On the Pirates: Ten blue-chip investments

Management has made costly mistakes, but there have been payoffs


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Anytime the Pirates face Chicago, as they are this weekend at Wrigley Field, they should be reminded of the importance of spending wisely.

No one in the Central Division is spending close to the Cubs' $146 million this year, but that team has been bogged down recently by badly underperforming players with eight-figure salaries, from recently dumped Milton Bradley to starter-turned-setup-man Carlos Zambrano to a sub-.200 Aramis Ramirez.

The Pirates, of course, are at the other extreme with a $36 million payroll, but they, too, have made bad recent investments, from paying $2 million for Ramon Vazquez's release this spring to the team-high $4.85 million currently committed to unproductive, unhealthy Aki Iwamura. Those are not eight-figure salaries, but they consume roughly 20 percent of the much smaller payroll.

In that context, then, here is a list of the Pirates' 10 best investments, ranked by dollar figure, since Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington took over in 2007 ...

$1: One of Huntington's best deals involved sending minor-league reliever Eric Krebs and a solitary dollar to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Delwyn Young, a very good pinch-hitter.

$50,000: Huntington paid that fee for each of his first two Rule 5 draft picks, Evan Meek and Donnie Veal. Meek has been the Pirates' best out of the bullpen, and Veal is being groomed as a starter with Class AAA Indianapolis.

$400,000: The Pirates' highest known bonus for a Latin American amateur was paid in 2008 to promising Venezuelan outfielder Exicardo Cayones, the result of an aggressive push by Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo for a prospect who had been pursued by several wealthier teams. The franchise could use much, much more of its ilk. The top bonus last year was $165,000 to Dominican shortstop Maximo Rivera.

$900,000: The bonus paid to pitcher Quinton Miller, the 20th-round pick in 2008, sent a signal through baseball that the Pirates would pay for the players they wanted in the draft -- even in the lower rounds -- after years of doing mostly the opposite. It also ticked off more than a few folks around Major League Baseball, but the Pirates might benefit from more of that type of thinking.

$1 million: Setting aside baseball for a moment, this is the rough amount the Pirates have invested charitably the past two years in the Pittsburgh community, as well as their other homes in Bradenton, Fla., and the Dominican Republic. Locally, that was highlighted by the new Josh Gibson Field in the Hill District and the Miracle League Field in Cranberry for special-needs children. The Pirates' philanthropic efforts, financially and emotionally among the athletes who participate, are among the most intensive in sports.

$2.75 million: Tony Sanchez was not an immediately popular first-round pick last summer, taken at No. 4 overall, much earlier than national expectations and, worse in the eyes of some in the public, he was paid not a penny more than the majors' recommended figure for that slot. Many of the same publications that panned the pick have since reversed course as Sanchez has emerged as a terrific prospect. The Pirates took the right player at the right money.

$3,308,702.19: That is the exact figure the Pirates sent to Seattle in the five-player Jack Wilson trade that netted Ronny Cedeno, Jeff Clement and three pitching prospects. The return still might prove to be negligible, especially considering the struggling Clement was the primary reason for the cash. But the intent displayed a tangible commitment to using money to improve the talent level. A question: Could this approach have gotten the Pirates what they really wanted for Jason Bay?

$5.4 million: The state-of-the-art Dominican baseball academy, opened last summer, was desperately needed to compete for the wealth of talent there. At some point, though, it will have to house seven-figure talent, as well. There have been 31 such bonuses paid in the majors, not one by the Pirates.

$6.35 million: Pedro Alvarez's bonus was the largest in franchise drafting history, and he continues to develop into the system's top power hitter since Ramirez, maybe back to Barry Bonds. The correlation between the spending and the talent generally is not coincidental.

$14.5 million: Consider this one, the guaranteed money in Paul Maholm's three-year extension signed early last year, purely symbolic. It was an ordinary contract for a reliable major-league player. And yet, for all the above to become meaningful, the payroll will have to expand -- which is to say double -- to the level of revenue peers Milwaukee and Cincinnati, to the point that Maholm's contract is just another financial footnote.

Feeling the pinch

Want to strike a nerve with Young?

Tell him he's a good pinch-hitter.

Actually, take it further and tell him how his six pinch-hits so far are tied for most in the majors.

"It's just hitting," Young replied when the topic was raised. "Don't put all the coins in one bucket. It's not a pinch-hit. It's not a leadoff hit. It's not a situational hit. It's just hitting."

Young's sensitivity, playful as it was, comes from the reality that he has made only a handful of starts, as well as from a background in which the Dodgers, too, did not see him as everyday material.

And that's where being known as a good pinch-hitter can hurt.

Remember John Vander Wal?

Hitters who perform like that off the bench tend to be typecast as ... well, bench players.

"Sometimes, you have too many options with a guy," Young said. "Hey, let's play what-if: What if I played second base from the day I got called up to the big leagues to right now? Would we be having this pinch-hit conversation? That's all they let me do, is pinch-hit. If that's all they let me do -- and I got better at it -- maybe I'd be better at everything else if I could do more."

So, it goes without saying that he still sees himself as everyday material?

"Right. I've got too much energy for one at-bat. But the energy I do have, I put it all into that at-bat."

Would they be hurt here?

Wilson and Freddy Sanchez, who did everything together here for years, are together again on the disabled list with their respective teams. Seattle placed Wilson on the 15-day this week for a knee strain, and Sanchez has been out all year in San Francisco with shoulder pain.

That might, in some eyes, validate the Pirates' decision to withdraw extension offers just before trading both last summer, as well as sending away other departed players who since have been injured. But there is one element to weigh in any such discussion: Would they have been hurt here?

It might sound silly, as baseball is baseball everywhere, and Wilson and Sanchez are over 30 and spent some time on disabled lists in their closing time with the Pirates.

Still, consider this: The Pirates were -- and remain -- fully aware of the most fragile facets of all their players, as well as how best to treat them. Specifically, they had programs for Wilson's legs, Sanchez's shoulder, Nate McLouth's hamstrings and Nyjer Morgan's groin, all of which stayed mostly healthy here, all of which became injured with their new teams.

Moreover, all of these players were effusive in their praise of the Pirates' conditioning and medical staffs while in Pittsburgh.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog . First Published May 16, 2010 4:00 AM


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