Pirates' new front office headed in right direction

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Almost daily, the Pirates' new management team proves itself smarter than its predecessors, which might be damning it with the faintest praise but at least indicates the club is moving in the right direction. But let's not get overly excited. The front office has taken several small steps in what will be -- if successful -- a long journey.

The latest correct move by president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntingdon was sealing the long-term contract with right-handed starter Ian Snell. The Pirates are paying Snell guaranteed money of about $1.35 million this year, $3 million in 2009 and $4.25 million in 2010. Those are fair rates for both sides. Because he agreed to a long-term deal before he was arbitration eligible, Snell is getting almost $1 million more this season than he otherwise would have. The first three years of the potentially five-year deal give the Pirates cost certainty and Snell, if he's smart, lifetime financial security.

The final two years, at the club option, will pay Snell $6.75 million and $9.25 million. If he continues to progress, he'll be well worth that money. If he doesn't, the Pirates can opt out.

Like the deal struck with Freddy Sanchez early last month, it's a good one for both sides and protects the Pirates from paying outlandish salaries to players not worthy of that kind of money.

Sometimes the best deals are the ones not made. The Pirates closed down long-term contract talks with closer Matt Capps earlier this month when it looked as if the price was going to be too high. When the Colorado Rockies signed Manny Corpas to a four-year deal that guaranteed $8.53 million, they raised the bar for closers beyond where the Pirates should want to reach. Had they come close to giving Capps what Colorado gave Corpas, they would have put themselves in the position of possibly paying an outlandish salary to a player not worthy of that money.

Capps looks good, but not good enough for that kind of contract -- at least not yet.

The Pirates made another wise decision this week by assigning outfielder Steve Pearce to Indianapolis. It's possible, even probable, that Pearce is one of the club's 25 best players. But because, at the moment, there's no starting role available for him, he's much better off playing daily at Class AAA. That's particularly true since he is learning a new position.

Additionally, by starting Pearce in the minors, the Pirates are delaying the day when he is arbitration eligible. That's not being cheap; that's being smart.

A final word about Pearce: In the eyes of some, it's a given he's not just a building block but a middle-of-the-lineup presence. Granted, he had an exceptional season in 2007, streaking through Class A, Class AA and Class AAA to the majors, hitting 31 home runs and driving in 117 runs. But baseball history is filled with players who performed similarly and never amounted to much.

Pearce has the look of a good hitter. But he's no sure thing, and anyone who has followed the Pirates and been disappointed countless times by touted prospects should know as much.

Coonelly and Huntington have put a good plan in place, but all that does is put them about even with most of the other 29 Major League Baseball teams. Having a good plan (with apologies to previous Pirates administrations) is easy; executing it is hard.

The Pirates have been hamstrung by poor personnel decisions -- Pat Meares, Kevin Young and Jason Kendall, to name a few -- for the better part of their 15 years of losing. They have been either woefully unprepared, monumentally unlucky or both in drafting amateur players -- Bryan Bullington, John Van Benschoten, Bobby Bradley, to name a few.

It's very early, but thus far, Coonelly and Huntingdon have shown themselves to be better than their predecessors in doling out money. Their greater challenge, and that of their scouting director and director of player development, will come in the amateur draft. They can't afford to miss as badly and as often as in the past. The Pirates' minor-league system has been mostly a vast wasteland for the better part of two decades.

The road to respectability and winning figures to be a long and circuitous, and could well be extended by the trading Jason Bay and/or Xavier Nady. If those trades are made, it's imperative that the Pirates get good players in return, not busts as has often happened in the recent past. Also, the Pirates can't continue to have top prospects fail. Among Pearce, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, it's essential that at least two of them become successful major leaguers.

It doesn't just take patience to be a Pirates fan; it takes the patience of Job.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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