On the Pirates: Nutting will not 'handcuff' GM

Owner ready to take negative reaction to Wilson/Sanchez, if trades made

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Only one thing seems certain to emerge from the Pirates' bid to keep -- or trade -- Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez: The focal point of the public's reaction, in one direction or the other, will not be general manager Neal Huntington or even team president Frank Coonelly.

It will be, as always after a major move, the man at the top.

And how does owner Bob Nutting feel about all that?

"It is certainly premature to simply assume Jack or Freddy will be traded or to speculate on what the fan reaction will be," Nutting said in an interview Friday. "We all recognize that Jack and Freddy are popular players. However, I cannot handcuff Neal's ability to make what he feels are the right baseball moves based on the potential negative fan reaction to the club or me personally."

To that end, he added, "Every Pirates fan I talk to has expressed their desire for a winning organization, not just a team that will hover around .500. I know that's what I want and what we have been working hard towards since I assumed control in 2007. I have an extreme amount of faith in Neal, our baseball operations staff and the systems they have in place to evaluate talent."

Given that this management team signed Sanchez's contract with a vesting option -- or club option -- for $8.1 million next year, why adopt the stance that it is unlikely the team would pay it?

"Neal's stance is that he would not choose to exercise the option. The market for players has shifted dramatically since we signed Freddy to his current contract," Nutting said. "However, if the option vests, we are in a position to support Freddy's salary and still add talent. In other words, even with a vested option, we would move Freddy only if there was a good baseball trade to be made."

He stressed anew that finances are not pushing the moves on this front, nor any other.

"There is no pressure on Neal to shed any payroll dollars, from me or anyone else. Every decision made will be a baseball decision, not a financial one. Any money saved will remain committed to the baseball operations budget to be used as they see fit."

Nutting was asked how he feels about Wilson and Sanchez, on and off the field.

"Like most fans, I enjoy watching them man the middle of the diamond together. Off the field, like all our players, they strive to make an impact in the community, as well. Whether with Jack and his support of the Pirates Charities bowling tournament, or Freddy and his strong support of the Pirates Charities Miracle League, I am proud of the work they do to support our efforts."

Nutting also seemed to grasp the large likelihood that not much he says will resonate much until the Pirates stop losing.

"I understand that winning will be the only thing that changes the public perception," he said. "However, I believe we've made significant progress as an organization the past two years. When you look at the improvement in our facilities, scouting and development, and the organizational talent level, I've never been more excited about the future of this organization."

Third year pivotal

Expect a third year for Sanchez to be the pivotal point.

In the team's initial offers, Wilson's called for two years plus a club option, with a guaranteed $8 million. The terms were mostly satisfactory to him, but he was -- and is -- adamant that Sanchez must sign, too. Sanchez's offer called for two years and $10 million, and it was emphatically rejected.

The sticking point, at its core, is that $8.1 million vesting option -- $100,000 more than previously known, because of an escalator clause that was achieved this year -- that Sanchez probably will trigger by reaching 600 plate appearances this summer.

The Sanchez side sees that vesting option as virtually guaranteed. Within that mindset, if Sanchez were to accept the initial offer, he would be playing his second season, essentially, for $1.9 million. For a three-time All-Star, that would be enough of a pay cut to draw the attention of other players, agents and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Thus, an additional year would appear to provide the best bridge to a settlement. The Pirates have reservations about a third year because of long-term risk, but Sanchez surely would be amenable.

About that vesting option

The Pirates have taken heat for resting Sanchez too often, with some accusing them -- inside and outside the organization -- of doing so to keep him from achieving those 600 plate appearances.

But one team official, in making the case that no such thing is happening, pointed out that, when Sanchez's back was injured July 3 in Miami, the Pirates kept him on the active roster for six games -- and played a man short every night -- just to avoid putting him on the 15-day disabled list and causing him to miss two weeks. Had they put him on the disabled list, few likely would have faulted the team, given the injury's uncertainty.

Another point on this topic: If the Pirates or any team does something blatantly obvious to prevent a player from achieving any bonus -- never mind one that covers $8.1 million -- the player and the union have the right to file a grievance for having negotiated the contract in bad faith.

Take them to a leader

On the list of the Pirates' needs, talent trumps all. Still, leadership is important in terms of establishing good habits, camaraderie, etc.

The question now, in the aftermath of the Adam LaRoche trade, is: Who will provide it?

Remember, when the players held their only closed-door clubhouse meeting of the season, May 9 in New York, the three who did the talking were LaRoche, Nate McLouth and Eric Hinske. All three, of course, have been traded.

The most logical ones to fill the void are Ryan Doumit, who surely would have spoken up in New York had he not been injured, and Paul Maholm. But it remains to be seen if they -- or someone else -- steps up.

RBIs? What are those?

Also gone with LaRoche are his 40 RBIs and, while that was no great total, the Pirates' new leader in RBIs is his brother, Andy, with just 37.

And that could make some regrettable history.

With Andy on pace for 61 over the full season, that would represent the lowest such total in a non-abbreviated season -- no labor stoppage -- since Max Carey had 51 for the 1917 Pirates, one of the worst teams in franchise history at 51-103. The lowest RBI total in any season was Dave Parker's 48 in 1981, a schedule that was shortened to 102 games.

On the bright side, top prospect Pedro Alvarez currently has 72 RBIs, including 17 in 26 games while batting .298 for Class AA Altoona. That is more than any player in the system and one of the best totals in all of minor league baseball, as are his 20 home runs after he hit another last night in Akron.

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


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