Inside the Pirates: The MVP that got away

Howard could have been had ... except Pirates thought they already had him in Eldred

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Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the National League's MVP for 2006 ... Ryan Howard of your Pittsburgh Pirates!

Has a tantalizing ring, no?

Just imagine how the franchise's fortunes might have been changed by having such a star, from attendance to TV ratings to ... gasp ... success in the standings.

It almost happened.

Various versions of the story have circulated how Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield spoke with his Philadelphia counterpart, Ed Wade, about possible trades involving Howard. None can be conclusive, of course, as even the parties involved can have their own reasons for twisting such tales.

But here is one version cobbled together from three sources, all of whom agreed on the major elements and one of whom was directly involved on the Pirates' side ...

First, to clear a popular misconception: The Pirates never turned down a deal of Howard for Kip Wells. Although the Phillies liked Wells and inquired about him, those talks did not involve Howard.

Rather, it was the summer of 2004, and the Phillies were interested in Kris Benson. And yes, they offered Howard, who opened that season with Class AA Reading.

The Pirates rejected it.

Was it because Benson was deemed too high a price?

No, the sources said. It was because the Pirates already had a similar prospect in Brad Eldred.

At the time, such an evaluation was not preposterous: Each was 24, each was a first baseman and each had extraordinary power. Howard was in the process of hitting 46 home runs between Class AA Reading and Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Eldred was hitting 38 home runs between Class A Lynchburg and Class AA Altoona. Each had a batting average in the .290s.

Part of the Pirates' thinking was that, after extensive scouting of Howard, they detected a hole in his swing -- under his fists -- and wondered if it could be addressed.

Suffice it to say it has.

One of the key differences between the two at the time, some say, was that Howard had a fairly simple swing while Eldred's had all kinds of mechanical issues in which everything had to be just right to click. That made Eldred the greater unknown.

Another was that, although their strikeout-to-walk ratios were similar early in their minor-league careers, Howard kept improving in that regard while Eldred regressed. Almost all power-hitters will strike out a ton, but it is pitch recognition that separates those who hit home runs in the minors and those who do it at the elite level.

When Howard won MVP honors last season, he had 181 strikeouts but also 108 walks, most at any point in his professional career. This year, he has 142 strikeouts and 77 walks.

Eldred, batting .215 for Class AAA Indianapolis, has 76 strikeouts and 17 walks.

The punch line: The Pirates traded Benson that summer to the New York Mets, along with Jeff Keppinger, for Jose Bautista and Ty Wigginton. Bautista was brought back after being given away in the Rule 5 draft debacle a year earlier. The Pirates released Wigginton in late 2005. Wigginton and Keppinger are now everyday players for other teams.

Designated for assignment, destined to return

Including reliever Masumi Kuwata, the Pirates have had eight occasions this season in which they have designated a player for assignment, a process in which a player must clear waivers to be assigned to a minor-league affiliate. All cleared. Don Kelly did it twice. The rest: Humberto Cota, Dan Kolb, Marty McLeary, John Wasdin and Matt Kata.

Moreover, two who cleared -- Kelly and Kata -- had their contracts purchased a second time to return to the Pirates.

The advantage to this, of course, is that it allows for easy movement of pieces to and from the minors.

The disadvantage, just as obviously, is that none of the other 29 teams seem to be interested in the players the Pirates deem to be their best at the Class AAA level.

Second-best? Maybe not

For all the attention paid to Danny Moskos, the Pirates' first-round draft pick, the pitcher that might pay bigger dividends is the guy they took in the following round.

That is partly because Duke Welker, the 6-foot-7 right-hander out of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville who was the second pick, has the pedigree of a starter while Moskos will be a reliever.

And it is partly because, already, Welker has made a positive impression.

"I really liked what I saw," director of player development Brian Graham said after a recent visit to State College, the Pirates' new Class A short-season affiliate. "I saw a lot of strikes, a lot of different pitches, averaging about 93 mph on the fastball, and he was efficient, too. And because he's 6 feet 7, there's a great downward plane to his ball."

All of which, if sustained, profiles to starting.

"Absolutely," Graham said. "The tools are there, no question."

Welker, 21, is 2-2 with a 2.35 ERA, 27 strikeouts and 10 walks in seven starts.

The most recent second-rounder to make the Pirates' rotation: Tom Gorzelanny, class of 2003.

Final thought

When the Pirates' players set a midseason goal of winding up with 82 victories, many no doubt snickered.

Well, consider this ...

Had the Pirates been two games above .500 right now, they would be part of a three-team battle for first place in the Central Division.

Had they simply gone .500 since the break, they still would be in the hunt.

Would Ryan Howard have won the Home Run Derby in his "home park" in 2006 if not for Brad Eldred?
Click photo for larger image.

More Coverage:

Paul Meyer's Power Rankings

This week: On Deck, 2007 Diary: Short hops and DYK: Numerology

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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