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Kovacevic: Take the Pirates' money, please

| Friday, Feb. 10, 2012

It's one of the many torments of the Pirates' longest-suffering fans, the perpetual thought that somehow, some way, this will be the winter they make that big free-agent splash.

The thought was born, really, when PNC Park opened in 2001 with the promise of spending with the big boys.

That bought Derek Bell a yacht.

The thought was revived, at least a little, when Bob Nutting took control of ownership in 2007 and restored the team to fiscal responsibility with the promise that prudence would pay in the long run.

That bought Lyle Overbay for half a season, Byung-Hyun Kim for a month, Scott Olsen for a week, Craig Monroe for three spring bombs in a day, Eric Hinske, Matt Diaz, Ramon Vazquez, Bobby Crosby, Chris Gomez and probably 10 other non-shortstop shortstops.

Prudence might pay, but it sure can't play.

This winter, again, was going to be the one. The Pirates flirted with first place last summer, enough to spike attendance 20 percent. More ticket money would equal bigger spending. And it did, if you consider that new shortstop Clint Barmes' two-year, $10.5 million deal is the richest for any free agent in franchise history.

(No, seriously. It is.)

But this winter has brought a different harsh reality: The Pirates have tried to spend money above their still-too-low projected payroll of $48 million — actual big-splash money — only to see free agents turn up their noses.

It began in December when general manager Neal Huntington tendered salary arbitration to first baseman Derrek Lee in hopes of keeping Lee after a strong two-month finish. The process assures he would have made at least $7.25 million, same as 2011, and very likely more.

Lee rejected it for free agency.

He's still out there, too, waiting on any of his three or four preferred teams. The Pirates are not among those, and they don't expect that to change.

In the past week, it emerged that Huntington offered pitcher Edwin Jackson three years and $30 million. Not a misprint. Not an alternate reality. It really happened, and I can confirm that every penny was guaranteed, not couched in options or incentives. It would have been the team's biggest deal ever by a factor of three Barmeses.

Jackson rejected it in favor of one year at $11 million from another losing team, the Washington Nationals.

It's a wild risk on his part. On one hand, super-agent Scott Boras set up his client to reap a huge payday with a strong 2012, and Boras additionally can wave the Pirates' offer in front of any prospective buyers. On the other hand, every pitcher's next pitch can be his last.

Another quality arm, Roy Oswalt, is still on the market, also in Jackson's price range. He won't even pick up when Huntington calls.

Yeah, I can feel the eyes rolling right now. Some cynics don't believe the Pirates really made these overtures. Or, if the team did, it was just for PR purposes.

It's nonsense.

Lee's offer is easy to confirm, having been submitted through Major League Baseball's arbitration process.

Jackson's offer was solid, too. I've dealt with Boras for years. Be sure that if anyone publicly floated an inaccurate number attached to his name, even if it's off by a decimal point, he'd protest vociferously. He hasn't.

The Pirates aren't lying. And it isn't that they aren't trying, as some suggest. It's that top-tier talents still aren't buying what they're selling.

That has to change someday, obviously. But how?

"Honestly, we just need to keep playing better ball," Huntington told me by phone Wednesday after another late night at PNC Park. "When we win, we're going to see those results change, along with a lot of other things. We have a great pitcher-friendly ballpark. We have a lot of pieces in place. But the winning has to happen first. And it will. We still feel very good about the team we'll have in 2012."

Huntington should feel good about these rejections in at least one underlying way.

Say the Pirates raised the ante on Lee and offered $10 million. Say Lee accepted. There would be no reason to believe he's committed in the slightest. Remember, right now he'd rather retire than play in Pittsburgh. An extra million or two on top of his $80 million career earnings wouldn't change that sentiment much.

I enjoy watching Lee play baseball, but I don't want that here.

And say the Pirates had topped Washington's one-year offer to Jackson by a million or so. Same thing applies. You already know he was willing to walk away from $19 million to not play in Pittsburgh.

Maybe next winter.

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