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No blockbuster … yet

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Minutes before the NHL trading deadline, the Penguins gave up two starters, a prospect and a draft pick and got Marian Hossa, one of the top offensive threats in pro hockey.

On baseball’s deadline day last year, the Pirates swung a last-minute trade and got … Matt Morris, an overpriced pitcher whom they’ve already tried to deal away.

A casual fan of both teams might look at the Penguins’ big trade and wonder, Why can’t the Pirates do something like that?

The Penguins were awful for years. The Pirates have been awful for a decade and a half.

The Penguins have young talent. The Pirates have young talent. Both teams have opted to build through the draft process.

“In a perfect world, we, like the Penguins, get to the trade deadline, we’re in the hunt and we can add,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “Hopefully, we get to that point — whether it’s this year or sometime in the future — when we feel we’re in position to make that trade that pushes us over the top.”

Yet, it’s not as simple as it may appear. There are important differences in the dynamics of the two teams and the economics of the leagues in which they play.

The NHL has a salary cap — the owners shut down the league for the 2004-05 season in order to get it. The $52.5 million cap evens the playing field for large- and small-market clubs.

Also, the Pirates do not have the talent at the major- or minor-league levels to swing a blockbuster deal.

In the offseason, Huntington tested the value of several of his players. The most marketable is outfielder Jason Bay, a two-time All-Star who is signed through 2009 to a very reasonable contract. The best offer came from the Cleveland Indians. Huntington was disappointed to discover that Bay and starting catcher Ronny Paulino were worth a fading left-hander, a backup catcher and a minor league outfielder who is a fringy prospect.

“We were looking to add, but we didn’t find the right fit,” Huntington said simply.

The Penguins ran into a perfect storm when they made their bid for Hossa. They have a young team of exceptionally skilled players who appear primed to go deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, and room under the salary cap to add one more superstar.

The Pirates are at the other end of the spectrum, still building up from ground zero. In three, four or five years, they hope to be in the same sort of spot as the Penguins — able to swing a blockbuster trade that could possibly put them over the top.
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