Strength in numbers

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HOUSTON – The first day of September can’t arrive quick enough for the Pirates.

That’s when rosters are allowed to expand beyond the usual 25-man limit, and teams may call up anyone from the minors who is on the 40-man roster. The Pirates could use a few extra healthy bodies in the clubhouse.

Xavier Nady’s hamstring has been a recurring problem. He needs a month or two of rest to get back near 100 percent. Jack Wilson’s right leg was made a swollen, bloody mess by a collision with Ty Wigginton at second base Saturday night. It will be a few days before Wilson is up to full speed again.

Elsewhere, there is the usual late-season assortment of aches and pains. John Grabow’s tender elbow will require offseason surgery to clean up bone chips. Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche routinely ice down limbs after games. Even Matt Kata was wearing an ice pack today, and he didn’t even play.

Wouldn’t it be nice having, say, Andrew McCutchen around, even if it’s just as a pinch-runner after a Nady single? Or Bryan Bullington and John Van Benschoten adding some depth to the bullpen? Or Steven Pearce coming up as a late-inning homer threat?

The Pirates would have to add McCutchen and Pearce to the 40-man before giving them call-ups. But there are ways to clear space — goodbye, Brad Eldred and Juan Perez — for them.


When the Houston Astros decide to retire a player’s uniform number, they go all out and do it right.

Today, Jeff Bagwell’s No. 5 was taken out of commission. The team staged a half-hour, on-field ceremony. Everyone in the ballpark received a pin in the shape of Bagwell’s jersey. Team employees wore specially designed T-shirts with Bagwell’s name and number on the back and the date on the front with a retirement day logo. Media members were issued special credentials bearing Bagwell’s image and received leather-bound notepads with a Bagwell logo.

Bagwell retired after the 2005 season with 2,314 hits and 449 home runs. Twenty-two months later — long before Bagwell even is eligible for the Hall of Fame — the Astros retired his number.

Earlier this summer, the Pirates retired Paul Waner’s No. 11. The gesture came 67 years after Waner played his last game in Pittsburgh, and 55 years after “Big Poison” was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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A fresh start?

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DENVER — Bob Nutting delivered some good news yesterday.

During a telephone conversation from his office in Wheeling, Nutting indicated the next Pirates’ CEO will be a “baseball guy” — which should calm the jangled nerves of fans who feared Nutting would hire a bean-counter whose only concern is the bottom line and not the product on the field.

Nutting admitted his inside baseball knowledge is limited, setting him apart from meddling dilettantes such as Peter Angelos and George Steinbrenner. I get the impression Nutting wants to surround himself with brainy execs and trust their judgment.

The new CEO should be only the first step toward progress for this franchise. Nutting did not say that general manager Dave Littlefield, manager Jim Tracy and other staff would be fired on the spot once the new CEO steps in. But, Nutting said there would be discussions about whether — or, more likely, how — the new CEO wants to overhaul the front office.

If so, it would buy Nutting some patience from the fans (maybe a couple of years’ worth, tops). And if really could signal a fresh start for this team.
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Older by the minute

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Earlier this season, Pirates management liked to brag about the team’s young, homegrown pitching rotation. The Pirates were, we were reminded time and again, the only team in the majors that raised all five of its starters from its farm system. It was wonderful, it was impressive, it was a hopeful sign of progress.

It did not last through July.

Shane Youman, who was pitching well, and John Van Benschoten, who was not, have been yanked from the rotation and replaced by a pair of aging, pricey outsiders who do not figure in the Pirates’ long-range plans. It is fair to wonder what purpose is being served by adding Matt Morris and Tony Armas to the rotation.

At least Van Benschoten is still getting regular turns at Class AAA Indianapolis. Youman is in limbo in the Pirates’ bullpen — not really a reliever, not a starter, just sort of hanging around to pitch who knows when.

Why waste the chance to get more of a look at Van Benschoten and Youman? It’s not like these guys are young prospects — they’re both 27 years old.

Armas is gone after this year. But barring a trade, Morris and his $9.5 million salary will be around for another season. By the time Morris finally departs, Van Benschoten and Youman will be nearing the big 3-0 and will be off the radar. And, I’m betting, the Pirates still will not have broken the .500 barrier. What will have been gained? Whatever happened to that “young pitching” mantra?

Maybe Bryan Bullington, the top overall draft pick in 2004, will have made his first start for the Pirates by then. After all, he’ll turn 27 the day the 2007 season ends.
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Kuwata gone

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We will not see Masumi Kuwata pitch again for the Pirates, even after rosters expand Sept. 1. The Pirates have guys on their 40-man roster — younger guys, who supposedly are building blocks for the future — who deserve to get a look-see.

The Kuwata Experiment was fun, albeit doomed from the start. The 39-year-old former star of the Japanese Central League was a long-shot to pitch in the majors in the first place. Ultimately, there were too many years, too many injuries for him to overcome. Still, it was interesting being able to observe the diligence with which he approached his job — hopefully, it rubbed off on some of the guys around him in the clubhouse. And it was neat to swap notes on baseball and culture with the Japanese media.

I expect Kuwata will retire, and the Pirates will try to hire him as a coach or scout. The Pirates, who had never had a Japanese player on their roster until Kuwata, can use every ounce of publicity and good will they can get outside of the U.S. This franchise is woefully behind the curve when it comes to signing foreign talent.
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Paulino hasn’t quit

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ATLANTA — In previous postings, I’ve wondered about Ronny Paulino’s ability and ripped his lack of focus. But I’ve got to give him some props for a hustling play last night in a doomed effort against the Braves, and a similar play he made tonight that paid off.

Friday, the Pirates were trailing 8-0 in the seventh inning. Jose Bautista at first and Xavier Nady at second, one out. Paulino hit a roller to second baseman Kelly Johnson. Bautista was thrown out easily at second, but Paulino chugged down the line and beat the throw from shortstop Edgar Renteria — no slouch on the field — to first base. By going all out, Paulino avoided an inning-ending double play.

“You never can give up,” Paulino told me this afternoon. “You have to play hard in every situation. Anything can happen.”

It didn’t. Jack Wilson grounded out to short, ending the inning. But Paulino’s effort was impressive, nonetheless.

In the ninth inning, Paulino drove in the Pirates’ lone run with a sharp double to left off rookie Jose Ascanio.

Tonight, Paulino went 2 for 2 with a walk before the rain picked up and delayed the game against the Braves. He helped the Pirates erase a 4-0 deficit in the seventh inning with another tough-play infield grounder. Again, Paulino busted his butt down the line, and this time third baseman Chipper Jones threw the ball away. A run scored and Paulino went to second. Two batters later, Ryan Doumit smacked a game-tying home run.

It’s been a tough season so far for Paulino. But he’s shown me in these two games that he’s not just playing out the string.
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Gone fishin’

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DEEP CREEK LAKE, Md. — Bob Nutting told me he’s never caught a fish in the lake here, although he’s tried many times. Sounds like what his ballclub’s been doing, lo these past 14 seasons.

I’m spending my All-Star break at the lake, and it seemed like a good time and place to look back on the first half of the Pirates’ 2007 season, especially the past two weeks.

There’s been a lot of sound and fury, but is it possible to note any real progress?

As I write this Sunday morning, the Pirates are a couple of hours away from their final game before the break. If they win it, they’ll have gone 5-2 in the tough, back-to-back series against the Brewers and Cubs. That would be a nice, hopeful way to begin the second half, but it doesn’t exactly thrust them into the pennant race. Remember how wonderful 37-35 seemed last year? The Pirates would have to be 20 or so games above .500 in the second half just to sniff the top of the NL Central. Not gonna happen.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. A decent second half would put the Pirates pretty much around the 75-win season I predicted. And there are some promising signs — Adam LaRoche is killing the ball, Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny (the lastest victims of Tony LaRussa’s vendetta against the Pirates) are solid, Matt Capps is for real.

There are plenty of spots that could use an upgrade — center field, catcher, a fourth and fifth starter. And I don’t expect Andrew McCutchen to fill the hole in center; I figure he’ll end up in left field once Jason Bay is traded.

Other items:

— The fan protest. Neither a flop nor a success. It was what it was: a thousand or so frustrated folks letting off some steam. It would have been better to do it on a weeknight during the series against Milwaukee — another small-market club that has figured out what it takes to put together a winner with homegrown talent.

— McClatchy’s farewell. No big surprise, there. Anyone who did not see this coming in January, when Nutting and Kevin McClatchy announced the “change of control” is either blind or naive. The change of control was just that. Bob Nutting is now in charge. Entirely.

McClatchy never had enough cash to run the operation himself, so he became a slave to his fellow investors. It was just a matter of time before someone bought him out. I never doubted his desire to win; but he made some bad decisions — Bonifay, Littlefield — and dug the hole deeper and deeper. Credit him for his passion, for saving the team and for making PNC Park a reality.

— The next CEO. The new hire will tell us exactly what Nutting plans for this franchise. Does he go with a baseball guy, who will try to turn things around? Or does he simply hire an accountant, and worry about the bottom line?

— Salomon Torres. The new, hands-down favorite to be gone by the trading deadline. There’s enough blame in this situation for both sides. The mess exposes the penny-pinching, shifty way the Pirates do business. Torres blew it by not hiring a sharp agent to negotiate his contract. It’s sort of like what I tell my wife when a pipe bursts or a floor needs refinished and she wants to do-it-ourselves. There are people who have incredible know-how that I do not possess and I will pay them to complete the task. You either pay now, or pay later. Torres is facing the latter.
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Two outs! Two!

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SEATTLE — With two outs in the fourth inning tonight, Ronny Paulino doubled hard to left field. Jack Wilson then flied out to center field, ending the inning. Routine stuff, right?

Not quite. What you probably did not see on your TV screen was Paulino tagging up at second base — on what was the third out of the inning. So, if Ichiro Suzuki would have dropped the ball, Paulino would have been lucky to make it to third base instead of scoring an easy run.

Fun-da-men-tals.

* * * * * Coupla things about Seattle …

First, there really is a Starbucks on every street corner. Really.

Second, the folks here are friendly. Unlike DC and Chicago, the business suit crowd doesn’t all wear iPods and stare straight ahead as they march through downtown. And, at least in the neighborhoods where I’m hanging out, I’m the only one without multiple piercings, body art and dyed-black hair.

The only thing that creeps me out is, nobody jay-walks here. The downtown grid is a bunch of one-way streets — nothing coming for blocks, and yet a dozen people obediently stand on the corner, staring at the “do not walk” sign. Except for one guy, tearing across the street, like some rules-breaking, devil-may-care wild man.

That would be me.
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Closer today, gone tomorrow?

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SEATTLE — With Matt Capps out of the picture the next three days, Shawn Chacon should have no problem stepping in as the Pirates’ closer.

Chacon has performed ably in two jobs already this season. He was excellent in middle relief, the only consistent middle-innings guy in the bullpen. He had less success as a starter, but four starts is a small sample to pass judgement, especially considering he was abruptly switched into that role.

Chacon, like most every pitcher, wants to be a full-time starter. If he can’t be in the rotation, the closer’s job is the next-best thing — high risk, high reward. For the next 72 hours, at least, it’s his.

Last winter, Chacon avoided arbitration by signing a one-year contract for $3.825 million. As a starter, he’d be a bargain — even considering his contract includes incentive clauses that would pay Chacon $50,000 for pitching 160 innings, $50,000 for 180 innings and $125,000 for 200 innings. At his current pace, Chacon is on track for 131 innings this season, but likely will wind up with less than that if he stays with the Pirates.

As we prepare to turn the corner into the trading frenzy part of the summer, Chacon would seem to be a good candidate to be traded. Reasonable salary, adequate talent. The only thing missing is for the Pirates to again be sellers at the trade deadline.

We should have our answer by the All-Star break. The Pirates play seven games at home against the top two contenders for the NL Central title, Milwaukee and Chicago. At the break, the Pirates could still be in the hunt, or they could be buried, facing a double-digit deficit in the division.
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East meets West

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Welcome to PNC Park. Have a pierogi.

The flock of Japanese media that’s here to cover Masumi Kuwata got a taste of Pittsburgh tonight, as it was kielbasa-and-pierogi night in the press dining room. The hometown grub wasn’t as good as what you’ll find during Nationality Days on Merchant Street in Ambridge — I still lick my lips when I think about a night out there years ago with a friend — but, as media chow goes, it was great.

Last night, I dined with Kazumi, who writes for Tokyo Chunichi Sports. She gave her first-ever pierogi a thumbs up. She said it reminded her a little of gyoza, a dumpling filled with ground beef and onion.

Who knows? Maybe if Kuwata sticks around long enough, the Bucs will ship in some sushi.


Jack Wilson was not in the starting lineup tonight — the third game in a row he was replaced by Jose Castillo. Curious.

Yeah, Wilson had a rough game in the field Saturday against the Yankees. But just a day earlier, he made a great play on a grounder to gun down speedy Johnny Damon. The shoulder injury he sustained a month ago that hampered his throwing motion appears to have cleared up.

So how to explain management’s sudden interest in playing Castillo, who barely had a reason to put on his cleats the previous three weeks?

Could be manager Jim Tracy wants to give Wilson a breather. A good, long breather. Calm things down. Recharge Wilson’s batteries.

Could be Castillo has earned some extended playing time for handling his demotion like a good soldier.

Or, it could be a trade is brewing. Dealing Wilson wouldn’t be easy. He’s making $5.25 million this year, $6.5 million next year, $7.25 million in 2009 and $8.4 million (with a $600,000 buyout) in 2010. The Pirates would have to eat some of that salary to make a deal.

For now, I think the first explanation is most likely. It would be easy to accept that, if Wilson is back out there Thursday night. But if he’s not … well, stay tuned.
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Whiff!

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WASHINGTON — The Pirates used their first-round draft pick, the fourth overall selection, on Daniel Moskos, a left-hander from Clemson.

Poor kid.

I wonder if his first move after getting the call from GM Dave Littlefield was to set up his obligatory appointment for surgery with Dr. James Andrews.

Considering the near-total lack of impact position players in the farm system — Andrew McCutchen is the only one worth waiting for, and he’s just now finding his way at Class AA Altoona — it’s safe to say the Pirates’ biggest need was a bat. Factor in the recent run of devastating injuries to the pitchers taken in the first round by the Pirates, it’s no wonder everyone was clamoring for them to choose a hitter.

But, in the draft, a team’s needs don’t always mesh with taking the best player available. And the Pirates weren’t about to divert from that old-fashioned thinking — even if it has produced one ho-hun draft after another over the past … oh, 20-odd years.

Also, no matter how much the front-office suits will deny it, money was a big factor. When the Pirates passed up a chance to take catcher Matt Wieters of Virginia Tech — whom the Baltimore Orioles gladly snatched with the No. 5 pick — it was because Wieters has signability issues (i.e. his agent will seek a top-dollar signing bonus).

Of course, the Pirates’ fan base (what’s left of it) is angry. I got two honked-off text messages within minutes of the pick. Want to see even more rage? Read my e-mails or the message boards.

Moskos might turn out to be a fine pitcher. But unless he wins the Cy Young Award, Pirates fans will always compare him to the Hitters Who Got Away. They will view him as nothing more than another sign of ownership’s lack of commitment to putting a win-at-all-costs product on the field.

And I can’t say I’d blame them.

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– Rob Biertempfel