Pirates' trade pieces might not reap bounty

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The non-waiver trading deadline for Major League Baseball is less than seven weeks away, which means the speculation on the future of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and assorted other Pirates should begin ramping up any day now.

Although the Pirates moved within two games of .500 with their 5-4 win against the Baltimore Orioles yesterday and continue to flirt with a .500 record, they are not a serious contender for a playoff spot.

They trail the first-place Chicago Cubs by 11 1/2 games in the Central Division, and although they are not as far out from a wild-card spot, no one can seriously believe they are the fourth-best team in the National League.

Management has made it clear that unless the Pirates are in contention for the postseason, many of the team's better players will become available.

Whether those players will be dealt in late July, when contenders become desperate for the one bat or one arm that can put them over the top, or in the offseason when more teams are in the mix, and there is a greater chance of multi-player deals, remains to be seen.

At any rate, let the dreaming begin. We say dreaming because too often fans of a team have an overinflated opinion of their players.

Ever since Pirates management stressed the importance of rebuilding the minor league system through trades, some fans have latched on to the notion that the likes of Bay and Nady will bring future stars in return.

They might. But they probably won't.

Not only are both eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, which lessens their value, neither is the kind of player another team is going to surrender its best young talent to obtain.

It has been suggested that the Pirates might re-sign Bay. That's a possibility but the better Bay plays, and he's starting to show his 2005-06 form, the more he's going to cost. After the 2006 season, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Vernon Wells to a seven-year, $126 million contract.

At the time, Bay and Wells had similar offensive statistics with the edge going to Bay. Are the Pirates going to pay anything approaching that kind of money to Bay when, in all likelihood, the team will not be close to contending?

The Pirates have been down this sell-off road before. In 1996, new owner Kevin McClatchy decided to downsize payroll by trading high-salaried veterans for prospects. In theory, it made sense. In practice, it failed.

In December, the Pirates sent shortstop Jay Bell and Jeff King, who could play all three bases, and play them well, to the Kansas City Royals. Both were in their early 30s. Bell, a Gold Glove winner, was coming off a season of 13 home runs and 71 RBIs. King hit 30 homers and drove in 111 runs.

In exchange, the Pirates got third baseman Joe Randa, not nearly the player King was, and pitchers Jeff Wallace, Jeff Granger and Jeff Martin. The three pitchers went on to combine for a lifetime record of 3-4.

The Pirates sent their most marketable player, left-handed starter Denny Neagle to Atlanta for Jason Schmidt and Ron Wright.

Schmidt went on to become a top-of-the-rotation starter, but not with the Pirates, for whom he had a 44-47 record in six seasons. Wright, a touted power hitter, never played for the Pirates and his MLB career consisted of three at-bats.

In another major deal, the Pirates sent second baseman Carlos Garcia, first baseman Orlando Merced and lefty reliever Dan Plesac to the Blue Jays. Garcia and Merced were veteran starters, Plesac a solid reliever.

In exchange they received Jose Silva, Brandon Cromer, Jose Pett, Mike Halperin, Abraham Nunez and Craig Wilson. Only Wilson made an impact and his was slight.

Perhaps the greatest offseason trading binge in recent history was the dismantling of the 1997 world champion Florida Marlins.

In their biggest deal, the Marlins sent catcher Charles Johnson, third baseman-outfielder Bobby Bonilla and outfielder Gary Sheffield to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile.

The Marlins almost immediately traded Piazza and Zeile. Piazza netted Preston Wilson and Todd Yarnell. Zeile fetched two career minor leaguers.

So, for three players, Johnson, Bonilla and Sheffield, who appeared in a combined 15 All-Star Games, the Marlins got Wilson, an above-average outfielder.

The Marlins did get Derek Lee for pitcher Kevin Brown during that same sell-off.

But Brown was one of the best pitchers in baseball at the time, and a far more marketable player than anyone the Pirates have to offer.

Regardless of which players they move -- Nady, Bay, Damaso Marte, John Grabow -- the Pirates will improve the depth in their minor league system.

But beyond that, there are no guarantees.


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


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