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Restoring Pirates no fire sale

Special to

July 28

What the Pittsburgh Pirates tried to do was emulate the Cleveland Indians model: coincide the talent buildup to the ballpark opening and revive a somnolent franchise.


What general manager Kevin McClatchy did right was the ballpark, which ranks up in the elite class with Pac Bell. What went wrong was that in tying up very good players like Jason Kendall and Brian Giles to keep them in Pittsburgh, there were evaluation mistakes made, too many financial commitments and a lot of bad luck. Which is how they got to where they are now, below .500 again as they've been every year since Barry Bonds left, losing money and waiting for the Steelers' first preseason game.

What is astounding is that when general manager Dave Littlefield began the rehabilitation process for this team draped in red ink and blue mediocrity, it created a backlash that approached outrage. "The commissioner should do something about this," shouted one national talk-radio shouter. "Fire sale" and "breaking up the team" were the catch phrases.

Excuse us, but breaking up what team?

These are not the 1960, 1979 or 1991 Pirates. They do play very hard, which is testament to their character and Lloyd McClendon. They make some runs against the Brewers and Reds and Mets, their neighbors at the end of the cul de sac.

"But," Littlefield said, "we just don't have enough players right now. We need more players, we need more financial flexibility to be able to go out and get those players. At the same time, there are misconceptions when people say we are having a fire sale or 'breaking up the team.' We're changing the team because we're not happy with mediocrity. We need to have the flexibility to go get more players like Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders, who came in on one-year deals and performed well.

"However, our long-term goal is to not have to rely on players like that. The problem is that our farm system isn't in a position to provide players who can step in and help us in the immediate future, so we have to try to do the best we can right now. Part of our financial flexibility is to allow us to spend to sign the best draft choices and invest in Latin America and Asia and get this organization back where it should be. Our models are Kansas City, Oakland and Minnesota.

"However, don't forget how long it took all those clubs to get back into contention," Littlefield said. "Now they're all solid, contending teams. They are the types of teams we want to emulate. Our goal is not to be .500, our goal is to be a championship team, and when we are, the fans in Pittsburgh will pack the park because they're great fans who haven't had much to cheer for in more than 10 years."

Aramis Ramirez
Aramis Ramirez was more or less a one-season wonder in Pittsburgh.

Now really, what has Littlefield done? He traded Lofton, who is 36 and would have been gone at the end of the season. He traded Aramis Ramirez, who makes $6.5 million next year, has had one good year and been a below-average third baseman. He traded Scott Sauerbeck, a solid left-handed specialist with a medical history. He traded closer Mike Williams, who turns 35 on Tuesday and had a 6.27 ERA. In return, he gets an unnamed player from the Cubs who Littlefield says "will contribute to our major-league team next year," Brandon Lyon (Boston's medical staff claims he has the cleanest MRI of any of their current pitchers) and reliever Anastacio Martinez, who likely will be in Pittsburgh by July 2004. The money that would have gone to the underachieving Ramirez will go to three-to-five players.

And, yes, if the Padres came up with the right combination of players to go with Oliver Perez and Xavier Nady as well as swallow enough of the $42 million owed Kendall from 2004 through 2007, Littlefield may trade his hustling catcher and Giles. "But," Littlefield said, "any big deals would have to set us up for a long time."

The good news for Pirate fans is that the pitching could be good in a hurry, which might bring them their .500 record for the first time since 1992. Kip Wells and Josh Fogg were solid Littlefield acquisitions. The future of Kris Benson is in physical question (he was placed on the disabled list Monday), but lefty Sean Burnett and right-handers John VanBenschoten and Bryan Bullington could all be in the big leagues by this time next year.

They should also remember that when there was outcry about what really was a fire sale in San Diego in 1993, that three years later the Padres beat out the Dodgers in the NL West and two years after that were in the World Series. In fact, one night an ESPN commentator demanded that Bud Selig intervene and block a trade between the Padres and Rockies that sent Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris (who between them won one game for Colorado) for future All-Stars Brad Ausmus and Andy Ashby. Remember, Oakland got nothing when it dumped Mark McGwire in 1997, and three years later was in the playoffs.

And what exactly is Texas trying to do right now?

McClatchy tried to do the right thing before opening the right ballpark, and like the Tigers, Brewers and Reds, his Cleveland model fell short. Instead of sitting there throwing mad money in the rivers, he is trying to get it right. Breaking up mediocrity isn't a fire sale, it's a restoration.

The search for pitching
Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi watched the Cape Cod League this week, while working on deals for Kelvim Escobar and Cory Lidle. Ricciardi seemed frustrated that things were moving slowly, with the Braves, Cardinals, Red Sox, White Sox and others in line for Escobar. Everyone knows that the Jays and A's would like to do a three-way that would send Escobar to the Cardinals, J.D. Drew to the A's and Ted Lilly and a prospect to Toronto, although Oakland is now reluctant to include right-hander Joe Blanton, who in his Midwest League stint pitched 133 innings, allowed 132 baserunners, struck out 144 and walked 19. "Blanton's command and stuff are so good that he's going to be a 200-250 inning horse," one A's official said, "and he's going to be in our rotation at this time next year."

Kelvim Escobar
Toronto Blue Jays
101.2 109 44 95 6-6 4.34

The Red Sox made Casey Fossum available for Escobar, but the Jays consider the Boston offer "on the backburner." Toronto, like several other teams, is less enamored with Fossum now than in April. "He's got to make adjustments in his delivery to create more downhill angle," one GM said. "He throws uphill. One of our hitters said, 'the fastball's not there' when we recently faced him." The Red Sox staff hasn't had much luck getting through to the left-hander.

Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty says he needs a reliever -- he continues to talk about Mike DeJean -- and at least one starter. But with little money, that might force him to turn to Pat Hentgen or Jeff Suppan.

One very available starter is 10-game winner Livan Hernandez, whose vesting option for $6 million in 2004 is about to kick in. Thus far, Omar Minaya hasn't been able to move Hernandez, although there are voices in the Red Sox and White Sox camps that think that an innings starter who wins 12-15 games annually is worth the $6 million. Clubs that asked about Javier Vazquez thus far have been told that he's not available. The Yankees would love to talk about Vladimir Guerrero, but New York's front office doesn't think it could happen, or that the commissioner's office would ever allow it.

The notion that the White Sox and/or Marlins would just fade away should be put to sleep by now. Ken Williams has been shopping hard for a starter, while the Phish are trying to nail a bat, such as Rondell White, Jeff Conine or Reggie Sanders. While some teams sit and ponder, Williams is out there trying to make a trade.

And the Padres are hard at work, selling and buying for next year's ballpark. Kevin Towers offered Xavier Nady and Oliver Perez -- believed to be in the Giles-Kendall package -- for Adam Dunn, and was turned down. He has talked to the Marlins, Royals and others about White, and several teams about Kevin Jarvis, who makes $4.25 million next season.

There have been only a couple of mild inquiries on Steve Trachsel, which is surprising considering the fact that for two years -- since getting together with sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman --Trachsel has been the Mets' best pitcher. What teams have learned is that Jim Duquette doesn't really want to deal Trachsel, instead seeing him as a critical element in next year's rotation. Duquette hopes to clear money and sign one of the big free-agent starters (Kevin Millwood, Escobar, Bartolo Colon) to go with Trachsel, Tom Glavine, Al Leiter and either Jae Seo, Aaron Heilman or Tyler Yates. Then they need a second baseman and at least one outfielder.

Gerut overlooked in Cleveland
Not to intimate that Hideki Matsui hasn't been a marvelous player for the Yankees, but consider the lineup he plays in and the Cleveland lineup surrounding Jody Gerut, then prorate their stats to 600 at-bats:

		Matsui		Gerut
Avg.		.294		.279
OPS		.791		.833
Runs		74		77
HR		15		28
RBI		102		86

Cape Cod League gems
The MVP of the Cape League All-Star Game and the consensus league MVP among managers and coaches is Stanford center fielder Sam Fuld (Hyannis Mets). The consensus that the best prospect for the first college pitcher taken next June is between two Capers, Boston College right-hander Chris Lambert (Chatham) and Rice right-hander Jeff Niemann (Yarmouth-Dennis). After noting that Fuld and Lambert are both from New Hampshire -- Fuld's father is chairman of the psychology department at the University of New Hampshire, Lambert is from Manchester -- the question remains: How could Fuld have lasted until the 24th round?

"I got bad information," one GM said at the All-Star Game. "Fuld is a player. He's a legit center fielder, he can really throw, he can run and he has a great swing." Fuld, taken in the 24th round by the Cubs, says he is returning to Stanford for his senior year. Like Khalil Greene, who as a junior went in the 14th round and proved his worth in the real bat league so he went 13th overall a year ago in June to the Padres, Fuld will skyrocket up in the draft and be in the big leagues posthaste, like his good friend Rocco Baldelli.

Actually, the best pitching prospect is an '05 draftee -- Baylor (Wareham) pitcher Mark McCormick, who might be the best right-handed prospect in the league in a decade, including Matt Morris.

And the winning hit in the All-Star Game was delivered by Auburn outfielder Sean Gamble, Oscar's son. The younger Gamble doesn't have the 'fro, but he can sure hit.

String music
  • Bernie Williams' CD "The Journey Within" is now third on the Billboard chart for soft jazz, right behind Norah Jones.

  • Lord, please save us from the endless prattling about QuesTec. At the All-Star break, the ERA in games with QuesTec was 4.44, in games without it 4.43. What it's become is the convenient excuse for players and umpires alike, which brings us back to the Eddie Vedder line, "there's no right or wrong, but there's good and bad."

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