Expect Pirates' new executives to count beans
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The firing of Dave Littlefield as general manager of the Pirates last month was correctly viewed as a major step forward in fixing what ails the team. Like Cam Bonifay before him, Littlefield had been operating in a near-panic mode in what he had to know were the final days of his tenure. His desperation to finally turn this long-term loser into a winner was obvious when in July he traded for Matt Morris, a one-time ace who not only was well past his prime but was pitching horribly when the deal was made and who is guaranteed $9.4 million for next season.
That's Littlefield's legacy to the Pirates: A fourth or fifth starter who's pulling down close to 20 percent of the payroll.
But there's a dark side to Littlefield's departure, which also coincided with that of CEO Kevin McClatchy. A sense of urgency to produce a winning team also will be leaving with those two men.
Their replacements, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, will not feel such a sense of urgency. There will be no panic mode or anything resembling it for Coonelly and Huntington. This isn't to suggest they'll be slackers, only that their jobs aren't in jeopardy. They can take their time attempting to turn the Pirates around. They don't need a winner in 2008 to keep their jobs, nor in 2009. All they need to do is show progress, and with what was the worst team in the National League that shouldn't be hard to do.
Under Littlefield, the Pirates had been eyeing respectability and hopefully more by 2008 or 2009. Owner Bob Nutting has made it clear he's not interested in just a small window of opportunity, which Littlefield was charting. He wants -- don't laugh -- a continuing stream of successful teams.
In order to do that, more good young players must be procured since the Pirates' farm system is not brimming with future major leaguers -- another legacy of the Littlefield era. The best way to secure young talent is to trade for it. Which means rebuilding -- although the word won't be used -- just might be the course the Pirates are pursuing.
Why not? They're not going to win with this group in the next two seasons, which is as long as many of the key players are under contractual control. Several of the team's best players are close to free agency and the kind of riches the Pirates either can't or won't pay.
Take, for example, Jason Bay. He'll be eligible for free agency after the 2009 season. A player comparable to Bay, Vernon Wells of the Toronto Blue Jays, signed a seven-year, $126 million contract last December. At the time of the signing, Bay had credentials at least as good as those of Wells.
Bay's play declined significantly this season, but that doesn't mean there won't be a market for him. It just won't be as thick as it might have been. The fact Bay has an owner friendly contract will make it even easier to trade him for younger, less-expensive players, if that's what Huntington chooses to do.
With Littlefield, Bay was a cornerstone of the near future. With Huntington and Coonelly, Bay is a bargaining chip for the more distant future.
Xavier Nady, who's also eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, is another player the Pirates might shop because he also can bring some young talent and likely won't be interested in staying here.
The nice thing about acquiring young talent for veteran players is they cost less, a lot less. Bay will make $5.75 million next season. Nady figures to get at least $4 million in arbitration. The players who'll likely take their places -- if both go -- figure to be Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Steve Pearce or Andrew McCutchen. Any two of them combined make about $800,000.
That's the kind of baseball sense owner Nutting likes.
And who can blame him? To paraphrase Branch Rickey speaking about Ralph Kiner: If the Pirates can finish last with Bay and Nady, they can finish last without them -- and knock about $8 million off the payroll.
This is not a condemnation of trading high-priced veterans. There's an element of logic that goes with it and that's particularly true of the Pirates since it looks as though the current group isn't going to get it done.
Changes are in the wind. Whether they bring a better or worse team is hard to say. But in almost all certainty, they'll bring a lower payroll.
First Published October 3, 2007 12:00 am