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Savran: Littlefield makes good impression

Saturday, August 04, 2001

In the days, weeks and months ahead, all of us - players, managers, general managers, fans and media - will be studiously examining box scores, trying to determine who got the better or best of the trades the Pirates made this week. The perspectives will differ.

The San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros are interested in the short term. For them, even if the principals perform well, making the playoffs and re-signing those who can become free agents will be the biggest factors.

Fully evaluating the Pirates' return will take much longer. But even though definitive conclusions are impossible, we can begin to sketch a profile of Dave Littlefield, the Pirates' new general manager.

The first thing that struck me when Littlefield faced the media to announce and explain his first major moves was that he seemed to be grounded in reality.

By that, I mean he was candid and realistic in what he had attempted to do and what he accomplished.

He didn't try to pass Armando Rios off as Babe Ruth. He told us that his offensive production would be similar to what John Vander Wal would produce. And while saying Rios was a better baserunner and a defensive improvement over Vander Wal, he didn't try to portray him as Lou Brock.

When discussing the trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he pretty much said he had traded a $10 bill (Terry Mulholland) for two five spots (Mike Fetters). And that the motivation for the deal was acquiring left-hander Adrian Burnside, not Fetters.

Littlefield approached the trading deadline by mastering the first rule of negotiation: Before you identify what you want in return, you first must realistically appraise what you have to offer.

Only then can you formulate an opinion on what a legitimate return might be. Too many general managers overvalue their players, so the return offer always seems inequitable.

Sure, you shoot high initially, just as the guy across the table starts out low. But if a transaction is to be completed, you'd better have a realistic evaluation of what you have to trade before you demand a return.

It seems Littlefield, even in his short stay in Pittsburgh, had a good idea of the cards he was holding.

He knew the interest in Jason Schmidt was because of what he was, not necessarily because of what he had done.

Williams, he knew, was a closer only because there was no one else here to do it and that he would be a set-up man on a contender.

He knew the primary reason the Dodgers wanted Mulholland was because he's left-handed and Fetters isn't.

When you're holding a pair of deuces, you don't raise into a guy holding a full house. If you do, one of two things will happen. You make a bad deal or no deal at all.

This time, the Pirates couldn't afford either to happen.

With these trades, it's pretty clear Littlefield believes the way to build, and build most expeditiously, is with pitching.

Naturally, position players have to follow, but the pitchers give you a chance.

It's entirely possible that next season, outside of graybeard Todd Ritchie who will be30, the Pirates could choose from six other potential starting pitchers -- David Williams, Joe Beimel, Jimmy Anderson, Tony McKnight, Ryan Vogelsong and Kris Benson, with Benson being the old man at 27.

Of course, their production might be an entirely different story, but the prospect is enticing if you believe in what Yogi Berra said: "Pitching is 90 percent of the game. The other 25 percent will take care of itself."

The other thing that struck me was Littlefield's flexibility. Despite being in the crucible for the first time, with no less a responsibility than beginning to shape the future of the franchise, he was calm in the face of an environment that changed by the hour.

Some elements were completely out of his control, yet he remained flexible.

For instance, there's no question in my mind that the Pirates' ravaging of the Astros' bullpen in the ninth-inning rally last Saturday turned up the heat on Houston to make a deal.

Seven-run, two-out rallies in the heat of a pennant race gets your attention.

If the Giants had lost three of four to Arizona instead of sweeping them, the Schmidt deal probably doesn't happen.

At least not with San Francisco. Who knows?

But Littlefield was able to go with the flow, bending with every twist and turn.

Ultimately, the Pirates became a younger, cheaper, and not as good a club as they were a week ago. But that's the short term.

At the same time, they appear closer to being competitive than they were last week.

Time will be the only true arbiter of these trades. But if first impressions mean anything, it would appear the Pirates made a pretty good deal when they acquired Dave Littlefield.

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

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