Bob Smizik: For Pirates, ridiculous is always possible

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We open today with an apology. To the readers who told us via e-mail over the past couple of years that the Pirates turned down an opportunity to acquire Ryan Howard in exchange for Kris Benson, we're sorry. We deeply regret that we told you this information was incorrect based on our belief it was too ridiculous to be true.

We should have known better. We should have known that in terms of evaluation of player talent nothing is too ridiculous for the Dave Littlefield regime.

Based on a scenario documented by Dejan Kovacevic, the Post-Gazette's Pirates beat writer, there is ample reason to believe in 2004 the Pirates could have had Howard, arguably the best player in baseball today, but turned down the deal because they felt that in Brad Eldred they had a similar player.

Howard hit 58 homers and drove in 149 runs last season when he was the National League Most Valuable Player. This season, despite spending time on the disabled list, he has 33 homers, second in the National League. Going into the weekend, Eldred has 15 homers, two with the Pirates and 13 with Indianapolis, where he is batting .215. In his brief time with the Pirates he batted .109.

There is a good chance Eldred, 27, will not make it back to the majors. Howard, who will be 28 in November, has the look of an elite, dominating player for the next decade.

There's no smoking gun to prove this scenario conclusively. The Phillies aren't stupid enough to admit they made such an offer, and the Pirates aren't stupid enough to admit they rejected it. But, based on the evidence at hand, it is entirely believable.

That evidence would be the information provided by Kovacevic and the history of Littlefield as general manager of the Pirates. When you sit back and consider all the incredibly bad player personnel decisions made by Littlefield and his advisers, rejecting Howard isn't that far-fetched.

After all, this is the organization that was blind to the talent of Chris Young, who today might be the best starting pitcher in baseball, and traded him for a journeyman reliever. That being the case, why wouldn't Littlefield and his lieutenants take a look at Howard, who might be the best hitter in baseball, and pronounce themselves not interested because they thought they had a player just as good?

Here are some of Littlefield's more startling player personnel decisions.

In December 2002, he traded Young to Montreal for Matt Herges. Forget that Herges was cut in spring training. Young, who is 9-4 with the San Diego Padres and outpitching his celebrated teammate Jake Peavy, leads the majors in earned run average, opponent's batting average, opponent's on-base percentage, opponent's slugging percentage and walks and hits per inning. In most categories he leads by a wide margin.

In November 2003, Littlefield removed from the 40-man roster Duaner Sanchez and Matt Guerrier and allowed them to be claimed on waivers. As a setup man for the New York Mets last season, Sanchez was 5-1 with a 2.60 ERA. He has missed all of this season with an injury. Guerrier is in his third season as a dependable reliever for the Minnesota Twins. This year, he truly has blossomed. His ERA is 1.77. Opponents are batting .193 against him. While not protecting Sanchez and Guerrier, Littlefield did protect the futureless Carlos Rivera, Tony Alvarez, Jason Boyd and Mark Corey.

In December 2004, he traded hard-throwing prospect Leo Nunez to Kansas City for washed-up catcher Benito Santiago. Santiago was released a month into the season and never played again in the majors. Nunez, who turned 24 last week, is 2-0 in five games and four starts with the Royals. His ERA is 1.96. Opponents are batting .207 against him.

In December 2005 (December is not a good month for Littlefield), Ty Wigginton was dropped from the 40-man roster while Yurendell DeCaster and Javier Guzman were kept. Wigginton has 17 home runs this season. Last year, he hit 24.

Clearly, this is an organization that has no eye for talent. It routinely makes the kinds of decisions we have documented above.

So could it have passed on Ryan Howard? Absolutely.

Again, my sincere apologies to those people who recognized that in terms of player evaluation anything is possible with the Pirates.



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