By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
July 26, 2011
James McDonald(notes) #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on July 25, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. McDonald (7-4) scattered 8 hits in 5.1 innings while striking out 9 in the Pirates' 3-1 win over the Braves last night. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
After 18 losing seasons, the Pirates are in a race.
You wonder if it's the race owner Bob Nutting prefers.
The race for .500 would be cheaper to run. It would keep the long-suffering fan base enthralled. It would increase attendance. It would grab headlines. Chasing .500 would do just about everything chasing a division championship does, but cost less.
The pursuit of the National League Central Division title brings expensive expectations.
The citizens want a big deal for a big bat by Sunday's MLB trade deadline. Houston outfielder Hunter Pence would earn at least $25 million in Pittsburgh by the time he's eligible for free agency in 2014. Chicago Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena would require about $4 million to rent until season's end.
But the race for .500 wouldn't require a dime. The Pirates could justify not making a deadline swap, because nothing tangible is at stake. They could proceed with their rebuilding plan. No one expects them to sacrifice even a small chunk of the future just to finish .500.
Stalking .500 might be more profitable than going after the division. But the players and manager Clint Hurdle screwed things up by wedging themselves into the hunt for first place.
If the Pirates don't materialize as buyers by Sunday's trade deadline, ownership has some explaining to do. But the inside word is that general manager Neal Huntington is under orders to add little payroll, if any.
Huntington is a strange study. He's never been GM of a contender at the deadline. Will inexperience hinder? Does he know what to do?
So, what will the Pirates do?
Probably nothing. Maybe the bare minimum, like acquiring a low-level power hitter. Kansas City outfielder Melky Cabrera comes to mind.
The Pirates organization has put profit over competing since before Nutting took over. Recent draft investments were made because the Pirates had no choice PR-wise. But it's not hard to think that money is still the franchise's primary motive.
The great unwashed have certainly embraced the Pirates' season. With their glee has come a certain amount of assumption and naiveté. Bigger and better down the road seems taken for granted.
If Pirates ownership really has turned over a new leaf, you'll know by the trade deadline. They have a legitimate chance at winning the division. Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis will almost certainly make moves. The Brewers already got reliever Francisco Rodriguez from the New York Mets.
If the Pirates stand pat while the others add, it should be fairly evident what ownership's intent is. The Pirates need to get a bat. They're a small-market, low-budget team. They have a rare opportunity. They need to seize it.
It might just be pessimism spawned by 18 seasons of bad baseball, but I don't trust the Pirates one little bit. Andrew McCutchen is scheduled to be eligible for free agency in 2016. If McCutchen is still a Pirate then, I'll trust Nutting.
Until then, no way.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the Pirates don't want to trade prospects because those prospects will form a new young core when the current young core is scattered across the major leagues. The Penguins trade the occasional prospect because they intend to secure their young nucleus for the long term.
Will Starling Marte play alongside McCutchen, or replace him?
At least Pedro Alvarez is off the milk carton. He's young and flawed, but he's a better bet at third than Brandon Wood or Chase d'Arnaud, and the Pirates' best bet for power, period.