Cam Bonifay or Dave Littlefield: Which Is the Lesser of Two Evils?
As Neil Huntington's first year as General Manager of the Pirates came to a close, one would struggle to call it anything but tumultuous. Despite the Pedro Alvarez saga, the failure to sign second round pick Tanner Scheppers, and the struggles of many newly acquired players, Huntington is still saved in the eye of public opinion based on one fact: He is not Cam Bonifay or Dave Littlefield.
Bonifay and Littlefield represent a very dark period of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball. Their tenure, 1993-2007, netted zero playoff appearances and zero winning seasons. They were recently lumped together on a list of the all time worst GMs and placed sixth.
While it is unfair to lump them together, both men certainly belonged on the list. Both men were terrible in very different ways.
Let's start with Bonifay.
Cam Bonifay took over as Pirates' GM after the sudden death of Ted Simmons. He inherited a team that had only just lost, what many call, the most crushing defeat in baseball history against the Braves in Game Seven of the NLCS, but that's another article all together.
The odds were stacked against him as the Pirates best player, Barry Bonds, had just signed a lucrative deal with the San Francisco Giants in the offseason. However Bonifay only made the situation worse.
One of Bonifay's biggest flaws was that he was a terrible judge of talent, and this was demonstrated in the countless drafts where he failed to net a good number of prospects. In 1994, Bonifay drafted Mark Farris, a young shortstop out of high school. Farris was only able to reach double-A before his career was over.
The three players selected directly after Mark Farris were Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko, and Jason Varitek. In 1995, Bonifay selected Chad Hermansen. Hermansen did make it to the majors and played for about five years, but he was never very productive and was taken before Roy Halladay.
In 1996, the Pirates owned the first pick the draft and Bonifay used it on Kris Benson. While Benson proved to be a solid starter for some years in the majors, he was never the star that the Pirates expected him to be when Bonifay took him first overall.
In 1997, Bonifay took first baseman J.J. Davis over fellow first baseman Lance Berkman. Let's just say that Berkman's been slightly better than Davis. In 1998, Bonifay took Clint Johnson, a first baseman who never made it past double-A.
Some of the players taken later in that first round were CC Sabathia and Brad Lidge. In 1999, Bonifay took pitcher Bobby Bradley, who only made it to triple A before ending his career. The three pitchers taken right after Bradley were Barry Zito, Ben Sheets, and Brett Myers.
In 2000, Bonifay selected pitcher Sean Burnett. After years of injuries and struggling, Burnett finally made his mark in the majors as a reliever in 2008. Burnett could serve to be the saving grace of Bonifay's drafting reputation.
In 2001, Bonifay took, with his last pick ever, pitcher John Van Benshcoten. While Benschoten was always dominant in the minors, he was never able to translate that to big league success. The moment Benschoten left Pittsburgh in 2008, he immediately became one of the biggest busts in Pirates history. Bonifay was fired just seven days after the 2001 draft.
While poor drafting may have been what Bonifay was renowned for, he also had a penchant for over paying washed up players. Some of his most notable contracts involved Pat Meares, Kevin Young and Derek Bell.
In 1999, Bonifay signed Meares to a four year, $15 million contract. Meares was plagued by injuries and the financial inflexibility caused by his contract affected the Pirates for years.
Young, incredibly, was signed to the richest contract in Pirates history at the time, getting $24 million over four years. This signing served as another example of Bonifay overpaying for mediocre players.
One of Bonifay's worst signings was definitely Derek Bell. Bonifay signed him to a two year, $9.25 million contract. After an injury-plagued first year, Bell declared that he would never compete for a starting job, and the Pirates just bought out his contract.
However the most egregious example of Bonifay's ineptitude and the one really defined his inability to understand free agency was the six year, $60 million contract that was given to Jason Kendall in 2001. Don't get me wrong, Kendall was one of my favorite players growing up, but $10 million a year for a singles hitter who doesn't walk, EVER, is absurd.
Even after unloading Kendall only a few years into that contract, the Pirates continued to pay it off through 2007. Kendall's contract was truly Bonifay's legacy in Pittsburgh, as the Pirates had to suffer through it years after Bonifay was gone.
Now lets turn our focus to Dave Littlefield.
Littlefield took over for Bonifay midway through the 2001 season. While Bonifay overpaid mediocre players and drafted poorly, Littlefield was renowned for a very poor trading record and being excessively frugal when it came to money and talent. Littlefield was widely disliked throughout the league and was well-known for being very difficult to deal with.
Some of Littlefield's trades are so bad that they are almost laughable. Despite being a general manager who consistently asked for way more than any of his players were worth, he still managed to come away with very little talent in numerous deals.
One of Littlefield's first deals was unloading star pitcher Jason Schmidt. While Schmidt should have netted some serious young talent in return, Littlefield packaged him with talented utility man John Vanderwal to the Giants for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. Both Rios and Vogelsong were out of baseball by 2005.
In 2001, Littlefield traded pitcher Chris Young in deal that got the Pirates Matt Herges. This trade was made all the more difficult to swallow after the Pirates waived Herges before he even pitched an inning. Young has become one of the premier pitchers in the league with the San Diego Padres.
Littlefield shipped off promising young players for essentially nothing many times during his tenure. Two of the most egregious were his trade of Leo Nunez for Benito Santiago, as well as Gary Matthews Jr. for cash considerations. Even when it was evident in 2007 that Littlefield would not be around for much longer, he was still making terrible trades.
Littlefield's poor trade record is not only due to bad trades, but also to good trades that he rejected. Littlefield was offered Ryan Howard by the Phillies twice, for Kris Benson, and then Kip Wells. At the 2007 trade deadline, Littlefield acquired pitcher Matt Morris. The trade was universally criticized because the Pirates not only took on Morris' huge contract, but they also gave up two legitimate prospects in return.
In five starts for the Pirates in 2008, Morris posted a 9.67 ERA and was promptly waived by the new regime. Littlefield's next awful deal occurred in 2003, but I felt that it was so bad that it should close this argument.
Littlefield dealt Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and cash considerations to the Cubs for Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and Matt Bruback. In defense of the deal, Littlefield said, "We must start stockpiling young talent so we can try to compete for championships." Jose Hernandez was washed up when he was acquired and Hill and Bruback were terrible and were out of the majors as soon as 2004.
Lofton provided solid play and veteran leadership for the Cubs and only just ended his storied career in 2007. Also, Ramirez has become a perennial All Star for the Cubs at third base and continues to be one of the premier players in the game.
After the disaster that was Cam Bonifay and the 2001 season, the Pirates were given the first overall pick in the 2002 draft. This was Littlefield's opportunity to stake his claim on the team and really begin to move in the right direction.
Despite most scouts and experts believing B.J. Upton to be the best player in the draft, Littlefield selected pitcher Brian Bullington out of Ball State with the first overall pick, saying that he could be a "good number three" pitcher some day.
While Upton has become a star with the Rays, Bullington is no longer on the Pirates as he posted a 7.04 ERA in his time in Pittsburgh. While Paul Maholm and Andrew McCutchen have the potential to be stars, Littlefield has made some questionable moves on draft day.
In 2004, Littlefield selected local third baseman Neil Walker. While Walker has not been given a shot at the majors yet, his slow progress is disconcerting as is his inability to hit for average. Walker will be given a shot to produce in Pittsburgh in 2008, but things do not look promising.
In 2006, Littlefield chose Brad Lincoln over the likes of 2008 Cy Young Tim Lincecum. The season after he was selected, Lincoln had Tommy John surgery and is only now back on the track to the big leagues. Most recently, Littlefield selected pitcher Daniel Moskos, who was widely regarded as a relief pitcher, over Matt Wieters, considered by many to be the best player in that draft.
While Wieters flourishes in the Orioles system as the best prospect in baseball, Moskos has had several growing pains and really struggled in class-A ball in 2008.
While Bonifay and Littlefield were truly disastrous general managers, they each did accomplish one very effective trade each. This group of trades has been coined by a friend and fellow Pirates fan as the "Ricardo Rincon gift that keeps on giving."
In 1998, Bonifay swapped lefty specialist reliever Ricardo Rincon for little known outfielder Brian Giles. After Giles became a star for the Pirates, Littlefield turned around and traded him in 2003 for minor leaguers Jason Bay and Oliver Perez.
Both became fast stars and after Perez began to struggle in 2006 he was traded in a deal that netted the Pirates Xavier Nady.
Nady and Bay formed a very formidable outfield for the better part of 2 years. However at the deadline in 2008, Nady was sent to the Yankees for Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf. Soon after, Bay was dealt to the Red Sox for Andy LaRoche, Bryan Morris, Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen.
The Pirates enter 2009 with eight new and exciting young players and it is all due to a little player named Ricardo Rincon.
I now return to the question in my title: Who was the lesser of two evils, Bonifay or Littlefield.
Honestly, it shouldn't matter. Both were terrible and the Pirates didn't have a winning season under either men. Realistically though, Bonifay was a poor GM, but Littlefield was historically bad.
Now, the apparent snake pit of a job that is the Pirates general manager belongs to Neil Huntington. Such is the constant gloom of a Pirates fan, but Huntington only needs to be mediocre to be heralded as a hero in Pittsburgh.
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