Hot Stove: Payroll disparity a Central issue

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Maybe the Pirates' fate in 2008 might be different if, a couple days from now, a gift card in the amount of, oh, $50 million were to show up under their tree.

As it is ...

The $50 million or so that they do plan to spend next season, which would represent a small increase on the $48 million paid out last season, projects to rank third-lowest in Major League Baseball. The Florida Marlins -- the bottom team once again, projected at $15 million -- and Tampa Bay Rays are certain to be lower, and the only other team with a chance to be lower than the Pirates is the Washington Nationals.

Perhaps more significant, with the Pirates staying pretty much stagnant, the gap between them and the rest of the Central Division will grow to its biggest margin in a decade.

A survey conducted with help from other beat writers in the division showed:

• The Chicago Cubs could become the majors' ninth team to top the $120 million threshold. For now, they remain on pace to be at their goal of $115 million, a 15 percent jump from last season. Most of that will go to Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, signed this month for four years at $48 million.

• The Houston Astros will bump up slightly into the $90-$95 million range, mostly due to the headline acquisitions of Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde.

• The St. Louis Cardinals saved $7 million by trading Jim Edmonds last week and could clear Scott Rolen's $12 million from the books, too, if he is dealt. But their payroll, for now, looks to stay at about $93 million.

• The Cincinnati Reds have been the biggest surprise, moving from $68 million into the $80 million range by signing Francisco Cordero to four years and $46 million and exercising Adam Dunn's $13 million option. Their payroll figure might come down, but not by much.

• The Milwaukee Brewers will go up slightly, into the $70-75 million range. Most of that has gone into a bullpen spending spree that included Eric Gagne's stunning one-year, $10 million contract.

That puts the projected gap between the Pirates and Brewers at roughly $20 million, a figure that would represent the largest separation between the Pirates and the rest of the Central Division pack since 1997. That Freak Show team, with its $9 million payroll, was $23 million below the next-lowest payroll, the Astros' $32 million.

Buried treasure

• The Pirates' recent manager search included a phone call to Phil Garner. He was not interested and, hence, never was interviewed.

• Look for Adam LaRoche to get more at-bats this spring as part of management's plan to help him avoid a third consecutive poor start. He made 61 plate appearances last spring, pretty much on par with other regulars, and played in 21 of 32 exhibition games.

• With the "We Will" slogan gone and an apparent return to the franchise emphasizing its traditions, could those red softball uniforms show up next on the R.I.P. list?

• A representative of free agent Jose Castillo said there is "plenty" of interest among teams to make him a reserve infielder. It is not hurting, of course, that Castillo is batting a mind-bending .367 in his native Venezuela this winter, with six home runs and 30 RBIs in 44 games. Only Jody Gerut's .390 mark is higher in that league.

Jose Bautista just reported to the Dominican Republic for a month or so of winter ball. He is off to a 4-for-21 start with a home run and eight strikeouts. As usual, he is getting some time in the outfield, too.

• The Pirates' Winter Caravan, running from Jan. 13-24, will make 20 stops across Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, beginning with a full day at Seven Springs. Players expected on the tour include LaRoche, Jack Wilson, Tom Gorzelanny, Matt Capps, Paul Maholm, Nate McLouth, Zach Duke, Nyjer Morgan and Steve Pearce. Check for details.

• The period between Christmas and New Year's Day always is quiet in baseball, as most team executives and agents take a vacation week, so expect little activity until the calendar turns.

• Only 53 days until pitchers and catchers report.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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