Barnes Burner: Pittsburgh fans struggling at gauging player talent, value

Every year when the respective seasons of each Pittsburgh professional sports team end, it seems as though topics become increasingly complicated and that fans and media outlets debate the proceedings of the Penguins, Steelers and Pirates even more than when the teams were actually playing.

Just listen to the radio. Want to hear about your first-place Pittsburgh Pirates? Well, hold it right there, we have to talk about Craig Adams first. 

But, in listening to all of this noise — because it’s rather unavoidable — there appears to be some sort of deep-seeded vitriol among Pittsburgh sports fans when it comes to Pittsburgh franchises retaining their most talented players. And when certain fans’ desires are executed by the franchises, it leaves the on-field product wanting. 

Exhibit A: Mike Wallace

For the past season or so, Wallace was in the dog house for holding out of training camp because of a dispute over a contract he actually deserved. As a result, he drew boos at Heinz Field all season and left at the end of the year for greener and sunnier pastures in Miami. 

Let’s remember, Pittsburgh, Hines Ward held out of training camp in 2005, but everyone is still quick to tout him as a “class act,” and fans still voted for himPedro Alvarez has blossomed into one of the National League’s top players (MCT Campus) to win “Dancing with the Stars,” despite Wallace showing more talent in his fourth year in the league than Ward ever possessed. 

Anyway, Steeler management then gave the money to Antonio Brown in a six-year, $48 million deal, which effectively sealed the end of Wallace’s tenure in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers do not negotiate during the season — a stupid policy. 

But it’s also ironic in that, without Wallace, Brown probably wouldn’t have received that six-year deal. 

Pittsburgh fans might say Brown is a good guy and that they love watching him in those “It Just Tastes Better” commercials for Uncle Charley’s sausage, but good luck trying to watch a No. 2 receiver at best try to anchor a receiving corps that has no deep threat, let alone demand the attention of two defensive backs on every snap.

For hard proof, just look at Wallace’s first four years in the league: 235 receptions for 4,042 yards and 42 touchdowns. Those statistics are the best of any Steeler receiver in the last four seasons and are nearly identical to the first four seasons of a player who just received an eight-year deal worth $132 million after racking up 1,964 yards in 2012. And yes, his name is Calvin Johnson, the Detroit Lions star receiver: You might have heard of him.

Don’t forget that this is the third time in Ben Roethlisberger’s career that he had his best pass-catcher taken away from him. Nice work, Kevin Colbert.

Exhibit B: Kris Letang-Evgeni Malkin

Look, I know next to nothing about hockey, but I will say that when you think the second-best player in the world doesn’t deserve to be paid like it, and one of the league’s top-three defensemen shouldn’t be kept around, you should probably wonder if you’re following the right sport. 

Yeah, Letang is more of an offensive defenseman, but it works out well when Marc-Andre Fleury has it all together, and Malkin won the Hart Memorial Trophy in 2012. 

Teams don’t let that get away. 

While the disappointing Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Boston Bruins probably didn’t do much to drum up support for these two players, it was refreshing to see the Penguins  make the right call. 

Exhibit C: Pedro Alvarez?

The date of Pedro Alvarez’s arbitration eligibility is approaching. Under arbitration, a player’s salary is decided by an independent third party if the player and the organization cannot agree upon a set amount. 

Or, the Pirates can do what they did with Andrew McCutchen and buy out Alvarez’s arbitration years to sign him to a long-term deal and keep him in Pittsburgh well through his prime, which is what they should do. 

But, a month or so ago, Rob Biertempfel, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Pirates beat reporter, questioned whether or not it would be worth it to the Pirates to extend Pedro Alvarez’s deal. As with Wallace and Letang, it seemed many Pittsburghers were less than keen on the idea. 

One fan said he would prefer to see Neil Walker’s contract extended before Alvarez’s. You know, because he’s “from here.”

Look, the months of watching Pedro hitting .215 are terrible, but when he puts together a month like he did in June, when he hit .309 and 10 home runs with an on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.060, that’s a guy worth watching every time he picks up a bat and certainly one worth keeping around.  

Alvarez is the key guy here, even more so than McCutchen, Jeff Locke or Jason Grilli because when Alvarez steps up, things such as a 17-9 month of June happen, and the Pirates end up with the league’s best record after 81 games. But these attitudes seem to derive from the traditional image of Pittsburgh sports teams, which might not necessarily apply anymore. “Steeler football” is a thing of the past, and the way fans view athletes should be as well. These are different players raised in much different circumstances than the heroes of the 1970s.