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Pirates following small-market plan

| Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009

As scouting director and general manager of the Montreal Expos, Kevin Malone helped build a pretty good team in 1994. A year later, he had to tear it apart.

The Expos were in first place in the NL East when the players strike shut down the '94 season. In 1995, budget constraints forced Malone to trade All-Star pitcher Ken Hill, Gold Glove winner Marquis Grissom and closer John Wetteland for prospects.

"It was a tough decision to make, but we needed to tear it down and start over," Malone said. "We had to get rid of some our best players every year and try to win (a title) once every four years or so. We felt we could do it in cycles."

Yet, in the 14 years since, the Expos (now the Washington Nationals) have had only three winning seasons and no playoff appearances. Malone resigned after the 1995 season and later became the Los Angeles Dodgers' GM.

However, Malone doesn't believe the Pirates — who in the past 13 months have swapped 16 veterans for 30 players, most of them prospects — will necessarily share the Expos/Nationals' miserable fate.

The Pirates will most likely set the record with their 17th consecutive losing season sometime in early September. It's a run of futility that has them 29th in winning percentage over the past 10 years at .424 (664-901 through Friday). Only Kansas City has a lower percentage over the same time frame at .414 (649-918 through Friday).

"A big part of the question is, at some point, ownership has to spend the money," Malone said. "I understand the fans' frustration in Pittsburgh. It has been done so many times there, you wonder when they are really going to try to win."

This year's trades slashed about $7 million from the Pirates' payroll. But the team also spent $5 million to build a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, increased its budget for scouting and held firm on a $10 million budget for draft bonuses at a time when other clubs are cutting back.

"If we're doing this right — and we think we are — then there will come a time when we'll have to increase the major-league payroll," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said.

This year, the Pirates aren't the only club that has traded pricey veterans for prospects with an eye toward the future. San Diego dealt ace Jack Peavy. Oakland gave up slugger Matt Holliday.

On Thursday, Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan said his team will lose $16 million this year, which made it necessary to trade pitcher Cliff Lee and catcher Victor Martinez.

"Every four or five years, if we can have a shot at the World Series and compete for the playoffs like we did in '05, that's as good as it gets," Dolan told The Associated Press.

The Pirates have the second-lowest attendance in the majors, but their $47.7 million payroll also is among the lowest. Coonelly said the Pirates won't lose money in 2009.

"We haven't had to make any moves for financial reasons," Coonelly said.

Coonelly declined to reveal whether the club will turn a profit again this year.

According to Forbes, the franchise had an operating income of $15 million in 2008. Operating income is the money before taxes, interest, depreciation and amortization.

The Indians, Padres and Athletics have been in the playoffs within the past three years. The Pirates, who haven't finished above .500 since 1992, arguably were in need of a bigger roster makeover than those teams.

With the exception of center fielder Nate McLouth, who has a three-year contract, none of the players the Pirates dealt away were signed past this season. Rather than allow them to walk away as free agents, management opted to get some sort of return via trades.

"We don't feel like we've broken up the 1927 Yankees," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We are doing this because we are committed to building a winner in a very tough environment and market size. In order to win, we need talented players."

Riding a string of 11 losing seasons, the Baltimore Orioles already have begun the build-from-within approach Huntington has mapped out for the Pirates.

Kansas City hasn't been in the postseason since 1985. But rather than clean house, the Royals have brought in some aging players, such as Jose Guillen and Jamey Wright, to plug holes. It's the same system the Pirates used — with dismal results — in the pre-Huntington era.

ESPN analyst Keith Law likes the direction the Pirates and Orioles are taking, but he believes Baltimore has had more success importing young talent.

"I wouldn't say the Pirates can match what the O's have done under (president of baseball operations Andy) MacPhail," Law said. "I agree with Neal that the (old) core wasn't going to win, so why not ship them out and acquire some pitching depth• But the Pirates' (minor-league) system is still very light on impact guys."

Coonelly countered that seven of the 10 players on Baseball America's recently revised list of the Pirates' top prospects were brought into the system since he and Huntington were hired — a dramatic change in less than two years.

Three of those seven newbies were draft picks. The other four — pitchers Bryan Morris and Tim Alderson, outfielders Jose Tabata and Gorkys Hernandez — arrived in four different trades.

"We thought bold steps were necessary to turn the franchise around," Coonelly said. "We weren't going to get there by patching a problem here and there."

Rough stretch

Here's a list of major-league team winning percentages from 2000-2009 (stats are through Friday's games):

Team: W-L — Pct.

1. Yankees: 929-634 — .594

2. Red Sox: 887-678 — .567

3. Cardinals: 882-686 — .563

4. Angels: 867-698 — .554

5. Athletics: 863-702 — .551

6. Braves: 862-704 — .550

7. Dodgers: 834-734 — .532

8. White Sox: 834-735 — .532

9. Twins: 829-738 — .529

10. Giants: 827-737 — .529

11. Phillies: 818-746 — .523

12. Astros: 812-754 — .519

13. Mariners: 809-758 — .516

14. Indians: 798-769 — .509

15. Mets: 796-769 — .509

16. Diamondbacks: 785-783 — .501

17. Cubs: 781-783 — .499

18. Blue Jays: 781-784 — .499

19. Marlins: 780-785 — .498

20. Rangers: 750-816 — .479

21. Padres: 740-830 — .471

22. Rockies: 737-831 — .470

23. Reds: 720-846 — .460

24. Brewers: 715-851 — .457

25. Tigers: 701-864 — .448

26. Expos/Nationals: 690-877 — .440

27. Orioles: 680-885 — .435

28. Rays: 670-894 — .428

29. Pirates: 664-901 — .424

30. Royals: 649-918 — .414

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