Junkyard Wars   (06/13/01)

Have you ever watched "Junkyard Wars"?  It's a British TV show where 2 teams are challenged to build a piece of equipment, like an amphibious vehicle, or a glider or a cannon, but they can only use materials from a junkyard.  Each team, comprised of 3 amateur tinkerers - in British slang known as 'bodgers' - and one expert in the design and operation of the device they are challenged to construct, gets 10 hours to design and build their machine.  The following day, the two teams pit their machines against each other and the winner moves on to the next round of competition.

Good Design

That is the essence of what baseball general managers do.  They take leftover parts from various places and try to piece them together to make a new working machine.  Sometimes they get the right mix of coaching, talent, skill and desire to make a good team.  Sometimes, things don't fit very well and they end up with a clunker.

To make things a little tougher, most GMs inherit someone else's half-built project.  Very few have the luxury of coming into a winning situation.  Most are left with the junk of a dysfunctional organization with few working parts and the directive to build a Mercedes out of it in a year or two.

Which brings me to why I'm writing this.  The Pittsburgh Pirates fired GM Cam Bonifay this week and replaced him with assistant GM Roy Smith.  From his tone during the press conference, Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy seems to be expecting the Bucs to make one of those last-to-first turnarounds in a year or so.  Sorry to say, but given the state of the organization and the early returns on Bonifay's replacement, those expectations are way too optimistic.

Quality Materials

Bonifay inherited a team on the rise, built largely by Ted Simmons.  Simmons, a very good major league catcher in the 70's, was also a very good evaluator of talent.  In fact, during his short tenure, he built the Pirates farm system into one of the best in baseball.  However, health problems caused him to resign and turn over the reins to Bonifay.  BTW, Simmons later signed on with the Padres as a scouting consultant and has been helping them build their farm system over the past several years.  Is it any wonder why the Pads now boast one of the best minor league systems in baseball?

Anyway, Bonifay inherited an enviable amount of young talent in 1993.  Unfortunately, most of that talent was either traded away or mishandled.  Of all those highly regarded young players the Pirates had when Simmons left, only Jason Kendall and Kevin Young have become regular players for the Pirates.  Most, like Midre Cummings, Danny Clyburn and Jermaine Allensworth, were never afforded a decent opportunity in the big leagues and have subsequently faded into obscurity.  Others, like Esteban Loaiza, Dan Miceli and Jon Lieber were traded away.

Bonifay wasn't completely inept when it came to trading.  He did bring Jason Schmidt from Atlanta for Denny Neagle, got Brian Giles for Ricardo Rincon and John VanderWal for Al Martin.  But an organization can not be sustained and/or improved solely with trades.  A GM has to be a shrewd evaluator of undeveloped talent and a keen bargainer at the free agent table.

And this, ultimately, was Bonifay's undoing and the reason he was fired.  While it's too strong a word to describe his misuse of the Pirate coffers as "criminal", the money he spent on free agents and draft picks was very poorly spent.  For every Francisco Cordova he signed, he signed two or three Pat Meares, Derek Bells and Terry Mulhollands.  And for an organization that generates so little revenue, those kind of mistakes will dash any chances of leaving the cellar.

Had he been as astute as Simmons with his draft picks, he might have been able to overcome some of his free agent gaffs.  But of all the players he's drafted or signed from abroad, only Aramis Ramirez is contributing to the team on a regular basis.  One guy in 8 years.  Not good.

The Challenge

So will Roy Smith bring the Pirates out of Purgatory?  If his first transaction is any indicator, probably not.  His first transaction as GM was to trade very promising middle infielder Enrique Wilson to the Yankees for a 26-year old AA journeyman reliever.  That's right.  He traded a potentially good player for a guy who's a minor league journeyman.  Those kind of trades are as damaging as Bonifay's free agent signings: they not only deplete the organization of talent, but they require more expenditure to replace the talent.  As we can see by the signing bonus demands of early round draftees, major league talent does not come cheaply.

On rare occasions, one of the teams on 'Junkyard Wars' will utterly fail.  Their machine won't get off the ground/won't fire properly/breaks so often that it can't even start the competition.  On those rare occasions, those teams get to watch as their competition rounds the course and celebrates victory.  The nice part is that the winners always share their celebratory champagne with the losers.

In Pittsburgh, for the foreseeable future, there's gonna be an awful lot of watching the other teams round the course and celebrate victory... but in baseball only one team gets to enjoy the champagne finale.

© 2001, All Rights Reserved