There's an ageless expression that's been used by numerous coaches about players who don't seem to develop and may need nudging out the door _ get 'em good, or get 'em gone.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, sinking fast once again during what might be a record-setting season of losing, appear to take a different approach. They get 'em good, then they get 'em gone.
The Pirates who begin the traditional second half of the season Friday at home against the Giants won't be the group that began the season in April, thanks to the unexpected trades of former NL All-Star Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan _ the third and fourth starting outfielders to be dealt since last July.
Each time, the explanation was the same: The Pirates must upgrade throughout their system, and acquiring good prospects means giving up something in return. That's meant Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, McLouth and Morgan departing, with NL All-Star infielder Freddy Sanchez, first baseman Adam LaRoche and left-hander Zach Duke possibly to follow before the July 31 trading deadline.
To date, all this swapping hasn't changed much on the field. The Pirates are a season-low 12 games under .500 at 38-50 after losing four in a row and 11 of 14, a record that's even worse than their 44-50 at the break a year ago. There hasn't been much progress during a season that began with primary owner Bob Nutting emphasizing that measurable improvement was needed.
The Pirates' problems, and they are many, are nearly the same as each of the last 16 Pirates teams that finished below .500: Not enough pitching depth, not enough power, not enough of almost everything. The Pirates are 15th (of 16) in the NL in homers, 10th in ERA, 11th in opponents' batting average, 14th in road record (16-33) and 15th in divisional play (12-25 against the NL Central).
For every upside, such as Duke's improvement (3.29 ERA, three complete games), there's a downslide like Ian Snell's self-imposed demotion to the minors after he went 2-8 with a 5.36 ERA. There's also been more of the peculiar, such as the Astros' Mike Hampton going 4-0 against the Pirates and 1-6 against everybody else.
With McLouth, Bay and Nady all gone since a year ago, no outfielder has more than the five homers of Garrett Jones, who has been with the club for only 11 games. Rookie center fielder Andrew McCutchen (.292, 2 HRs, 23 RBIs) has been very good since his post-McLouth trade call up, but no right fielder has produced; Brandon Moss has only three homers in 220 at-bats.
"We've got some things to work on," manager John Russell said after the Pirates were swept by Philadelphia in three games last weekend. "We're young, we're growing, guys are starting to develop."
The Pirates' problem has been that every time a player starts to develop, it seems he must be the latest to move on during a seemingly endless cycle of rebuilding.
General manager Neal Huntington and president Frank Coonelly emphasize that patience is necessary because much needed to be fixed. But to a Pirates fan who began first grade in 1993 and now, 16 years later, is graduating from college without once seeing a winner probably is short on patience.
With the Pirates readying to become the first major American pro sports team to endure 17 consecutive losing seasons, commissioner Bud Selig was asked at the All-Star game if there's any reason for hope.
"I do think Bob and Frank and Neil are on the right track, I really do," Selig said. "When you have a club that's been down that long, it just takes a long time, and that's all I can say. But are they on the right track? They are. And I believe that track will be faster than most people believe."
Still, the constant losing is extracting a price. The Pirates' average attendance of 18,486 ranks ahead of only Oakland (18,127) and Florida (18,117); even the Nationals are drawing more.
The Pirates deny their weak attendance or bottom-line concerns led to the McLouth trade, yet the popular Sanchez's likely departure may result in part from a contract clause that guarantees him $8 million next season if he makes 600 plate appearances. He has 342 through 77 games.
With their gate revenue nowhere close to what they anticipated when PNC Park opened in 2001, the Pirates can't afford many salaries like that. So, for now, they must hope that most of the prospects they trade for eventually become productive and affordable players, even if no one in the organization is targeting the year when that might happen.
The losing especially stands out during a year when the other two teams in town, the Steelers and Penguins, have won championships.
"We've made a lot of improvements, we've got to make a few more," said Russell, reciting nearly the same words spoken by every Pirates manager since 1993. "We've got to keep getting better."