On the Pirates: No avoiding the middlemen

Team will need to extend Wilson and Sanchez or search outside

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MIAMI -- Looking at the Pirates' organizational depth chart of outfielders, there would appear to be a decent amount of young talent below what it is in Pittsburgh, notably Lastings Milledge, Jose Tabata, Gorkys Hernandez and Robbie Grossman.

Catcher looks OK, too, with top draft pick Tony Sanchez.

So do the corner infield spots, with Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker at third, Alvarez capable of moving across to first.

But the middle infield?

One has to go to Class AA Altoona to find a marginal shortstop prospect in Brian Friday, who has 16 errors, then down to Class A Lynchburg to find promising shortstop prospects Chase D'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer. All three are far from sure things. And the top second base prospect, Shelby Ford, is batting .167 for Class AAA Indianapolis after a spring wrist injury.

So, that leaves, of course, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez.

Wilson has an $8.4 million club option for 2010 that has almost no chance of being exercised. He approached the Pirates this past spring with an offer to revise that lower if he received a multiyear extension. The team responded politely, did not rule it out, but that was it.

Sanchez has an $8 million option for 2010 that can be triggered by the player if he makes 635 plate appearances, or 600 plate appearances plus an All-Star berth later today. Or it can be triggered unilaterally by the team.

And that raises this question: Should the Pirates approach both players about extensions?

If not for the close friendship shared by Wilson and Sanchez -- they are virtually inseparable, on and off the field -- the issue might be moot. As it is, the Pirates would be able to preserve the statistically-backed best double-play combination in Major League Baseball, maybe for less than the market rate.

"We prefer to not discuss any particular negotiation publicly," general manager Neal Huntington said when the above scenario was raised. "That said, we are open to any concept that makes baseball and financial sense to continue our efforts to improve this organization."

The likely scenario: The Pirates will remain open-minded to the possibility, but the free-agent market this coming offseason might take a big hit with attendance down in two-thirds of major league stadiums. Because of that, the Pirates might take the approach of waiting until that market plays out rather than aggressively pursuing extensions as they did last offseason.

How good is Wilson?

Wilson is the best defensive shortstop in the majors this season, according to one respected defensive metric: He has a plus-8.9 ultimate zone rating, a complex formula that takes into account errors, range and difficulty of play.

Second is the Milwaukee Brewers' unspectacular but vastly improved J.J. Hardy.

Sanchez ranks seventh in the majors among second basemen at plus-2.8, with the Detroit Tigers' Placido Polanco first.

Perhaps the biggest surprise: Brandon Moss ranks third among right fielders, with a plus 7.8. He surely benefits from the nearby Clemente Wall, plus having good center fielders next to him all season, but still ...

Gorzelanny vs. arbitration

Every team weighs contractual and financial issues into every decision, even the New York Yankees, and the Pirates -- as some might have heard -- are no exception.

In that context, then, here is one possible explanation for why Tom Gorzelanny was returned to Indianapolis even though manager John Russell clearly felt comfortable using him in important situations during his time in the Pirates' bullpen last month: Gorzelanny can become arbitration eligible if he spends 42 more days in the majors, whether he plays or not. Time on the major league disabled list would count toward that, too.

That, of course, would put Gorzelanny's 2010 salary in a different stratosphere than the current $433,000. Without arbitration, it will stay pretty much the same. With arbitration, given precedent, it could quadruple.

Management's official explanation -- and this has been backed by action -- is that the Pirates want Gorzelanny to be a starter, not a reliever, and he is back in Indianapolis' rotation.

With excellent results, it should be added: Since the Pirates sent him back last month, Gorzelanny has made four starts and given up a total of two earned runs, with 26 strikeouts and five walks in 22 innings.

Grabow 'untouchable'

Team president Frank Coonelly reiterated this week that no players on the Pirates' roster are untouchable, while also acknowledging that there are some that would be very difficult to pry away.

This, apparently, should be amended.

"I'm untouchable, dude," reliever John Grabow said, failing to stifle a grin. "No way they're trading me."

He might have a point.

Add left-handed relief to the above list of positions with zero depth. With Sean Burnett traded, only erratic Rule 5 draft pick Donnie Veal stands behind Grabow on the depth chart. There is no other help in Indianapolis or Altoona. And left-handed relief is no picnic to find on the open market or through trades.

Even so, the Pirates have yet to offer Grabow an extension, as he, too, can become a free agent this offseason after making $2.3 million this year. Moreover, they have let other teams know that he is available through trade for the proper return value in prospects.

One would imagine the prospects sought will include shortstops and left-handed relievers.

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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