Analysis: Why trade for Morris now?

Job security surely a factor for Littlefield in seeking another quick fix

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Let this much be clear, in the aftermath of the Pirates' sudden, stunning acquisition of pitcher Matt Morris that made him the highest-paid player in franchise history:

The money was there.

It was there for general manager Dave Littlefield to spend however he saw fit in 2007, given the payroll parameters established by ownership last fall.

And, yes, it was there for Littlefield to spend on Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters in the amateur draft last month. Instead, because Littlefield and his staff did not believe Wieters was worth the large signing bonus super-agent Scott Boras would seek, they chose Clemson reliever Danny Moskos and triggered a boisterous public backlash.

Ownership had nothing to do with nixing Wieters, as multiple sources have confirmed.

So, why Morris?

And why now?

To start, rewind to Tuesday morning, hours before Major League Baseball's 4 p.m. trading deadline. The Pirates, according to Littlefield, were frustrated by an inability to pry away one of the several targeted starters on his scouts' list.

Time was running short, in more ways than one.

The Pirates had lost 13 of 15, and the main culprit was that rotation stalwarts Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny had dropped off dramatically. No more help was available in Indianapolis.

Also, and undoubtedly no less prominent in the thought process, principal owner Bob Nutting has stated that the job status of Littlefield and manager Jim Tracy will be evaluated after the season. Employees who answer to Littlefield, which means just about everyone in baseball operations, are worried about their futures.

Morris, who was not on the scouts' list, was still there.

Two contenders, the Seattle Mariners and another unknown team, had been in light discussions with the San Francisco Giants about him, but neither was willing to take on his full contract, which calls for a guaranteed $13.5 million over this year and next.

According to one San Francisco source, the Giants, desperate to move payroll as part of a beyond-Barry Bonds rebuilding effort, all but conceded no one would take Morris by Tuesday morning.

The phone rang, and it was the Pirates calling for the first time about Morris.

The talks continued throughout the morning and deep into the afternoon, close to the deadline, when it was agreed that the Pirates would give up a low-ceiling, fringe outfielder, Rajai Davis, and a minor-league player to be named later.

And, yes, they would take on the entire contract, even though no other team would, possibly bidding against themselves unless one assumes that those two contenders were offering a better package of players.

The deal was done, and the Giants were delighted. Brian Sabean, their general manager, confirmed to reporters that no team other than the Pirates was willing to take Morris' contract and acknowledged surprise that another last-place team leaped in at the last second.

Why the urgency?

Littlefield took six agonizing months to close the Adam LaRoche trade with the Atlanta Braves earlier this season, and yet this multimillion-dollar transaction took only a breakfast and a lunch.

It could be argued that, because no other team wanted Morris' contract, an agreement could have been reached between the Pirates and Giants to talk again in the fall. That way, the Pirates would save the prorated $3.4 million they will pay Morris for the rest of this now-meaningless season and could put it to more future-minded use, such as bolstering its still-low signing bonuses for Latin American amateurs.

But that has not been Littlefield's method, and it would not be this time, either. He had $4 million left in his ownership-allotted budget for 2007 and, just as he did in pulling Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa out of semi-retirement for $10.7 million last year, he was going to spend it at the major-league level.

Also, there is the job factor. If Morris fares well, he can help the Pirates finish strong this season and, perhaps, convince Nutting and the new CEO coming this fall that Littlefield deserves to stay for the final year of his contract in 2008. If nothing else, he could illustrate to Nutting that, for the first time in his tenure, he could acquire a big-money player with good results.

Perhaps the larger question is this: Why would Nutting sign off, particularly given his reputation for penny-pinching in all businesses?

The likely answer is twofold ...

One, Nutting already committed to a 2007 payroll for Littlefield, and this season's expenditure on Morris falls just within that.

Two, he was convinced by the baseball operations staff that an investment in Morris was more prudent than the one the Milwaukee Brewers made last offseason in another pitcher, Jeff Suppan, who signed for four years and $42 million. The Pirates had offered Suppan no more than two years in those talks, and that is what they have with Morris if his 2009 option is included.

Moreover, Nutting was convinced that Morris is a superior pitcher to Suppan, while no less durable. And the statistics will back that: This season, despite an awful July, Morris is 7-7 with a 4.35 ERA, and Suppan is 8-9 with a 4.97 ERA for a much better team. The career numbers also tilt quite heavily toward Morris, partly because of a remarkable 2001 in which he won 22 games.

The Pirates' need for a right-handed starter to complement Snell was not going to go away next season, no matter who is running the team. So, the reasoning went, the team either needed to overpay for one through free agency -- Pittsburgh is not exactly a favorite destination of major-league players -- or acquire one through trade, where the player has no choice.

There is this, too: Because Littlefield and the Pirates are sure to continue discussing a trade of shortstop Jack Wilson to the Detroit Tigers this month, the $14.5 million that Wilson is due the next two years could be erased from the books, which would be more than the money Morris is guaranteed.


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


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