior to a game during the 2005 season at Blair County Ballpark.
Tony Beasley, who managed the core prospects in Altoona in 2004 and '05, thought the plan would work. He later spent a lot of time with many of those players as the Pirates' third base coach the past three years.
Beasley, therefore, has a unique perspective on what went wrong with the Pirates' plan. He enjoyed the success that core group of prospects achieved in Double-A, only to endure the daily disappointment of seeing them either fail in the big leagues or succeed only after getting shipped off to other clubs.
"It's a tough question to kind of nail down," said Beasley, in town this week as manager of the Harrisburg Senators. "Obviously those guys were very successful at this level. But it's a totally different ballgame [in the majors]."
The core group of former Curve stars
Tony Beasley analyzes what happened with some of the most promising prospects from his 2004 and '05 seasons managing in Altoona:
3B/OF Jose Bautista
With Curve: .283, 23 HRs, 90 RBIs in 117 games in 2005
Key Pirate statistics: Played during 2004-08 seasons; .235, 16 HRs, 51 RBIs in 2006; .254, 15 HRs, 63 RBIs in 2007; .242, 12 HRs, 44 RBIs in 2008
The bottom line: He showed promise with the Bucs, but they didn't see his enormous potential and gave up on him too soon; now plays for Toronto Blue Jays and hit 54 homers with 124 RBIs in 2010
Beasley: "He's always been talented. He was talented [in Altoona], he was talented [in Pittsburgh]. His numbers were not bad there. His numbers were OK.
"It's just a matter of Bautista's a different type of guy. He's a guy that you have to be willing to deal with the character -- in-game character, not off the field, not just in general. He's a very intelligent guy, a great guy to be around. But when it comes game time, he's very intense, he's very emotional, he allows the game to take him on ups and downs.
"So it depends on are you willing to manage that? Sometimes you may get with a staff that may not want to deal with that. If he's hitting 50 home runs, you manage it. If he's not, then you think, 'I can find a better player that's gonna fit into the scheme of what we're trying to do.'"
OF Rajai Davis
With Curve: .281, 4 HRs, 34 RBIs, team-record 45 steals in 2005
Key Pirate statistics: Played during 2006-07 season; .143 in 20 games in 2006; .271, 5 steals in 24 games in 2007
The bottom line: Former Pirate GM Dave Littlefield made an absolutely horrendous trade in July of 2007 when he sent Davis to the San Francisco Giants for has-been RHP Matt Morris, who was in the second season of a three-year, $27 million contract; Morris was a massive waste of money for the Pirates, who released him after an 0-4 start in 2008 despite still owing him $10 million; Davis, now with the Blue Jays, is a .278 career hitter who stole 50 bases last year for the A's
Beasley: "I don't know [why they gave up on him]. Rajai was a good player and still is a good player. He's exciting, he can make things happen on the basepaths. That's a tough one for me because we didn't really get a whole lot in return for Rajai. I'm trying to remember who we traded him for, but I don't remember anything major. But Rajai's just solid, and he's got that kind of impact speed and defense, and he had swung the bat very well for us."
OF Chris Duffy
With Curve: .273, 42 RBIs, 34 steals in 2003; .309, 41 RBIs, 30 steals in 2004
Key Pirate statistics: Played during 2005-07 seasons; .341 in 39 games in 2005; .255, 26 steals in 84 games in 2006; .249, 13 steals in 70 games in 2007
The bottom line: Former Pirate manager Jim Tracy foolishly tried to change Duffy's approach at the plate and get him to pound the ball into the ground, and it backfired big time and destroyed the young hitter's career; he quit baseball for a brief time before coming back; spent 2010 in Triple-A with the Phillies and is not playing organized baseball this season
Beasley: "He kind of lost his zest for playing the game [because of the Tracy situation], and ever since that incident he never regained his aggressive mind toward the game of baseball. I was totally shocked when he walked away from the game for that short period of time and went home, but he did come back and he just wasn't the same. His opportunities weren't the same.
"It comes down to dealing with players and managing personalities, and you've got to get the most out of a player. And when you constantly have change, sometimes that's difficult because the change may look good on the surface, but it's not necessarily what the player needs."
LHP Zach Duke
With Curve: 5-1, 1.58 ERA in 2004
Key Pirate statistics: Played during 2005-10 seasons; 8-2, 1.81 ERA as rookie in 2005; 10-15, 4.47 ERA in 2006; 3-8, 5.53 ERA in 2007; 5-14, 4.82 ERA in 2008; 11-16, 4.06 ERA in 2009; 8-15, 5.72 ERA in 2010
The bottom line: He was awesome as a rookie and incredibly average or below average the rest of his tenure with the Bucs; was forced to change his mechanics by former pitching coach Jim Colburn in 2007; he's now with Diamondbacks
Beasley: "[Jim Colburn] changed him in spring training. Players make excuses when things don't go well, but then they change, and if you're the player, then you need to take ownership of your career, also. If you've been successful, which he was unbelievably successful his first stint in Pittsburgh, why would you let anyone change you?
"There can't be any fear [about refusing to change]. You can't be blackballed because he was like [8-2 as a rookie], and if you can pitch, you're gonna pitch. If you can do that, there's no blackballing involved. Be coachable, be respectful, but at the same time, if you know that you're having success and something's not broke, then don't fix it."
1B Brad Eldred
With Curve: Had greatest slugging numbers in the history of Double-A baseball, hitting 30 HRs in 60 games, which is the best ratio of any player ever at this level with at least that many games; had 50 RBIs in month of August in 2004 (there's no historical record kept on that in minor leagues, but his total was only three shy of major league record); .279, 17 HRs, 60 RBIs in 39 games in 2004; .333, 13 HRs, 27 RBIs in 21 games in 2005
Key Pirate statistics: .221, 12 HRs, 27 RBIs, 77 Ks in 190 ABs in 2005; .109, 2 HRs, 3 RBIs, 16 Ks in 46 ABs in 2007
The bottom line: Incredible Double-A success, but he always had a massive swing that led to huge strikeout totals; no major league team has ever given him an everyday job to see what he could do over a full season; he has hit 204 HRs in minors and is at Triple-A Fresno (Giants) this season
Beasley: "You've got to look at situations he was put in. If I used him here [in Altoona] as a pinch hitter, we probably wouldn't have liked him. For me, Brad Eldred, he's an all-or-nothing hitter. You have to determine whether I'm gonna live with strikeouts and take the home runs -- and he hit us 30-plus home runs and impacted a lot of games for us -- or I'm not.
"I think when he first got called up he played regularly, and I want to say he hit 10 home runs [actually 12] when he got called up his first time. And then that next year he was in a platoon or pinch-hit type situation. Personally, that's not conducive for success for Brad Eldred. Players need to be in situations where they can succeed. And for him, if you watch his swing, he's not gonna be successful in that situation.
"You give him one at-bat, he's probably gonna strike out. The percentages say he's gonna strike out. You give him four at-bats, he may strike out three times and hit you a three-run homer to win you the ballgame. So you have to pick your poison with a guy like that.
"I've always felt that a guy like that, you have to throw him in the lineup and play him and give him his at-bats and live with the strikeouts. They do it with Adam Dunn. They do it with many players."
OF Nate McLouth
With Curve: .322, 8 HRs, 73 RBIs, team-record 166 hits, 34 steals in 2004
Key Pirate statistics: Played during 2005-09 seasons; .258, 13 HRs, 38 RBIs in 2007; .276, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2008
The bottom line: The Bucs surprised everyone when they traded McLouth to the Braves in 2009, and he has been a disaster for Atlanta, hitting just .190 with 6 HRs and 24 RBIs last year and getting demoted to Triple-A
Beasley: "He didn't like when he was traded. He struggled with that because his heart and soul was in Pittsburgh. I would have to think by now he's been able to shake that and hopefully move forward, but it's a totally different situation and he probably went to an environment that he knew nothing about and it's a totally different culture.
"He came through this system, and he thrived in this system and he lived in Pittsburgh off the fans' love and support for him. He played hard. He was successful there. But in baseball, you've got to be able to do that no matter where you're at, and it was unfortunate because I love Nate McLouth and would love to see him still have a Pirate uniform on."
C Ronny Paulino
With Curve: .285, 15 HRs, 60 RBIs in 2004; .292, 6 HRs, 20 RBIs in 2005
Key Pirate statistics: Played during 2005-08 seasons; .310, 6 HRs, 55 RBIs in 2006; .263, 11 HRs, 55 RBIs in 2007; .212, 2 HRs, 18 RBIs in 2008
The bottom line: A raw talent, he never developed discipline offensively or defensively in Pittsburgh; was solid for Florida Marlins past two seasons, but in August of 2010 was suspended 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy.
Beasley: "It just comes down to you were dealing with Paulino, you're dealing with [Ryan] Doumit. Who do you like catching behind the plate? He had the upper hand, and then you get another staff comes in that likes Doumit's bat and so they were always back and forth. A lot of these players haven't had the opportunities to really gel with the staff and feel like they can bond with the manager and it feels like someone's really 100 percent supportive of them."
RHP Ian Snell
With Curve: 4-0, 1.96 ERA in 2003; 11-7, 3.16 ERA, team-record 142 Ks in 2004
Key Pirate statistics: Played during 2004-09 seasons; 14-11, 4.74 ERA in 2006; 9-12, 3.76 ERA in 2007; 7-12, 5.42 ERA in 2008; 2-8, 5.36 ERA in 2009
The bottom line: Always a peculiar, moody person who struggled badly with the mental aspect of the game; he announced his retirement this spring but already has decided to unretire, exactly the kind of bizarre thing he's always done in his career, which included once changing his last name to Oquendo when he got married
Beasley: "Ian Snell really struggled with the [criticism]. I remember vividly the day he got booed in Pittsburgh -- really got booed bad -- was the day his career turned around. It was a day that he really changed as a man and as a baseball player. It was before he went down to Triple-A [in 2009]. He asked to go down. It was a situation where he had struggled a couple outings, where he had usually predominantly pitched well at home and fans were good with him.
"Snell's a finicky type guy. He loves to interact with the fans. He always has to feel like no matter what else happens, I can depend on the home base. And when he felt like the home base had turned on him, he couldn't deal with it."
(Compiled by Cory Giger)
Any discussion about the old plan should make Pirates fans take a look at what's going on now in Pittsburgh -- because it's basically the same thing, only the names above have been replaced by the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez.
There is, however, one major difference this time around.
"I don't think we had the superstar-quality players," Beasley said. "We had good players."
Not, he added, the "high-end, impact players" in play with the Pirates' current plan.
"They were very good, they were solid baseball players, and I think we got the most out of those players," Beasley said. "But I don't know that it's the same caliber of players that's within the organization right now.
"They have some really special type players in that organization that I think will make a difference. McCutchen was a part of the system beforehand, and he's an impact guy. Then you go and get Tabata in a trade, and look at him, he's an impact guy."
Beasley also singled out recent draft picks such as Alvarez, pitchers Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie and 16-year-old free-agent pitcher Luis Heredia as marquee players with higher potential than many of the core guys from 2004-05.
Obviously, things such as bad trades, bad free-agent pickups and strict financial restraints have cost the Pirates dearly over the past seven years. Even if many of the core players from the previous plan had panned out, there's no telling if it would have led to any winning seasons.
The bigger issue, however, is that many of those players didn't pan out at all. They showed promise for a season or two but could not find any level of consistency in the majors.
"It ultimately boils down to the player's ability to mentally play at that level," Beasley said. "I think physically, you play here [in Double-A] and you use some mentality. But I think there it's much more of a mental ballgame, and you have to daily be able to bring that side of the game."
Some of the players were good enough to be impact guys, but the Pirates either screwed up with them through poor coaching (Duke, Duffy) or lack of patience (Bautista).
Then there was the Capps situation, where the Bucs had a good closer who had one rough year (2009), so they sent him packing. Capps made the Pirates look bad by rebounding to post a 2.47 ERA and 42 saves in 2010 for the Twins and Nationals.
"I think their sense of urgency to win sometimes kind of affects your decision to think, OK, we can find a better closer, someone that fits the role even more, even though Capps had a solid history of being successful in that role," Beasley said.
One major thing Beasley saw with the Pirates was frequent movement on the coaching staff, which can be difficult on young players for several reasons.
"There was a lot of different philosophies that came in two years here, two years there," he said. "It's a change in how we do things, and I think that affects players. Pitchers having different pitching coaches -- one guy may click, and another guy may not necessarily click."
Beasley defends the Pirates when it comes to developing the core group of minor league prospects from seven years ago.
"I thought that the development of those group of kids was outstanding," he said. "I can't knock anything that was done as far as them climbing up the ladder. I thought all the steps were taken."
As it turned out, many of them just weren't good enough.
So with a culture of losing already in place in Pittsburgh and the young guys unable to make a quick impact, they were put into situations where they had very little chance to succeed.
"When you get to that level -- and I've seen it -- it's just a different ballgame," Beasley said. "A young player, he can be a dynamic player, but if he doesn't have anyone to really take him under his wing and show him and teach him how to be a professional player daily and really how to play the mental side of the game, it's gonna affect him at that level.
"If you have a whole team of guys like that -- and that's kind of the situation how it's been I think for quite some time -- then it's hard for the guys to really grow."
When they start to struggle individually and the team's also struggling, it puts the young player in a very difficult situation.
"They kind of were called up into that situation, and so there was always a gloom over them," Beasley said. "It's a tough situation because the fan base is hungry and they want to win in Pittsburgh and they deserve to win in Pittsburgh.
"But at the same time, sometimes the kids are not ready for that because the media is different and it's hard to get away from 'SportsCenter' or reading the paper and dealing with the negatives and still go out and perform while you're getting booed. That's a part of what we have to do, but it's not easy, and everybody can't deal with it."
The core group of Curve players from 2004 and '05 couldn't deal with it, so now the Pirates' losing streak is at 18 years.
It will end in a couple of years if the young players involved in the current plan can overcome all the difficulties. But if they can't, then this plan -- just like the last one -- will be doomed to failure.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.