On the Pirates: No Central logic to division

Move to East would improve rivalries, travel ... so, why not?

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The commonwealth's two NHL franchises will meet again today to write the latest chapter of a long-running and increasingly vibrant rivalry.

The baseball franchises?

They are ships passing in the night, with one series here and one there each summer, barely anyone noticing at either end.

In 1994, Major League Baseball went to a three-division system and moved the Pirates from the old Eastern Division into what then was a five-team Central, away from the cross-state Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets, two good rivals.

There was some logic to it at the time, as Pittsburgh was the western-most city of those teams that would have fit with the new East. But that changed when Milwaukee switched leagues in 1998 and was added to what now is a six-team Central.

Now, the logic in the Pirates' not being in the East is far less apparent ...

• Geographically, the longest flight is three hours to Houston, and only Cincinnati is in reasonable driving distance. If the Pirates were in the East, the longest flight would be two hours to Miami, and Philadelphia, New York and Washington are nearby.

• Culturally, Pittsburgh belongs to the Midwest as much as it belongs to Malawi.

• There are zero rivalries between the Pirates and any Central team, no doubt in part because they have not had a winning season since the division's inception.

• Payroll no longer is an issue.

An oft-stated internal argument in favor of the Pirates staying in the Central, though seldom spoken above a whisper, is that they have a better chance to compete away from the big payrolls, such as the Mets' current $138 million that ranks second in the majors.

Times have changed, though: The average payroll of the other five teams in the Central currently is $92.2 million, and the average of the five in the East is $83 million.

• Logistically, moving the Pirates would appear fairly simple: The East would be the six-team division, and the Central would have five. The National League as a whole would remain untouched.

Team president Frank Coonelly, the one man with the authority to pursue such a move, said that an intensive "study of all the implications" would have to be performed before he formed a solid stance on the matter. And that study would include the wider impact.

"I know that any change to the divisional formats raises multiple complications for the already challenging task of putting together the major league schedule," he said.

Still, Coonelly, born and bred in Philadelphia, expressed a strong wish to see more of the Phillies and Mets at PNC Park.

"It is a shame our fans only get one opportunity a year to see two clubs with whom we have had such great rivalries," he said. "I recall vividly the great battles the Pirates had with the Phillies in the 1970s. It seemed the two Pennsylvania clubs were playing critical games late in the year almost every year. We had similar battles with the Mets in the late '80s and early '90s."

Seeing more of those teams could happen another way, as Coonelly pointed out: MLB could implement "a more balanced schedule" that places less emphasis on intra-division games. The Pirates currently play each Central team 15-18 times.

Pirates manager John Russell, once a catcher for the Phillies, had a similar view. "All three of the Pirates, Phillies and Mets were interchangeable for a while, with the great matchups we had," he said. "But now, we're the ones separated."

Of course, rivalries are not based entirely on geography or culture, as first baseman Adam LaRoche noted. "It would be nice to be in a division with Philly and New York, but the main thing in a rivalry is you've got to have winning teams involved," he said. "Otherwise, who cares?"

Already getting his Phil of success

No matter Phil Dumatrait's pitching lines in spring training and beyond, the Pirates never wavered in declaring confidence that he could be part of their rotation.

Apparently, they no longer are alone.

An American League scout watching one of Dumatrait's first two starts, using a detailed grading system, came up with an overall score that ranked Dumatrait as "a No. 2 or 3 starter." Such an assessment is not reached lightly, either, as scouts often are required to explain unusual evaluations to their general managers.

Neal Huntington claimed Dumatrait off waivers from Cincinnati after he went 0-4 with a 15.00 ERA with the Reds last season, so much remains to be proven.

Who needs those prospect lists?

No one was calling Marino Salas a No. 2 or 3 anything before this year.

While in the Baltimore Orioles' system two years ago -- which was razor-thin at the time -- he was ranked the team's No. 18 prospect by Baseball America.

While in the rich Milwaukee system last year, he failed to crack that team's top-30 list.

Thus, it probably should have been no surprise that, on Dec. 7, the day Huntington acquired Salas and another reliever, Kevin Roberts, in the Salomon Torres trade, Roberts was seen by the Brewers as having been the Pirates' main target.

The Pirates insisted at the time that it was Salas, even though he was 26 and had barely pitched above Class AA.

What did they see?

One team official described it as a mix of their scouts liking Salas' stuff -- four pitches is rare out of the bullpen -- and a statistical study of Salas' past four seasons in the minors that revealed "solid performance indicators." It was not revealed what those were.

From there, Salas was given special attention, from spring training on through his robustly successful month with Class AAA Indianapolis, before breaking into the majors in the past week.

It is the kind of attention a team tends to reserve for the prospects in which it has the greatest confidence.

"I could see, right after the trade, they really believed in me," he said. "That was very important."

Ring-side comedians

First-base coach Lou Frazier took an awkward dive to get out of the way of Nate McLouth's foul line drive Tuesday in St. Louis, and he was grateful for two things:

1. The ball narrowly missed his head as it veered away from the base line.

2. MLB is requiring all base coaches, for the first time, to wear batting helmets.

Once Frazier dusted himself off, he was not at all grateful for this: The Pirates' players, all the way from the opposite dugout, began shouting, "Down goes Frazier!"

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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