Neal Huntington's transactions this offseason have raised skepticism amongst even some of Huntington's most vehement supporters - myself among them - not because the moves included any franchise-crippling contracts or because they signify some massive shift in philosophy, but because the moves on aggregate largely amount to a lot of change purely for the sake of change. Upon further examination, however, when we take into account the Pirates' financial situation, their historically poor 2010 season, their inability to land impact free agents without severely overpaying, and Neal Huntington's precarious employment, we must ask the question: For the 2011 Pirates, is change mostly for the sake of change necessarily a bad thing?
Let's look at the moves individually:
The Pirates signed veteran first baseman Lyle Overbay to a one-year, $5 million deal, and veteran corner outfielder Matt Diaz to a two-year, $4 million deal. As a result, most of the Pirates' 2011 at-bats at first base will likely go to a 34-year-old Overbay instead of a Garrett Jones / Steve Pearce platoon (or a John Bowker / Pearce platoon), while the right field at-bats will now likely be split between Jones and a 33-year old Diaz, squeezing the non-tendered 25-year-old Lastings Milledge out of the picture.
Upon first glance, spending a relatively large (for the Pirates' payroll) amount of money on middling mid-30s free agents would appear to represent a stark contrast from Huntington's philosophy of not playing for 82 wins and not wasting at-bats on mediocre veterans when younger alternatives with even the slightest shred of potential upside are available. Sure, Jones' production dropped off significantly in 2010 (his slugging percentage fell from .567 in '09 to .414), and while his few-month tear in '09 was likely flukish, he's still four years younger than Overbay and hit more HRs each of the last two years than Overbay has in all but one season in his career. Milledge was atrocious in 2010 at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths (a truly impressive five-tools-of-sucking outfielder), but against left-handers - the primary role Diaz will likely fill - he's hit .289 AVG / .363 OBP / .435 SLG in his career. Sure, Overbay and Diaz each posted superior 2010 stat lines, but for a team like the Pirates who won't compete in 2011 anyway, isn't the risk of Overbay and Diaz falling off a cliff in their 30s at least as much of a possibility as Jones or Milledge suddenly clicking, or at least outperforming them?
Looking at other comparably parallel replacements, Zach Duke was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by San Diego's Kevin Correia on a two-year, $8 million free agent deal, and trade deadline pickup Chris Snyder will likely replace Ryan Doumit at catcher for the majority of 2011. The Duke/Correia comparison has been dissected ad nauseum, but basically, Correia has performed similarly to Duke over the past few seasons but with slightly more strikeouts, making him theoretically more capable of succeeding in front of the Pirates' poor defense. Snyder's offensive numbers are slightly inferior to Doumit's, and his cost is similar, but Doumit's atrocious defense behind the plate and longtime health questions make the switch look defensible.
Still, these upgrades across the board appear to be marginal at best, and come at a not-insignificant financial cost. In short, the signings largely boil down to change for the sake of change. So how is this not a bad thing?
To help understand why Huntington made these moves, imagine this scenario: The Pirates, coming off a 57-105 season, make absolutely no changes to their starting eight or their rotation from the end of 2010. With Lastings Milledge, Garrett Jones, John Bowker, Steve Pearce, Zach Duke, and Ryan Doumit all seeing frequent playing time, the team ends up in last place in the NL Central after eight weeks, and the remainder of the season is quickly and predictably rendered meaningless. In this scenario, is there any question that the Pirates' fanbase would be clamoring for the head of Neal Huntington? Furthermore, would there be any chance that Bob Nutting would conceive of extending Huntington after the season? Obviously, those answers would be "No"s, preceded by expletives in all caps.
Even with the moves, it's possible the Pirates will end up out of contention just as quickly and with the same questions about Huntington's job being raised, but the new faces at least represent some show of effort on Huntington's part and would likely delay the angry fan-mobs somewhat longer than in the above scenario. Plus, if the Pirates do improve their record significantly - winning 70-75 games seems entirely conceivable, even if the improvement comes almost entirely from the younger players the team already has - then Huntington's job is likely saved.
This isn't to suggest that Huntington should make moves purely with his public perception in mind - most of his best moves have actually been incredibly unpopular, and the last thing the Pirates can afford is a return to Dave Littlefield's pitiful prioritization of fan-placating - but when the Pirates are completely priced out of any meaningful free agents, and the players they're able to sign are at least competent major-leaguers who may represent slight upgrades without handcuffing the payroll or stunting the development of legitimate prospects, then there is simply nothing wrong with Neal Huntington making some essentially cosmetic changes if the end result is a slightly more enthused fanbase and an increased chance of short-term improvement. No matter how little Huntington factors pleasing the fans into his franchise plan, he can't execute that plan fully if doesn't have a job.
As a Pirates fan, I not only understand Huntington making changes for the sake of change, but a part of me also demands it. I can cite Zach Duke's xFIP as much as I want to argue that he's still a non-useless major league pitcher who had an unlucky 2010 largely caused by an atrocious defense, but still, the baser, gut-reactiony part of me has zero interest in watching another excruciating Duke start in 2011. I can cite Milledge's platoon splits and his age and pedigree and not be factually incorrect, and yet, if he were penciled into the 2011 Buccos lineup, the fan in me would be rolling my eyes in anticipation of his creatively spastic baserunning mistakes before Spring Training even let out. And I can clamor on and on about how a manager in baseball is mostly immaterial, and scoff at Clint Hurdle's inane one-line axioms, but if John Russell hadn't been fired, I would've seriously considered flushing my Extra Innings Package money down the toilet this year instead of spending it to watch the Pirates (and thus doing it figuratively).
The Pirates had to do something after the 57-win season, even if that something includes signing a pitcher with a 5.40 ERA in PETCO Park (roughly a six billion ERA with the Pirates' park and defense). Even if the changes are mostly cosmetic in nature, pleasing the Pirates masses without hurting the franchise in the long term carries significant tangible benefits, both for the team (ticket sales, interest, short-term improvement) and for the front office (Huntington possibly avoiding getting fired and/or literally crucified when Milledge gets picked off to end the game on Opening Day). In an offseason where a franchise (the Washington Nationals) whose two best potential players won't both be fully ready for two to three years just shelled out $127 million for a 31-year-old corner oufielder, the idea of making some minor changes just to make them is hardly the most insane thing in the world.