ATLANTA -- Hold that Steve Pearce thought for a moment, Pirates fans, and maybe for a few months. Maybe, in fact, for an entire season.
The outcry when the Pirates sent Pearce, their best power-hitting prospect, to the minors while in the midst of a strong spring training, was something to behold. Overlooked in the furor was the fact that in 68 at-bats with the Pirates in September, Pearce's home run total was zero.
And, oh, yes, the Pirates had a right fielder, the position the Pearce Fan Club wanted for its hero.
That right fielder would be Xavier Nady, who was doing nothing but coming off the best year of his career. The Pirates were not about to cast him aside on the basis of an outstanding minor-league season or even four spring-training home runs by Pearce.
Nady, by contrast, looked awful in spring training, batting .175 (10 for 57) with one homer and five RBIs. Proof once again that spring training numbers are virtually meaningless is that Nady has been the Pirates' best hitter through two games that count.
He drove in two runs last night -- not nearly enough to prevent a 10-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves -- to go with the four he drove in two night earlier in the opener. Through two games, Nady is batting .500 (5 for 10) with two homers and six RBIs.
Of course, two games aren't much more of a barometer of anything than spring training statistics, but Nady is quietly establishing himself as a solid major-league hitter, one with a middle-of-the-line presence.
"His approach is better," said manager John Russell. "He's laying off pitches. He's a threat in the lineup."
The Pirates have signed two players to long-term contracts this year, Freddy Sanchez and Ian Snell, and had talks with two others, Adam LaRoche and Matt Capps, that did not produce an agreement.
The Pirates have not given any indication that they believe Nady had a long-term future with the team. He had been perceived as a candidate to be traded because he might fetch something and because of a need by some to get Pearce in the lineup. Pearce is a novice outfielder -- he had been a first baseman until late last year -- and would not be up to playing any outfield position except right field at PNC Park.
Well, maybe Nady should be a candidate for something other than a trade. Maybe the Pirates should start talking with Nady about a long-term deal. True, his agent is Scott Boras, which means Nady is probably going to test free agency after the 2009 season. But it never hurts to talk. Sometimes the possibility of guaranteed money, of a lifetime of financial independence, can change a players mind -- even one who employs Boras.
The conventional wisdom is that the better Nady plays, the easier he'll be to trade and the more prospects he bring in exchange. But it's a fine line in building a team. The wise general manager, particularly one whose fan base is dwindling after years of losing, doesn't strip his team clean of talent.
If LaRoche, who also can become a free agent after 2009 set his price too high, and by most accounts he has, maybe he's the one who should be traded.
By their attempt to sign LaRoche, the Pirates have indicated they're willing to spend money to keep a hitter. If LaRoche isn't interested, move on to Nady.
Nady was a prized prospect as a young player with San Diego who soon gained a reputation as an underachiever.
The Padres dealt him to the Mets, and the Mets sent him to the Pirates in exchange for Oliver Perez in July 2006.
He batted. 300 but with only three home runs for the remainder of the season. There were doubts he'd ever live up to his potential. Those doubts began to crumble last year when he had career highs in home runs (20) doubles (23) and RBIs (72) in 431 at-bats. Those aren't spectacular numbers, but Nady had more RBIs per at-bats than LaRoche.
A knock against Nady was his inability to handle right-handed pitching. He did a good job of dismissing that last year when 17 of this 20 homers came against right-handers.
Tom Gorzelanny, also coming off a poor spring training, pitched well enough last night, allowing three runs in six innings and constantly pitching out of trouble. The bullpen collapsed in the eighth, allowing seven runs to put the game out of reach.
Nady has been a long bright spot in the middle of the lineup. Bay has one hit in eight at-bats, LaRoche, who struck out three times last night, two in 10.
The Pirates need to re-think Nady. Once a prime trade option, he might be evolving into a player they want to keep.
Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com .