On the Pirates: Sano a risk either way

Team's bid for top Dominican prospect about more than just money

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The Pirates' pursuit of Miguel Angel Sano, an elite 16-year-old Dominican prospect who projects to play right field, is fraught with risk whether they sign him or not.

Looking at three risks from each side, let us start with those that come with signing him:

• Most obvious is money. Sano could command a bonus of $4 million or more, which is 10 times greater than the Pirates' record investment in the region, the $400,000 paid to Venezuelan outfielder Exicardo Cayones last year. Few things are less predictable in sports than a 16-year-old baseball player, and it is far from certain Sano would ever see Pittsburgh.

• An excessive bonus could tick off the rest of Major League Baseball, just as the Oakland Athletics did last year with their record $4.25 million bonus for Dominican pitcher Michael Inoa. The draft and Latin American systems operate mostly through unwritten, unspoken agreements that teams should not throw out the entire pay scale, and low spenders such as the Pirates benefit from that more than anyone.

• The Pirates spent $9.8 million on the draft, $2 million on Latin America last year., each a franchise record. If they shift too much draft money to Latin America, they could damage their draft class, something that should be a great priority. Unless, of course, ownership adds money to the overall pool.

Among the risks of not signing Sano:

• The Pirates' talent evaluators, who are effusive in their praise of Sano's potential, could become dispirited. Signing talent in Latin America is much like recruiting college athletes in the United States. Connections are made, including with the athletes' families, and countless hours are invested beyond simply watching the players play. The Pirates have forged a bond with Sano, his family and his representatives, but none of that will matter without a check.

• The Pirates will stop getting special tryouts in the Dominican. The system on the island is that teams known to sign elite talent will get exclusive looks at top players. Such was the case when the Pirates' brass -- already in the country because of the opening of the team's new academy -- watched Sano and 14 other players in a workout late last month. Other teams have been denied such access, and that could happen to the Pirates, too, if they never step up beyond $400,000.

• If Sano really does become "Albert Pujols in Hanley Ramirez's body," as agent Rob Plummer described his potential the other day, the Pirates will regret it for years to come should it take place in another uniform and he could have been had for the same price it took to sign free-agent bench players Eric Hinske and Ramon Vazquez.

No option to walk

Do not expect the Pirates to agree to contracts with vesting options in the future, now that Freddy Sanchez's clause -- he needs 635 plate appearances, or 600 plate appearances plus an All-Star berth to guarantee an $8.5 million salary in 2010 -- has caused a fuss.

And know that the Pirates already never agree to contracts with bonuses based on at-bats rather than plate appearances.

Exhibit A of why teams, in general, avoid those: Back in 1999, Ed Sprague had a clause in his contract based on at-bats and, after an All-Star first half for the Pirates, dipped to .267 by season's end. According to one person on the coaching staff that year, Sprague simply "began to swing at pretty much everything."

A walk is not an at-bat, of course.

LaRoche targets Moss

Determined that he and Brandon Moss were going to hunt down a way to break their respective slumps, Adam LaRoche brought the requisite supplies to PNC Park on Tuesday afternoon: Bow, arrows, targets.


Moss ended an 0-for-15 skid -- six by strikeout -- with his first home run and a 3-for-4 performance that he followed with back-to-back hits to open the next game.

LaRoche ended a 1-for-30 skid -- nine by strikeout -- with a home run Tuesday and back-to-back doubles to open Wednesday.

Instead of chatting about hitting slumps, an area where LaRoche admitted "I've had a lot of experience," these avid outdoorsmen bypassed batting-cage work and took their archery equipment onto the relatively quiet field. There, they fired at targets aligned in the grass in foul territory. Rehabilitating St. Louis pitcher Chris Carpenter, for one, made sure to steer clear.

"We were looking for animals," LaRoche teased.

"Forget baseball," he later said. "We're talking hunting every day now."

Talk about a turnaround

That same afternoon, infield instructor Perry Hill had the familiar bounce to his step as he strode through the clubhouse on his way to another whistle-while-you-workout.

One never would know the Pirates were mired in an eight-game losing streak.

"Eight games? That's nothing," he said. "I was on a team that once was 10 games under .500, ended up 20 over and won the World Series."

That would be the 2003 Florida Marlins, who recovered from 19-29 to finish 91-71, then beat the New York Yankees.

"You won't see me hanging my head over eight games, buddy."

The best such turnaround in Pirates history came 30 years ago, when the famed Family opened 4-10, ended up 98-64 and beat the Baltimore Orioles.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog .


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