Strength in numbers


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.


A fresh start?


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.

Older by the minute


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.

Kuwata gone


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.