Inside the Pirates: Which window is open widest?

Transparent answer might be found in Central standings

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Shawon Dunston from 1997 -- the last year the club was a buyer.
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Who could have imagined, back on Aug. 31, 1997, the day the Pirates acquired shortstop Shawon Dunston for cash, that the franchise would go a full decade without making another inseason trade specifically aimed at boosting the team's fortunes that year?

Call that type of acquisition what you will, rent-a-player, ringer, whatever, but there has been none since.

Might this be the time, given the miserable state of the Central Division?

Management has created a window of opportunity by having all of its current core either under contract or rights owned via arbitration through 2009, and there is something to be said for that if the group matures and improves.

But which is more rare, a three-year window to keep a group of players intact or any year when a division is so down?

Since the Central was formed 11 years ago, the average number of victories by the first-place team has been an impressive 95.6, with a high of 105 and a low last year of 83 with the St. Louis Cardinals, who went on to win the World Series. Given the recent successes of the Cardinals and Houston Astros, plus the free-spending of the Chicago Cubs, it is not likely to be long before 95-100 victories will be achieved again.

That means, basically, that the Pirates' current core will have to improve by 20 or so games by 2009.

Are they capable?

All indications are that additional payroll will go into keeping the core intact rather than on free agents, and the only impact prospects on the horizon are Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. Which means that the group now is pretty much what the group will be in 2009.

Dave Littlefield, always a seller and never a buyer at the trade deadline in his six years as general manager, has acknowledged that his approach might be different this summer, mostly because of having no contracts to dump and $4 million in residue payroll.

And he acknowledges, too, that the Pirates' standing in the Central will factor into his decision.

"Where you sit relative to first place to whatever the wild-card picture looks like, that's certainly going to play a role in it," Littlefield said. "But there are other factors, also."

He mentioned the organization's pitching depth, which surely would provide the most logical lure in any trade. And he made clear his stance that he would not simply give it away.

"If you look at our team, we've worked hard through the years to develop our own pitching. You want to make sure you consider all possible factors when you're making a decision like that."

Ask the Pirates' players, naturally, and they would welcome a boost to the roster.

"I was just talking to Freddy Sanchez the other day about that," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "Who can we go out and get? Who's available?"

"I think we've got a good chance in this division," starter Ian Snell said. "The window's there. It's just a matter of whether or not we want to take advantage of it. I know I want it. But you've got to add pieces to win."

Did Braves perform due diligence?

Usually, when a player is injured shortly after a trade, questions are raised about how much the player's original team knew.

Not so with Mike Gonzalez, who had major reconstructive surgery on his elbow this week.

When Gonzalez's elbow pain caused the Pirates to shut him down in August, a thorough medical examination, including an MRI with dye injected into the elbow, was performed at Allegheny General Hospital. The results of that test and an earlier MRI were shared with Atlanta before the Adam LaRoche trade was consummated in January.

And that, apparently, was enough to convince the Braves. Right after the trade, Gonzalez was checked by the Atlanta medical staff, but, as he confirmed later that week, no additional scanning or imaging were done.

John Schuerholz, the Braves' general manager, told reporters in Atlanta that his medical staff concluded Gonzalez's injury was unrelated to last season. What he did not say was how anyone could have determined that without a more thorough examination.

Quick, someone bring back Maz

Even with the Pirates and Yankees neck and neck in the overall standings, even with the Pirates having been at Yankee Stadium just two years ago, there surely will be something special for Pittsburgh fans when their team plays in the Bronx next weekend.

But nothing approaching what is likely to happen next year.

Although nothing is official until Major League Baseball's computer is done formulating the 2008 schedule, there remains a strong sentiment that the Yankees will visit PNC Park next year, their first appearance in the city since ... oh, roughly 3:36 p.m. Oct. 13, 1960. CEO Kevin McClatchy strongly hinted as much in January, and another team official recently said "a very attractive American League East team" would be on the docket.

The question remains: Will anyone in MLB offices give in to the Pirates' repeated requests for annual games against Cleveland?

Why not just put some sluggers up there?

Manager Jim Tracy has a clearly defined vision for what the top two hitters in his order should look like: The leadoff man pounds the ball into the ground, finds a way to first and steals second. The No. 2 guy bunts him over or hits behind the runner, setting up various avenues to further manufacture the run.

It is safe to say it has not gone according to plan, and not just because the season-opening Nos. 1 and 2, Chris Duffy and Jack Wilson, are lower in the order now.

For starters, the Pirates have 17 steals on 26 tries, each ranking 29th among the majors' 30 teams. And get this: Only nine times has the runner executing a steal come around to score.

The Pirates have 22 sacrifice hits, ranking seventh in the majors. But only two of those have come from hitters in the No. 2 spot.


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


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