Mr. Nutting, please meet Mr. Boras

| Wednesday, June 6, 2007

If you're like a lot of Pirates fans, you're dying to see a tangible sign that ownership is committed to winning.

The perfect opportunity could arise Thursday, when the Pirates pick fourth in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft.

We're not talking about some abstract financial pledge to "player development" or a new facility for Latin American prospects who won't sniff the major leagues until 2020.

We're talking about signing a real, live potential franchise player, Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters, who likely will be there for the taking at No. 4.

We're talking about owner Robert Nutting putting his money (and yours) where his mouth is.

We're talking about writing a check everyone can see.

The central question: Will the Pirates pony up the largest signing bonus in franchise history - likely anywhere from $6 million to $10 million - to sign Wieters, if he is available, or will they take a lesser, cheaper prospect?

You probably know the answer to that, but there's always hope.

Tampa Bay is expected to take fire-baller David Price first overall. Kansas City also is desperate for pitching at No. 2, though it might consider Wieters. The Cubs, at No. 3, are said to be smitten with high school third baseman Josh Vitters.

Wieters, however, is widely regarded as the best position player in the draft. He is a rocket-armed switch-hitter whom his adviser and soon-to-be-agent, Scott Boras, calls "the best collegiate catcher I've seen in 30 years."

Boras was including two of his other clients -- Jason Varitek and Charles Johnson.

Varitek, like Wieters, is a switch-hitting catcher out of Georgia Tech. He is a critical player for the Boston Red Sox. Johnson, from the University of Miami, was one of the finest defensive catchers of his time.

Boras is known to identify a few select prospects and push for much bigger bonuses than MLB recommends -- and he isn't afraid of holdouts. He is the reason so many people expect the Pirates to pass on Wieters and take a cheaper prospect such as small-college power-hitter Beau Mills or high school third baseman Matt Dominguez.

Choosing such a player over Wieters might save the Pirates $5 million or more -- but at what cost?

Boras, in a phone interview Tuesday with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, wasn't speaking of the Pirates when he made a point that easily could be applied to them.

"The worst investment is spending millions -- $1 million here, $2 million there -- on players who you really have no idea if they'll play in the major leagues," he said. "I think teams are far better off if they can spend money on a known major-league player. It's obvious (Wieters) is going to be in the big leagues in a short period of time."

Baseball America said simply: "The Pirates won't take a Boras client."

That is the general perception, though the Pirates would never admit it.

Giving an unproven player a signing bonus of $7 million or more might seem like a radical risk, but how much money have the Pirates thrown away?

Heck, they're spending $9.4 million this season on Tony Armas, Damaso Marte and Shawn Chacon combined.

Somebody's going to pay Wieters. Why not Nutting?

The risk is mitigated, because if the Pirates could not sign Wieters by Aug. 15, a new MLB rule would give them a similarly slotted pick in next year's draft, in addition to their other first-round pick.

If this ownership group wants credibility, it better hit a home run soon.

Robert Nutting steps to the plate Thursday -- and the Milwaukee Brewers are batting three spots behind him, with their eyes cast on a franchise catcher.

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