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Pirates Mired in another losing season, Bucs pass the bucks

Thursday, July 24, 2003

By Paul Meyer, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

About a month ago, top Pirates officials begrudgingly accepted what many of the team's fans had known much earlier -- that the team had no prayer of reaching the playoffs this season.

Kris Benson, right, was in the dugout with fellow pitcher Jeff D'Amico during the game against the Houston Astros Tuesday. Benson missed the start -- and possibly being traded -- because of soreness in his shoulder. (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

With the team also struggling financially -- $30 million in losses in three seasons at PNC Park -- it was time to cut the payroll.

That was the motive for the trade on Tuesday that sent third baseman Aramis Ramirez, one of the team's most promising young players, to the Chicago Cubs. Ramirez's contract calls for him to make $6 million next season.

But Ramirez wasn't the player the Pirates wanted to unload. They had hoped to rid themselves of another $6 million man, pitcher Kris Benson.

Had Benson not mentioned that he felt some "discomfort" in his right shoulder a few days ago and missed his turn to pitch Tuesday night, he -- not Ramirez -- would have been traded to help the Pirates ease a financial crunch that involves debt payments.

The Pirates must comply with a Major League Baseball requirement of a minimum 60-40 ratio between earnings and debt.

To do so, they wanted to trade Benson, who will receive $6 million next season in the final year of a four-year contract extension he signed a couple of days before coming up with a bad elbow in 2000.

With Kris Benson out of the pitching rotation, third baseman Aramis Ramirez ended up being the Pirates player wearing a new uniform last night, hitting a fly ball as a Chicago Cub in the fourth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies. (Aynsley Floyd, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

But with Benson suddenly unmarketable because of his latest ailment, and baseball's July 31 trade deadline looming, the Pirates needed to find another high-priced player to move. That turned out to be Ramirez.

As a result of the Ramirez trade and others consummated in the past week, the Pirates have rid themselves of as much as $12.5 million in salary expense for next season, which was their prime objective.

"We've lost too much money," said team owner Kevin McClatchy. "You can only lose so much before this has to change."

"I'm not going to run this team into bankruptcy," he said. "We knew before the season that if we weren't competitive [in the division race] and attendance [lagged], we were going to have to do this."

Trades of other high-salaried players, like Brian Giles and Jason Kendall, or even Benson, may still happen in the next week, but the Pirates don't have to make more trades for financial reasons.

"We're fine," McClatchy said yesterday.

But General Manager Dave Littlefield might make another trade or two.

"Dave is listening to trade opportunities," McClatchy said. "It depends on what's out there and what we can get back. And you also need somebody to dance with in order to make a trade."

The Pirates' most coveted player is outfielder Giles, but another team won't get him without also taking Kendall, a catcher, and agreeing to pay at least some of the $42 million remaining on his contract. The Pirates have discussed such a trade with the San Diego Padres.

The Pirates thought they could complete a trade of Benson to the Chicago White Sox or the St. Louis Cardinals, but that was before he flummoxed the team with his "discomfort." He isn't scheduled to pitch again until Tuesday against San Diego, just two days before the trade deadline.

Benson, the first player chosen in the 1996 draft, missed a turn to start in mid-June so he could work on his pitching mechanics. After he returned, he had a nondescript start against Cleveland June 21, then pitched well in his next three starts.

With playoff contenders looking for pitching help, trade rumors about Benson warmed.

Last Thursday, against the last-place Milwaukee Brewers, Benson pitched only two innings and was hit hard. His final pitch in that 53-pitch effort was clocked at 97 mph -- the speed of a top-notch major-league fastball.

But after his comments about his shoulder, the trade rumors went cold.

So Ramirez went to the Cubs, along with center fielder Kenny Lofton, for veteran infielder Jose Hernandez, who became the Pirates' third baseman last night, minor-league pitcher Matt Bruback and another player, to be named probably by Aug. 15.

The Pirates-Cubs trade followed another deal Tuesday that sent left-handed pitchers Scott Sauerbeck and Mike Gonzalez to Boston for right-handers Brandon Lyon, who joined the Pirates as a relief pitcher, and Anastacio Martinez, who will pitch in the minors, probably at Class AA Altoona.

Two days earlier, the Pirates sent relief pitcher Mike Williams to Philadelphia for minor-league left-hander Frank Brooks.

The Pirates -- if not sooner then certainly later -- will continue to make trades that not only reduce their payroll but also bolster their minor-league system and make the major-league team younger.

There's also a possibility that the Pirates, in the off-season, will pursue more free agent players who don't command budget-busting contracts.

From the end of the 2002 season until midway through spring training this year, the Pirates added free agents Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs, Jeff Suppan, Jeff D'Amico and Lofton, all veteran major leaguers, for about $6 million total.

"We're in a changing marketplace," McClatchy said. "We're going to have a good opportunity this winter to add players."

If the team continues to struggle, its hierarchy will at least have the cold comfort of knowing that losing has become a lot less expensive.

Paul Meyer can be reached at 412-263-1144.

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