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Bucs' operation meltdown

| Sunday, March 22, 2009

SARASOTA, Fla. — Barry Bonds wanted too much money. Ryan Howard struck out too much. B.J. Upton was too far from being major-league ready. There is a long list of rationale — a pessimist would call them excuses — for the Pirates' moves in the free-agent market, trades and the amateur draft.

Whatever you term them, they led to decisions by management which have mired the Pirates in what could become the longest losing skid in the history of professional sports.

"They had evaluation problems," ESPN analyst Keith Law said. "They evaluated their own players poorly, evaluated other teams' players poorly and evaluated (draft) prospects poorly. Some of it was scouting, but a lot of it was on the GMs."

Thanks for nothing

On the final day of the 2006 season, general manager Dave Littlefield went from locker to locker in the Pirates' clubhouse, shaking hands with each player. Seeing Littlefield coming his way, outfielder Jeromy Burnitz made a pre-emptive move.

Burnitz got up off his stool and, smiling, walked over to Littlefield.

"Dave," Burnitz said, pumping Littlefield's hand enthusiastically, "I can't thank you enough."

Burnitz had been leaning toward retirement before the '06 season, but signed on for one last go-round when the Pirates — the only serious bidder for Burnitz's services — thrust a $6 million contract at him.

It might have been the easiest $6 million any ballplayer ever made. Burnitz took just 313 at-bats, hit .230 and at times displayed an appalling lack of hustle.

Small-time, low-yield free-agent signings were a hallmark of general managers Ted Simmons (1993), Cam Bonifay (1994-2001) and Dave Littlefield (2001-08).

There have been a few sage choices. Francisco Cordova (1996) and Ricardo Rincon (1997) combined to toss a no-hitter. In 2003, Littlefield was spot-on when he signed Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs, Reggie Sanders, Jeff D'Amico and Jeff Suppan.

But most of the signings have been pricey disasters.

Zane Smith had nothing left when he signed back with the Pirates in 1996. Kevin Elster made $1.65 million for appearing in 39 games in 1997. The Pirates were on the hook for $7.58 million for two years after Pat Meares last took a swing.

Eight years ago, the Pirates inked a deal with an outfielder who became the poster boy for the team's free-agent nightmares: Derek Bell.

Bell is remembered for his "Operation Shutdown" antics during spring training in 2002. That's when he anointed himself the starter, despite hitting .173 with 13 RBI the season before.

The Pirates released Bell and were forced to eat his $4.5 million salary.

The Pirates couldn't afford the elite free agents who can single-handedly change a team's fortunes. For the players they did sign, the expectations and paychecks were often unrealistically high.

"Teams in our (size) market have shown time and again you can't win by building through free agency," second-year GM Neal Huntington said.

Draft impacts trades, free agents

Huntington says the centerpiece of his rebuilding plan is the draft, which is the same message Pirates fans have heard for more than a decade.

What seems to be different now is the front-office's approach to the draft. Smarter. More aggressive.

Seven years ago, the Pirates used their first-round pick on college pitcher Bryan Bullington. They passed on Upton and Scott Kazmir, two high school players whom scouts said had more long-term potential.

Five years later, the team opted against drafting catcher Matt Weiters - avoiding agent Scott Boras - and instead took reliever Dan Moskos.

"Matt Weiters was the minor-league player of the year (in 2007)," president Frank Coonelly said. "He should be a Pirate. We won't make that mistake again."

There's some proof behind that claim. Pirates fought a skirmish with Boras last summer to get Pedro Alvarez's name on a contract. Alvarez, the second overall pick, got a major-league contract and a team-record $6 million bonus.

Equally telling are the bonuses the Pirates paid out for two lower-round picks: $1 million to sixth-rounder Robbie Grossman and $900,000 for 20th-rounder Robert Miller. Both players were high-schoolers.

It's a simple plan. When a team doesn't cut corners in the draft, it can build a deeper farm system. Some of that depth can later be bartered to other teams to shore up weak spots.

The Pirates had a chance to do that in 2004, when Philadelphia inquired about pitcher Kris Benson. The Phillies indicated Howard, then a rising minor-league slugger, could be had in exchange.

However, the Pirates were scared off by Howard's high strikeout rate and vetoed the offer.

A last resort

Positions the Pirates cannot fill via either the draft or trades will be the reason for Huntington to fill out a free-agent shopping list.

To boost their playoff push last year, the Milwaukee Brewers included Matt LaPorta, one of their top prospects, in a trade for CC Sabathia. This offseason, the Cleveland Indians signed free-agent closer Kerry Wood - not quite a superstar, but a perfect piece to complete their team.

Huntington expects the Pirates to be able to make those kinds of moves in the next few years.

"I don't think we're ever going to play on the front page with our free-agent signings," Huntington said. "That's just reality. But can we play on that tier of free agents who can make a significant impact• Absolutely.

"At the right place, at the right time, we're gonna go in the opposite direction from what we did last summer, when we traded established major-league players for prospects.

"We need to build a deep enough system that we have the ability to trade prospects for established major leaguers. We're not there yet, but we're definitely moving in the right direction."

Agents of blame

The Pirates' notable free-agent signings and waiver claims since 1993:

Year — Players

1993 — Lonnie Smith, Tom Foley, Jeff Ballard, Mark Dewey (waivers)

1994 — Steve Pegues, Ravelo Manzanillo, Mike Dyer, Steve Parris

1995 — Nelson Liriano, Mackey Sasser, Jim Gott, Dan Plesac

1996 — Zane Smith, Charlie Hayes, Mike Kingery, Danny Darwin, Francisco Cordova

1997 — Turner Ward, Kevin Elster, Ricardo Rincon (purchased from Mexico City)

1998 — Doug Strange, Tim Laker, Mike Williams, Jeff Tabaka

1999 — Pat Meares, Pete Schourek, Brad Clontz, Todd Ritchie, Ed Sprague, Mike Benjamin

2000 — Wil Cordero, Luis Sojo, Adam Hyzdu, Josias Manzanillo

2001 — Derek Bell, Ramon Martinez, Mike Lincoln, Terry Mulholland, Gary Matthews (waivers)

2002 — Pokey Reese, Mike Williams, Brian Meadows, Ron Villone, Salomon Torres

2003 — Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs, Reggie Sanders, Jeff D'Amico, Jeff Suppan, Julian Tavarez

2004 — Daryle Ward, Jose Mesa, Chris Stynes, Raul Mondesi

2005 — Todd Ritchie, Ben Grieve, Rick White, Carlos Maldonado

2006 — Joe Randa, Jeromy Burnitz, Jose Hernandez, Roberto Hernandez

2007 — Don Kelly, Franquellis Osoria (waviers), Tony Armas, Dan Kolb, Matt Kata, Josh Phelps

2008 — Luis Cruz, Chris Gomez, Doug Mientkiewicz, Byung-Hyun Kim, Jimmy Barthmaier (waivers), Phil Dumatrait (waivers)

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