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Starkey: Pirates erred on Sano

Watching that incredible play-in game between the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, I couldn't help but think of the Pirates.

I thought of how a generation of Pittsburgh sports fans has never experienced the unique drama of a high-stakes baseball game involving their team.

I thought of how the tight-budget Twins have won five division titles since the turn of the millennium.

And I thought of Miguel Angel Sano, the elite Dominican prospect who elected not to sign with Pirates or the mighty New York Yankees but with the Twins, 10 days ago.

Somehow, some way, the Twins got the job done.

Somehow, some way, the Pirates didn't.

According to Sano's agent, Rob Plummer: "The Twins were the one team that followed my instructions to a tee."

Other teams, including the Pirates, might have topped the Twins' $3.15 million signing bonus, but Plummer liked the way Minnesota did business.

Maybe the Pirates paid for recent regimes having such a paltry presence in Latin America. Clearly, though, they made mistakes.

The key is whether they learn from those mistakes.

Things started well. The Pirates were first to make Sano an offer - $2 million on July 2. Plummer told them he would not negotiate until Major League Baseball completed its investigation into Sano's age.

MLB did not reach a definitive conclusion as to whether Sano is 16, as he claims. The Pirates were satisfied he was telling the truth, based on their own investigation.

The Pirates made another offer in late August, $2.6 million.

"We were again told by the agent that he would tell us when he was ready to negotiate," general manager Neal Huntington said Thursday. "And that day never came."

Why didn't it• Likely, because the Pirates were too aggressive and did not adhere to Plummer's demands, namely these:

• He did not want teams contacting Sano or his family.

• He wanted all the bonus money up front.

The Pirates contacted Sano and his family several times, against Plummer's wishes, and offered the money in three installments.

The Twins waited out the process and made one firm offer.

The Pirates' director of Latin American scouting, Rene Gayo -- who called Sano the best prospect he's ever seen -- regularly made contact with Sano and the family, Plummer said.

Huntington explained that the Pirates "did something we do in every big-dollar negotiation, whether it's a major-league free agent, a drafted player or an international player, and that is include the player in the process. ... There's obvious motivation for the agent to try to exclude the player from the process."

Perhaps, but this is the issue: Every negotiation cannot be the same.

How can the rules of engagement with a drafted player -- where the team has exclusive negotiating rights -- automatically be applied to an international prospect, who is essentially a free agent?

To compound matters, I've heard people compare the Latin American landscape to the Wild West when it comes to competing for prospects. Conventional rules do not apply.

The Pirates should have stayed away from Sano and his family and waited for their cue from Plummer.

Plummer says he kept Sano and his family informed throughout the process and at one point asked them which team they would choose if he could get an equal offer from the Pirates and Twins.

"Everybody said the Twins," Plummer said.

The Pirates wanted to pay in three installments in order to protect their investment, Huntington said, in case something went awry with Sano's documents.

That is understandable, but if the family wanted the money right away, the Pirates should have taken the risk, especially when they had concluded Sano was, indeed, 16.

The good news is that the Pirates were willing to spend $2.6 million and possibly more. The bad news is that their new $5 million Dominican training academy still doesn't have a high-profile recruit.

The Pirates better find a way to deal with Plummer, too, because he is noted for representing big-time Dominican prospects.

"I will have no problem working with the Pirates," Plummer said, "as long as they follow the guidelines I put out for each individual player and make sure negotiations go through me and not the family."

From the sounds of it, Plummer and Gayo have a terrible relationship. Huntington says Gayo will remain the Pirates' point man in Latin America and that the team is confident it can recruit elite players there.

I wonder.

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