Ron Cook: Facts obscure Pirates' hopes

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The spectacular scene that was PNC Park for the 2006 All-Star Game obscured the fact the Pirates had a 30-60 record at the break.

The wonderful scene yesterday of incredibly loyal Pirates fans showing a little love to their 2006 National League batting champion and 200-hit man Freddy Sanchez obscured the fact the team finished 67-95.

What will take our minds off all the work the Pirates must do in the offseason to prevent a 15th consecutive losing season in 2007? Kevin McClatchy's resignation this week?

We couldn't be that lucky.

It appears McClatchy will be back as at least the titular boss, which doesn't exactly generate confidence considering all the Pirates have achieved during his 11-year watch. General manager Dave Littlefield and manager Jim Tracy also will be back. All they did this season, in a year McClatchy said the team absolutely, positively had to have a winning record, was deliver the same-as-last-season 95 losses. Lloyd McClendon must be laughing all the way to the playoffs in Detroit.

Of course, everyone at Pirates headquarters wants you to believe the team is, at long last, on the verge of something big. "It's a lot closer than people want to think," Tracy said, pointing to the 37-35 record since the break. That's so predictable, but also a bit disingenuous. Tracy is the same man, who, after the Pirates' 1-7 start in April, pleaded with everyone to judge the team on its six-month body of work. Well, that body flat-out stunk. Not to be critical.

But let's assume, just for kicks, that the Pirates will be a real threat in the National League Central Division. Let's assume the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, all of whom have more resources than the Pirates, will do nothing in the offseason to get better. Let's assume each of the Pirates' core young pitchers -- Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny -- stay healthy and take a huge step forward next season even if that hardly every happens to an entire starting staff. Can you say Oliver Perez? And let's assume a team that ranked last in the league in runs and home runs, had the third-most strikeouts and second-fewest walks really is just one big, preferably left-handed, bopper away.

Do you think Littlefield can find that player?

It's not as if Littlefield is in a fair fight in free agency even if he'll probably have about $15 million to spend. The top hitters -- Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee and Jermaine Dye will be among the free agents -- are going to have options. Do you really think they would be interested in Dead Franchise Walking? Lee turned down $14 million a year from Milwaukee before he was traded to Texas. He's probably not headed here.

Now Daryle Ward is available ...

You laugh? Ward hit seven home runs in 130 at-bats for Atlanta this season. That's four more than Sean Casey had for the Pirates in 213 at-bats before they traded him to Detroit in July. Littlefield brought in Casey and his $7.5 million price tag in an offseason trade.

That initial Casey deal and others like it are why it's hard to get excited about the Pirates' chances of finding that slugger in a trade. Littlefield's history has not been to make bold deals. His personnel judgment also has been shabby.

Littlefield had about $12 million to spend before this season and wasted most of it on Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa. The Pirates gave Randa $4 million to play third base, which meant Sanchez started the season on the bench. It's one thing for all of us to overlook Sanchez's potential. It's unconscionable for Littlefield and Tracy to do it.

Actually, the Pirates are lucky to even have Sanchez. In 2003, Littlefield traded young left-hander Mike Gonzalez to Boston for pitcher Brandon Lyon. That Lyon showed up as damaged goods is the only reason the Pirates were able to get Gonzalez back and Sanchez from Boston in a subsequent trade for Lyon and pitcher Jeff Suppan. Gonzalez had 24 saves in 24 chances this season and Sanchez, you might have heard, hit .344.

The Dave Williams-for-Casey trade is fairly typical of Littlefield's work. He generally gives up little and gets the same in return. He has moved soon-to-be free agents at the trade deadline -- Jason Schmidt, Kris Benson, Kip Wells -- but those hardly qualify as daring deals. Even his best trade -- Brian Giles for Jason Bay and Perez in 2003 -- had a lot to do with dumping Giles' $8.3 million salary. To get that bopper, Littlefield probably will have to give up one of his starters and maybe a John Grabow or even a Jack Wilson. Believe it when you see it.

Ah, what the heck?

Maybe Littlefield will get that big bat and the Pirates will win 95 games next season instead of losing 95. Maybe they'll pull a Detroit, which went from 91 losses to 95 wins and the playoffs under first-year manager Jim Leyland, who wasn't good enough to get a sniff for the Pirates' job. Or maybe they'll pull a Los Angeles Dodgers, who went from 91 losses under Tracy last season to the playoffs this year under Grady Little.

Who knows?

Maybe McClatchy and the Nuttings will give the Pirates their best chance at success by putting the team up for sale.

We can hope, can't we?



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