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Overpaying Kendall Pirates' best option

Saturday, July 29, 2000

The NBA's Chicago Bulls have a lot of money to give away. Problem is, no one wants to take it. The Bulls are a whopping $19 million under the NBA salary cap. They tried to lure top-notch free agents such as Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady but were told "no" more times than me on a date. The franchise's collective ego was recently dealt a humiliating blow when Tim Thomas took less money to remain a backup with Milwaukee. The Bulls must now consider signing the dregs of pro basketball's free-agent crop because, hey, somebody gotta play.

Chicago is a great, vibrant city. The Bulls have a tremendous tradition. But nobody wants to play for the Bulls because owner Jerry Reinsdorf and General Manager Jerry Krause have never shown they can win unless they happen to have Michael Jordan. They damaged their reputation by willingly disassembling the greatest basketball team ever.

The Bulls have lots of cash. But no one believes they can win. The team's management has lost its credibility, so no one will play there. That brings us to your Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates are negotiating a contract extension with catcher Jason Kendall, who is to be a free agent after the 2001 season. They are also presumably negotiating potential trades that would ship him elsewhere because, after turning down a reported six-year, $60-million offer, Kendall seems to want more than the Pirates believe they can afford.

Many are surprised that the Pirates have offered Kendall as much as they have. I was. I initially thought the Pirates offered Kendall way too much. But now I think they should offer him more.

Sure, $12 million or $13 million per year is too much for a good defensive catcher with above-average speed who hits well above .300 but has minimal power. But who else are the Pirates going to get? The idea that the Pirates could use the money they're offering Kendall to sign two or three solid free agents is laughable, especially when you consider the example of the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls will settle for guys like Ron Mercer. The Pirates will settle for guys like Wil Cordero and Todd Ritchie.

No decent free agent who can get comparable money elsewhere -- or even slightly less money elsewhere -- is going to want to play in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, where the team loses. In Pittsburgh, where the ballpark is empty. In Pittsburgh, a city nothing like Chicago in terms of glitz, glamour and things to do. In Pittsburgh, where management is under fire for a mangled five-year plan and a depleted minor-league system.

For a top-notch free agent to come play for the Pirates, the money offered would have to be considerably more than the money offered by many teams. Most players would take a bit less cash to play for a winner. To play in a packed, enthusiastic ballpark. To play in a bigger, more electric city.

The Pirates don't have even a remote chance to land any solid free agents, let alone high-profile ones. Not now. Probably not ever. Maybe things will be better at PNC Park. Maybe the Pirates can turn things around. Maybe some of the young players who look so bad will start to look good. Maybe some fans will show up.

But no one signs a long-term contract based on a bunch of maybes. Well, no one except Brian Giles.

The Pirates were able to sign Giles for one reason: Giles was already here. Giles knows first-hand about whatever good the Pirates can offer, about whatever hidden promise the organization has -- maybe he can let the rest of us in on it at some point -- and Giles knows the Pirates gave him a chance to play. Giles has a history here, brief as it has been, and the Pirates capitalized on that fact.

The Pirates can do the same thing with Kendall. Maybe. Maybe, if they're willing to overpay him.

No, Kendall isn't worth $13 million. God, no. But, considering the Pirates won't get any player -- or players -- that can come close to replacing Kendall, maybe the Pirates have to give him too much. Maybe the Pirates have to give Kendall $13 million. Or more.

It seems ludicrous when you compare Kendall to other players making that kind of money. But it doesn't seem so ludicrous when you realistically look at the Pirates' situation. The Pirates would be better off paying $13 million to a marginal impact player like Kendall than spending the same money on three mediocre talents. And mediocrity is exactly what $13 million divided by three gets you in baseball.

Here's a best-case scenario if the Pirates overpay Kendall: The Pirates keep basically the same team as now. Giles and Kendall continue playing all-star caliber baseball. The pitchers consistently perform up to their talent level (finally). All the prospects come around at once. The Pirates become respectable. Baseball adopts a salary cap after the 2001 season. Suddenly Pittsburgh isn't such a bad place to play.

Here's a worst-case scenario if the Pirates overpay Kendall: The Pirates continue to stink. That's not so good, but at least they would have Kendall.

There are no guarantees if the Pirates keep Kendall. If they let him go, there is one guarantee: They won't come close to replacing him. So give Jason Kendall whatever he wants.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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