Neal Huntington, the Pirates' new general manager, sent a shudder through the players' clubhouse when, in his introductory media session Tuesday, he uttered two R-words.
R, as in "rebuilding," which he said he plans to do for the scouting and developmental systems.
R, as in "reallocating," which he said he plans to do with the team's finances, if necessary, to ensure those systems are competitive.
To some players who read those comments, it sounded as if the major-league roster will get blown to bits this offseason, with high-priced players discarded for prospects and salaries moved so that money could go toward draft picks and international signings.
As one veteran put it: "I'm going to try to enjoy my last few days here."
Another player said: "I just don't see how you can do both. How can you keep the key guys here and, at the same time, add money for the minors?"
Huntington, asked essentially the same question shortly before the Pirates' 5-1 victory against the Arizona Diamondbacks last night at PNC Park, answered it in two layers.
First, he emphatically stressed that no payroll has been set for 2008. New team president Frank Coonelly has spoken hypothetically about being able to compete in a range of $45 million-$50 million -- the current payroll is $45.6 million -- but no budget has been set for any aspect of baseball operations, Huntington said, and none is expected until next month.
"We are going to reallocate money into our development system," Huntington said. "But that does not mean we're going to take away from the majors. We're going to take some from here, some from there."
And what does that mean?
"The reallocation means that we may not go out and spend big money on a free agent right now because we're not sure that one piece will put us over the top. We believe in this team. We believe it has a chance to continue to develop. But we don't feel like we're one piece away. So, instead of spending $3 million or $4 million on one piece, we're going to put that in our system so that we can get a lot of players out of it."
He smiled and sighed.
"And that's where the term 'reallocation' comes from."
Second, Huntington, while not ruling out any personnel move, pledged that 2008 will not be ignored in his process.
"My message to the players and to the fans is that every move the Pittsburgh Pirates make will be aimed at what's best for the team in the short and long term. The long term is extremely valuable. We don't want to have a situation where we win one year, then lose for the next five."
The front office seems keenly aware that, with the Pirates about to wrap up a 15th consecutive losing season, patience is short on all fronts. Coonelly and Huntington have acknowledged this to the media, and each mentioned to the players in clubhouse meetings that the immediate goal is to avoid that 16th losing season.
"I want to win next year, too," Huntington said. "But we will work to put the pieces in place to build a team that wins consistently. That's really the only assurance that I can give."
The Cleveland model after which Coonelly and Huntington plan to mold the Pirates is built not only on a sound system, but also a practice of trading players at peak value before they reach their expensive free-agent years. These deals often are unpopular, with prospects the usual return. But when they work, as happened for the Indians in the 2002 deal that sent Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos for Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and two other players, they strengthen the franchise.
Coonelly was asked if the Pirates would consider a Colon-type trade by moving a premium piece such as outfielder Jason Bay, who is due $13.25 million the next two seasons at a position where the team has growing options.
"You have to remember the team in Cleveland at that time was much different than the team we have here," Coonelly said, referring to the Indians' old age and high payroll. "Having said that, I think every team, particularly in a market like Pittsburgh, has to acquire as much premier talent as possible. One way to acquire premium talent is via trades of veteran players for younger players, so that is an avenue I expect Neal will certainly consider. But that's not saying anybody's going to look to trade Jason Bay this offseason, because we're not in the position Cleveland was in."
To be sure, a Bay trade has crossed Bay's mind in the past couple of days.
"I expect there to be a shakeup," he said yesterday. "Simple mathematics will tell you it's not just going to be a non-roster invitee getting moved here or there. It's going to be something that makes a difference in payroll, and I certainly could fall into that category. If it happens, so be it."
Bay was asked if he would prefer to stay.
"Yeah, I've said all along that I'd love to be here when it turns around. It's one thing to just go somewhere to a winner, but it's something else if you do it like the Detroit Tigers did and get to enjoy it."
"In all honesty, though, with what we've done the past few years, something's going to have to change."
For the Pirates to keep their roster intact in 2008, it will cost an estimated $51 million, even if reliever Shawn Chacon, starter Tony Armas and infielder Cesar Izturis are allowed to leave. The most expensive salaries will be starter Matt Morris' $9.5 million, shortstop Jack Wilson's $6.5 million, Bay's $5.75 million and reliever Salomon Torres' $3.2 million. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez, first baseman Adam LaRoche and outfielder Xavier Nady all will top $3 million through arbitration.
Morris is the most obvious candidate to be traded, based on his salary, but the chances of another team assuming it seem even slimmer now than when former general manager Dave Littlefield did so two months ago, given that Morris finished with three victories in his last 19 starts.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Morris said. "But I'm looking forward to next year, and I'd like to be part of this team."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com .