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Savran: Littlefield can't afford mistake

Saturday, July 28, 2001

Beware Goliath. It's hunting season, and little David's slingshot is loaded, and he's poised to fire. This is the time of year, the only time of year, when the tail can wag the dog and shake it senseless.

The small market, non-contending baseball teams hold the power over the bigger and richer ones until the stroke of midnight Tuesday.

When the non-waiver trading period ends, Cinderella's coach will turn into a pumpkin, and the little guys go back to being punching bags.

The contenders are looking for help ... help that might get them into the playoffs and succeed in them once they begin. They'll pay a higher price now than they will at any time during the next 52 weeks. So, for this brief respite from the norm, the Davids (Littlefield) of the world had better aim for the forehead. It's their best shot.

Littlefield, the new Pirates general manager, knows that. He has been on both ends of the rope in the trading tug of war.

I'm getting the sense, however, that maybe some in the organization are a little too satisfied with the fact that the team has played break-even ball for the past 40 odd games.

Not a great deal of good comes from defeat, and one thing the Pirates as an organization must do is remove the stench of losing. Eventually, it becomes so imbedded in the fabric of your franchise that you can't get the smell out.

But there is a danger of being deluded into believing you're better than you are. Playing around .500 after scraping the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel the first two months is commendable. But it's a less significant achievement because, for all intents and purposes, the season was over when the Pirates were 18-41.

They won't reverse that record anytime soon, but the first step toward that end must be taken in the next 80-some hours.

It strikes me as rather ironic that Jason Schmidt is now in the position Denny Neagle was in five years ago.

Although Schmidt is nowhere near as accomplished as Neagle was then, there are great similarities in the circumstances surrounding these two men who were traded for one another about this time in 1996. Despite his unrealized potential, which, in turn, has resulted in unfulfilled expectations, Schmidt is the Pirates' most realistic, tradeable commodity. Not because of who he is, but because of what he is: a competent starting pitcher.

With the possible exception of Seattle -- what do you get for the team that has everything -- all the contenders are on the lookout for starting pitching. You catch Schmidt on a good night with a significantly better team behind him, you've got something.

One might legitimately ask, "Given the potential upside, why wouldn't the Pirates keep him?"

Because they can no longer afford to wait for him to reach that tantalizing potential, because he'll be a free agent and because whichever team signs him for whatever money, they'll do so at an inflated price.

That's why Littlefield must throw the perfect pitch here. Low and away on the outside corner.

Mike Williams must also be moved. Not because he hasn't done a good job for the Pirates, but rather because he has. He'd be invaluable as a set-up guy to face a Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa or Juan Gonzalez in a late inning trouble spot.

Talk generally centers around closers, but when you look at the success of the Yankees, for example, it hasn't only been Mariano Rivera. It's been a Jeff Nelson and a Mike Stanton or a Ramiro Mendoza that allowed them to get to Rivera to close a game.

Williams, with his slider against right-handed hitters in selected matchups, could make a huge difference for a team. And they'd be willing to pay an inflated price for that difference.

It's also possible that if Littlefield finds a team panting hard enough for Schmidt or Williams, he might force them to take some dead weight off his hands -- the overpaid and underachieving, of which there is no shortage on the Pirates.

Even if the Pirates agreed to pay part of their salaries in the transaction, it's an opportunity for the hunted to squeeze just a bit more out of the hunter.

One difference in this rebuilding, remodeling, revamping, call it what you will: The bulk of whatever return they get cannot be prospects who are years away. They need to acquire at least a couple of guys who are ready for the majors right now or will be next season.

The fans have had a bellyful of losing, and if the Pirates are 20 games under .500 at the next trading deadline, there won't be long lines at PNC Park concession stands.

But most important, they must do something ... perhaps even something bold.

They've got less than four days. On Wednesday morning, Goliath takes the slingshot from David, and things go back to baseball's version of normal.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show weeknights from 8 to 9 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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