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Kovacevic: Pirates' front office not 'all in'

| Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, 12:13 a.m.
The Pirates' Garrett Jones (46) and Travis Snider (right) congratulate Neil Walker (18) after his grand slam against the Cubs during the first inning Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Chicago. (AP)

Clint Hurdle loves to use the phrase “All in” with the Pirates' coaches and players, and it's been easy all summer to see they've embraced it.

But it's just as easy to see, after Major League Baseball's trading deadline passed with a whimper Tuesday, that the philosophy goes no higher than the manager.

The bold, smart acquisition of Wandy Rodriguez last week looked like it would lead in to a productive deadline, one in which management would address a wish list for not only a starting pitcher but also a reliable bat and bullpen help.

That's not me saying that. Those were the assessments of Hurdle and Neal Huntington.

What they wound up with Tuesday were recently recalled outfielder Travis Snider, .202-batting first baseman Gaby Sanchez and 6.14-ERA reliever Chad Qualls.

That was it.

That's what a team that entered the day 3 12 games off the majors' best record did to improve its playoff chances.

Let's take each acquisition in order …

Snider, 24, has promise. He was just coming to life in the minors, and his first nine games with the Blue Jays saw three home runs. He's a good defender, too, and a gamer.

And truth be told, if the Pirates got him in 2011 — or even the coming winter — I'd have applauded. But the team is adding Snider to a corner outfield mix that, with Starling Marte, had played a combined 14 games this season heading into the first pitch at Wrigley Field.

What was the thinking there?

Huntington's assessment of whether the Pirates are better now was, “We'll see over the next two months,” and that's fair. But the fact remains that the team's greatest need in this calendar year has been corner outfield help, and they enter this pennant race by — correctly — going with Marte in left but not complementing him in right with experience.

Sanchez, 28, is a player I've liked a long time. In 2010 and '11 with the Marlins, he batted a consistent .273 and .266 with 19 home runs each season. But injury limited him to 55 games this season, and he plunged to .202 with three home runs.

He'll probably hit again, but he was on the bench in Miami, and he should be on the bench in Pittsburgh.

Qualls, 34, is simply awful. The only place he's pitched in past three seasons where his ERA was lower than 4.50 was the hitter's graveyard in San Diego. This season with the Yankees, opponents were batting .345, roughly what they'd pull off in the indoor cage.

Let's give Huntington the benefit of the doubt on Qualls. He knew there was no place now for Casey McGehee and moved McGehee for a breathing body.

Let's also acknowledge the Pirates didn't give up too much Tuesday. Brad Lincoln was breaking out but still profiled as a reliever. You'll always give that up for an everyday type. Gorkys Hernandez and a post-first-round pick for Sanchez was nothing, especially with how this team's drafts lack depth. And McGehee, again, was out.

But the object at this stage isn't to go 4-0 in trades.

It's to make the playoffs.

These playoffs, not in 2013.

“This year's rentals were very expensive,” Huntington said Tuesday. “We're looking to get years of control in return.”

Why?

This year counts more than most. Teams that spend at the Pirates' level don't get many. Nor is the Central Division going to see many more seasons where the Cardinals and the free-spending Cubs are down.

Look at those bios up there.

That look like a playoff push?

Or a gentle, we-did-what-we-could nudge?

No, I don't think the Pirates should have given up the farm. If it's one prospect, I'd have at least listened. Here's guessing Huntington did and found it all distasteful. I can respect that.

But what about a prospect coupled with significant cash, like the Rodriguez trade?

There were no hitters in that mold anywhere?

People will point to players who changed hands Tuesday as evidence that prices were too high. Philadelphia traded two corner outfielders, Shane Victorino to the Dodgers and Hunter Pence to the Giants. Both would have looked terrific in black and gold. And the cost wasn't prohibitive, a reliever and minor league pitcher for Victorino, a spare outfielder and minor league catcher for Pence. Zero elite prospects involved.

Did Huntington go in with a bold enough approach?

Maybe the Pirates worried about money. If so, it would have flown in the face of most of owner Bob Nutting and the front office's moves in recent years, but it's hardly unthinkable.

Victorino is making $9.5 million this season, after which he can be a free agent. Pence is making $10.4 million this season, $13 million the next. The Pirates' two position-player pickups, Snider and Sanchez, each makes less than $500,000, so the only cash added was Rodriguez's $12.2 million.

Money most assuredly should not have been an issue. Not after 19 years. Not after Pittsburgh has been filling PNC Park.

Not after everyone else was all in.

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