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Friday, August 8, 2008
Pirates endure short-term groans to achieve long-term gains

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is 39 years old and looks young enough to have a MySpace page. The keys to staving off the aging process? Eat sensibly, get plenty of exercise and listen to sports talk radio in moderation.

Jeff Karstens
Jeff Karstens came within four outs of a perfect game in only his second start with the Pirates.
Every decade or so, the chatter over the airwaves brings some welcome perspective. After hearing his share of negative feedback at the trade deadline, Huntington flashed back to his days in the Cleveland front office, when a disgruntled Indians fan called a local radio show and ripped an unpopular trade in the summer of 2002.

"The guy said we were lucky the trade happened late at night, or else the fans would have rioted,'' Huntington said.

Six years later, most observers think Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro fared pretty well when he sent Bartolo Colon to Montreal for Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens.

Now that Huntington and the Pirates have enjoyed their brief fling at the top of "SportsCenter," they've slipped back into the comfy cloak of anonymity that's been a franchise staple since the early 1990s. Fifteen straight losing seasons have a way of leaving you stranded behind LPGA scores and the latest Rex Grossman-Kyle Orton training camp update.

Since trading Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees and Jason Bay to Boston, Huntington has shifted from nonstop text-messaging to perusing the new merchandise. He's taken satisfaction in watching Jeff Karstens throw 15 straight shutout innings and flirt with a perfect game. Newcomers Brandon Moss and Andy LaRoche are a combined 7-for-36 as Pirates, and reliever Craig Hansen has allowed a run in two straight outings while topping out at 95 mph on the radar gun.

One thing is for sure: This group is a lot more intriguing to follow than last year's big deadline deal, which brought pitcher Matt Morris to Pittsburgh from San Francisco.

The trade deadline machinations were educational for Huntington, who took the Pittsburgh job last September. Some media accounts said the Pirates had trouble making deals because their demands were unreasonable. If so, they weren't alone. Huntington said one potential trade partner declared nine prospects off-limits. When the Red Sox and Yankees have gotten religion and fallen in love with prospects, you know it's a universal sentiment.

New Bucs

Here are the eight players that Pittsburgh acquired in two separate trades before the July 31 deadline (players listed alphabetically):

PLAYER LEVEL
RHP Craig Hansen Majors
RHP Jeff Karstens Majors
3B Andy LaRoche Majors
RHP Daniel McCutchen AAA
RHP Bryan Morris A
OF Brandon Moss Majors
RHP Ross Ohlendorf AAA
OF Jose Tabata *Rookie
* -- rehab assignment; started '08 in AA
But the real education for Huntington came after the New York trade. Things started badly for the Pirates when Tim McCarver told a Fox TV audience that the Yankees had pulled off a "steal'' by acquiring Nady and Marte for minor league outfielder Jose Tabata and three pitchers.

Shortly afterward, Huntington did an interview with a local media member who asked him, "Are you at all concerned that you'll be confronted by angry fans when you're walking around the streets of Pittsburgh?''

From his experience in Cleveland, Huntington wasn't exactly caught off guard by the reaction.

"When you trade the known for the unknown, it always unsettles people,'' he said. "It's always unnerving, and it's very easy to trash the unknown when you can look at Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte and Jason Bay and see how they're performing.

"I think people are starting to understand why we did what we did now. But the initial reaction was, 'Here we go, another rebuild.' Fans in Pittsburgh feel like they've been through that three or four times in the past, and it hasn't worked. And I can understand that. I'm not completely removed from being a 15-year-old kid rooting for my hometown team.''

While most mainstream media outlets categorized Pittsburgh as a deadline loser, some bloggers rode to Huntington's defense. The blog "Where have you gone, Andy Van Slyke?'' polled its readers, and 76 percent of the 540 respondents gave Huntington a grade of "A'' or "B'' on his trades.

Pirates diehards who've seen the team drift aimlessly from one half-baked plan to another can at least appreciate the new regime's devotion to a long-term goal. Huntington and club president Frank Coonelly tirelessly preach the gospel of scouting, player development and an increased presence in Latin America, and they're not going to slap on Band-Aids for a day or two of good publicity.

"If we had just given contract extensions to our veterans, we would have continued the cycle of not being very good. And for us, that wasn't acceptable,'' Huntington said. "We had to take some drastic steps to acquire quantity and quality players to allow us to take the next step forward.''

Neal Huntington
GM Neal Huntington, right, and manager John Russell hope to see a payoff from their recent deals.

It's all about expanding the window of opportunity. Huntington had Bay, Nady and Marte under the Pirates' control for two and a half more years, with a team that's not ready to contend. The eight players he acquired, in contrast, have the potential to play a combined 48 seasons in Pittsburgh before they graduate to free agency.

That's not going to happen, of course. But if Moss turns into a reliable corner outfielder, LaRoche becomes an average third baseman and one of Pittsburgh's new pitchers sticks with the big club, the Pirates will be content with their haul.

Did Huntington get enough talent in exchange for his hot commodities? Reactions vary. Many of his front office peers were lukewarm at best over the Marte-Nady trade and think the Pirates fared much better in the Bay deal, which brought Moss and Hansen from Boston and LaRoche and pitcher Bryan Morris from the Dodgers.

"It's good depth to put in your system,'' said a National League general manager. "But when you're trading three good players and two are signed through next year, it's not quite as much as I would have expected.''

The most widespread criticism is that Huntington failed to acquire a single "can't-miss'' player in either trade. But his former boss understands how difficult that is. Shapiro, Cleveland's GM, picked up a big minor league bat before the deadline in Milwaukee's Matt LaPorta, but it took CC Sabathia to get it done.

"I think Neal did well,'' Shapiro said. "It's a combination of players that he received. They're not all going to turn out to be what you expect, but that's why numbers are so important. Any rebuilding process based upon one or two guys is doomed to fail.''

The consensus is that Moss has a chance to be a consistent .800 OPS guy at a corner outfield spot, which could equate to the Dodgers' Andre Ethier or Texas' David Murphy. Even if Moss is just an average producer, it saves the Pirates from overpaying for another Jeromy Burnitz type on the free-agent market. The same applies to LaRoche at third base and Karstens at the back end of the Pittsburgh rotation.

The biggest mystery among the new Pirates is Tabata, who was rated the Yankees' No. 2 prospect by Baseball America in 2007. That was before he walked out on his Double-A team in Trenton in the middle of a game and received a three-game suspension. It's rare to see a 19-year-old phenom's stock drop so quickly. But Tabata is now saddled with the "bad makeup'' label and has a lot of image reparation to do.

The Pirates, naturally, are confident that he can. They did exhaustive research and determined that Tabata cares, wants to be the best and is a driven player at heart. But he struggled with the cold spring weather in Trenton, experienced failure for the first time and did not respond well.

"He made a huge mistake and was extremely remorseful for it,'' Huntington said. "He's still dealing with maturity issues, as most 19-year-olds are.''

The day we start making decisions based on perception or short-term performance spikes will be the day we begin to fail.

--Pirates GM Neal Huntington

In Pittsburgh, where fans are conditioned to being disappointed by No. 1 draft picks Bryan Bullington or John Van Benschoten, there's the obligatory fatalism in waiting for Ross Ohlendorf , Daniel McCutchen, Tabata or any prospect to fall into the proverbial manhole.

On the other hand, some of the new regime's personnel decisions provide reason for hope. Center fielder Nate McLouth, given an opportunity to play full-time this season, made the All-Star team. Catcher Ryan Doumit has a .931 OPS. You can make a legitimate case that the Pirates are a better club, but their improvement has been muted by the unexpected travails of starters Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell.

At least Huntington has a chance to take a deep breath now, right? Guess again. The Pirates enter the home stretch in negotiations with Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, and they must sign him by next Friday's deadline or watch him return to school or play independent league ball. Alvarez's advisor is Scott Boras, so rest assured that those talks will be a blast.

Although the money saved from the two recent trades ($3 million this year and $13 million next season) allows Pittsburgh to spend more on its 2008 draft crop, the Pirates claim they have a fair value price in mind for Alvarez and have no intention of straying from it. They also vow not to panic and yield to public pressure.

"We have to make good, sound, logical, rational decisions based on substance and not perception.'' Huntington said. "The day we start making decisions based on perception or short-term performance spikes will be the day we begin to fail.''

It sounds great in theory, but Huntington and Coonelly can look forward to another flogging if they don't land Alvarez. The Pirates survived the deadline. If they lose their top pick over money, it will be perceived as the worst sequel since "Weekend at Bernie's II.''

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.