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Savran: Bonifay blueprint lacking execution

Saturday, April 07, 2001

This is such an important baseball season. Lost generations of Pirates fans are being wooed and lured back by a structure.

And while it might serve as a foundation for baseball in Pittsburgh, it can't be a monument to winning baseball. Architects can do only so much. It's the architects of the franchise who now come under the gun.

Kevin McClatchy has delivered the ballpark. Lloyd McClendon must deliver whatever he can with whatever he has been given. What he has been given is the central issue, so the high-beam halogens shine directly on the general manager.

Cam Bonifay, true professional and gentleman that he is, understands. The franchise has been under his stewardship for nearly eight full seasons, and the team has yet to crane its neck high enough to inhale air, not water.

Came close a couple of times, but sniffing at the heels of mediocrity doesn't interest -- or satisfy -- anyone.

Fans will cite trades as the culprit because they're the easiest to quantify.

On the plus side is the Brian Giles deal. But there was Jon Lieber for Brant Brown.

It's not really about Lieber, because there were financial considerations. It's that someone, either Bonifay or a trusted advisor, scouted Brown and came away convinced he could play center field! Left field was Adventureland for this guy. How could any baseball man make such a woeful miscalculation?

In whom a person places his faith is often a good way to evaluate the person himself. Like any small-market general manager, Bonifay has been hamstrung by a tight budget, but how he has spent money that was available (Pete Schourek, Wil Cordero, Pat Meares, Derek Bell) has been criticized.

But, come season's end, evaluation should be based on the development of young players drafted and obtained in trades.

No team, not even those with gobs of $100 bills oozing from overstuffed pockets, can continually buy players. You do it through the draft and through acquiring young players from other organizations. The Pirates have had the right idea ... they just haven't obtained the right players.

Trading Denny Neagle as he approached free agency was the right thing to do, but they didn't get equal value. Jason Schmidt was supposed to be the best available arm from the ever-productive Atlanta pitching factory, but, while there is something to be said for a .500 pitcher on a sub-.500 team, he hasn't been what the Pirates hoped to get: the ace of their staff.

Bonifay wisely unloaded aging veterans Orlando Merced, Carlos Garcia, Dan Plesac, and their salaries, to Toronto. In return, he got six young players who were supposed to become cornerstones of a rebuilding organization.

You're not going to hit on all six, but the only contributing remnant from that deal is Jose Silva. Abraham Nunez is a borderline major-leaguer, Craig Wilson might not reach that status. Jose Pett, Brandon Cromer and Mike Halperin are long gone.

It's not that the Pirates lost anything in that deal. But they didn't get the building blocks they were seeking, either.

You need a little luck, too. Sending Danny Darwin to Houston for Rich Loiselle is a perfect example of how you go about building a contender at a moderate price.

After 1997, it looked as if they had a closer, just 25 years old, locked in place for seasons to come. But, after all of his injuries, who knows if Loiselle will ever be effective again.

Ditto Jeff Wallace. This guy terrorized hitters until the tendon in his left elbow snapped. Bad luck, although injury and attrition always factor into the equation.

The biggest failing, however, has been unproductive drafts.

Jason Kendall is the most prominent home-grown talent, and Kris Benson is on the cusp of stardom. But shouldn't that be expected of the top pick in the entire draft? How much credit do you get for selecting Mario Lemieux?

But what of the other No. 1 picks or can't-miss prospects? Jose Guillen? Chad Hermansen? Will Aramis Ramirez finally pay dividends? Former top picks Charles Peterson and Mark Farris are gone. Will Clint Johnston and J.J. Davis follow suit? Entering this spring, neither one had played above the Class A level. Maybe Adrian Brown and/or Jimmy Anderson will make up for it.

Five years ago, Baseball America honored the Pirates as the best minor-league system in all of baseball. Today, few of those prospects have advanced on a team desperately in need of talent.

Bonifay is now on his third scouting director in his ninth season as general manager. Punxsatawney Phil sticks his head out of his dugout and sees a ninth consecutive losing season. I hope not, because Pittsburgh is a far better place with Bonifay in it.

So, there's no doubt this is an important baseball season. For a number of reasons, for a number of people.

Stan Savran is co-host of SportsBeat, weeknights at 6:30 on Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh.

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