Players would prefer to keep Pirates intact
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As the Pirates open post-break play tonight in Denver, they face a remaining July schedule that includes the Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres and the Rockies again, three losing teams that are a combined 44 games under .500.
It presents quite the opportunity to sustain this 2008 season, and it surely should be the singular focus of all involved.
But it will not be.
Not when management and players alike fully grasp that this same two-week stretch leads right into Major League Baseball's July 31 trading deadline when, no matter how the team performs, it likely will lose key pieces of its roster in the name of adding depth to a barren minor league system.
Some will not like it.
"From a player's standpoint, it would be a shame to see anybody go," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "We know the names that are out there, Xavier Nady and Jason Bay, and those guys are an integral part of clubhouse and the chemistry we have. ...Dude, to lose one of those guys would be, in my mind, a significant blow. They're big pieces of the gel that keeps this team together."
- Game: Pirates vs. Colorado Rockies, 9:05 p.m., Coors Field.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (6-5, 3.93) vs. RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (4-9, 4.22).
- Key matchup: A sizzling Maholm vs. a severely depleted lineup. Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Spilborghs are out with injuries, and Willy Taveras is considered iffy.
- Of note: The Rockies have lost four in a row, limited to two runs on 15 hits in that span. They failed to score in the final 22 innings of their three-game weekend sweep by the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.
"The chemistry in here is probably as good as any in the majors," reliever Tyler Yates said. "Yeah, we'd like to keep it together. We're 12 1/2 games out of first. We know that. We know we don't have much chance at the playoffs. But we're playing hard, we're having fun, and we'd love the chance to keep going."
Many other players express similar sentiments, and it is easy, in some ways, to see why.
For one, as Doumit and Yates cited, the chemistry is the best longtime observers have seen in a Pirates clubhouse this decade. The players credit that to manager John Russell's steady hand and intimate connection with off-field matters, as well as deeply engaged coach Gary Varsho and the rest of the staff. The coaches, in turn, credit veteran players such as Doug Mientkiewicz, Jason Michaels and Chris Gomez.
"The best part is there's no animosity, no jealousy," right fielder Xavier Nady said. "If Nate McLouth or someone is having a big year, everyone is just happy for him. That's a big part of being together as a team."
For another, the offense is the Pirates' best on some fronts since 1992, their most recent winning season. They hit consistently, for power and in key situations, and they have been the foundation for winning 23 of 44 games by comebacks and for overcoming the worst pitching in the majors.
It takes franchises years -- not to mention tens of millions of dollars -- to build an offense as productive as this one, and most players' stance is that this commodity is too precious to give up for prospects. They would prefer to see the reverse, where management parts with whatever minor league talent it has in the name of adding pitching.
Doumit was asked if he understood, especially from his vantage point behind the plate, management's stance that pitching is needed.
"I can absolutely see that, but trade prospects," he said. "We've got a good thing going here. This is the best offense we've had in a long time. And we're thinking about breaking that up? I would hate to see that."
Yates was asked the same question.
"I totally understand why management is thinking about adding pitching," he said. "I think we're all seeing the depth of the system. With my being new here, I didn't realize how shallow it was. But you don't want to see it all getting blown up to do that."
Management's current stance is that no blowing up is necessary or likely.
That has shifted somewhat in recent weeks, in large part because of the offense, specifically the bold emergence of McLouth and Doumit into what many in the front office often call "championship pieces." There remain needs on the diamond, of course, but they might not seem as great as they did, say, in February.
Even in the case of Bay, who nearly was traded in December and remained a near-lock to go for months afterward, there has been a shift. It now seems likely he will stay, maybe even be offered an extension. And that has everything to do, by most accounts, with having the most productive outfield in the majors and not wanting to ship two-thirds of it away.
That leaves Nady and reliever Damaso Marte, who can be a free agent this fall, as most likely to go. Nady's departure would hurt, but the thinking is that he, ultimately if not immediately, can have his spot filled by top prospect Andrew McCutchen. It might even be an upgrade, if McCutchen matches the scouts' glowing forecasts.
But it is not so simple.
Nady, a popular figure with his teammates, has been visibly bugged by this in recent days. He knows that outfield is the Pirates' lone area of depth and that he is the most obvious choice to go. He also knows that Scott Boras, his agent, always advises his clients to try free agency, and that time will come for Nady after next season. Partly because of that, the Pirates never have approached him about a contract extension.
But that is not stopping him from openly lobbying to stay.
"I've enjoyed it here. I really have," Nady said. "I enjoy this group of guys and these coaches. You spend eight or nine hours a day with the same people, it's important to enjoy that, and I do. I'd love to stay here a long time. I enjoy being part of the Pirates. But I also know there's nothing I can do about that."
General manager Neal Huntington displays an awareness of all of the above, but his stance consistently has been that emotions -- in the clubhouse or from the fan base -- cannot dictate personnel moves.
"You always have to be aware of the clubhouse dynamic, the fan dynamic. But the reality is that we all want a winner," Huntington said. "We're all waiting for the day where we can consistently play in September and October. And, as we work toward that, there are going to be decisions that make people unhappy. For that day. But, hopefully, the preparation we put into that decision ... hopefully, two or three years from now, everybody can say, 'OK, now I understand why.' "
He caught himself and laughed.
"Well, hopefully, sooner than that!"
Huntington was asked why, as some players suggested, he would not simply add pitching. The Pirates could do that immediately by either parting with prospects or taking on salary.
"There's no question the emotional attachment to this team is one where you want to do whatever you can to help them. The reality is that we don't feel we're one piece away. And to mortgage our future for a short-term piece, we think, flies in the face of everything we've talked about from day one."
He again pointed to depth.
"There are some pieces, no question, but it comes back to quantity. That depth has to be there at every position. And, unfortunately, these past couple weeks have shown us we don't have that."
"Especially pitching, but we don't have enough anywhere. Certainly, a couple guys have established themselves this year. Can they do it next year? Five years from now? Time will tell. We've also had some players we were counting on who haven't come through."
No one has had to adjust more to the pitching problems than Russell, which might explain why he, like Huntington, discards emotion from the equation as much as he can from field level.
"You'd hate to lose some of these guys," Russell said. "We've grown ... I wouldn't say attached to them, but they're part of what we've started here. But, if they get traded, there's nothing down here we can do about it. We'll start the process over again and, hopefully, keep getting better as a team."
First Published July 17, 2008 12:00 am