Inside the Pirates: Any spare change in 2008?
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HOUSTON -- Frank Coonelly was adamant, in his Thursday meeting with Post-Gazette reporters, that the Pirates could compete on a payroll of $45 million to $50 million. That, he said, was largely because roughly half their roster is made up of players with three or fewer years of Major League Baseball experience, and those players make at or close to the minimum salary of $380,000.
The latter point is unquestionable, but do the remaining numbers add up to a chance at being competitive?
A look at the Pirates' contract status for 2008 would indicate it would be an immense challenge.
Start with the five signed veterans: Matt Morris, Jack Wilson, Jason Bay, Salomon Torres and Damaso Marte will make a combined $27 million, probably half the payroll. If Cesar Izturis' $5.45 million club option is exercised, that tag tops $32 million. But scratch Izturis for now, as spending $12 million on two shortstops seems excessive, as does keeping Shawn Chacon from leaving through free agency or exercising Tony Armas' $5 million club option.
There also are seven players qualified for arbitration: Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, Xavier Nady, John Grabow and Jose Castillo for the second time, and Jose Bautista, Josh Phelps for the first time. Their salaries now add up to $11.8 million, and arbitration raises easily could push that to $18 million even if Castillo is, as expected, non-tendered.
Now, the total is $45 million.
The remaining 13 players could, in theory, be signed to the minimum wage and would total about $6 million, and the figure suddenly is $51 million.
Even if the Pirates increase from their current $48 million to $50 million, the above projection leaves just zero flexibility for the new general manager to improve the team through any avenue other than trade, and player-for-player deals never are easy for this franchise because of the barren organizational depth.
The simple solution, of course, is to raise payroll to the level of the Pirates' revenue peers such as the Milwaukee Brewers' $70 million or the Cincinnati Reds' $68 million.
There are hints that payroll could go up, but none yet that it will approach those other teams' levels.
Another area Coonelly might address, if not this year then next, is the rather unorthodox schedules the Pirates have been issued by MLB in recent years, schedules that have looked as if they were approved by a marketing director rather than a baseball man.
Lots of Saturday nights.
Lots of absurd road trips.
This season, for example, the Pirates were the only team outside either league's West Division required to make four separate trips to California. They also had that 6,387-mile trip to Seattle, Anaheim and Miami, touching three corners of the country before returning home 3-6. This despite having played quite well just before and just after that trip.
Teams are limited in how much they can challenge MLB on schedules, but there is no evidence that the Pirates ever have complained about any aspect other than those that affected having the most possible weekend dates and the fewest possible April and September dates.
Might Coonelly, as the man overseeing the company and baseball operations, try to change that?
"I'm sure maybe I can pull a few strings at MLB in the future," he said.
The tentative schedule for 2008 has been given to the 30 teams for examination, but it will be another few weeks before it becomes public.
Duke needs to shoulder greater load
One of the season's great mysteries is the disintegration of Zach Duke, whose pitching went from phenomenal to flat in less than two years.
One possible explanation, of course, is that the wonky elbow that shelved him until this week took the zip off his fastball and breaking pitches, rendering him eminently hittable even when his command was pinpoint.
Duke points to the elbow, to an extent.
"I have to believe it had an effect," he said. "I just have to."
Another possibility: Duke failed to keep his shoulder in the best shape during the offseason, according to one high-ranking team executive, and that took a toll on the elbow.
Old friends, new stripes?
Word out of Detroit is that Dave Littlefield will not remain without work for long.
He once was the top assistant of Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' general manager, when the two ranked atop the baseball operations with the Florida Marlins. And it is possible he will hold a similar title, in Detroit or elsewhere, before long.
First Published September 16, 2007 12:00 am