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Stan Savran: Littlefield's dream -- Many happy returns

Saturday, August 30, 2003

If Brian Giles were a foot taller, you might be able to build around him. But since basketball is not his sport, the Pirates can't -- no baseball team can -- build around or on one player. No individual can be a singular cornerstone. Important? Yes. But the absolute difference between winning and losing? No.

Which is exactly the approach Pirates General Manager Dave Littlefield is taking. He's not the first do it, either. Long ago Pirates' general manager Branch Rickey allegedly told Ralph Kiner, "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you."

Fast forward five decades. The fortuitous placement of Milwaukee in the division might temporarily protect the Pirates from finishing last in the National League Central Division. But even with significant contributions from Giles, they continue to flounder. Which is to say they're headed nowhere with what they have. Ergo, it's time to change what they have.

The Pirates have done this before: Tony Pena for Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Mike Dunne. The Minnesota Twins, fearful they could no longer afford All-Star Chuck Knoblauch, traded him to the Yankees for Eric Milton and Christian Guzman, two important members of their contending teams the past two seasons. Perennial loser Cleveland traded Joe Carter, one of the premier sluggers of his time, to San Diego. Hugely unpopular with Indians fans at the time, the deal netted future All-Stars Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga, fixtures on what became a dominant team.

Of course, that's not all there is to it. Trading high-salaried veterans who will leave you well before you're able to contend, acquiring what you hope will be multiple building blocks to success, is the way you begin. But you have to do more than hope -- you've got to be sure. Ultimately, Littlefield will be judged on and his continued employment in Pittsburgh directly tied to the returns he has gotten this soggy summer. Oliver Perez, Jason Bay, Bobby Hill, Freddy Sanchez -- at least three of these four absolutely must become productive major-leaguers. And I'm not talking just making the Pirates' starting lineup. Half the members of your beer league softball team would have a chance to do that at this point. I'm talking Christian Guzman-Sandy Alomar-Andy Van Slyke successful.

There's another, more important element to this: developing your own. You can trade current cornerstones for future ones, but you'll never be able to build unless you supply most of the building blocks from within. The minor-league system must produce. Minnesota provided its own bricks and mortar. So did Cleveland, Oakland and Kansas City. No team, not even the New York Yankees, can buy enough unless they have a foundation that's homegrown.

It's encouraging that all of the Pirates' minor-league clubs posted winning records this year. That alone doesn't guarantee that the players responsible for those records will improve enough to compete or excel at the major-league level. But the first step of the process appears to be succeeding. Remember that Littlefield's initial emphasis when he took over was rebuilding the minor-league system, and his blueprint for success is dependent upon drafting and development more than the trades he makes.

Some suggest the Giles trade can't be successful because Littlefield wasn't able to make Jason Kendall an appendage. You must realize that if Kendall had been included, the Pirates probably would not have gotten the same return. Although neither party will say so, it appears that when Kendall and his cumbersome contract were taken off the table -- at least for now -- the Padres' offer for Giles rose to an acceptable level.

Frankly, I think the Padres made a mistake. If they had gotten Kendall for half his salary, he's a pretty good buy at that price. He has rediscovered his hitting stroke, always plays very hard and, even though his defense bobs just below average, he's a catch -- no pun intended -- at $5 million. If he continues to hit, Littlefield might have more options than just the Padres in the off-season, assuming the Pirates still will be willing to pick up half his contract. But you have to believe extracting Kendall from the Pirates remains a priority.

This trade should not be judged on what Giles does in San Diego. We assume he'll continue to do what he did here, minus the complaining about being stuck in Pittsburgh. You judge this trade on whether the players you got in return become the foundation for a contender. Every small-market team can point to a major deal either as a turning point, or a sentence to more years of losing. If it's the latter in this case, neither Littlefield, nor many fans, will be around to pick up the pieces.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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