Smizik: Littlefield is doing right thing not spending money foolishly

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At this time a year ago, Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield already had traded for first baseman Sean Casey ($7 million) and signed reliever Roberto Hernandez ($2 million). He was days away from making it the merriest Christmas ever for washed-up Joe Randa ($4 million) and a week or so from making it the happiest of New Year's for well-over-the-hill Jeromy Burnitz ($6 million).

Amazingly, those moves were almost universally hailed by Pirates partisans. Within months, though, the realization hit that those moves, with the possible exception of Hernandez, were nothing more than a colossal waste of money. Oh, what the Pirates could have done in other areas with that capital.

A year later, as baseball is involved in a blizzard of free-agent signings and as general managers throughout the sport are shoveling money toward players of questionable value, Littlefield has been virtually silent. What is it they say about people who keep their head while all those around them are losing theirs? That they don't understand the situation.

Considering his history -- he didn't earn the Internet nickname "Dave Littleyield" for nothing -- that possibly could apply. We prefer, though, to think Littlefield learned a good lesson from last year. We prefer to think he has kept his head for all the right reasons.

Baseball is awash in money, and that includes the Pirates. That doesn't mean it must be spent this offseason on players not worthy of such riches.

Here is hoping the Pirates don't sign free agent Jeff Suppan. Here is hoping they don't deal for Jon Lieber of the Phillies. Neither of those veteran pitchers is the answer to what ails the Pirates. Such a player might have a minor impact, but it would be worth neither the money spent nor the experience denied a younger pitcher.

There is no quick fix for teams such as the Pirates, which is not to suggest in Littlefield's more than five years on the job he should not have been able to do more. His blunders have been well documented. But the situation is what it is, and it's terrible.

There was some hope earlier this month when it looked as if a trade for Atlanta first baseman Adam LaRoche, a young left-handed power hitter the Pirates so desperately need, might come to fruition. It did not and does not look like it will. Littlefield was prepared to give up closer Mike Gonzalez for LaRoche and that would have been more than a fair deal. It would still have been fair if the Pirates threw in Jose Castillo.

Gonzalez and Castillo are still available but the type of hitter the Pirates need -- young, productive and left-handed -- is hard to find. Littlefield must be cautious not to trade Gonzalez just for the sake of making a trade, just as he must take care to avoid the temptation of signing a big name just to say he did.

The absurd signings of the past month obviously have been bad news for a small-budget team such as the Pirates. There were so many ridiculous deals brokered by frantic GMs that it's hard to pick out the worst. But it's not hard to select the one that most negatively impacts the Pirates.

When the Toronto Blue Jays presented a seven-year, $126 million contract to outfielder Vernon Wells last week it all but closed the door on the Pirates becoming a successful franchise. This deal means teams such as the Pirates will be little more than minor-league clubs for the big spenders.

If that's what Wells is worth in 2007, what will Jason Bay be worth after the 2009 season when his current contract expires? Wells and Bay are pretty much the same player -- except Bay is better. Wells has a career batting average of .288; Bay's is .292. Wells has a career on-base percentage of .336; Bay's is .390. Wells has a career slugging percentage of .492; Bay's is .546. In five full seasons, Wells has averaged 28 home runs and 97 RBIs. In three full seasons, Bay has averaged 32 home runs and 102 RBIs.

The only edge Wells has is on defense. Bay is good defensively, Wells is better and has won Gold Gloves.

The Pirates have an ever-so small opportunity to achieve some slight measure of success between now and 2009 because most of their core players will be under their control until then. But after the 2009 season not only does Bay's contract expire, but it's also when, barring long-term deals, Freddy Sanchez, Xavier Nady, John Grabow, Gonzalez and Castillo are eligible for free agency.

It seems improbable that what will be basically the same team as the one that lost 95 games last season can finish at or above .500 next season. But in 2008 and 2009 the Pirates do have an opportunity for some degree of success. After that, as the events of this offseason have shown, it all falls apart.


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


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