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Kovacevic: Keep trying in tough trade market

| Friday, July 29, 2011

BRADENTON, Fla. — Luis Heredia was fairly steaming on the mound Wednesday at Pirate City, and not just because of the scorching high-noon sun. His belt-high fastballs were getting belted, and his breaking pitches had gone sadly straight.

That's when the Pirates' prodigious 16-year-old prospect turned up his own heat with the next batter, yet another opponent three years his elder.

A 91-mph fastball brought a called strike.

The next fastball, a notch faster, not only splintered the bat for a foul roller, but also backed the batter off the plate and prompted a timid look toward the mound.

Heredia loved it.

"When the hitter looks at me like that, he's scared," Heredia said. "He doesn't want to see my fastball."

So, naturally, Heredia came right back with ... a curveball. One that buckled his man's knees and froze him for strike three.

Which got me to thinking: Are these really the types of talents that some would have the Pirates casually discard at the trading deadline this weekend?

Heredia is a 6-foot-6 man-child with remarkable coordination for his early height, innate strength and a knack for pitching. Scouts around baseball are predicting stardom. And, if that day arrives, the team employing him gets to keep him in that major-league uniform for six full years.

I've said consistently that the Pirates would be remiss to trade elite pitching prospects such as Heredia, Jameson Taillon or Stetson Allie. The Tampa Bay Rays, baseball's model for sustainable success, this week recorded their 705th consecutive start by a pitcher in his 20s, breaking a nearly-century-old mark. In this game, it's not just about pitching. It's about young pitching.

Believe me, I get it.

I also get that it takes two to make a trade. The Pirates went hard after Carlos Beltran, offering the New York Mets to absorb all of his remaining $6.5 million salary, as well as a prospect. But Beltran wouldn't come. The Pirates asked Houston about Hunter Pence, but the Astros sought the keys to the franchise. The Pirates went after a veteran American League outfielder with good but hardly great numbers, and the other party sought Taillon or Pedro Alvarez.

I'll applaud Bob Nutting, Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington for standing pat in this setting.

For now.

But, sorry, I'm not prepared to accept any excuse for doing nothing before 4 p.m. Sunday. There are 377 position players on other teams, plus many more in the upper levels of the minors, and a decent percentage of those guys can play first base and/or right field.

Not one is an upgrade over Lyle "0 for 8" Overbay?

Not one offers more pop than Matt Diaz and his zero home runs?

All told, the Pirates' first basemen and right fielders — the two ideal spots for big bats in a lineup based at PNC Park — have accounted for a whopping five RBIs since the All-Star break. Five! And just one from Overbay, who somehow keeps getting trotted out there night after night. It might not be a stretch to suggest Huntington could find a couple of local Fed Leaguers to top that.

Let's give Huntington the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume he'd rather not block a potential impact acquisition by settling for someone who just happens to be better than the above. Let's surmise that's why, even as the offense has plunged to fresh depths in recent days, the only move to date has been the plucking of reliever Jason Grilli from the Phillies' farm system.

Carlos Pena, the Chicago Cubs' slugging first baseman, now might make the best match. He's batting only .219 but has 20 home runs, including 13 in the past two months, and a slick glove. It's not an attractive acquisition financially — Pena is due $3.5 million the rest of this season plus a $5 million deferred payment in January — but that's still a better price than top prospects.

I'm hearing the Cubs are being stubborn, even though they could use the financial relief. But, hey, that's why phones come with that redial button.

Look, I have no doubt the Pirates are trying hard, especially after learning of their Beltran bid. But, as Clint Hurdle said recently when asked to compliment his players' effort: "Try hard• That's like grits with breakfast in the South: It just comes with the deal. This isn't a try-hard league. This is a do-good league."

Hurdle and his players have delivered the goods. Let's see if the front office can go beyond the grits.

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